Charlie – the demonstration

Boulevard Saint Martin

It had been announced that all transport was free.  But the 96 bus wasn’t running.  And in the Metro the platforms were crowded.  Train after train went past, and still we couldn’t get on.  Finally we joined the crush in a carriage.  Some firm women by the door stopped others coming in as we seemed to crawl to Odeon, St Michel, Cite.  We got out at Strasbourg Saint Denis, but it was impossible to leave by the Sortie on the platform.  Everywhere were people, posters and flags in their hands ready to furl, ready to lift.  Eventually we arrived in Boulevard St Martin.  It was 2.30 and people were filling the streets in their thousands.  There was chanting, occasional bursts of cheering, clappping.  There was no internet connection and no phone connection.

We squeezed into Place de la Republique at 3pm.  It was packed. Marchers, police vans, media vans, everyone with a phone, waving their arms trying to take a picture.  The other roads leading into the Place were also heaving with people. The call had gone out for everyone in France to demonstrate, and it felt as if they were all here, in one square in Paris. People were clinging to lamp-posts, little children sat on their parents’ shoulders, friends clutched the arms of each other, a man murmured to someone who looked like his dad, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you.’  Others had clambered up onto the statue in the centre.  People leaned out of the windows.  Banks of photographers stood on balconies.

Place de la Republique flags

And so many people were holding cards, posters, signs.  They held them for hours.

Republique Je Suis Charlie (5)

Festival d'Angouleme

    Place de la Republique         Republique Je Suis Charlie (4)   Republique Je Suis Charlie (2)

‘Je veux marcher!’ a woman said to me, but there was no question of marching.  We moved forwards and sideways. It did feel to an extent that this was a demonstration of despair, people wanting to express their horror at so much of what is happening in the world, and solidarity with all those affected by injustice.

Republique Je Suis Charlie (7)

Republique Liberte

Apart from a few sirens, there were very few police (visible) and people joked that they were all protecting the government leaders from across the world, the leaders who had come to – to do what?  Show respect?  Join in?  Score political points?  Did they stand for hours, crushed, blocked, pushed into mud, waiting to move, did they hold placards in the air?

Leaving the Place was almost as difficult as getting there.  Every street was filled with people, now going both ways.  There were no buses, a few motorbikes tried to push their way through, but the roads were full of people.  We had an arrangement to see some friends for dinner but getting home to change and getting back to them seemed an impossibility.  And still there was no internet or telephone connection!  We stood pathetically outside their door near Arts and Metiers.  There was no-one.  We were swirled along by the crowd down to the Pompidou Centre, and then came a text.  Come to us now!  We limped back to their appartment.  We had been on the move for three hours, but it felt more like three days.

These friends have organised internet connection in their own home and have access to international TV channels.  This was showing as we walked into their warm, bright living room.    Charlie Sky News (2) It was an extraordinary event, and being in Paris it felt important to be there.  But twitter tells me that in today’s Telegraph there is an article that raises the issues that have to be borne in mind.  The reactions for young people living in the area where the brothers lived, and why they feel as they do.




Place de la Republique Charlie (1)

On Wednesday morning I was at my desk in London, desultorily doing some paper work, looking forward to lunch at Zedel – a French brasserie off Piccadilly Circus – and after that a trip to see The Book of Mormon.

Cal came into the room.  ‘There’s been a shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office.  Twitter is saying 10 dead.’  I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t want to believe it.  An incident yes, maybe injuries, but not death.  I am not a fan of strip cartoons.  I knew Charlie Hebdo vaguely – France’s Private Eye but more irreverent.  It is important in France.  Even if people don’t read it they want to know what Charlie Hebdo is talking about.  Everyone knows the style of the cartoonists.

But this was too terrible to contemplate.  More tweets were coming in, from formal sources.  Emails arrived in my inbox from FranceTV and Liberation.  Serious injuries. Then at least 10 dead.  Then twelve dead.   It was true.

Lunch – although delicious – was a sad affair.  Tweets were coming in.  The first time I read ‘Je Suis Charlie’ I wanted to cry, just as our waiter was describing an item on the menu.  I looked at him with tears in my eyes.  And then the irony of watching the Book of Mormon.  What religion can do.  A wonderful show, I urge everyone to see it, but I watched with a lump in my throat.  At home we watched the news and the gathering of crowds in Place de la Republique.  the signe Je suis Charlie was everywhere.

Purely by chance I had booked a ticket to Paris the next day – Thursday, 8 January.  The day President Hollande had said would be a day of national mourning.  Security at St Pancras seemed tighter.  Queuing to go through French passport control I read a notice pinned on a post – in French it said that anyone with any photos or videos of the incident or information about the suspects should speak to the authorities.  At the passport control desk I noticed a large picture of one of the two men.

We were  in France, still on the train at 12 noon when the announcement was made that there would now be a minute’s silence.  The train didn’t stop but a cloud of silence descended on our carriage.  At the Gare du Nord I didn’t notice as many police with guns.  Perhaps they had been called away on other duties.  Otherwise, life in Paris was going on as usual, the metro was running, passengers talking and laughing, tourists with huge backpacks, silent people reading novels.

In the flat I switched on France Info.  The hunt for the killers was on.  Apart from the weather and one or two headlines, Charlie Hebdo was the only subject of news.  There had been a shooting in Southern Paris – a police officer killed, but that it seemed was unrelated, just a sad coincidence.  One of the Paris digital news boards in rue de Rennes was saying that there would be a vigil in Place de la Republique that night.  I wondered how the Mairie of the VIth was responding to the events and walked to Place Saint Sulpice.  Outside the Mairie was a printed sign offering condolences to the families and extending solidarity.

News came in that the suspects had left an identity card in their car – could it be real?  They had abandoned their black car and hijacked the car behind them, throwing out the driver.  He had said he couldn’t leave his dog, so they let him take his dog. Then there was news that the suspects had been sighted in a motorway shop, stealing food and petrol. Such banal behaviour after such mayhem.

Place de la Republique 8.1.15As night fell I took the 96 bus and went to the Place de la Republique.  It wasn’t raining but the air was damp.  I crossed at the lights into the Place.  Already there were huge crowds, cheering clapping singing La Marseillaise in a sort of low moan. People held up candles, pencils, signs Je suis Charlie. There was chanting, all different sort of chants, as one ended another would begin – Nous sommes Charlie, Nous sommes Charlie: Liberté d’expression, Liberté d’expression: Charlie n’est pas mort: Maintenant Charlie est immortel: Dans la rue démocratie: On est unis.

Place de la Republique Charlie

On Friday I spent almost the whole day in front of the TV.  In the morning came the news that the suspects had holed up in a printing establishment in a town to the North of Paris.  There were long hours of shots of grass, with blurred images of men in balaclavas (the forces of order) moving around.


The had three hostages.  They had two hostages.  They let one go.  They had one hostage. Helicopters flew low, TV presenters tried to find things to say.  Experts in the studio ruminated that the men would be tired, hungry.  Runways at Charles de Gaulle airport were closed.  TV screens started to show the slogan Je Suis Charlie.  Twitter accounts had black lines through as a mark of respect.  People changed their twitter picture to Je Suis Charlie.


C was coming on the train.  As she passed Charles de Gaulle airport there were the helicopters.  It seemed very close.  And then there was a shocking development.  Another situation, in Vincennes, in the east of Paris, there had been hostages taken in a supermarket.  It was called Hyper Cacher, Kosher Supermarket.  Our hearts sank.  This could not happen.


In a way, the murders of Wednesday were forgotten.  Now it was all about how the situation in the north and in the east of Paris would be resolved.  The main road, the periferique, was closed, buses and the Metro in that area were stopped.  We heard that a threat had been made in the supermarket that if the two brothers in the printing establishment did not come out free and safe hostages in the supermarket would be killed.  The man in the supermarket was known, he knew the brothers.  Then the media were asked to move back from the area of the printers.  It seemed madness – why should they need to be asked in such a situation?

There were shots, smoke.  The brothers were out.  Firing, shooting, shot.  Something had to happen in Vincennes.  The police went in – it was all on screen – they seemed so vulnerable.  Surely they would be shot, they were in files, one behind the other, crouching creeping.  There were flashes, shots, explosions.  The hostages were out.  How many injured?  It wasn’t clear.  5 dead. 4 hostages and the hostage taker.

It was over.  They were dead.

People sent emails and texts, asking if we were OK.  And we are.  In the VIth, life goes on as usual.

We are just preparing to go to the march in the Place de la Republique.  It is discouraging to be marching with David Cameron who is said to be coming.  The march begins at 3pm.  It is now 1pm.  Already the TV tells us that the Place is full.

Sunday Place de la Republique 004

2015 film story

Xmas wreath Green Lanes

So that was Christmas.  Since then – films seen have included – Paddington, Birdman, Seraphine, The Keeper of Lost Causes.  On a scale of 1 -10 with 10 being very good and 1 being not so hot, Seraphine [2008] comes out at 9 and Keeper of Lost Causes (Danish thriller) at 4, Birdman 6 and Paddington 7.

Seraphine is the painter Seraphine Louis known as Seraphine de Senlis, after the small town, north of Paris, where she was working as a maid, in 1912 when discovered by a German art critic and dealer.  Being discovered by a German art dealer just before WWI was not the luckiest of happenings, but he returns after the war and makes good on his earlier comments and promises.  The stillness and silence of life before radio and TV is beautifully portrayed as well as the magic of Seraphine’s painting methods.  What stands out is how harsh life was for the poor and the working class.  If you weren’t well or you grew old you lost your job and probably died – of starvation if not ill health.  And this is why they fought for and we keep fighting for a proper welfare state and National Health Service.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, set in the present day, is more of a TV film, in the style of but not as good as The Killing and the Bridge.  It is an unlikely but simple story of a policeman with two expressions, irritated and possibly not so irritated.  This is his character.  He has an almost ex-wife and a stepson.  This is his back story.  He is assigned a rather nice partner played by the admirable Fares Fares.  They investigate an old, cold case, which they shouldn’t.  It’s not clear why Nikolaj Lie Kaas wants to pursue this case but he does, frowning and smoking, and the villain is soon discovered.  It was easy to watch and the time flew but it wasn’t a true cinematic experience.

Paddington – we laughed, we cried, there was marmalade.  Yes, it was enjoyable.

Birdman – I entered the cinema with such high expectations.  The film has had great reviews, people wishing they’d seen it a week ago, in 2014, so they could say it was the best film of the year, descriptions of a roaring come back for Michael Keaton, references to Robert Downey Jr.  What could go wrong?  It was slow.  It was magical realism (not my favourite genre) – there was a talking bird, Michael Keaton levitated, he moved things just by thinking about them, a bespectacled critic referred to Roland Barthe and there was a self conscious play based on a Raymond Carver short story.  So far so tricky.  Edward Norton was very good, as indeed was Michael Keaton.  There were one or two nice ideas and a good line or three.  The film-maker was obviously trying to do something different, something not Hollywood, looking at despair, and identity, and self-worth.  I would not call it a brutal brilliant satire of celebrity.  But somebody did, so perhaps it’s a question of taste.