Reims has an atmosphere of wealth and understated power; the old power of landed aristocracy. These may just be ideas rattling around in my head, but these ideas have power over us. It is curious how the immediate impressions we have of an unfamiliar place can form. These things should be studied closely. For atmosphere is part of place and yet how is it created? I’ve never seen it included as an ‘outcome’ in a project plan or a ‘deliverable’ in a Gantt chart or a ‘milestone’ in Microsoft Project.
But atmosphere is something many people seem to crave in a place. And yet, money cannot seem to buy it. Perhaps, like love.
It’s one of those times when stopping in a cafe or restaurant would take too much time. Something instant is wanted. There’s an Italian delicatessen which is run by some people from southern Italy. They tell me this as they heat up a pizza for me. It’s hot and delicious and I eat it sitting outside the cathedral. Two English women walk past, I can hear them talking; ‘I wonder how long it took to build?’ one of them asks. They both look up at the cathedral and I follow their eyes.
I should have talked to them but eating pizza is a messy business. The melted cheese had become elasticated and stringy and sticky. Bits of tomato had marked my jacket. The chargrilled artichoke needed further cutting up. In fact the whole pizza could have done with being sliced into smaller pieces. By the time I was half presentable the two women had gone.
I cannot remember why I came to Reims. It’s a puzzle. I went to Hamburg to see Jan Massys painting ‘Flora’, and to Vienna to see the housing of Red Vienna and Angers to see the Apocalypse Tapestry and to Hellerau to see the garden city.
But Reims. Perhaps it was the art gallery. The woman at the Tourist Information Office explains that unfortunately it’s closed until 2025. ‘I’ll come back’, I reply bravely, trying to hide my disappointment. She must have picked up something of my mood as she pointed out the champagne tasting going on in the corner of the room and suggested I took part.
Two young women were running things behind a make-shift bar.
They quizzed me about what sort of champagne I like and then selected a bulbous black bottle from a deep steel tray of ice. It was cold and delicious. ‘This is very fruity’, one of them explained. It was indeed. Possibly one of the best champagnes I’ve ever tasted.
‘Is it from the area around Reims?’ I asked, a pointless question I realised as soon as it was said.
They both looked confused and one of them picked up the bottle and studied the label. Was I referring to something there?
‘Reims?’ I said again, as in ‘r-e-e-e-m-s’.
They looked at each other again. One raised her eyebrows.
And then her face changed in comprehension.
‘Ah….Rrr-ah-ms’, she said, in another language that clearly wasn’t my understanding of French.
‘Rrr-ah-ms’ the other one repeated.
I tried and it sounded something like ‘r-e-m-s’
‘Rrr-ah-ms’ they both said together.
This continued until they were satisfied I’d got it right. Only then was I allowed to leave.
Something curious and rather wonderful happened next. Perhaps it was the free champagne, an unexpected early afternoon delight. Perhaps it was to do with that mysterious force called atmosphere, which billions of pounds of investment by the sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait just fail to conjure up. Immense steel and concrete buildings, identi-kit shops, endless repetition of glass panels;there’s that a-plenty; but atmosphere, well that’s in very short supply.
This atmosphere force was tugging at my sleeve again. It’s done it many times before. I was intent on walking south towards the river through the main part of the town. But Ms Atmosphere wanted me to walk with her and she intertwined her arm with mine and lead me along, in her power and majesty. I tried to turn around; it was a physical sensation and I tested it twice; but Ms Atmosphere was triumphant. Turning to me and smiling, and laughing at the folly of this resistance. Now I walked in step with her to a particular building on a corner.
There wasn’t much to see at first. A cafe on the corner with people hanging out. Two women with glasses of white wine. Three men who were professionals on how to spend an afternoon. A steady imbibing of wine, beer, pernod, cognac, wine, beer, pernod, cognac. They will have a particular rhythm to this developed through long practice.
Outside the grocer’s is an ancient pram filled with oranges. Plump red tomatoes in boxes. The man who runs the shop is standing in the doorway talking to a friend. Across the street is DE FRED which seems to be dedicated to the sole craft of making brioche. Through the window can be seen a woman who is mixing dough in a large steel bowl. She is wearing a crisp white uniform and hat. She is making the brioche with the sort of care and attention which is used to restore Renaissance paintings. I buy some of that brioche and strongly recommend, that if you’re ever in Reims, you go and buy some for yourself.
Round the corner is a market hall with market stalls being put together and boxes of fruit and vegetables taken from vans and arranged in attractive displays. Small groups are assembling at tables for drinks. People are standing outside the patisserie talking.
It is a place to meet as much as a place to shop. Two elderly women stop to talk to each other. They lean on their shopping trolleys. Perhaps they have been doing this for fifty years. Through marriage, children, deaths, family life and much more. And this is part of a routine. That they will see each other in the market once a week.
It’s clear a lot of people know each other here. A big round man shouts to a comrade behind a stall and stops to buy bunches of fresh asparagus. Hands are raised in waves and salutes from one end of the hall to another. More calls, people form in twos and threes to catch up with the local news.
I buy some strawberries from a woman with thick black eye liner, straw like hair and a light blue jumper. She looks as if she might be one hundred years old but she has a great deal of vitality. She speaks with a friendly growl. ‘….le prix est pour cent grammes’ she explains of the strawberries. Each word spoken deeply and separately. ‘Le prix….est pour….cent….grammes’. She says this with the gravitas that might be used to validate the bones of a saint.
I like this small area a great deal. It seems to have survived redevelopment and a cash invasion by people who billion of surplus pounds to invest. Capitalists with capital that must beget yet more capital.
What I began to realise is that parts of Reims are adorable and that quality (without a name) emerges from a thousand tiny bits and pieces. There is no iconic building (or none that I’m aware of) other than the cathedral, and that has a quality which is way beyond that lazy word ‘iconic’. There is no vast tower leaning over the city, leering at everyone with rapacious wealth and power. There is no starchitect’s ego pulling down his pants and waving his bare arse in everybody’s face. It’s not like that at all.
To get a glimpse; consider how I did my shopping in the early evening, in the space when the rain stopped and the sun came out and dazzled everything and everyone.
First of all I went to the butchers that I like in the Rue de Mars and the butcher and I had a funny chat in half French. Everything was done with a flourish and when I counted out the change for 5.36 euros he turned and looked at me and said, ‘that’s perfect’. As are the sausages he sells.
I was looking for some yoghurt for tomorrow’s breakfast and thought the organic shop might have some. It did, but it wasn’t what I wanted. But I did spontaneously buy half a bottle of ice cold champagne. It would make an nice apperatif after a long day.
I spent ages in a wine shop buying a bottle of wine, talking to the proprietor. And then on the way back to the apartment I’m staying in, noticed that the lovely looking deli on the corner was open. That’s where I bought some yoghurt. Along the way I stopped and looked at the cathedral lit up by the sun. ‘Beautiful’ is a misused adjective as it’s difficult to define. But the cathedral in that moment had a beauty, and grandeur, and immensity that so much contemporary building lacks.
And here is a fundamental difference. Reims cathedral, like all cathedrals was built to the glory of God. The workers believed that their labour brought them closer to God. It was believed that the creative power of labour should be used to create objects of great beauty.
Cathedrals represent many things; the power of bishops in tension with the monarchy, the power of the burghers of the towns in conflict with the landed aristocracy. The Catholic church was a repressive social and economic force, taking tithes, involved in the exploitation of the peasantry, embarking on wars to further its own interests.
But there is something else here too. There is a proto-type communism in the life and stories and words ascribed to Jesus Christ. A reading of the New Testament which puts the poor as the real inheritors of God’s Kingdom, of a conflict between the power of the rich and the flawed lives of the poor. The Church could not simply be an expression of the interests of the ruling classes. There is a moral code contained within the Bible and although it comes with plenty of contradictions, the idea of a moral code by which to live a life is a good one. And if the religious ornamentation of the Church is stripped away, a great deal of Aristotlean influenceis revealed.
The Cathedral in some sense then expresses, in a built form, the ideas of life and death, of an after-life, of a final battle between good and evil, a judgement day, an eternal merging of human life and the cosmos into a cosmic consciousness.
It doesn’t matter now whether you, the reader, believe this or not. But for several hundreds of years, many people did believe this. And the cathedrals represented a physical expression of these ideas on a vast scale in the middle of the town. A centre for the community of the town, one of the few places a person could ask forgiveness, where theoretically, even the worse sinner and most morally flawed person could be saved.
Now we have shopping centres and ‘iconic’ buildings at the centre of towns, pseudo-public space where CCTV watches every movement, where political protest isn’t allowed and where the primary purpose of the buildings are to make money.
So long as that’s the set up, the ongoing generally dissatisfaction and alienation that many people constantly experience isn’t going away.
I’m not suggested a return to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, but a consideration of what and how the future should be. Capital, or Labour?
You must be logged in to post a comment.