We were in Paris this time last year. I was enjoying the buzz and feeling shortchanged: we don’t have national holidays in England, at least none that carry any kind of historical significance. No religious holidays except Christmas and Easter, and even the country’s patron Saint, George, doesn’t warrant a day off. That’s Protestant work ethic for you. If our May and August bank holidays do have roots somewhere in history, then they have been forgotten by the common man (and woman) and appear to have been randomly tacked on at the end of three weekends, almost like a grudging concession by an employer related to Ebenezer Scrooge. We have no dates when we celebrate freedom from oppression, change of regime, the end of a conflict or independence. No day that unites the entire country in a civic celebration.
Almost all the shops were closed and there was a mildly festive ripple in the summer air. Notre Dame was crammed with tourists. Noisy invaders with little respect or awe for this ancient church or its prayer-soaked walls. Calling out to one another in loud voices, stomping around in large groups. Too loud to be able to hear her voice or her heartbeat.
Once again, I longingly tried to imagine what it would be like to stand in an almost deserted Notre Dame, listening to Mediaeval voices rising to the Rose Window, singing Léonin or Pérotin, music composed for a perfect marriage with Gothic architecture. I went to smile at the stone Virgin and Child, one of my favourite Madonnas. I like her delicate features, her gentle, youthful smile. A few years ago, I translated a crime novel by French novelist Alexis Ragougneau, The Madonna of Notre Dame, and it brought this beautiful statue to my attention.
When we approached the cathedral exit, the noise of the crowd was suddenly drowned out by a loud roar. A row of fighter planes tore across the sky, a trail of blue, white and red in their wake. I find the sound of fighter planes eerie and something in my chest always seizes up when I hear them slicing through the air above Norwich, where I live, but there, in Paris, as part of the Quatorze Juillet parade, I stared and marvelled with the other tourists. I felt strange, standing inside a church, a building symbolising peace and compassion, while above me, there were these war machines, designed for war.
We strolled to Île Saint-Louis and stopped in a café for a late breakfast of crêpes and coffee. There was a television broadcasting the parade on the Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields – nowhere would be called this in England). We were the only customers and the manageress started chatting to us. “Macron’s been lucky with the weather both years since he’s been elected,” she said. “It’s been lovely and sunny on 14th July.”
“Oh, is that unusual for this time of year?” I asked, surprised.
“Under François Hollande it always seemed to rain or something would go wrong whenever there was some kind of event. That’s why he was nicknamed le chat noir.”
The black cat. How funny.
We ended up staying in the café, following the live coverage of the parade, President Macron and guests watching as what looked like the country’s entire human fighting force and arsenal processed before him. Tanks, military vehicles, men and women in uniform, weapons of every kind, the Garde républicaine on horseback, helmets and swords gleaming in the sunlight.
As always when watching a national parade – in any country – I felt a sense of wrongness, or at least of incompletion. I always look at all that military personnel, at all those tanks, fighter jets, weapons, and all those politicians, and I want to ask out loud, Where are the country’s writers? Where are the scientists and the scholars? Where are the all the medics? Where are the actors? Where are the farmers? Where are all the other people who contribute to the country? Have they not also played their part in forging history?
Is the nation not proud of them, too?