Friday, June 13, 2014

Paris At The End of the World by John Baxter - War Was Never So Fashionably Correct...

We sit in calm, airy, silent rooms opening upon
sunlit and embowered laws, not a sound except
of summer and of husbandry disturbs the peace;
but seven million men...are in ceaseless battle
from the Alps to the Ocean.
--Winston Churchill
The first blow fell on Paris at 7:18 a.m. on March 21, 1918, interrupting the calm of a Spring morning.

As its concussion echoed over the roofs, residents came to their front doors and stared at the sky. Was it another accident, like that of the previous January, when an ammunition dump in Courneuve blew up, shattering windows across the city?

Canal saint martin a paris 3People living close to the Canal St- Martin knew better. A crater had appeared in the wide stone towpath where
 horses usually dragged barges into the city. They assumed a German bomber had made an audacious solo raid,  the pilot fleeing to the safety of his army's trenches that zigzagged across France from Belgium to the Swiss border.

Paris at the End of the
The City of Light During
the Great War, 1914-1918
 By John Baxter

So much family and world-wide history is lost, isn't it? We all spend our time living the present and working for the future, that we rarely take time to look to and learn about the past. If John Baxter had not had an interest in history and the opportunity to obtain letters and other information about his paternal grandfather, William Archie Baxter, we would never have had the chance to read such an intimate account of what was happening during the first world war.
English: Tour Eiffel, view from the Trocadero
: Tour Eiffel, view from the Trocaderoki

Before the Germans retired the weapon, it had fired 367 shells,
killing 256 people and wounding 620--by trench standards
a small loss, but of far greater damage psychologically.
Parisians had believed intelligence, wit, and style could protect
them from the worst effects of the war. Now they saw that these
had the evanescence of a soap bubble...

Most of us when thinking about Paris would routinely think of fashion, the pleasures of life, and the arts... Going to Paris was always seen as the ultimate location for trips, especially honeymoons. Those in the arts would consider the city itself as the best location they could find in which to work.

Gazing at or traveling to see the Eiffel Tower  is a dream come true. None of us, I would imagine would consider and recognize that the Tower was a main communication point to and from the front during the war. 

I was amazed that because of the high vulnerability for aerial attacks, the French worked to construct a fake Paris, including plywood replicas of the Arc de Triomphe and the Opera and other major sights! At the same time they wanted the outside news agencies to ensure an image of a tranquil Paris going about its business! Still, people were killed...

But then going about like usual resulted in having the story of "Two Men in Silk Pajamas..."

 In fact, I should mention that the format of the book contains 39 individual stories as diverse as the one about the pajamas to the "Master of War"... One that I especially enjoyed was "Dressed to Kill" which, of course, brought the fashion issue to the fore: There were two fronts--the war front, then in Paris, the Montparnasse front... As patriotism grew, it started to transform fashion. The book contains many pictures, including ones that definitely showed a military flair! So I decided my addition would be some of the music from that time, including the first anti-war song! Cool!!

Another thing that amazed me was that, even during the war, when people of other nations
wanted the best in art and music, food and drink, fashion and culture, and even sex and sensation, they went to Paris. The period became known as la belle epoque--the beautiful age. Here's one of the pieces by Alphonse Mucha that  I was able to find online. It certainly exhibits the beauty that was created during that period..

And then another fascinating, but understandable issue, was that the works of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert were no longer permitted in recital, while designers immediately saw the opportunities with news media following the trends in all of the countries...

There were as expected changes into what "creature comforts" were normally provided to Parisians. Absinthe was outlawed--Why? Because the government felt it sapped the will of young soldiers! Alcohol for military use replaced the quality and quantity of wine and spirits. Coffee was unobtainable as were cigars...

Volunteers from Australia and then later when America became involved are as well as the English who were not all wanting to be involved and a cute little ditty conveyed that message:

Take me back to dear old Blighty!
Put me on the train for London town!
Take me over there,
Drop me anywhere,
Liverpool, Leeds, or Birmingham, well, I don't care!

By 1917, however, the main concern for the average Briton was...bread! In France food shortages was even worse because Germany had captured so much of the country... Desertion to go home to take care of crops surprised even the President when a farmer who had asked for leave, went home to take care of potatoes--war or no war! That seemed appropriate to me, don't you think?

When America finally entered the war, everybody thought that they then would be moving toward the end... but it continued for more than a year... Indeed, there is much about the war itself and Archie's life during that period that is covered. I've pulled some of the minor points just to show the diversity of the book and, of course, to include those items that interested me personally...LOL I feel confident that, readers who select this historical non-fiction book will find substantive points of interest for all! History buffs should consider this a must-read in my opinion... The book includes an Index to quickly find various items. 

But I must admit that the ending as provided for Archie totally caught me off-guard! AWOL from the Great War! I loved it!


John Baxter was born in Sydney, Australia, but raised in a small country town called Junee. With little else to do, he went to the movies three times a week for most of his adolescence, which provided an instant education in Hollywood movies with which he was often able to embarrass film celebrities ("You SAW that thing?")
His second interest, however, was science fiction, which he began writing in his late teens. He sold stories to the same British and American magazines as J.G. Ballard and Thomas M. Disch, and in 1966 his first sf novel, THE GOD KILLERS, was published in both the US and Britain. He also edited the first-ever anthologies of Australian science fiction, and wrote the first history of the Australian cinema.
In 1969, he came to Europe, settled in London, and began writing books on the cinema, including a biography of the director Ken Russell, and studies of John Ford, Josef von Sternberg and the gangster and science fiction film genres, and working as an arts journalist for various magazines, and for BBC radio. He also served on the juries of European film festivals.
In 1974 he was invited to become visiting professor at Hollins College in Virginia, USA, where he remained for two years. While in America, he collaborated with Thomas Atkins on THE FIRE CAME BY; THE GREAT SIBERIAN EXPLOSION OF 1908,and wrote a study of director King Vidor, as well as completing two novels, THE HERMES FALL and BIDDING.
Returning to London, he published the technological thriller THE BLACK YACHT. In 1979 he moved to Ireland, and the following year returned to Australia, where he co-scripted the 1988 science fiction film THE TIME GUARDIAN, starring Carrie Fisher and Dean Stockwell. He also wrote and presented three TV series on the cinema, and produced and presented the ABC radio programme BOOKS AND WRITING.
In 1989 he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a screenwriter and film journalist. The following year, he met his present wife, Marie-Dominique Montel, and re-located in Paris.
After moving to France, John published biographies of Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas and Robert De Niro, as well as five books of autobiography, A POUND OF PAPER: CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK ADDICT, dealing with his fascination for collecting books, WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS: SEX AND LOVE IN THE CITY OF LIGHT, of which the SUNDAY TIMES of London wrote "it towers above most recent memoirs of life abroad," IMMOVEABLE FEAST: A PARIS CHRISTMAS, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WALK IN THE WORLD: A PEDESTRIAN IN PARIS, and THE PERFECT MEAL. IN SEARCH OF THE LOST TASTES OF FRANCE.
John has co-directed the annual Paris Writers Workshop and is a frequent lecturer and public speaker. His hobbies are cooking and book collecting. He has a major collection of modern first editions. When not writing, he can be found prowling the bouquinistes along the Seine or cruising the Internet in search of new acquisitions.

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