Re-inventing Arles

I’m reading a rather lovely travel book about the Midi at the moment which was published in the early 1960s. In some respects, rien ne change. In others …

… having just described the antiquities of Arles, the writer comments, ‘today it lies smiling and sleepy, full of memories’. Well, I’m here to tell you they’re rebuilding the joint, adding a new layer of architectural history and it’s so noisy, there’s little chance of a nap.

I’ve come to town to visit a major exhibition of the work of Annie Leibovitz: The First Years 1970 – 1983 which is being held in the new Parc des Ateliers. No-one I’ve spoken to knows where the Parc is so I’ve consulted a map. Thus, I know I must turn left at the traffic lights on the delightfully named Boulevard des Lices (look it up if you don’t know what it means – it’s worse than you think). The good news is that the Parc is signposted. The bad news is that the route is barred and, with a load of traffic behind me, I’m forced to push on and dump the car in some huge commerce place. Now on foot, I’m instructed to cross a make-shift bridge across the main railway line, negotiate two building sites and assorted dumper trucks and cranes, before collapsing at the first bar I find which is adjacent to the view in the above photo. They seem to be building on something old. What was here before, I ask the waiter? Nothing, comes the informative reply. Well, clearly there was something, I don’t say.

I walk for ages down the road to nowhere but, when I reach an entrance, I carry on for I think, unexpectedly, that I know where I am. It’s the canal which I believe borders the Roman necropolis, Les Alyscamps. I haven’t actually seen it before but I’ve felt the venom of its mosquitoes.



I’m right! Tracing the bank, I can just see the enigmatic church of St Honoratus through the trees, along with a couple of Roman sarcophagi. And here we have the ultimate juxtaposition of ancient and modern. On one side of the road, a necropolis so famous that bodies were floated down the Rhone just for the prestige of being buried there; a place where, more recently, Gauguin and Van Gogh wandered with their paint boxes. And on the other side …

… admittedly, behind a stone wall, the main exhibition galleries of the Parc des Ateliers. WOW. These are all past SNCF buildings which have been transformed into something amazing. I don’t know if I like it but they probably said the same about Constantine’s Baths at the beginning.

The Leibovitz collection is extraordinary. The photographs – and there are literally hundreds of them – manage to make the glamour of the USA look dirty and sordid. Here are Jagger, Springsteen, Dylan, and just about anyone you can think of from the 70s and 80s music scene, drunk, stoned, tired and ugly in their dingy dressing rooms and hotels, all looking in need of soap and water and sleep. Here are Warhol and Liberace, ridiculously disarmed and precarious as Leibowitz catches them off pose.

And here are the politics of America, as far removed from the sanitised House of Cards version as is humanly possible. Numerous stills show Ted Kennedy ever smiling and professional but with a less than attractive entourage. Badly dressed men, and always men, ‘doing the business’ on planes, in offices and generally behind the scenes, looking shady and untrustworthy. The placards pronounce, effectively, ‘the other two died for you so you’d better vote for Ted’. Leibovitz captures an interminable sense of squalor on so many levels. In the end, one is so overwhelmed by both the brilliance and ghastliness of it all that it’s just too demanding.

The Parc des Ateliers is sadly lacking in the eating department. There’s a sort of canteen where people queue up to purchase plastic food which is then consumed at long tables with a bunch of people you don’t know. I suppose they think it gives the place the modern look; actually, it reminds me of a motorway service station. Back up the long track there’s a burger joint which is equally disenchanting. However, across the road, on the building site, I manage to acquire a rather nice steak with Roquefort sauce. That’ll do nicely thank-you.

P.S. The book I’m reading is called West of the Rhone by Freda White.


London calling

tubeUnderground, the dragon’s blinding eyes appear around the bend, wider and wider as the beast exits the tunnel with a frightening screech and intense roaring at such velocity to make it impossible to believe it will ever stop……………..which it does SUDDENLY


And we rocked on to Electric Avenue not knowing that it really existed and was where all life passes amongst stalls flowing with exotic dresses and robes and accessories for the voluminous hair which can be purchased in the hair shop next door to those that compete to see which can provide the strangest looking fish and the freshest meat in the world and who can pile the highest pyramid of colourful fruits and vegetables accompanied by the loudest reggae music for those wearing the most outrageous costumes and the biggest hats to protect the widest hairstyles and the longest dreadlocks whilst dancing the oddest dance on the corner of other worlds


I go to the loo in the Morpeth Arms at Millbank and, despite having yet to take the first alcohol of this day, find myself all at sea. Inside, the wooden floorboards become decking planks as I sway with the movement of the boat. I exit the loo, looking over my shoulder at the trick I might have missed. Back in the bar, I enquire whether the place is haunted and am pointed in the direction of a large television screen on the wall. It shows a picture of an empty stone cellar below my feet where, back in the day, chained convicts were housed whilst awaiting deportation to Australia. Today and every day the cellar is locked for safety. It houses a permanent live webcam to record the comings and goings of waterlogged ghosts.

mutual friend

The shudder was gone, and his gaze, which had come back to the boat for a moment, travelled away again. Wheresoever the strong tide met with an impediment, his gaze paused for an instant. At every mooring-chain and rope, at every stationery boat or barge that split the current into a broad-arrowhead, at the offsets from the piers of Southwark Bridge, at the paddles of the river steamboats as they beat the filthy water, at the floating logs of timber lashed together lying off certain wharves, his shining eyes darted a hungry look. After a darkening hour or so, suddenly the rudder-lines tightened in his hold, and he steered hard towards the Surrey shore. (Dickens: Our Mutual Friend)

We take a gentle journey from Millbank to Embankment. A speeding police boat overtakes us on its way to some unknown watery crime and once the waves and stomachs have settled, we overtake Symphony – a boat replete with suited and booted business types on a leisurely cocktail cruise. They are all men with the exception of one female at the rear who Leonie says is probably the stripper. Changing vessels at Embankment, we head off, once past Traitors’ Gate, at a speed to equal the underground dragons:


WHOOSH past Butlers’ Wharf and all the other east end wharves that probably now house butlers in their expensive apartments with riverside views, salubrious shops and bijou brasseries; and WHOOSH past the never-again Dickension Limehouse now boasting a marvellous marina; and WHOOSH past the business, banking and communications centre of Canary Wharf; and WHOOSH past the places so exclusive that – only those who reside within know their names.


Until, there on the right, the palatial maritime buildings of Greenwich are heralded by the masts of the Cutty Sark rising from its glass display cabinet like a life-sized ship in a bottle.

On the over-ground train to Kingston, our cosmopolitan carriage is full of noisy international students on a day trip to see our heritage: they are visiting Primark.


And Leonie proudly takes mother to see the sights of what is now her city. There on her new doorstep are the Houses of Parliament whilst just round the corner is the Supreme Court where, fortuitously, today is a free entry open-day.


On to the grandeur of the Foreign and Commonwealth offices, a wave at Horseguards’ Parade, a ridiculously priced bottle of water in St James Park and a wander up to Buck House where news of the infant has already been removed being, as it is, old news.