Robert McLiam Wilson: Despite flames that engulfed her, Notre Dame still looks insolently good and very Parisian
Last night, like most nights, I walked through the streets of Paris, dark and light, narrow and wide.
April in Paris is always the same. The weather is trying to make up its seasonal mind, resulting in a confused month of tiny heatwaves, sudden chills and no wind at all.
Last night the unmoving air was heavy with smoke as the giant roof of Notre Dame burned itself away.
It was in every boulevard, square and alley. In our noses, throats and lungs. Down near the cathedral itself, there were clutches of people watching the conflagration.
It felt like the end of the world - I'm guessing that all giant cathedral fires feel a bit like that.
Some were singing hymns, some kneeling in prayer. But most were just watching, sympathetic but with a very real sense of watching something exciting happen - what American writer Saul Bellow cleverly named 'event glamour'.
Parisians are too cynical and self-knowing to deny that.
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They might ooh and aah in mystified sympathy as the spire comes down, but somewhere not very deep down, a part of them wants the whole thing to end up crashing wonderfully, terribly into the river.
It was certainly phenomenal.
Fire is primal that way and it still burned with tigerish vehemence. The roof was nearly gone. You forget how big these things are. Until they burn. Smoke is always described as belching out. The Notre Dame smoke didn't belch. It vaulted tumultuously into the sky like a thousand escaping prisoners. It tumbled and exulted. After a few years of being traumatised by the hyper-modern insults of terrorism and AK47s, Paris was enduring some old-school affliction.
And we marvelled at its power.
But this was still the modern world and you could actually feel that this historic 800-year-old pile had just become the number one global social media trend. Everyone was uncontrollably emoting on Twitter and Facebook like they had lost a kitten. The falling spire, the Ave Marias of the faithful, the immense, unParisian smoke.
What were the practical results of this sudden pertinence (which would last two days at most)?
Well, more singing and kneeling and a couple of dozen US cable news anchors trying to quote Victor Hugo and showing a sweetly passionate devotion to pronouncing the old landmark's name wrong. Parisians seemed to be more concerned that no one died and the building survived.
The event bore many similarities to the Windsor Castle fire of the 1990s - there were no firefighter deaths and the building had been largely cleared of valuable artefacts in the preceding week. The flood of public and business donations - €600 million already by one count - may end up being excessive. The Windsor Castle restoration cost half of what had been estimated and the poor old Queen had to start paying tax.
The sweaty urgency of cable news certainly wasn't covering the streets I had passed to get there.
Streets of cafes filled with Parisians being Parisian, flirting, pontificating and feeling a bit sorry for people who aren't Parisians. Nor would they show the already apparent French intolerance for social media handwringing and public piety.
The President reached for some oratorical altitude and people laughed. A Catholic Church ravaged by sex scandals sensed an opportunity for the trawling of public sympathy and almost every waiter, bus driver and street-sweeper in the city clearly thought the same thing. We'll let them have tonight and then they get back in their box and we'll rebuild the bloody thing.
That's French secularism, there's some decorum but there's infinitely more firmness.
Notre Dame was still there this morning, squat and barnacled as an upturned piano washed up by some magical tide. She was always the well-dressed jolie-laide, disproportionate, ludicrous and superbly situated. And I was thrilled to see that she still was those things, after all that mayhem.
She looked insolently, inconveniently good and very Parisian.
- Robert McLiam Wilson is a Belfast-born writer living in Paris