Belfast Telegraph

Robert McLiam Wilson: Despite flames that engulfed her, Notre Dame still looks insolently good and very Parisian

Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris following a fire which destroyed much of the building on Monday evening. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday April 15, 2019. See PA story FIRE NotreDame. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Smoke is seen around the alter inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer/Pool via AP)
The steeple of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral collapses as the cathedral is engulfed in flames in central Paris on April 15, 2019. - A huge fire swept through the roof of the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019, sending flames and huge clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky. The flames and smoke plumed from the spire and roof of the gothic cathedral, visited by millions of people a year. A spokesman for the cathedral told AFP that the wooden structure supporting the roof was being gutted by the blaze. (Photo by Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP) (Photo credit should read GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***
An aerial view of the fire raging at Notre Dame Cathedral. (Photo by - / AFP)-/AFP/Getty Images
Firemen inspect the Notre Dame cathedral after the fire in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Experts are assessing the blackened shell of Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral to establish next steps to save what remains after a devastating fire destroyed much of the almost 900-year-old building. With the fire that broke out Monday evening and quickly consumed the cathedral now under control, attention is turning to ensuring the structural integrity of the remaining building. (AP Photo/Christophe Enaa)
Flames and smoke are seen as the interior of the Notre-Dame Cathedral continues to burn on April 15, 2019, in the French capital Paris. - A huge fire swept through the roof of the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019, sending flames and huge clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky. The flames and smoke plumed from the spire and roof of the gothic cathedral, visited by millions of people a year. A spokesman for the cathedral told AFP that the wooden structure supporting the roof was being gutted by the blaze. (Photo by PHILIPPE WOJAZER / POOL / AFP)PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images
Flames rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
A fire fighter uses a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
People pray as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Flames illuminate the night sky as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Firefighters use hoses as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Firefighters use hoses as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
A fire fighter uses a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
File photo dated 01/03/15 of the North Rose stained glass window at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France, which is feared to have been destroyed by fire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday April 15, 2019. See PA story FIRE NotreDame. Photo credit should read: David Davies/PA Wire
A fire fighter gestures as a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
People watch Notre Dame cathedral burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
People watch Notre Dame cathedral burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
A fire fighter tackles the blaze as flames and smoke rise while Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
A fire fighter tackles the blaze as flames and smoke rise while Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
People watch as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
People watch as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
People watch as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
(Lori Hinant/AP)
(AP)
(Thibault Camus/AP)
(Thibault Camus/AP)
(Thibault Camus/AP)
(Thibault Camus/AP)
(Lori Hinant/AP)
Thibault Camus/AP)
(Lori Hinnant/AP)
(Thibault Camus/AP)
(Michel Euler/AP)
Firefighters tackle the blaze at Notre Dame (Francois Mori/AP)
Smoke and flames coming from the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo credit: Ashley Huntington/Mercedes Girona/PA Wire
Handout photo taken with permission from the twitter feed of @slopezserra of smoke pouring from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which is on fire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday April 15, 2019. See PA story FIRE NotreDame. Photo credit should read: @slopezserra/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Lori Hinant)
Handout video grab taken from the Twitter feed of @leistomania93 of smoke and flames coming from the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday April 15, 2019. See PA story FIRE NotreDame. Photo credit should read: @leistomania93/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Lori Hinant)
Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Lori Hinant)
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. - (Photo by Pierre Galey / AFP)PIERRE GALEY/AFP/Getty Images
The steeple collapses as smoke and flames engulf the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. Photo by Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images
Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame Cathedral (Michel Euler/AP)
Firefighters tackle the blaze at Notre Dame (Thibault Camus/AP)
Crowds watch from a safe distance (Thibault Camus/AP)
Smoke billows from Notre Dame Cathedral (Lori Hinnant/AP)
Notre Dame Cathedral by the River Seine (Mike Egerton/PA)
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (David Davies/PA)

By Robert McLiam Wilson

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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Robert McLiam Wilson

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

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