AT FIRST SIGHT, the Rue Saint-Roch seems to be an ordinary street in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, a stones throw from the Jardin des Tuileries and the Musée du Louvre. But, as is so often the case in this wonderful city, things are not always quite what they seem.
Let’s start with the obvious. The most prominent feature in the street is the Église Saint-Roch at the junction of the Rue Saint-Roch and the Rue Saint-Honoré.
The church was built in the late baroque style. Louis XIV laid the foundation stone in 1653 and building was completed in 1754.
Sounds inside the Église Saint-Roch:
The church suffered during the French revolution, it was ransacked, and many works of art were stolen or destroyed. Scars of the revolution are still to be seen on the façade of the church with the marks left by flying bullets.
It’s a well-kept secret, but the Église Saint-Roch is notable because the French aristocrat, revolutionary politician, philosopher, writer and notorious libertine, the Marquis de Sade, was married here on May 17, 1763.
The Église Saint-Roch is special for me because it is yet another Parisian church with an organ that has the fingerprints of the master organ builders, François-Henri Clicquot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll all over it.
In 1750, François-Henri Lesclop was commissioned to build the first organ but he died before the work was completed. François-Henri Clicquot was asked to finish the work, which he did in 1756. The organ was restored just over a hundred years later in 1859 and again in 1881 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This magical combination of work by François-Henri Clicquot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll is to be found in churches all over Paris, not least in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
And so, back to the Rue Saint-Roch itself. The origins of the street date back to somewhere around the tenth-century. It was officially named for the first time in 1450 as Rue Saint-Vincent then, several hundred years and several name changes later, it became Rue Saint-Roche in 1879.
Today, amidst scaffolding and extensive building work, Rue Saint-Roche is home to the Paris Bureau of the BBC who advertise their presence in rather austere terms compared to the other more elegant signage on the rest of the building.
Sounds in the Rue Saint-Roch:
The sounds of the Rue Saint-Roch may be what I came to listen to but what I especially came to see was this house, two doors down from the BBC office, N°41 Rue Saint-Roch. An ordinary looking house you might think, but this house has a history, a secret history. During the First World war, N°41 Rue Saint-Roche was the headquarters of a secret British military intelligence operation involving an underground espionage ring operating behind enemy lines.
The story of 41 Rue Saint-Roch is intriguing and brilliantly set out in Janet Morgan’s book, The Secrets of Rue St Roch. It’s a story of ingenuity, bravery and meticulous attention to detail, the very stuff of espionage behind enemy lines.
During the First World War, the Germans depended on trains to sustain and move their armies. The Allies realised the crucial importance of timetable information and of knowing what troop trains in occupied territories were carrying. Movements of men and guns from one part of the front to another, or the clearing of hospitals in forward areas, indicated the position and timing of the next offensive.
It was difficult to find people who could provide such intelligence, and difficult for it to be passed on. The front line was impermeable, neutral borders mined and electrified, movement restricted and clandestine radio and aerial reconnaissance were in their infancies. The Allies made many attempts, but German counter-espionage was formidable – though one network, La Dame Blanche in Belgium, was an espionage triumph. There was no coverage of tiny Luxembourg, which became, as the war went on, an increasingly important rail hub.
It was partly to address this that Captain George Bruce, later Lord Balfour, was assigned to a department of British military intelligence at 41 Rue Saint-Roch. He identified a possible recruit, a middle-aged Luxembourgeoise called Lise Rischard, whom he persuaded to return to her country as a railway spy. She began reporting by letter and newspaper code, which was a difficult business but this improved when she was joined by another of Bruce’s agents, an irrepressible Polish-Belgian soldier called Baschwitz Meau, who had escaped five times from German prison camps.
Meau was inserted into Luxembourg by hydrogen balloon at a late and crucial stage of the 1918 German spring offensive. The importance of the intelligence that he and Rischard provided from the agents they recruited can be gauged by the honours they later received – she the CBE, he the DSO, and both were made Chevaliers of the Legion d’Honneur.
I often wonder how many of the people who pass along the Rue Saint-Roch every day have any idea of the secret history of the house at N°41.
I walk the streets of Paris endlessly, observing and listening, and I am constantly intrigued by how the seemingly ordinary can often turn out to be quite extraordinary. The Rue Saint-Roch is a perfect example of this serendipity.
IT’S THAT TIME of the year again, Chinese New Year and it’s goodbye to the year of the dragon and welcome to the year of the snake.
The Chinese New Year is a moveable feast. In the Gregorian calendar it falls somewhere between 21st January and the 20th February but the precise date is determined by the lunisolar Chinese calendar and the date when the second new moon after the winter solstice occurs.
Each year in the Chinese calendar is associated with one of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac. This year is the year of the snake.
Chinese communities the world over celebrate their new year with tremendous enthusiasm and the Chinese community in Paris is no exception. The streets are decorated with red Chinese lanterns, wonderful colours abound and the air is filled with the magical sounds of drums and cymbals accompanying the magnificent lion dances.
I went to Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement to watch and listen to the celebrations.
The Year of the Snake in Sound:
I AM DELIGHTED TO present a new piece in my Paris – A Personal View series.
For each piece in the series I invite a guest who lives in or has a close connection to Paris to visit one of their favourite places or a place in the city that has a special meaning for them. With access to a microphone and sound recorder the guest talks about the place and tell us why it’s special to them.
Today my guest is Heather Munro. Heather doesn’t actually live in Paris but she is a regular visitor to the city so much so that she considers Paris to be her second home.
Heather Munro is a writer, editor and photographer (though not always in that order) who grew up in Great Britain, Mexico and Peru (in exactly that order) before finally settling down in the United States. Whenever she is able, she greatly enjoys travelling and discovering new places and new cultures. But of all the places she’s visited, Paris is still her favourite.
And Heather’s chosen place? The Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris …
©Heather Munro at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris:
I am very grateful to Heather for giving up her time and for braving the wind and the rain to visit and talk about the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris.
You can find Heather’s blog here.
Unlike other sounds on this blog, the sound piece ‘Heather Munro at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris’ is not covered by a Creative Commons license. The copyright for this piece rests jointly and exclusively with Heather Munro and Des Coulam. It follows therefore that the downloading of this piece for any purpose is not permitted without the express permission of both Heather and Des. We have no wish to spoil your enjoyment of this piece but simply ask you to respect that the work is ours. The copyright for the pictures rests exclusively with Heather Munro. Thanks for understanding.
TWO DAYS AGO, on Friday 8th February 2013, I found myself in Charonne station on Line 9 of the Paris Métro. At first sight, it’s just an ordinary Métro station with nothing in particular to commend it. But, as I walked into the station, passed through the ticket barrier and waited for my train on the platform, I couldn’t help thinking about the terrible event that took place here on 8th February, 1962, 51 years ago to the day.
Waiting and thinking at Charonne station:
On that day in 1962, the Paris police were responsible for the the massacre of nine people in the stairwell of Charonne station, an event that is remembered each year by a short ceremony and the laying of wreaths on the spot where the massacre took place. To get to my platform, I walked into the same stairwell and stopped to look at the tributes that had been left after this year’s ceremony which had taken place an hour or so earlier.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, France was embroiled in the Algerian War of Independence. By the time the French Government had come to the conclusion that Algeria should be granted independence the war had moved onto the streets of Paris. On the one side was the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), the Algerian nationalist movement who were fighting for Algerian independence and on the other, the OAS (Organisation armée secrète), the French dissident paramilitary organisation attempting to prevent Algeria’s secession from French governance. Both sides resorted to extreme violence including sabotage, bombings, and assassinations.
On 5 October 1961, the chief of the Paris police, Maurice Papon, (one time French Nazi convicted in 1998 for crimes against humanity for his part in the deportation of Jews from France during WWII) announced a curfew from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am in Paris and its suburbs for “Algerian Muslim workers”, “French Muslims” and “French Muslims of Algeria”. In response the French Federation of the FLN called upon the whole of the Algerian population in Paris to demonstrate against the curfew on 17 October. In the event, some 30,000 pro-FLN Algerians took to the streets. Their demonstration had not been sanctioned by the prefecture de police, headed by Papon, and the response by the police was brutal in the extreme. In fact, it was a massacre.
It took the French Government until 1998 to admit that the massacre had taken place in 1961 and that 48 demonstrators had been killed, although the generally accepted view is that the death toll was around 200.
On 8 February 1962, another demonstration, also prohibited by the police, took place near Charonne metro station. Police, directed by the same Maurice Papon, blocked the nearby streets before charging the crowd. Some demonstrators tried to take refuge in the entry of the Charonne metro station, but police pursued the crowd into the station and using their weapon of choice, heavy iron plates used around the bases of trees, hurled them down onto demonstrators in the stairwell.
The Police weapon of choice
Eight people were crushed to death or died from head injuries and a ninth died from wounds in hospital. All of the dead, except for a sixteen year-old boy, were members of the Communist Party or union members. There could be no period of denial by the police or the government after this massacre. In 1961, all the victims were Algerian but in 1962, they were French.
The dead were buried in Père Lachaise cemetery near the Mur des Federes and their funerals were attended by hundreds of thousands of people.
On 8 February 2007, 45 years after the event, a commemorative plaque was installed inside the metro station where the massacre occurred.
No one has ever been prosecuted for the massacres in 1961 and 1962 because they fell under the general amnesty for crimes committed during the Algerian War.
On any other day, most of the passengers passing through Charonne station could be forgiven for not thinking about, or even knowing about, the events that took place here 51 years ago. But on Friday, it was especially gratifying to see busy people taking time to stop, read the text on the plaque on the wall and pay their respects.
Our history is important, it should be remembered however unpleasant it may be.
In Charonne station the dead were:
- Jean-Pierre Bernard, 30, draughtsman
- Fanny Dewerpe, 31, secretary
- Daniel Féry, 16, apprentice
- Anne-Claude Godeau, 24, worked for PTT
- Édouard Lemarchand, 41, carpenter
- Suzanne Martorell, 36, worked for L’Humanité
- Hippolyte Pina, 58, mason
- Raymond Wintgens, 44, typographer
Maurice Pochard died in hospital, aged 48
N° 40, RUE DU TÉLÉGRAPHE, in the 20th arrondissement, is the highest point in Paris weighing in at 144.48 metres or 474 feet.
Today, N° 40, rue du Télégraphe, is home to Belleville cemetery occupying land once owned by Louis Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau … and this site has a history.
It was on this site in 1792 that Claude Chappe (1763 – 1805), a French physicist, first demonstrated his ingenious semaphore system that eventually spanned the whole of France. Mounted on a series of towers 10 – 15km apart, the system comprised a pair of telescopes and a mechanical semaphore whose arms could be moved to angular positions that corresponded to letters and numbers contained in a codebook.
Chappe’s semaphore, or telegraph, grew to a network of 556 towers covering some 5,000km. This ingenious form of communication was revolutionary since it reduced the time taken to transmit messages over long distances from days to hours or even minutes. The first major achievement came in 1794 when the telegraph informed Parisians of the capture of Condé-sur-l’Escaut from the Austrians less than an hour after it occurred. Chappe’s telegraph became the fastest means of communication of it’s day, a sort of mechanical internet, but it only lasted until the mid 1800’s when it was superseded by the new and even faster electric telegraph.
Looking across the cemetery at N°40 rue du Télégraphe today, two modern towers stand more or less where Chappe’s first semaphore tower once stood. And, given their location, it’s perhaps not surprising that these towers carry a communications antenna providing a firm connection with the past.
As well as being home to Belleville cemetery, today’s rue du Télégraphe is also home to a busy street market which, when I went to explore the story of Claude Chappe, was packing up for the day. I found the ‘end of the day’ sounds unlike the usual Paris street sounds and fascinating enough to include in my Paris Soundscapes archive.
Packing up the market stalls:
Like the rue du Télégraphe, the local Métro station, Télégraphe, takes its name from Claude Chappe’s invention. It’s on Métro Line 11 and it’s one of the deepest stations on the Paris Métro system.
The depth of the station is obvious when looking at the escalator leading up part way from the platforms to the surface. Although escalators of this size are quite common on the London Underground they are quite rare on the Paris Métro.
Télégraphe station is also a little unusual in that the two tracks are separated by a wall giving it more of the feel of a London Underground station than a Paris one. The wall is necessary because the station is built on unstable ground, something I prefer not to think about too much when visiting the station! They do though have holes in the wall so that you can at least get a glimpse of the opposite platform.
I love the sounds of the Paris Métro. The trains, particularly the older trains with metal wheels, seem to come alive as they wheeze and clatter entering and leaving the stations. But it’s not only the sounds of the trains themselves that I enjoy. I find the sounds between the trains coming and going equally fascinating. They almost always have a much softer, more delicate but none the less interesting appeal. The sound of women’s shoes reverberating as they walk along the platforms, the sound of distant, half-heard, conversations, the unzipping of a bag, the rustle of clothing are all very rich sounds that contrast starkly with the very masculine, dominating sounds of the trains. These sounds are always there if you take time to stop and listen.
Métro Station Télégraphe:
Télégraphe may be off the tourist track and you probably won’t find it in a guidebook of Paris but it is worth a visit. Like most places in Paris, hidden or otherwise, it has its history, its sounds and a story to tell.