The global and planetary
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
So much has changed since I started writing this newsletter, barely three months ago.
When we left Australia—as those first posts show—I was worried whether we would get permission to leave, and even more worried about getting back home. The Melbourne we left was locked down tight and case numbers were climbing.
We arrived in Nice, and it was like washing up on some vaguely remembered shore, some place we had heard about or imagined, and it didn’t seem quite real. People wore masks, and there were rules, but compared to what we had left and what was in prospect, arriving here felt like landing in the Chocolate Factory, and all the Oompa Loompas were gorgeous and speaking French.
The pastels of the old buildings and the relentless sunshine made everything surreal, like you were walking through augmented reality. A metaverse.
The crowded, open-air restaurants; the boulevards full of people where the brand-name stores concentrated; the crammed public transport; people hanging out windows and leaning over balconies talking to their neighbours; the narrow streets of the old town a crush at lunchtime and dinnertime: it was like someone was directing a film designed to show us exactly how different where we were was from where we had been.
We had our rapid antigen tests every three days and lived in sunshine.
Now, seasons are swapping.
Melbourne has less restrictions in place than France.
Europe is on the verge of another full-scale breakout, unevenly distributed across the Schengen Area, and what will everything look like in another three months? In another three years? In thirty years?
On Tuesday we went to Villefranche-sur-Mer, two stops away on the train, and we caught the local bus home, like catching a tram from Southbank to St Kilda.
The town is semi-famous, French-famous, for being, for a while, home to artist and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau. A hundred-and-fifty films or TV shows have been shot there (a film crew was on site when we arrived), and Cocteau liked, in particular, Rue Obscure, a tunnelled road that runs under a section of the town, as a place to set scenes.
Cocteau lived in a hotel on one of the town squares, and when he wasn’t making movies, he was decorating a small chapel, not fifty metres from his front door. It was an abandoned space and he asked for permission to decorate it. He filled the inside walls with murals, frescos, of St Peter and Biblical scenes with nautical overtones, in dedication to the town fishermen, and they are big spacious sketches, sometimes mere outlines, of Jesus and the apostles and references to his films. My favourite is one of a flamenco dancer, with Jesus in the form of Django Reinhardt, playing guitar.
It’s a beautiful town, if you ignore the ugly bits, like so many other towns up and down this coast. The prehistory and the 1600s and 1800s and 1900s and the twenty-first century sit side-by-side and on top of each other, bleeding and crashing and neatly blending in with each other. You wonder what they were like to live in back in the day, in the narrow streets, sans indoor plumbing and modern medicine, and their constricted, internal staircases, like ladders, which meant the top floors were the servants’ quarters and the lower floors were reserved for owners and the well-to-do.
No wonder a generation of architects and town planners and ordinary people dreamed of open spaces and big back yards, not to mention elevators.
Whether it was luck or a trick of the economy or just old-fashioned inertia, it is good they didn’t knock everything down and start again, that some organic process was given time to take hold.
Beauty takes time. Functionality is redefined. Needs change. You can’t always live in the present, you have to presume the future, and sometimes it takes a new generation to see the possibilities, that an abandoned chapel can be sparked back into life.
Covid-19 is a stress test that is still bending boughs and breaking branches, opening holes in the social fabric, as the streets of Melbourne, and other Australian—and French and American—cities have shown over the last few years, the last few weeks.
We can't presume we live in a normal that is inexplicably disrupted. We must presume that risk is inherent in any system as complex as an economy or a society, and we therefore need to act in the good times as if we were living in bad times, so we are ready.
Because if we think COVID-19 has brought the world to its knees, what exactly do we think climate change is going to do? At the moment, the balance between the planetary and the global is all wrong.
It mightn’t be much to cling to, but these little towns, like Villefranche-sur-Mer, with their second, third, fourth or fifth lease of life—after wars and plagues and revolutions and uprisings and colonialism and even property developers—still cling beautifully to hillsides and look out on the water, with the washing hanging out on makeshift lines tangled in with the caballing for electricity and the internet…it’s not nothing.