Friday 9 January 2015


To the French Institute in South Kensington this evening, for a brief commemoration, or vigil.

Perhaps a thousand of us packed the street outside the Institute, many youngsters present, many bearing JE SUIS CHARLIE banners. The mood was sombre, friendly and calm. Candles were lit and the organiser read out the names of all those murdered two days ago in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. A minute's silence, then the Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes read this brief poem (which I hope he will not mind me typing out in full):

So they set out to kill the laughter. They wore death
as if God had been committed to their unique
and tender care. No one should laugh again, they swore.
But laughter comes when it will and is strong, not weak.

There followed a rousing, raggedy rendition of the first verse and chorus of La Marseillaise
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé, 
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes !
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons !
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons ! 

Those two last lines of the chorus always strike me as odd. ("Let an impure blood / Water our furrows'). They remind me of Rimbaud's lines in the Prologue of Une Saison en Enfer, but I'm too tired to look them up.

There was no nationalist fervour, no gormless chanting (although some chump in a beret with a Vatican State flag was put firmly in his place), but there was a tangible sense of sadness and solidarity. Many of the students from the adjacent Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle were in the crowd, including my son, who studies there. They were all far too young to know about Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine founded half a century ago by a bunch of soixante-huitards, and the sort of thing read occasionally by their parents, but they knew what this was all about. We mingled for a while, chatting quietly. There was a tall, lugubrious young chap with a sign saying FREE HUGS who did a roaring trade. People stood around, talking. A brief chant of JE SUIS CHARLIE never caught fire, and we soon dispersed. 

Reminded on my way home of those lines, variously attributed, to the effect that goodness will always prevail over evil because evil cannot comprehend goodness. But this is not at all about good and evil.

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