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Monday, May 31, 1999 Published at 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK

The archives of Our Man in Paris

History made tangible in a dusty archive

By Hugh Schofield, Paris correspondent

It lies in a back-room, stored in about forty grubby lever-arch files. To honour it with the name of archive would be perhaps to flatter it, because it serves no purpose.

No-one ever consults these reams of inky type-scripts. They sit stacked in their boxes, untouched since the day perhaps fifty years ago, when a tired correspondent - his day's hook-up with London completed - snapped shut the lid of his type-writer and wearily consigned another report to the file.

Filing from Berlin

But what pleasure to snoop back half a century. History becomes a tangible thing, as you hold up the flimsy quarto sheet, replete with crossings-out and marginal scribblings, typed a few minutes after the German surrender in World War 2.

Thomas Cadett, Paris correspondent, had been flown in to Berlin. His report - like others at this time - carries the censor's stamp from Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force.

[ image: Memories of Buchenwald]
Memories of Buchenwald
He writes at the end: "some of us admitted to a certain temptation to pity for the conquered, but each time memories from Warsaw and Buchenwald came crowding in - to bring the realisation that this was justice; that pity was a selfish and sentimental notion."

Marshall Petain on trial

A few months later Thomas Cadett is sitting in at the trial of the Vichy leader Marshall Petain. Such is the crush that windows - kept shut for three hundred years - have to be opened.

The Marshal listens impassively. There is a "misty gleam in his eyes that failed to fit in with the benevolent and paternal dignity of the rest of his face."

Needless to say the style of these early pieces is distinctive. Every report starts off "Hello London". Of course there are no recordings or interviews, so the correspondent rattles on at length, but the English is beautiful.

At the top of each script, there's what they call a service message: this because the broadcast circuit was also the correspondent's only chance to communicate with his masters about mundane matters, like demands for stationery.

One reads: I have picked up a chill and have to go "canny" for a couple of days, which I presume must mean on sick-leave.

The Algerian crisis

And so through the years, the Fourth Republic, the Algerian crisis, de Gaulle.

There's too much, so I picked out 1961 as being the year of my birth. Ronald Robson is the correspondent now, and the quality of the paper has changed: it's thicker and whiter.

April the 24th is a night of alarms and excursions. The army has mutinied in Algeria, and tanks are out on the streets of Paris. There's no air of panic though, and no-one expects the putsch to succeed. It doesn't.

It's wonderful to see a certain constancy in the themes covered by correspondents down the years.

For example, in May '61 - in the middle of the Algerian crisis - a 24 hour strike stops local train services. The claims are wage increases, better pensions and a 40 hour week.

Farmers protests

[ image: Farmers' protests then and now]
Farmers' protests then and now
Little change from the rail strike just this month in France - though now it's thirty-five hours they're after - not forty.

And in June, the farmers are out, complaining about the price of artichokes.

"For many years", wrote the correspondent then, as he could do now, "in fact as long as France was governed by a parliamentary regime, the French farmer was regarded as a spoiled darling by many of his fellow countrymen."

[ image: Rudolf Nureyev with Margot Fonteyn]
Rudolf Nureyev with Margot Fonteyn
Other stories that year: the defection of Rudolf Nureyev at Le Bourget airport; the visit by the German President - the first friendly visit, it's pointed out, since Sigismund the First came in 1415.

Also, an amusing piece about a new craze started by the newspaper France-Soir. It's called Les Sept Erreurs - seven mistakes.

Two line-drawings are placed side-by-side, with seven subtle differences between them. Apparently le tout Paris is hooked on it. Is this the first known appearance of Spot-the-Error competitions?

France, Britain and Europe

In September there's an attempt on de Gaulle's life, and a young singer called Johnny Halliday is - to quote the correspondent in all his glorious condescension - hiccupping out the latest tunes in his trance-like tributes to St.Vitus.

And in October, Edward Heath - Lord Privy Seal - is in Paris, declaring Britain's readiness to join the Common Market - a bold and imaginative venture, as he calls it.

This, of course, is another recurring theme. Correspondent after correspondent has to comment on France's feelings towards Britain and Europe.

Speaking of the Euro today, one couldn't do much better than cite this report of June '61: "the common view is that if only Britain had come in at the start, she could by now have secured an outstanding position of influence."

An archive for the future?

One could go on for ever - or at least up to the mid 80s, when the habit of keeping scripts petered out.

Today, of course, it's all on computer, which makes for the sad irony that in this information-rich age, the collection of an outstanding historical record like the one we have in Paris is no longer possible.

No-one, I suspect, will pick this script up, fifty years from now, gaze musingly at the ceiling - and ponder, as I did, on the strangeness of passing time.

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