Paris diary: France pays homage to the trainspotter's art

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The Independent Online
Claude Monet was a railway enthusiast. His wonderful painting of the Normandy express at the Gare Saint-Lazare is familiar to visitors to the National Gallery in London. It is one of a series of 11 views painted on the platforms and tracks, and even inside a signal box, at the station in 1877-78.

Seven of these canvases - full of steam and light and movement - have been marshalled for the first time in 120 years in an exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris (which, of course, used to be a railway station itself). The exhibition, which lasts until 17 May and goes on to Washington, is called Manet, Monet La gare Saint-Lazare.

Edouard Manet's railway connections are less well-known. The father of Impressionism had a studio on the Rue de Saint-Petersbourg, overlooking the maze of tracks approaching Saint-Lazare. The poster for the exhibition is his painting Le Chemin de Fer. It shows a young woman and a little girl with the station in the background, mostly obscured by a cloud of steam.

The canvas caused something of a scandal when exhibited in 1873. Why should the little girl in a lovely blue dress have her back rudely turned to the artist? Why is she gazing into the steam? The answer is obvious to anyone who, like me, spent their childhood lurking about railway stations. The little girl was an early Gallic trainspotter (somewhat overdressed for the part).

I have been travelling by train a good deal recently, mostly by TGV, but this week to Strasbourg on one of the last of the French main lines yet to be replaced by purpose-built fast tracks. In Britain, railways have become a shrunken, scruffy and weed-infested affair. Returning to the great junction at Crewe is like visiting an old friend dying of some wasting disease.

In France, on the old main lines, nothing seems to have changed. Every small station still has a goods yard; every big station has a satisfying jumble of criss-crossing rails; in the depths of the countryside, smart- looking branch lines set off into the unknown. This is no illusion. The SNCF still has more than 20,000 miles of operating railways: a total rivalled only by the US, China and India.

The price is, of course, massive public subsidy. Passengers and freight customers pay pounds 3.5bn a year to use the SNCF: the government gives the railways another pounds 8bn a year. The last government planned to change all that but then took fright. The question of rail reform - ie massive cuts - is theoretically still on the agenda. But the transport minister in the Jospin government is Jean-Claude Gayssot, known to his friends as the "Comrade Minister". He is a Communist, a former railwayman and a former rail union official. No sudden change is anticipated.

We have, literally, a running battle with the family who live in the flat below. They object to the sound of our children sprinting over the bare parquet floors. They have a fair point but not one they have ever put to us directly. All complaints are directed through the gardienne (concierge), a Bosnian Serb Jehovah's Witness given to wearing cerise sweat-shirts and purple track-suit bottoms. We thought an uneasy truce had been established until the other day, the gardienne approached my wife and said: "The people in the flat below were wondering when you will be buying a carpet."

French doctors have a fundamental approach to medicine. The cure for almost everything, it seems, comes in the form of a suppository.

The other day, my wife took Grace, five months old, to our doctor with a bad cough. He prescribed suppositories but added a lecture, with sketched diagram, on how they should be applied. Contrary to common sense, it appears that the blunt end of the suppository should go in first. No wonder the French are hopeless at darts.

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