The European scene

The Paris intelligentsia disengage from real life

There has been a chill wind blowing through Paris recently. The city has been plagued by strikes that look likely to continue for months - as long as unions and the government are locked in a stand-off. In the suburbs, gangs of rioting immigrant youths are once again setting fire to cars and fighting running battles with the police.

Unlike in the riots of 2005, which nearly brought the government down, the gangs are armed this time, mainly with cheap hunting rifles and air pistols. They move in small, predatory packs with the stated aim of shooting policemen - who are themselves tooled up in paramilitary gear. The violence is sporadic, but there is no real end in sight: there are now parts of the city's outskirts that look more like Gaza than Paris.

It is all the more apposite that the biggest literary event of the Parisian festive season is the publication of the memoirs of Philippe Sollers, a vain, gossipy but undoubtedly talented novelist who is the epitome of snobbish, bourgeois, mondain Paris (Sollers's Maoist youth is only further proof of this pedigree). At the age of 70, Sollers is seeking to establish himself once and for all as the greatest writer of his generation with Un vrai roman: Mémoires.

He sets out with waspish attacks on the great writers of his vintage (Julien Gracq, Patrick Modiano and Le Clézio all come in for a battering), an account of his love affair with Julia Kristeva and of the "cultural terrorism" that he launched on the world with the journal Tel Quel in the 1960s (which introduced the likes of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault). Above all, Sollers sees himself as a libertine in the 18th-century tradition, arguing against medi ocrity and in favour of intellectual dandyism. Reading Sollers's Mémoires is like a visit to a bygone age when polo-necked post-structuralists ruled the (Left Bank) world.

If Sollers is largely unknown in the anglophone world, this is simply because French writers no longer occupy the central place they did in the days of Sartre or Camus. Nonetheless, in France, Sollers is a force to be reckoned with - no victim to false modesty, he ranks himself beside Mozart, Voltaire or Nietzsche as one of the thinkers who have changed the very substance of their age.

I once interviewed Sollers in the 1990s. He was friendly, avuncular and witty - much as he seems on the telly. The only thing that worried me was his lack of sympathy with popular culture or ordinary people. When I asked him about the cultural significance of the Sex Pistols and rap music I met a genuinely blank face: he had literally never heard of either of these phenomena.

This perhaps tells you all you need to know about the vaulting gap between the Parisian intelligentsia and the real world, which has, since then, only grown wider. One of the most interesting facts about the riots of 2005 and 2007 has been the absolute silence of Parisian intellectuals on the subject - presumably because it doesn't fit in with their idea of the real world.

Meanwhile, somewhere not too far beyond the cafe tables of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, sirens blare, the police vans tear up the ring roads to the banlieue and another evening of car-burning and violence begins.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide