October 28, 2004

Going underground (again)


A while back, I noted a story about the discovery an underground cinema -- one located in the Paris catacombs. (The photo above is taken from the portion of the catacombs open to tourists; in the 18th century, the bones from several cemeteries were dug up and deposited -- in some cases, quite artistically stacked -- in a few of the miles and miles of tunnels left by the quarries which provided the stone to build the city above.) In a large "gallery" beneath the city was a movie projector with electricity to run it, a bar, a reception desk with closed circuit cameras, even a motion sensor that set off the sound of dogs barking when someone passed it, no doubt to frighten away intruders.

Reuters had an interesting story earlier this month, mentioning the cinema and adding further details about the "cataphiles," the explorers and, in some cases at least, cinephiles who roam the catacombs:

Deep beneath the streets of Paris, police are playing a game of cat and mouse with a band of explorers who have turned the city's underground tunnels and chambers into their personal playground.

The so-called cataphiles, equipped with waders, torches and rucksacks, drop in through manholes to explore disused medieval quarries and catacombs, spray graffiti and throw parties.

"You can just as easily come across the chairman of a big French company as a scruffy punk," said Alex, a 24-year-old history student who has been sneaking in for three years.

In the pitch-black corridors 20 metres (65 feet) below ground, everyone goes by a pseudonym. Cataphiles with names like Bad Trip, Silence and Nexus leave fliers printed with drawings and poems tucked into crevices in the centuries-old stones.

"It's part of the idea, not knowing what people do in real life. It's like living a double life," Alex explained.

In the Reuters story, we are presented with something of a history -- if one can believe it -- of cataphile/police relations, beginning with the no nonsense approach favored by Captain Luc Rougerie, who oversees the force that tries to police the underground:

Specially trained officers conduct regular patrols and systematically issue a court summons to anyone they catch. Offenders risk fines ranging from 60 to 150 euros (41 to 103 pounds).

This rigid application of the law has left some nostalgic for the days of his predecessor Jean-Claude Saratte, who tolerated experienced cataphiles and shared their passion. They in turn would tip him off if they saw anything unusual.

"He was surrounded by a parallel police of informers," said Alain Clement, co-editor of the "Atlas of Underground Paris".

Clement's book, at least, seems to exist; one of the oddities of the earlier Guardian story I linked on the subject was that the catacomb expert it cited, Patrick Alk, a photographer and allegedly an author of a work on the cataphiles, does not seem to turn up much either in Google or Amazon. (Whoops -- looks like the Guardian just got the name wrong. So much for a planned digression into books that exist only as bibliographic references.)

As to the cataphiles serving a useful role as informants, this passage caught my attention (and is actually something I thought of when I posted the first item on this subject, but decided to ignore -- one shouldn't let all the fun be sucked out of everything):

Clement would like to see the rest of the quarries sealed for good, but he thinks authorities are reluctant to close the network due to fears that terrorists could strike in Europe.

"If the quarries were completely shut, there would be no way to control them. The cataphiles, in fact, are like a clandestine control network," Clement noted.

Police officials acknowledge that regular patrols are essential to prevent a potential attack, but deny that they secretly welcome the presence of cataphiles.

I don't know why, but I find the idea of a clandestine network of people who themselves are breaking the law, who simultaneously prevent far worse criminals from gaining a foothold or launching an attack in their underground realm rather appealing.

Posted by Ideofact at October 28, 2004 11:18 PM

I don't know why, but the idea of a clandestine network of people who themselves are breaking the law, who simultaneously prevent far worse criminals from gaining a foothold or launching an attack in their underground realm.

The idea does what?

Posted by: steve h at October 31, 2004 09:03 PM

Sorry about that -- I fixed it. I find the idea rather appealing.

Posted by: Bill at November 1, 2004 12:05 AM