Sunday 22 May 2022

Do you know what God's greatest gift to mankind is?

A question posed to me by a man I gave money to on the Avenue de Belleville yesterday. He had leaned forward from his perch on a bench where he was surrounded by his worldly possessions of a few carrier bags, hands raised, open faced. I had replied, somewhat unnerved, expecting an impromptu sermon on that airless late morning.

". . . Probably not."

"It is the smile."

He had beamed, demonstrating his own particular wide, toothy smile. 

"Bien sur," I had replied, fluttering something in response to his hand on heart gesture. The phrase stuck in my mind the rest of the day and still seems to be there this morning, my face muscles being given a gentle prod away from their tendency to sag into a downward trajectory if left to gravity's influence. 

Not one usually for tourist information I had noted somewhere that looked like a slice of Hackney on a site of 'insolite' (quirky, unusual) Paris places and we had taken a long amble from our hotel to Pere Lachaise cemetery including the proposed graffiti embellished street. The said road was actually quite short and not as stuffed with artists and alternative eateries/second hand clothes emporiums, etc, as I had imagined but the whole area was fascinating especially the enormous food market that extends nearly the whole length of the main avenue. As we arrived the vendors were starting to pack up from their early start,  reloading the line of graffiti-covered delivery lorries. I stood for a while watching the chaos as people scrambled to get the useable goods stashed and the mountains of debris cleared away, and could only vaguely imagine the amount of food that comes into the city everyday, displayed in markets and shops, eaten at home or on foot, and cooked in the hundreds of Parisian restaurants. 

In comparison to Belleville's colourful mayhem, Pere Lachaise cemetery is peaceful and almost silent, its alleyways between the tombs shaded by trees, the light tinted green, almost as if being in a forest glade. We sought out Chopin's grave and Mark stood a while in respectful silence while I mused on the appearance of the less tended tombs with their rusted doors and remnants of plant offerings. At the summit of the hill, clipped lawns invite lounging but it is not permitted. A series of benches however offer a resting point, surprisingly high-up view over the city and observation of the resident crow population.

Paris is renowned for its brisk and haughty restaurant staff but during the two days we only encountered one café owner whose indifference to his clientele was spectacular - huffing when I requested a black tea after he had slung a mint tea sachet onto the table to accompany the teapot of tepid water and snatching the ten euro bill from Mark's hand without so much as a merci, Monsieur. All other eateries we experienced seemed to be run by and worked in by friendly and efficient people. 
Michelin or similar was never going to be on our menu but we did have a few good brasserie experiences, notably a bistro on Belleville avenue which offered a hearty menu for 15 euros. I don't buy anything much on a city trip, preferring to spend money on sitting about in cafés and observing the locals, or tourists in the more guidebook quartiers. Arriving from a hamlet in the middle of farmland, the sensory overload of a huge city is overwhelming, nowhere more than around the Louvre where the crowds throng, selfie sticks in hand, following flag-holding guides or posing in front of the glass pyramid in carefully chosen clothing. There is no café there for crowd-observing but we sat on the steps dazed from sound, colour and movement.  

My purchase of the trip was a small silk scarve in a frip shop (second hand clothing), if the budget had been somewhat more elastic I could have bought a resin, two foot high, leopard skin-painted Micky Mouse statue which graced a podium in Samaratime, a department store which makes Gallery Lafayette seem tawdry in comparison. The small golden price tag next to the mouse stated, 3,600 euros. We gawped. For about five minutes. All my stored up, what is the world coming to sauntered forth, more so as I noted other similarly useless objects: Mickey's partner mouse for another 3,600; why not have the pair? a crystal pot with golden teddy bear head lid for a cool 1,000; champagne approved by Lady Gaga for 650 a bottle; a diamond encrusted stuffed anteater attired in pink flares - I jest, but there could have been one, possibly was if we had looked around a little longer but fifteen minutes was ample.

3600 euros

or, 7,50 euros (each!) on Belleville Avenue

Lifelong London obsessive, I found, sadly, on my last visit that a lot of strange and quirky little streets and shops seemed to have been transformed into dull places of chain shops/coffee hangouts. Paris appears to have retained more individuality, maybe due to less overseas property investment . . . I'm in no way any sort of economist but eleven years or whatever it is, centuries perhaps? (feels like it), of Tory so-called government haven't helped the cultural landscape of London. 
The choice of non-chain cafés in Paris is boggling, most of them complete with their white-aproned waiters, little round metal tables and the ubiquitous rattan or faux-rattan chairs. We chose one after a long, hot walk around one of the Eastern arrondissements, and I allowed myself an evil Coke. This happens probably twice or three times a year. It has to be in an interesting eatery with a good sketch-able view and the bottle has to be very cold. That first gulp . . . worth waiting for.

                                           first cold coke and lemon of the year after a long walk

Certainly not a chain shop. No window display, no indication of what was being made or repaired but the owner or assistant was intently busy making or repairing something

a fine Parisian mural

...and a fine mur vegetal created by Patrick Blanc in 2013. Growing strong and housing many birds and insects Second arrondissement

Just as the buildings and streets of Paris are photogenic, so are its inhabitants. My small camera is currently broken I made do with the phone but somehow asking people if I can take their picture on my phone seems weirder than with a camera so I took a few surreptitious snaps instead. Next time I will be properly equipped as there were so many opportunities missed

                                Unbelievably cool taxi driver with coffee cup balanced on his BMW
The last afternoon concluded with cake and tea in the sort of salon du thé in which I felt I should apologise for my pavement-worn shoes (and self) but it was worth it for the strawberry millefeuille and tea served in  wonderfully heavy old silver hotel ware; and the evening, a coup - getting into the opera to see Strauss's Elektra on a 15 euro ticket which was transformed into a 150 euro place in the parterre by a benevolent usher.

Good morning, Paris

from our very salubrious 6th floor hotel room (luckily with lift)

And good evening


Thursday 12 May 2022

Another life

Strange, sitting in bed with the window open on a far-too-hot-for-May morning with a zillion birds tweeting, to recall a certain day way back in mid 80s London. I'm including these few paragraphs from an early novel, Going out in the Midday Sun, in my latest book as an illustration of the decade's excess when it came to food advertising budgets (and probably everything else); I imagine they are now somewhat less extravagant, or maybe not . . . 

I'm meandering into non-fiction territory with the new book, at the moment entitled, Celebrating the Inconsequential inspired partly by a very long walk which I described a few posts back. We'll see where it goes. So far I'm enjoying a new literary departure very much, when I get a chance to write in between trying to keep our garden/bird and insect sanctuary alive in this alarming heat.

On a Monday in 1986, a stylist is late for an office furniture shoot.


    Randy Fisher's photographic studio sat in a Kings Cross backstreet. The client and slimy Marvin, the art director, were due there at 9am. It was 9am.

    Holly had the knowledge as well as any cabbie, but all the snarl-ups were well in place plus a few extras, including a lorry unloading toilets into a new loft complex in Leonard Street. The driver, attired in baggy shell suit, a fag drooping from his lips, wore an unhurried air as people leaned from their car windows yelling and gesticulating; the air was thick with honking and swearing. 

    Holly found her notebook and added a phrase to her anti-styling song, humming another slice of the tune. Calm: there was no point getting worked up. If she did, she would be lying in the back of the car under a blanket with a firework-display migraine by the end of the afternoon.

    She arrived at the studio at 9.15 and climbed the iron staircase, nerves jangling. Randy's new assistant Marcus opened the door and mouthed: "Watch out, Marvin's already had three coffees." Randy was up a ladder fiddling with the large-format camera, the height revealing cowboy boots under too-tight white jeans The Eagles were on the sound system and the client was leafing through a book of models.

    Marvin kissed Holly lecherously and lightly groped her backside. Coffee breath and stale cigarette smoke enveloped her: Marvin, the huge beaky bird of prey, shaking from his diet of fags and intravenous black coffee with five sugars drip. 

    "Hi darling, you're late . . . we'll have to spank you."

    "Yes, sorry. Traffic." But he was already gone, sucking up to the client.

    "Holly our Stylist — Roger Hillway from Streamline products."



    "Did you find everything Holly?" said Marvin, looking even more beaky than usual. 

    "Yes – selection of smart office wear dresses, new Mac computer, phone, and . . . the donkey head." 

    "Good, good," said Marvin, rubbing his hands. "Well, we've chosen the model." A round of snorting laughter emanated from the three men. "She'll be here at 10.30, should be done by 12.00. While we're waiting for the lab to process the film, we thought we might all go out for lunch."

    Charlene arrived, blonde and busty. The outfit was chosen, the props arranged, lights placed. No need for makeup as Charlene was to wear the donkey head. 

    "But you could have just used me," Holly was about to say, but realised Charlene and her breasts were the reason for lunch.

    The courier came for the film, they all got in a taxi and were at the door of 'School Dinners' by 1pm.

    Holly groaned internally at the sight of the restaurant. She had gone there once before with a crowd of advertising executives and had hoped never to return. They were shown downstairs into the cavernous space and presented with menus by a gazelle-like young woman dressed in blazer, stockings, suspenders and painfully high stilettos. The client and Marvin perused the wine list, occasionally stopping to mentally undress Charlene, while Randy flashed his new mobile phone: "Yeah, sure I can fit that in this week, what's the budget? Not bad . . . on the way to getting the Porsche, eh! See you on Thursday then — ciao." 

    Holly glanced around the room at the tables of overfed businessmen on expense accounts and wondered how the world had got into such a state. She requested the day's special after a brief glance at the menu and excused herself to have a few quiet moments in the loo away from Marvin, who had started to rub a foot up and down her leg. 

 The loo was already occupied with women checking their makeup. Holly made do with a perfunctory glance at herself in the reflective steel hand dryer: short blonde hair, disarrayed from the rushed start to the day, winter pale skin. 

    The large brown eyes stared back while her mind wandered: What are you doing here? Why did you spend four years doing an art degree then to work in this superficial world? —must phone mum — wonder what Sam is doing now . . . do I miss him? No, but . . . Her thoughts were interrupted by a blast of Robert Palmer singing 'Addicted To Love' as the door opened and two more women swayed in to the crowded room, one of them bumping into Holly. "Oops sorry . . . d'you think he's going to ask me out then?"

    "Why wait — grab him! I would . . . if I wasn't already attached — here try this, it's new by Givenchy, Organza."

    "Oooh, that's just what I need, an Organza . . ." 

    Holly left and weaved her way back around the crowded tables. "Oh, there you are — we were beginning to wonder what you were doing in there," grinned Marvin, nudging the client.    

    "Champagne all round," Randy announced to a waitress in a gymslip. 

    "Would you like a caning with it?" She produced a long thin cane and whipped it across her stocking encased thigh, thwack! Today's special is sausage and dumplings," she added, pouting, lips glossy red.

    "Waahay!" shouted Marvin. "Yeah, bring it on!"

    From a long way off, Holly saw herself sitting on the cliff edge near Durdle Door in Dorset — a warm breeze, nodding pink scabious, the cry of wheeling gulls. She had to get off this hamster wheel: wake, rush, buy crap for stupid ads, sit in traffic, home, sofa, crash, eat, sleep.

    Randy’s elbow nudged her. "Top up? How's the sausage . . . phwoooaah!"

    At last the bill came: three hundred and fifty quid, to be hidden in the final invoice. 

    Taxi back, film back, no re-shoot. Holly packed the props, slipped out from the studio and found a car-shaped space where the car had been.



Tuesday 3 May 2022

A bird can make a day

In my case they always do. However complex the day or low the mood the sighting of birds, or even just one lifts my spirits. I'm not a bird spotter, more a bird admirer; someone who is constantly fascinated that birds exist all around us, a free and marvellous show of movement, colour and incredible sound. 

Birds of the past week: a flotilla of tiny ducklings, legs paddling frantically as they attempted to keep up with the mother duck on the little river near our house.

The yearly visitation of the exotic Hoopoes, hopping across the lawn, beaks stabbing at worms to then take off with their wonderful floppy striped wings and land again in the silver birches, their odd calls echoing around the garden: hoopoepoepoe.

A pair of Lapwings circling and dancing above a newly planted cornfield, their strange electronic sounding peeps and whistles startling in the early morning silence. 

Cuckoos: absent last year, or at least I never heard one. This year we have about six within the different copses of trees surrounding our house, the cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo a sort of call and response opera embellished by the chattering sparrow commune of our laurel hedge.

The Golden Oriole. What a song - strange and beautiful liquidy sound. However much I have peered upwards into the tree tops I've never actually seen the bird, surprising as it is bright yellow - not really golden, but perhaps Yellow Oriole wouldn't sound so poetic. 

King of singers: the Nightingale. Our birder friend Johnathan would probably snarl slightly at my mentioning of these songsters as he considers their singing so robust that it drowns out all other birds but who could not be entranced by the the complex and magical sounds this little brown bird can produce.

As fate would have it, I started writing this blog yesterday to then receive a B and B booking from two ardent bird spotters drawn to our site which mentions that we are part of the LPO (like RSPB). Our guests set out this morning with binoculars and were immediately in rapture after sighting, apparently a very rare bird in the garden which has yellow eyebrows - or maybe I misheard. Anyway, binoculars must be obtained, and birdlife more seriously catalogued.