Paris … Another 48 Hours

Paris … Another 48 Hours

2019

23 March, Saturday

Tired on the road to Cork even though JP was driving. The flight was a bit short for sleeping. Just and hour and a quarter. We checked into our rooms at the Verlain and went straight to St. Germain. The Bar du Marché was too busy but it was only when we sat down at Café Buci that I remembered I’d been there before. Sick in late December 2013. The tough boeuf and the sweet waitress. This time we had a couple of bottles of beer, a couple of large kirs (my vote) and a cold platter that was much more than just meat and cheese (that was JP’s vote).

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I felt immediately relaxed and refreshed, though by the time we got to the Piano Vache, via the Sorbonne and the Place du Panthéon, where the setting sun lit up the stone, I was feeling the mixture of a couple of strong drinks with the underlying fatigue. It had been a busy week.

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Anyway, the beer fridge in the Piano Vache was suspiciously poorly stocked and the chap behind the counter was really only interested in rolling dice on the counter. We still managed with what was available and P. caught up with us before dark. Different flight.

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Dinner (for me) was a pizza at an Italian restaurant JP knew, around the corner. There I quietly realized how much Italian I’d forgotten. The white tablecloth reminded me of a sinking feeling of anxiety typical at weddings but I held it together.

When we left that place, JP called an Uber and a large, pretty girl with ripped jeans and lovely North African eyes took us over to the Cork & Cavan by the Canal St. Martin. 

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There, as if by magic, I managed to locate a copy of The Cynic’s Handbook on the bookshelves.Running my fingers along the nearest volumes, I found it by touch alone. Told JP to keep it, especially as it had the pub stamp and all. Next time I’ll bring a few more copies over. We left before closing time, after all three of us ran out of steam.

 

24 March, Sunday

Up before noon in a better state than I’d feared at five in the morning. We went to Montparnasse and had lunch at Le Select. You can never go wrong there with the cheese burger and the crispy chips (fries). Lunch needed to be simple and tasty.

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Then we marched to the station to get the 14.09 to Chartres. The Paris suburbs were misty grey. The cathedral is a class apart and I’ve seen a few.

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On 16 August 1944 the Americans believed the Germans were using the cathedral as an observation post. It was about to be shelled to bits when Col. Welborn Barton Griffith, accompanied by a single enlisted man, entered the German-occupied town. They got to the cathedral and climbed to the top of the bell tower. Finding no Germans inside, the colonel returned to his own lines and prevented the shelling. Later that day he was killed two miles north of the town.

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After a couple of drinks in Le Serpente, P. and I went in. JP was in it twice before. He wandered off. When we found him again, he and I had fortifying Irish coffees in a café where a glass exploded behind the counter. On the train back I had a nap and then a job to explain all the Brexit threats to a fellow passenger, a woman sitting on a facing seat. Both she and P. had been frustrated by the locked toilets on the train. C’est difficile à expliquer, même en anglais. But she got the picture.

JP suggested we go to the Galway by the St. Michel metro, within sight of Notre Dame. He knew it from his nephew, who’d eventually got barred.  The easygoing girls behind the counter were from Toronto and Sheffield. One or two oddballs drank there, including a black American who spoke like an actor and kept calling the Canadian girl “Honey biscuit” to JP’s disdain. He wore a cloth cap, a black leather jacket and fingerless black gloves. P. stayed until midnight or so and JP and I left at closing time (2 AM).

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Chartres

Chartres

On 16 August 1944 the Americans believed the Germans were using the cathedral as an observation post. It was thus about to be shelled to bits when Col. Welborn Barton Griffith, accompanied by a single enlisted man (his driver), entered the German-occupied town. They got to the cathedral and climbed to the top of the bell tower. Finding no Germans inside, the colonel returned to his own lines and prevented the shelling. Later that day he was killed two miles north of the town.

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot was the literary face of French television for thirty years, chiefly on the long-running shows Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. On p. 38 of his lexical memoir, Les Mots de ma vie (2011) there is a quote describing the author (“un concentré de Français”) that suggests his book will reflect both sides of the French coin – bittersweet romance and meaningless abstraction – but coins have three dimensions and here there are also many passages of wit and comedy.

Pivot seems to have been especially amused by Vladimir Nabokov. Marguerite Duras turns up a couple of times too, such as when he didn’t want to encourage her after she rang him at two in the morning to read some newly written text over the phone, but the account of Nabokov’s studio demands is perhaps the funniest.

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That Nabokov’s teapot contained whiskey was well known but on Apostrophes the great man didn’t want to present the French public with the spectacle of a man drinking on live television. Therefore a verbal formula was devised to enable him to tipple away discreetly on set. Encore un peu de thé, monsieur Nabokov?

The novelist also insisted, on the basis of some prostate trouble, that an emergency urinoir be installed behind the studio decor but this demand was quietly ignored and of course Nabokov forgot all about it. He kept talking long after the final credits and then used the regular toilets like everyone else.

Such a happy ending did not ensue the last time someone was allowed smoke on Bouillon de culture. An unfortunately placed camera made it look like a female guest – Jacqueline de Romilly, already nearly blind – was engulfed by the cigarette smoke of Philippe Sollers. This led to the switchboard being inundated by protest calls and a snowstorm of letters accused Pivot of complicity in such boorishness and barbarity.

Invited by RAI to watch an episode of an Italian programme he was told was inspired by his own, he emerged horrified after an hour of shouting – fuelled by a noisy presenter – in which the guests brandished books like the Red Guards waved the thoughts of Chairman Mao. Though he never learned English properly, Pivot also mentions he was reliably informed that English political and literary talk shows, in contrast, were just boring. A wild guess.

He claims that foreign writers, especially Americans, were surprised to be able to talk about their books on French TV with a host who had actually read them. This happened without being interrupted by ads or having a minister, a stripper or a golf champion on as fellow guests. Pivot then likens the differences in talk shows to different national styles of playing soccer. His love of le foot is a recurrent theme that helps put a more regular face on the writer.

In other passages he is an anorak, not least about food. Only a Frenchman could be an anorak about food, though his exploration of its impact on French slang and idiom is instructive. There is also a pair of funny food stories, as in the time Pivot, as a young journalist sent to report on a theatre, was nabbed trafficking spuds into Belgium.

On his way to Brussels he stopped off to see his wife’s family in the Pas-de-Calais, where a thirty-kilo sack of potatoes was placed in his car boot by his father-in-law. A Belgian customs officer demanded that he open the same boot, whereupon a bunch of them converged to accuse him of smuggling potatoes. They asked if he didn’t know Belgium was already a great producer and consumer of chips / fries and if the sack was a present for the director of the theatre he was about to visit. In the end he had to turn the car around and give the potatoes back to his beau-père.

In the entry on freeloaders and gatecrashers, Pivot distinguishes between those who come just for the show and those literary ones who come to eat and drink, wolfing glasses of wine and sandwiches in the morning and champagne and petits-fours in the afternoon. Always located very near the table or the bar and sometimes shoved aside by impatient publishers, without ever protesting they give way just enough to regain their strategic position with minimum delay.

Not all Pivot’s comedy is intentional, though, as in the classic line, Certains couples lisent au lit, puis mettent un marque-page, referment le livre, éteignent et font l’amour (‘Certain couples read in bed, then place a bookmark, close the book, switch off the light and make love’). Only a Frenchman could solemnly sketch that scene that in the English-speaking world would always be played for laughs.

Pivot retired as a regular TV host in 2005. The day after the maiden broadcast of his first programme, Ouvrez les guillemets, back in the early Seventies, the channel boss Jacqueline Baudrier phoned him to tell him the show had not been good but that was normal, as it was his first time out.

Ne remettez cette veste : vous aviez l’air d’un garçon de café. Je suis sûre d’une chose : vous êtes fait pour la télévision.

(‘Don’t wear that jacket again, you looked like a waiter. I’m sure of one thing. You were made for television.’)

BIO DURAS-TELEVISION SHOW-PIVOT-APOSTROPHES

France on a field trip

France on a field trip

1984

March

On the night of their arrival in Paris, Quirke closed the door that led onto the dark balcony. Other boys were grabbing beds in the large room. The evening in the fourteenth was calm and quiet, with a spring chill. He gazed at the city lights and inhaled the foreign air. He listened to distant traffic. Hands on the railing, he peered down on an empty, inviting back street before looking around again. Nearby rose the beautiful bourgeois apartment blocks that surround Place Denfert-Rochereau. Beyond them lay Montparnasse and the neon of its cinemas.

As Quirke, CP and several of the girls on the trip walked down the boulevard there, two chancers appeared out of nowhere and spoke to a couple of the girls in perfect English. The casual, assured manner in which they did this took Quirke aback at first. Did they look like they were just off the boat? The girls were embarrassed and kept walking. CP was looking in windows. He hadn’t noticed. The women turned their heads away but persistence dragged some kind of answer, eventually. The pair took this as a sign of success and veered to the door of a bar but, on looking back, looked surprised to see everyone still walking. One of them held the door open a moment. Then they gave up and disappeared in the crowd.

Tina was the eldest, a mature student, but she was the one charged eight quid after foolishly ordering a gin and tonic in a bar. The rest of them settled for glasses of beer. An Arab band did a sound check. They had a dangerous-looking girl singer who stood near the door, signalling to the musicians. As the place filled up she went up to sing. They covered Baby Jane and her English wasn’t great. Some of the lines were gibberish.

The waiter who served their table seemed under pressure. A group of young Parisians sat in the corner, buying nothing, and he started to hassle them. One of them was almost too good-looking. She had a pair of expensive horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. She kept taking them off and putting them on again. She was only semi-vain.

The girls had duty-free bottles of spirits in their room back at the hostel but a mixer was in very short supply so they all stopped off at the hostel’s reception desk. Quirke was told to ask for Coke in French but the corporal on night duty wanted to know why. Tina mentioned “mixer” behind Quirke and he grasped that too but threw a little fit. No alcohol is allowed here. I will confiscate the bottle!

They said no more but withdrew to the room. The orange-walled corridors were very hot because the heating had been turned up to eleven. Tina opened a bottle of Bacardi and poured out six large measures. Whatever Coke they had left, the women got it. The boys drank the rum straight. Quirke was still a little wary of them, especially of dark-haired Ciara. He was sitting on the end of an empty bed and she reclined on an elbow on the one across from him. She looked a bit intense. She leaned her head on one shoulder but he relaxed a bit when she offered him a cigarette.

The spirits of the night were hurting in the morning. Breakfast was missed and it took the cleaners to rouse the boys. The group got on the bus again and the tour began. Down by the river cruise dock, a group of schoolgirls that had already come over to Quirke on the ferry happened to turn up at the same time. They started to wave and shout. “You’re big in France,” observed CP.

The cold breeze on the Seine made Quirke feel a bit better but he and CP sat huddled in their coats while a lot of the other field trippers leapt around, clicking their cameras, craning their necks and laughing like idiotic children. Spindly white human figures had been painted on some of the riverbank walls so he looked at them and at some pretty Italian girls who were also on the boat.

On the dust and dirt under the trees on the Champs Elysées, Tina asked Quirke the French for ‘Where is…’ so he told her and she went up to a cop. “Où est McDonalds?” The policeman shrugged. Quirke didn’t know about le McDo, which might have helped. He wasn’t in honours French, or any French, anymore. Quirke and CP got frankfurters from a stall instead. Quirke took one bite from the sausage, swallowed it, then threw the rest away and ate the bread roll.

In the afternoon he and CP slipped into the Jeu de Paume, almost by default, having grown bored sitting outside. The Impressionists were housed there in 1984 and they made for them because they hadn’t much time and those paintings were the most familiar. The number seemed endless as they walked up and down the varnished floor. The pictures that stood out most for them on that floor were Van Gogh’s Eglise à Auvers, five of Monet’s goes at the cathedral at Rouen, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Le Lit. “I like them too but we’d better go,” warned CP. Quirke made him wait a little longer, already thinking he should treasure this. It was an unexpected, accidental element to a drinking holiday.

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That evening the coach took them to Brittany, to a hotel outside Dinan. At dinner they got some long white blobs as the main course. Quirke asked a waitress what it was but he didn’t know the word she used. CP guessed it was octopus. It didn’t matter, there was bread and other bits and pieces and the hotel had a bar.

Nick Rhodes has reflected on the (real) video for Girls on Film by saying that if they had the chance again they would ease off on the porn. A strange French couple arrived that night with a tape the guy was anxious to put into the recorder under the lounge TV. The more sociable members of the Irish group already lounged there with their drinks. They watched him kneel and get it going. Among the dodgy cartoons and clips, the tape contained the chef d’oeuvre version of Girls on Film. Had the following phrase existed at the time it would have summed up the context-driven review. This is the sh*t.

In the morning, outlines of farm buildings could be made out less than a stone’s throw behind the hotel and a tractor engine was running in the cold fog. The bus was waiting. A quick purchase of jus d’orange for two in the bar was accomplished while CP took some left-over bread rolls from the dining room. Then they were away.

The professor had decided to split the party into small groups and one was dropped off in each town and village. Tina, Jess and Quirke were left in a village called Pleugueneuc. They had lunch in its one restaurant. Then the women didn’t want to do anything. They walked around the quiet village for a while before the girls told Quirke they were going to stay in the only bar, which was also the restaurant. He wasn’t really keen on bothering people either but he wanted to have something to relate at the seminar that evening.

There was a funeral in the afternoon. The church bell rang in the middle of the village and sombre people appeared silently out of doorways and side streets. He wandered off and came back to the church when the service was over. Groups of men were still standing in the churchyard. Quirke had sheets of paper with lists of products and animals in French and he approached one group to explain what he was doing there. One gruff old boy spotted donkeys on the list and jerked his thumbs at his chest. Des ânes? C’est nous.

Back in the bar, it was crowded with mourners, a lot of whom had red, peasant faces. The girls were sitting next to the mayor; a powerfully built, white-haired man in his sixties. The mayor asked Quirke the girls’ names. It turned out he was an ex-marine commando. His polite, relaxed, half-interested manner was a bit different from that of three Irish army thugs on the ferry, where the down-to-earth Jess, with the boyish hair, had wisely advised the boys not to wind them up. They’re on about communism. Just stay quiet. They’ll kill you.

When the bus came back, Ciara was lying on the back seat, in shock, having been attacked by an alsatian on a farm. The left-hand side of her face was cut and the earring had been torn from the lobe. She had bent down to pet the dog. The wife of the farmer sat her down in her kitchen and put some iodine on the cuts. To her it was an unfortunate nuisance. Quirke asked CP how his group had got on. Where they had been, le maire had received them in his nightshirt.

Back at the hotel Ciara was put to bed and a doctor was called. He tidied up her face and gave her a sedative for the night. She was given the next day off. At the seminar that evening Quirke watched a shy young man get so tongue-tied when delivering his report that he could not form whole words. It was uncomfortable but bizarrely fascinating. He seemed to be almost choking. This happened just as the rest were yawning and watching the time. Some were desperate to get to the bar.

A number of Iraqi pilots were also staying at the hotel. They were training at a nearby airbase. They carried bottles of whiskey around with them at night and liked to talk and share their drink. Every night their girls from the town and those Irish who stayed up into the early hours formed a strange kind of party set with them.

The bus meandered along the north coast the following day. It went through Dinard, which had been a haven for rich Brits in the nineteenth century. Their villas and mock chateaux remained on the heights above the town and the bay. When they reached St. Malo they walked around the damp, narrow streets of the walled old town.

In the afternoon they went to Mont St. Michel. The bus stopped on the causeway so those with cameras could get a vantage point. Some descended the bank to get a better picture. Quirke and CP went down too, to stretch their legs. A girl tried to squat at the mud’s edge to take a picture but she fell in. It was like a signal. The boys started to wrestle. CP was always a bit too beefy and awkward and, in trying to knock him in, snapped the remaining good arm of Quirke’s glasses. After calling him a f*cking this and a f*cking that, Quirke got some selloptape in one of the trinket shops up at the Mont.

FRANCE-HERITAGE-TOURISM

The trip’s chief interpreter, a postgrad, had a breakdown that night. Quirke had been talking to her at a dining table after the evening meal and when he stood up to leave she looked as if she was going to burst into tears. She’d been complaining about the lack of understanding the department had of the difficulties. They expected her to function like a computer and didn’t seem to grasp the bus driver was just a driver, he wasn’t an expert on the geography of Brittany.

Seven of the Iraqis left the next morning and their luggage was piled on the patio outside the front door. They were saying goodbye to the rest and all the faces were glum. The Irish were waiting for their bus at the time, in order to go to Rennes. No one needed an interpreter to get dropped off in the middle of Rennes. CP and Ciara had asked to be put with Tina, Jess and Quirke for the day. Their appointed task was to get some information on the regional bus services but the station corporal was a little bastard who ignored their existence, apart from throwing a few timetable sheets across the counter at Quirke. The girls took care of carrier bags of wine bottles, while CP had an idea and tried to copy a route map from a wall. Old women looked on sternly whenever bottles clinked or fell over, while some gorgeous little tarts hung around the photo booths.

Across the street in a craft shop, Quirke bought a black metal bracelet for Sharon, his first college girlfriend, his first any girlfriend. Another girl had bought the same bracelet for herself. On the bus back to Dinan, Tina turned and asked him if he’d bought Sharon a present.
“I just got her a bracelet, that’s all.”
It was wrapped in turquoise paper and he handed it over for inspection.
“Oh that’s really nice. It’s lovely.”
She handed it back and he smiled. The other buyer then turned and said,
“Yeah, I got one too.”
Half an hour later the latter called across to him.
“Hey Quirke, the black stuff is coming off mine.”

She had been scraping it with her fingernail. Quirke had a go at that too. She was right, it looked nice but it was shit. It was their last night at the hotel and CP’s map received great praise from the department. The Iraqis were walking around with whiskey again. Quirke had got to know one in particular. M. was a big, beaming young man with a broad moustache. They spoke a mixture of French and English. At home, long before, he’d been been taught English by an Irishman, a “Mister Ma-gow-an” who’d cried on his last day as he said goodbye to the class. M. also explained that they knew their women were in it for the money and the good time. Nonetheless the lads were far from home and had the money, so it didn’t matter. When Quirke eventually asked him about the war, in connection with the boys who had just left, he expressed natural regret but added that Saddam Hussein was a man who made no distinction between rich and poor, which was good enough reason for him to fight.

SADDAM AMERICAS VILLAIN

The interpreter had recovered enough to walk around in a bathrobe and she came up with the idea of a makeshift disco in the dining room. The tables were cleared away and the Iraqis had a pile of disco records which they were ready to put on once they had rigged up some kind of sound system. The professor wanted to keep the local women out of it, muttering something about impressionable girls being under his care. He went over towards the Iraqis and said, “Just keep your prostitutes out”, at which point Tina, Jess and Ciara were horrified, even though the Iraqis hadn’t understood his accent. They urged him to go over to Quirke and CP at the bar counter and ask them for a second opinion.

The two boys, both nineteen, explained to their professor that it would be taken as an awful insult. M. wanted to know if there was a problem but Quirke told him it would be OK. Don’t mind him. Il est fou. To prove it, he went over to the part of the bar where the French women had gathered defensively. Mesdames, vous êtes très, très bienvenues à entrer. After this enchanté moment that avoided a diplomatic incident, CP and Quirke were rewarded with extra whiskey from department funds.

On the way back to the boat at Le Havre they stopped in Bayeux, where Quirke skipped the tapestry to get a café ham sandwich from a kind old lady with an aggressive little dog. He told her it was their last day and she asked was he the bus driver. Vous êtes chauffeur? Non, étudiant.

In Le Havre they went into a hole of a truckers place before catching the ferry. The last things Quirke saw were the cliffs of chalk and the obelisk and the guiding lights of the harbour before the fog came in. None of them relished the boat journey. There was a storm at sea. The ship was heaving. In their cabins they tried to sleep but the storm and the sound of the engines acted in unison and, as the vessel rose and fell, Quirke twisted and turned and finally lay miserably still.

In the morning he felt a bit better, walking around the decks. The storm had gone. To him at least, it was regrettable to overhear English spoken again. His group decided against the greasy cafeteria with its hundreds of burgers heaped against greasy glass and instead went into the proper restaurant. The waiter recommended the beef so CP and Quirke took his word for it but it was raw. The women had more sense.

The Stamp

The Stamp

Photo (c) Paris Match

A parable of Irish unity, with apologies to Félicien Marceau…

After spending two years behind a bank counter in Drogheda, his home town, Victor had just been transferred to Belfast for further training at head office. This meant he could be initiated into the secrets and all the other ins and outs of high finance. To all appearances he was a serious lad with a future and perfectly capable of one day becoming at least an assistant manager.

We don’t need to dwell on describing his happiness. Although he was, as we have said, a serious worker, capable and appreciated by his superiors, and therefore a person of some standing at just twenty-three, he had until now lived with his parents and, in some way, lived in their shadow. It wasn’t that he’d suffered from this arrangement. Besides, he loved his parents. As we’ve said more than once, he was a serious boy.

The cinema every Saturday and a café bar every Sunday afternoon, these were enough for him, socially. For the rest of his free time he spent all his evenings between his father and mother. In summer, he’d be on the doorstep chatting with the neighbours or looking at the cars that were going down to Dublin. In winter, he’d either be reading or arranging his stamp collection that was supplemented with the help of his uncle who was a driver on a bus that regularly crossed the border.

But in the end, of course, freedom is another thing altogether. On leaving Drogheda, Victor was still only a lad, overwhelmed with advice, woolly socks and vests. On his arrival in Belfast, under the big roof of Central Station, he was no longer a boy. Something of the adventurous soul of his uncle had just awoken in him. Proudly, he took a taxi, the first such trip on his own in his life. This taxi was the wave goodbye to his childhood.

The same day he busied himself with finding a studio. The first place he viewed didn’t please him. The owner clearly had a big mouth. The second didn’t tickle his fancy either. At three in the afternoon the owner was still in her bathrobe and, from Victor’s point of view, she looked like she wasn’t into keeping the building clean. He chose the third place he saw because there he was met only with indifference. Victor had already figured out that the indifference of others is linked to freedom.

His stuff put away, he went out, impatient to inspect the charms of Belfast. After a blip when he took the wrong bus that thankfully didn’t take him to any parts where his southern accent wouldn’t have been appreciated, he strolled along wide avenues, well built but otherwise undistinguished, and ate two sandwiches in a neutral city centre bar before returning to his new place.

His room was immersed in the night, in the silence. For a minute he missed the peaceful chit-chat of his mother and the outbursts of his father, a religious man who couldn’t read a newspaper without getting angry. This homesick feeling only lasted a moment, though. Lying on his narrow bed, he felt himself still lifted by the hubbub that had welcomed him when he left Central Station.

Eight days later, as soon as he had got to know his way around, he was in love. It’s a constant: free a man and he thinks of love. Until now, Victor had always shown himself shy around young women but the fluttering wings of freedom tend to lessen one’s timidity. At the bank he often joked with some of the female staff. They liked his southern accent and remarked on it. One of them told him she was going to a nightclub with some friends on Saturday.

There he made the acquaintance of a girl called Iris, a cousin of the fiancé of the lady who’d invited him along. Iris had dark hair and big dark eyes and her long lashes fluttered when she spoke in what he soon recognized as her sharp, assured manner. She spoke a lot but during their first dance, Victor complimented her eyes. Next it was her dress. By the third dance they were practically in love. She told him she didn’t drink but was learning the tango. In general, serious boys are made for the tango.

He suggested a visit to the cinema. “It’s an idea,” replied Iris, deliberately. Wednesday was fixed. Iris wore a lovely sandy coat with a wide belt; the film was funny; and she laughed. It relaxed the normal composure of her face. The next cinema visit took place on a Tuesday. Love is impatient.

Soon he was invited to meet her parents, out in Holywood. She said she’d told them about him and they wanted to meet him. He had almost a week to think about this visit. He loved Iris. They would get married. They would live happily ever after.

Both her parents were dressed in black on the day. The mother spoke more than the father, who was an accountant. It was a rainy afternoon and rather than go out anywhere they looked at photo albums. Mother and daughter talked about shared memories. The men said nothing. It would have been difficult for either to get a word in. By the end of the meeting, Victor had been invited back for dinner the next week.

When they got engaged, Iris’s father expressed a desire to get to know Victor’s parents. To that end, he requested that Victor ask his own father to write him a letter. To Victor it was just a tad formal, if not odd, but in a spirit of conciliation he said he’d take care of it. He sent a text about it to his father, adding, “These people are from the North, please humour them” and his father’s reply gave an immediate assurance on the matter.

The next time he called round, though, he was met with parental long faces. Iris herself was not to be seen.

“Your father wrote,” said Iris’s father.
“I know.”
“A very nice letter,” he continued.
“He’s very happy.”
“Mmm. So how is it, young man, that it came without a stamp?”

He held out the envelope, for which he’d evidently had to pay the postage.

“Oh. It’s a miracle it got here at all. Here, I’ll give you the price of it.”

The elder man lifted his hand to indicate stop.

“I’m not rich but nonetheless I can cover the postage.”

Embarrassed, Victor said “Of course” and then tried to explain that he only wanted to make up for the nuisance. The other man lifted his hand once more.

“It’s not about that. It’s more serious. I know the people of the South. When they don’t want something and they don’t want to say it, they write that they’re in agreement but they don’t bother with a stamp.”
“No stamp?”
“No stamp,” the other repeated gravely. “The way they look at it, a letter with no stamp doesn’t mean anything.”

The mother here interjected a quiet sob. Victor woke up.

“But that’s absurd. I’m from the South and I’ve never heard of that habit.”
“That does you credit, young man, but the habit is dishonest. When people disagree, it’s better to say it openly, like we do in the North.”
“That’s what my father would have done,” retorted Victor.
“Then why didn’t he put a stamp on this?”
“He must have forgotten.”
“Forgotten? For a letter of such importance?”
“Or else the stamp fell off.”
“Young man, I’m fifty-three. There are two things I no longer believe in. Letters that get lost and stamps that fall off.”
“But suppose he did forget the stamp. His letter remains the same.”
“No, that changes everything. He doesn’t want to be involved. The people of the South are like that.”
“What if he writes you another letter? With a stamp, of course.”
“The message remains the same,” came the solemn reply.

Then the mother intervened. Allowing for her husband’s feelings, she still suggested that a new letter just might make for a new start. In this way she talked her husband into agreeing with a few silent nods. Then Iris made an appearance and she and Victor went out for a walk. When Iris observed that a stamp cost very little, Victor got angry and so they parted on rather bad terms. When he got home, though, Victor immediately got in touch with his father.

Unfortunately Victor’s father was one of those men who are happiest when life gives them an excuse to get up on a high horse and wrap themselves in their pride. He wanted to know what right people in the North had to suspect the integrity of people in the South. Moreover he was sure he hadn’t forgotten the stamp and thought it must have fallen off. Anyway, he had written once and he wouldn’t give his honest opinion twice. His dignity forbade it.

Victor began to be worried. He pleaded with his father to write again and, in the meantime, assured his prospective father-in-law that the new letter was on its way. The latter remained quietly sceptical, while Iris just became sarcastic about the price of a stamp and how busy Victor’s father had to be, given the delay with this second letter.

Victor was beginning to be turned off. He thought of writing to the letters page of the Irish Times to ask if anyone knew of a tradition in the South of omitting a stamp to convey displeasure. There was no immediate feedback and still no second letter. The next time he visited his parents he found his father still put out over it.

“These people up North, I know them. He doesn’t want you to marry his daughter. He’s only looking for an excuse.”
“If he hadn’t wanted it, he’d have told me.”
“Is that what you believe? Anyway, I wonder if it wasn’t a sign. You’d be unhappy with people like that.”
“It’s not the father I’m marrying. It’s the daughter. And he only wants a letter.”
“He got his letter.”
“But without a stamp. He thinks it’s a slippery custom down here.”

Then Victor had a brainwave. He posed the hypothetical situation that the other father hadn’t received the letter. When his own protested that he had, Victor pointed out that he didn’t know that, as there had been no reply. In that light, it wouldn’t be undignified to send the same letter again, on the presumption of the loss of the first one. Grumbling at first, his father agreed, secretly pleased by the astuteness of his son. He wrote another letter and this time it got posted with two stamps affixed.

In Holywood, Iris opened the door to Victor without any obvious show of warmth or tenderness. Her father then appeared with a copy of the Irish Times in his hand. He was upset.

“You have me insulted in the press now.”

He showed Victor the letters page. Somebody had finally replied, basically urging Victor to tell his future father-in-law that he was an ass and insisting that there was no such custom in the South as had been proposed.

“But sir, if you’d read my letter, you’d have seen it was completely respectful.”
“And this reply? Who provoked this reply? I’m an ass. In the paper. Me.”
“Nobody will know it’s you.”
I’ll know. Now you’d better leave, young man.”

Iris went to the window and looked out on the street.

“Iris…,” said Victor.

She didn’t even turn around. There would be no wedding. A year later, back in Drogheda, Victor married a local girl who was nice, voluptuous and not inclined to lay down the law. At the reception, his father leaned over to him at the top table.

“No need of a stamp here, eh?”

Victor smiled. For a moment he heard the sharp voice of Iris. No, he wouldn’t have been happy with them but that destiny wasn’t meant to be.

Tales you can take to the bank

Tales you can take to the bank

1976
Willie Sutton’s autobiography denied that he’d ever explained why he robbed banks by saying “because that’s where the money is”. Though the apocryphal quotation became known as Sutton’s Law, he dismissed the story but, at the same time, admitted that, had anyone ever asked him, he probably would have said it.

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.

1711
To reduce the power of the privately-owned Bank of England, a plan was hatched by Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, for a group of merchants to assume parts of Britain’s national debt in return for an annual payment of three million pounds for a set period and a monopoly of the trade to the South Seas i.e. South America. The group then assumed the title the South Sea Company. Extravagant notions of the available riches in faraway fields were fostered and the company’s stock flourished until, in early 1720, it offered to take on the entire national debt. The British state’s creditors were encouraged to swap what they were owed for company shares and speculation then carried South Sea stock to ten times its nominal value. Then the chairman and directors sold out, the bubble burst and the stock collapsed. Thousands were ruined.

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Companies of all kinds had been floated to surf on this tidal wave of interest in South Sea stock. They soon got the nickname of Bubbles, the most appropriate description that the popular imagination could invent. Some of them lasted for a week or a fortnight, while others were only around for a day. The most preposterous of all showed the complete madness of the people sucked in. It was started by an unknown adventurer who is definitely a candidate for the title of the unknown soldier of cynicism. His venture was entitled a “company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”. The genius who mounted this bold and successful test of public gullibility merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of one hundred pounds each, with a required deposit of two pounds per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to one hundred pounds per annum per share.

How this enormous profit was to be obtained he did not inform them at that time. Instead he promised that after a month full particulars would be announced and a call made for the remaining ninety-eight pounds of the subscription. The very next morning, at nine o’clock, this entrepreneur opened an office in Cornhill in London. Crowds flocked to his door and when he shut up shop at three o’clock, he found that the deposits had been paid for one thousand of his shares. He was thus, after five hours, the possessor of two thousand pounds. Content with his day’s work, he set off that same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.

1715
With the death of Louis XIV, the finances of France were in a bad state but the Duke of Orleans became Regent and this meant everything to a Scottish gambler called John Law who was a friend of the Duke and a man convinced that no country could prosper without a paper currency. In May 1716, a royal edict authorised Law to establish a bank. He made all his banknotes payable at sight and in the coin current at the time they were issued. This was a masterstroke and immediately made his notes more valuable than precious metals. The latter were constantly liable to depreciation by the tampering of the government.

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Law publicly declared at the same time that a banker deserved to be put to death if he issued notes without having sufficient security to answer all demands. It was not long before the trade of the country felt the benefit and branches of his bank were established in several cities. In the meantime, Law started the project that has handed his name down to posterity. He proposed to establish a company that would have the exclusive privilege of trading to the Mississippi river and the province of Louisiana, where the country was supposed to abound in precious metals. This company was set up in August 1717.

It was then that the frenzy of speculation began. Law’s bank had brought about so much economic good that any promises for the future were swallowed but, when the bank became a public institution, the Regent ordered a printing of notes to the amount of a billion livres. Law helped inundate France with this paper money, which, based on no solid foundation, was sure to cause a crash, sooner or later.

Law otherwise devoted his attention to the Mississippi project, the shares of which were rapidly rising in spite of the opposition of Parliament. At least three hundred thousand applications were made for fifty thousand new shares. Every day the value of the old shares rose and new applications became so numerous that it was deemed advisable to create three hundred thousand new shares so the Regent could take advantage of the popular enthusiasm to pay off the national debt.

From the tremendous pressure of the crowds, accidents continually occurred in the narrow rue de Quincampoix where Law lived. A story goes that a hump-backed man who stood in the street made considerable money by lending his hump as a writing surface to the speculators. The great masses of customers and spectators drew all the low life of Paris to the spot and constant riots and disturbances occurred. At nightfall, it was often found necessary to send in a detachment of soldiers to clear the street.

Thus the system continued to flourish until the beginning of 1720. The warnings of the Parliament that this massive creation of paper money would bankrupt the country were disregarded but, despite every effort made to stop its exodus, the stores of precious metals in France continued to be smuggled to England and Holland. The little coin that was left in the country was hoarded until the scarcity became so great that trade could no longer be conducted. An edict then forbade any person to have more than five hundred livres (then the equivalent of twenty pounds sterling) of coin in his or her possession, under threat of a heavy fine, plus confiscation.

It was also forbidden to buy up jewellery, plate and precious stones. Informers were encouraged by the promise of getting half of any amount they might discover.
Lord Stair, the English ambassador, said that it was now impossible to doubt the sincerity of Law’s conversion to Catholicism, as he had established an inquisition after having given ample evidence of his faith in transubstantiation by turning gold into paper.

All payments were then ordered to be made in paper and even more notes were printed – to the tune of more than a billion and a half livres – but nothing now could make the people feel the slightest confidence in something that was not exchangeable for metal. Coin, which the Regent aimed to depreciate, only rose in value on every fresh attempt to reduce it.

The value of shares in the Mississippi stock had also tumbled and few people still believed the tales that had once been told of the immense wealth of that region. A last trick was therefore tried to restore public confidence in the Mississippi project.
A general conscription of all the homeless in Paris was made by order of the government. More than six thousand of the poorest of the population were press-ganged, as if in wartime. These unfortunates were provided with clothes and tools and told they would be shipped off to New Orleans to work in the gold mines. They were then paraded day after day through the streets with their picks and shovels before being sent off in small detachments to the ports to be shipped to America. Two thirds of them never reached their destination but melted into the countryside. There they sold their tools for whatever they could get and returned to their old way of life. In less than three weeks, half of them were back in Paris.

1907
Sometimes cynicism is wrapped up in a man simply knowing his strengths and limitations. Take JP Morgan in the 1907 American financial crisis, sitting alone in a room in his home, smoking cigars, while all the ordinary bankers were huddled in the next room, presumably with ties loosened and pencils perched over their ears. When a servant entered and ventured to ask him if he had a plan, he said, “No.” By way of reassurance, he added that he knew someone would come through the door with the right plan and then, he also knew, he would be the person to know it was the right one. Who knows that much today?

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1940
W. C. Fields made The Bank Dick. In this film, Fields plays a drunk named Egbert Sousé who trips a fleeing bank robber and becomes a security guard at the bank as a result. Upon being introduced to his daughter’s boyfriend, Og Oggilby, an official at the bank, Egbert remarks, “Og Oggilby… sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.”

Egbert talks Og into embezzling money from the institution. In order to divert a bank examiner from discovering the theft, Egbert takes him to his favourite bar and asks if “Michael Finn” has been in yet – a signal that the barman, one of the Three Stooges – is to spike the examiner’s drink. During Fields’ career, Hollywood standards demanded that good be rewarded and evil be punished but, in The Bank Dick, Fields’ character lies, cheats and steals and yet at the end is rewarded with wealth and fame.

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Biarritz, June 2017

Biarritz, June 2017

19th June, Monday

Resting in the hotel, Le Gamaritz, where I was checked in by a lovely (both senses) girl of no more than thirty. Most probably less. Her father was recently in Ireland. He liked la bière. This morning I got a taxi to the station in Bordeaux. If you tell a Frenchman that you’re from Ireland it seems fifty-fifty that he’ll mention rugby. At the station I just sat there, conserving energy. Nearby a little blonde of five or six watched a lame pigeon. She spoke to her father. Il a mal.

On the train, a quite elegant lady sat across the table but spent much of her time nose-picking, while reading documents. I nodded off a few times but in Biarritz there were no taxis at the station.

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Got a bus for a euro to the Mairie and then set off on foot in the general direction of the hotel. A green neon pharmacy sign said thirty-six degrees. Bag or no bag, I took a break in the church of Ste. Eugénie before getting the camera out along the rocky seafront. This is a tasty resort. Surf crashes on the brown rocks both onshore and offshore and falls back into the varying twinkling shades of blue. The swimmers down below look and sound happy.

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Though I found the street name at a T-junction, I took the wrong turn that wound around to a very hot hill but a retired gent put me right. Je vous accompagne. After seven I headed out.

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Dined very well at Casa Juan Pedro, which overlooks the water at the Port des Pêcheurs. A fillet of hake and a half-litre carafe of white wine were followed by some fruity ice cream. Less than thirty euro.

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Thirty-one years ago (1986) there was a plan of sorts for a family holiday in Biarritz. It fell through and my parents took themselves to Antibes, on a bus via London, I think. They were harder times.

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While I was at the tip, there were some swimmers (and surfers) hundreds of yards offshore but still inside the outer rocks. There must be strong tidal currents, though, as they changed position very fast. From there I wandered around to the rocky harbour that now only contains pleasure craft. By the time I left the table at the restaurant (it’s all al fresco) some cloud had gathered, out at sea. Wind rose down on the Grande plage.

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