Some 25 years ago I was sitting in a café/restaurant on the Avenue Trudaine in Paris, eating a starter of ‘des carrots’, the only thing I understood on the handwritten menu. It was a small place, styled in darkish wood, with one customer: me. I was sitting at a table on a raised wooden platform at the back, but still only about ten feet from a large window facing the street.
As I tucked into ‘des carrots’, I casually observed a man outside walk towards his car and get in ready to drive off. The street had cars parked along one side only, nose to tail. The man was boxed in with no room to manoeuvre. So what he did was drive sharply into the car in front to make himself some space, then reverse into the car behind to make a bit more. Then he drove off. That was my first impression of the Parisians. Laissez faire, is that the right phrase? Removal of restrictions in any case.
As an aside, ‘des carrots’ was a plate of grated carrot with a mustardy, chilli-ish, nutty, pale brown sauce poured into the middle. It was an incredibly tasty sauce I’ve never been able to recreate.
So what was I doing in Paris? Not sightseeing, I was looking for Henry Miller’s house.
Some years previously I was given the pr0n book ‘Little Birds’ by Anaïs Nin. It was written for a dollar a page, and on looking into the author, in her diaries from 1931-1934, there were frequent mentions of Henry Miller. Anaïs Nin, married to a banker, was living in Louveciennes just outside Paris. Henry Miller had emigrated to Paris to make a living as a writer. He did, in the end, but largely through the patronage of Anaïs Nin. They also had a very long affair, documented in a book of their letters: “A Literate Passion”.
So I then zipped through Henry Miller’s books that described his years in Paris. ‘Quiet Days in Clichy’, ‘Tropic of Cancer’, ‘Black Spring’. They were about, in short, the gutter of Parisian life, a city of whores and being penniless. Miller names streets and cafés where he walked, and it is possible to trace his routes on a map.
I’m not sure what I was trying to achieve. Hooked perhaps, in my youth, to a life so different to mine and wondering whether it could still exist.
Soon I found myself in a travel agent looking at brochures of Paris Hotels. I found a hotel in the exact area I needed, paid £230, changed £120 into francs, packed a holdall and set off at 5am on a midwinter morning for the train to the airport.
Stansted, back then, had five customers, each with fifty seats to themselves. A huge Marlboro advert dominated one wall. It was so unhurried I even had a conversation with a songwriter bloke. After a medium wait my flight was announced on a screen. I took a small empty shuttle to another lounge then boarded the plane. I was armed with my boiled sweet, but they gave out basketsful at the start of the flight. The runway bit was alright, but the bit over the sea not so much.
Charles de Gaulle airport at the other end was busy, and evacuated my brain of any school French, but a nice French lady behind a counter told me in English how to go up the ‘moving weights’ (escalator without steps) to get to the bus that would take me to the centre of Paris.
On arrival in Paris I saw the Eiffel Tower by accident, because the metro lines were labelled by their destination and two lines led to Nation, one arching North to Montmartre, and one straight through the middle. The Eiffel Tower was half tarpaulined in green, and looked smallish and unremarkable from a distance.
It was easy enough to change lines but on disembarking at Notre Dame de Lorette I was lost immediately. My pronunciation of the road I wanted was poor and nobody helped me. My small printed map was inadequate, I was exhausted, and it was long after dark when I found the road and the hotel.
So there I was, in Henry Millerland, staying in a pokey little hotel in the 9th Arrondissement. I kept the hotel key with its large fob in my pocket and went in and out all day, until I was told that’s not the way you do it, you have to sign the key in and out. So I did that four or five times a day.
Every morning, water ran down the street and was swept into the drains by black men in flourescent clothing with flouresent green and yellow brooms. Consequently it was clean. I came across a bog conundrum in a café. A toilet that was a hole in the floor with a metal non-slip surround for your feet. Wonder if they’ve still got those then.
But my first plan was to find the Wepler at the Place Clichy. Henry Miller described it thusly: ‘I remember the shock I experienced when I saw a whore fall dead drunk across one of the little tables on the terrace and nobody ran to her assistance.’ [Quiet Days in Clichy, p.8]
So I travelled north by metro to St Lazare and noticed a change. The atmosphere was close, musty, dingy. Nobody was about, the buildings were dim and some derelict. The metro station at Place Clichy itself showed a warning in the crumbling décor, partly unpainted and with a lot of chipped, broken off tiles.
So was the Wepler still there? Yes, but unsurprisingly cleaned up and expensive. It had plush dark red velvet seats, but outside the window an old man looked in a bin for food, and a hard looking woman walked along with an unkempt little dog. This was not central Paris. I nobbled for posterity a Wepler place mat, finished my red wine and went outside.
I had wanted to find the Rue Anatole France in Clichy itself, where Henry Miller lived with Alfred Perlès. On coming out onto the street and walking northwards the people were different. Not French. From, presumably, Africa. They circled around and watched me. I knew, and I had nothing much on me anyway. The atmosphere was offputting, and looking at a map now it would have been a heck of a long walk. Henry Miller used to do it, but times had changed over 60 years. They certainly have now.
The next plan was to find Henry Miller’s house in the Villa Seurat, where he’d lived in a studio. Despite bans and unbans of his books, Miller had by then published Tropic of Cancer and was finishing Black Spring. The Villa Seurat was in an area far south of the Seine, quite different to the north of Paris towards Clichy. The roads were wider and more open to the air. I passed the revamped Hotel Crondstat, named in Miller’s books. It was a pleasant, less busy area.
I found the street, a short, straight close marked ‘privé’. If asked what I was doing there I’d say I was lost, but I didn’t know the French for lost. It was quiet though with no one about. Each house was a different colour with trees growing in between. One house was a dark pink with a pillar on the corner of the porch, some looked empty for years, and the one I wanted was white. Miller lived on the second floor, and I stood for a while on the cobbled road looking at the house, undisturbed. It was a moment of standing where Miller had stood, but realising the era I was after had gone. I turned away.
I did one touristy thing, which was to stand on the balcony of the Sacre Coeur looking at the panoramic view of Paris, and wonder what I was doing with my life. On the last evening I went out to buy some red wine and was asked for directions by a passing black man. My directions were correct, but I pointed in the wrong direction. He said nevermind, did I want to meet his sister? Erm.. plane to catch etc., I bought the red wine instead and went back to the hotel to have very little drunken sleep and catch the plane home.
I left Paris, according to my diary, with a lump in my throat. I also left my holdall in a café in the Champs-Élysées and only realised when I got to the coach. It was still there, in the same place, when I went back to fetch it, with no one paying it any attention. How times change.
I never got out to Louveciennes to see Anaïs Nin’s house, and it has now been demolished so I’ll never see it. I was not the same on my return and made sweeping lifely changes. Sadly, Paris was not the same either, in the end.
© Polar Opposite 2017