Lille, Nord Pas de Calais. 26 November 2018 11:04 am
In Lille, the six of us wander the Boulevards, very impressive they are too. Making for the Lille Eye, a giant Ferris wheel installed for Christmas, we pass army patrols, a heavily fortified Christmas market and countless diversity barricades. Distressed Syrian refugees beg alongside the local homeless. I’m in charge of the map and directions. I can’t find the Lille Eye, despite the fact that we’d already passed it on each of the previous days of our visit. Undaunted, I make an excuse.
‘It’s been moved. They roll it from square to square in the middle of the night, very French. That’s why it needs to be round.’
I think I got away with it, nobody complained, it hasn’t been mentioned since and eventually we happened upon the damned thing anyway. Iffy with heights, I’d already slipped into the conversation that I’d stay on Terra firma, close to zero centimetres above mer level (is that how the French calibrate such things? It should be). I guarded the bags, while the rest of them made themselves uncomfortable in an open-top cabin, and rose a hundred and fifty feet above the Place Charles de Gaulle.
Weighed down with all of their stuff (a backpack, two front packs, a side pack and a carrier in each hand), I would have looked like a paratrooper if some of those bags hadn’t been pink. I certainly earned a glance or two from passers-by, in a decently sized pre-Christmas crowd.
Lille, Nord Pas de Calais. 11:25 am
Having stood there for a bit, I must concede that none of those passers-by smiled, or nudged a companion, let alone crept up to me while whispering, star-struck, ‘C’est vous?’. No one asked for an autograph or a selfie.
‘Why should they?’, I hear you ask. Well, dear reader, I’m reliably informed, from the guardians of record in that country, that I have many fans in France and they fairly regularly insist upon being kept informed as to what I am up to. Let me explain.
The Hotel International, Iran. A few years previously. The middle of the night
I want to take you to Tehran, it is early summer, a few years in the past. My recollections of that place are rather sketchy, my time there brief and hurried. I can recall the wide night-time boulevards and well-lit city centre streets and squares. Also, the mountain ranges in the distance, forbidding and capped in snow. Apart from that, not much to report. I was there briefly and had to keep my head down.
May I invite you to picture a travelling gentleman curled up under a sheet (and thick blanket) in a middling hotel’s third-floor bedroom? For once it isn’t me. It is the middle of the night. He is disturbed. Not by a maid with secrets to sell, or by a chap with a gun after a bounty. Far from it. He is disturbed by a phone call, an ‘International’, from his editor in Paris. I should imagine that the conversation went something like this:
‘Allo, Allo?’, he shouts into the handset as he rubs the sleep from his eyes.
‘What?’, he continues, ‘zoot, mon dieu.’
Did I say early summer? Let’s call it June. The biggest story ever has just burst upon an unsuspecting world. Le Monde’s top reporter must make a weak excuse to the Prime Minister of Iran and hasten to the airport. The ayatollahs, with their atom bomb and sanctions must wait. The Gods of news have cast their lot elsewhere. Inky fingers are mustering across the globe. Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad, The Yemen? Mere sideshows, vite, vite!
Did I saw a few years ago? Let’s call it out as 2016. Having thrown on his clothes, sprinted through a fake marble lobby, signed a blank piece of paper beside a sleeping night porter, our action reporter is now at the wheel of his Hillman Hunter hire car racing through the empty streets, on his cell-phone to his editor. A bleary-eyed editor at that, one shouting down the line, in an oriental silk gown, from his mistress’s 15th arrondissement apartment.
L’Editor and the great journalist must formulate a cunning plan. For obvious reasons, London is out of the question, likewise the big cities and Celtic fringes. The journalist flicks thought his contacts app. No hands on the steering wheel, he’s trying to control the Hillman Hunter with his knees.
He gasps and yells, a sudden flash of inspiration bursts across his Gallic cells gris.
‘Monsieur l’Editor, of course, ma maître d’dieu en Car-liz-lee.’
Cyclops Photo Agency, Rue De Niepce, Paris, France. The middle of the night
Shall we imagine the duty photographer, until seconds ago asleep in the canteen over the remains of his midnight snack (confit de canard in a fondue savoyarde sauce), sliding down a fireman’s pole (no, don’t start that again) and straight into his left-hand drive Morgan? The photo emergency klaxon is sounding. He floors the Morgan’s polished teak accelerator as he turns the ignition.
No, life isn’t like that, although it eventually will be now that ourselves and the EU are diverging. In reality, I’m reliably informed, the great photographer’s French wife woke him with a good hard nudge in the ribs. She brushed her fringe from her eyes, drew on a pink Gauloises, and in a husky whisper, shocked him with, ‘I see your countrymen ‘av voted to Leave.’ To which he replied, ‘Whaaaaaat’, and hit the phones. Now, pay attention, I will say this only once, our French photographer is English but has lived over there for many years. We shall call him, ‘Nick’.
The Debatable Lands, northern England. 11:00am the next day
Interrupted by my wife, your great (un-read and arguably unreadable) author is struggling with his far-fetched, un-publishable memoir. His old source behind the iron curtain won’t co-operate unless he plugs her niece’s modelling career. Regular readers, with an IQ above two hundred, instant recall, a photographic memory and too much time on their hands, may now realise how all of this sort of fits together, somehow, eventually (even the bits banned by the advertisers).
‘Juliette is on the phone,’ announces my wife, ‘her French journalist godson is on his way to find out about Brexit. Can you put on one of your performances for him?’
Are both the Popes Catholic?
A northern English county town’s French godmother’s Victorian terraced house. Late morning
We meet at Juliette’s house, which is part of a three-story high Victorian terrace, few of which have become bedsits. Those that have, cater to a better class of tenant. There are a number of Leavers present. We stick up for ourselves. The journalist and photographer seem rather shell shocked. Is this some kind of a bluff? We break for a breather. I stand on the front doorstep. The journalist, we shall call him ‘Louis’, sidles up to me. I tell him a good joke about the French. He pretends to laugh. I also laugh about the Remainers meltdown but perhaps I shouldn’t have.
They’re genuinely devastated, according to Louis. Everyone in Europe is shocked too. That had been one of his first questions to the group, were you surprised by the EU referendum result? Not really, we’d all decided.
Louis had an idea. He wanted to know the real me in my own environment, could he come to my ‘ouse with the photographer for more interview. Game on!
The conservatory at my house. Early afternoon
We piled into my car and ten minutes later were settling down in our conservatory, my wife having supplied us with coffee and cakes. Very nice. I exchanged small talk with the great photographer. Had he met anyone famous? Of course he had, Mr Macron, Mr Hollande, the disgraced French former Prime Minister, Mr Fillon and his Welsh wife Penelope, chickens.’
He’d spotted our chickens and they’d spotted him. They were standing at the conservatory window tapping on the glass.
Now, I’m thinking of this as some kind of great intellectual meeting of minds, whereas, for whatever reason, the photographer and journalist (Louis and Nick), with that wonderful thing called hindsight, had moved into ‘comedy gold’ mode. I thought my responses were rather clever but as ever, it’s not so much who wins the verbal jousting, it’s who writes it up afterwards and publishes it in a newspaper.
Nick the photographer interrupts, ‘Can I take a picture of your vase?’
‘Of course you can. Take a picture of anything.’
He gets down on his hands and knees clicking away, ‘Marvellous’, ‘Wonderful’, ‘Super’, ‘Yes, baby’, his thirty-thousand-pound camera hammering away at my vase. Well. Creative types. Several steps ahead of me as ever, my wife is already on the phone, arranging to get a copy of the next day’s Le Monde.
Amiens, Nord Pas de Calais. About the same time
I must introduce you to a new character, we shall call him ‘Etienne’. Might be an alpha male by now, if not I suspect one day he will be. My wife and I used to take exchange students, usually high fliers, often for the military. If you ever pass an underused airfield in the extreme far north of England and there is a Rafale, parked next to an A400M, sat next to a Tanzanian air force Mig 21, and a passer-by tells you that there’s a reunion at my house, then I can’t possibly comment.
At this point, I must make a confession. This is the reason why I will go to hell. Every time I tell the tale I have another good laugh, which makes it worse.
When the Taiwanese came to stay, at the first breakfast time, he put orange juice on his corn flakes and I did nothing while he ate them. On day two, I thought I’d better tell him, but then I couldn’t because he would have realised that I should have told him on day one. Therefore, he fortified himself at the breakfast table every day, for too long, with cornflakes soaked in orange juice, while wondering why I was looking the other way with clenched teeth, tears rolling down my cheeks. If I don’t go to hell, nobody will. He will be a colonel by now, he will get his revenge.
Back to our excellent chap in Amiens. My wife contacted him, asking him to send us the appropriate print copy of Le Monde, and he obliged. Top man. But I must add this. You learn a lot about someone by playing sport with them. Who’s a moaner, who’s a cheat, who’s a giver upper, who’s a trier etc. And you learn about Johnny Frenchie by playing board games with him.
The Debatable Lands, my house. Some years earlier
My game of Risk with Etienne started very badly when he informed me that the game was invented by a Frenchman. A side game of ‘Contradiction’ broke out.
‘No, it wasn’t.’
‘Yes, it was.’
‘No, it wasn’t.’
‘Yes, it was.’
Wikipedia called. He was sort of correct but we have our own Risk set, made by me with my own maps, for the children. My own giant printed and laminated board covers our entire dining table. Shall we call that a draw? Then he began to take issue with that board. I told him, rightly, that country names are spelt differently in different languages.
He pointed at South America.
‘It’s not spelt C-O-U-L-O-U-M-B-I-A anywhere, and especially not in Colombia.’
Well. He then said,
‘What is that little dot?’
‘Off the coast of France.’
‘The Channel Islands? I didn’t put them on. Corsica? It’s not there either.’
‘The little island off the coast of France, for the apes,’ he replied.
He meant England. I was incandescent.
‘The tiny little dots on the world map, old bean, is the French so-called empire. Pointless piles of guano in the Pacific for French artists to marry 12-year-olds on,’ I reminded him.
The British Empire, au contraire, consisted of sub, and even entire, continents. All else wasn’t worth having. If useless places accidentally fell into our possess, King George gave them away to the rustics. Why would King George want the Southside of Chicago, Altoona or Arkansas?
Then he changed the rules (Etienne, not King George), deciding that the attacking side, rather than the defending, won on equal dice scores. This war ended, as history eventually shows many others to have, indecisively, as my wife needed the dining room table for our evening meal. An evening meal taken in total silence, as if, after hostilities had finished elsewhere, a McArthur and Hirohito mess night on the USS Missouri.
My house and every breakfast table in France. A few days after Brexit.
I thumb the copy of Le Monde airmailed to me by Etienne. No matter what psephologists tell you, if this humble author gets better billing, a bigger photo and twice as many column inches as Hilary Clinton, then it’s worth putting your mortgage on The Donald to win an election. Likewise, if Le Monde tells you that, if Scotland were to become independent, this humble scribe would hurry to the border to take advantage of the exchange rate, then you might as well believe them. As for the claim that I swept my arm towards the chickens, their hutch and our hedge (with its red, white and blue Brexit bunting) and announced, ‘Everything you can see I own,’ I don’t deny it and it’s true anyway. Welcoming them into my conservatory by announcing, ‘Behold this is England.’ Why not? They certainly got their money’s worth.
Was I being mocked? And is this an effective strategy? We shall take a look at the unread comments at Le Monde online. In a very French way, most of those comments were about the grammar; where the gerundives and commas should be. There were no online death threats or smart-alec remarks. They’re not like us. One or two commented that Brexit England sounds just like France and a few noted that the French elite were in for a ‘Brexit’ type shock at the next French elections. This duly arrived, with President Hollande not even standing in 2017, and a new party, En Marche, winning a parliamentary majority in that year’s French general election.
My office. The present-day
A couple of observations. Firstly, the huge effort involved. A journalist and a photographer were flown to my house, for a whole day, in order to fill half a page. It can be read in less than ten minutes and the photographs can be consumed at a glance. Multiply that effort by one hundred pages and then, the next day, do it all again. One admires their professionalism.
Secondly, Johnnie foreigner’s brain really was addled by Brexit. Take it from someone who’s now on Le Monde’s mailing list, and occasionally hears from his new friends, it still is, nearly four years later.
As for that photo of our vase, as ever the professional has an eye that the civilian lacks. The roses, the cocktail stick Union Jack and crimson love hearts, next to our china ornaments, backdropped by a green and pleasant garden, is used over and over again. Which is nice, but it suggests that the stock photos are a bit limited and that these media types tend to get one quick and early impression, which they then repeat over and over again.
A friend met heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and asked his advice regarding the boxing career of his promising son.
‘In the big fights,’ AJ advised, ‘hire your own photographer.’
He is correct. Those photos of me are used over and over again, in Le Monde, in books, in exhibitions, on TV. Owen Jones (boooo) used one in an article. I don’t get paid a penny and am not even allowed to use them myself for free. As you may have guessed by now, I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for the lolz. I was richly rewarded.
To be continued …..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file