We were on our way to Paris. We caught the Eurostar at St Pancras. The overnight stay at Comfort Inn and Suite was hardly comfortable. The suite, an ironic term, for a pokey room with a cupboard for a bathroom and barely enough space to swing one elbow and the other (or as the English say, to swing a cat) between the narrow passage that passed for a suite. In the event of a fire we would have collided with the radiator then the TV and then we finally extricated ourselves from this collision, there was still the broom cupboard that was home to our coats. Dismal is a euphemism for this hole in the ground. Well, some you win and others you lose. This was a loss.
When we arrived last night the receptionist, an Eastern European, probably Polish was to start with welcoming, that was until he asked for my passport, ‘Passport?’ I replied. This was the first hotel and I repeat myself, the only hotel in the UK where I had been asked for my passport (the word hotel was an exaggeration; this was really a hostelry). He asked for my passport and failing that my credit card for pre-authorization! That request might sound normal, even benign until you know that I had already paid and there was nothing to pre-authorize. A wholly unexpected and unpleasant series of exchanges then ensued. All that needs be said is I’m definitely not returning to the Discomfort Inn and Insult! Be wary dear traveler of holes in the ground in the neighborhood of King’s Cross-.
We had chosen a grey autumn day to travel. The countryside as it whizzed past was in mist, perhaps this was what atmospheric refers to. Think of a painting in a subtle grey palette with a dim, watery sun, barely visible on the edge of the canvass and you have the scene and maybe something of my mood too.
Friday morning and it was raining. The rain was striking against our hotel room window. It was cold too. Our room looked out at Boulevard Raspail and directly across the road was a chemist, with its green neon sign reading “Pharmacie”. I’ve been coming to this annual pilgrimage to Paris for the past 19 years except for 2 years all spent at Pitié-Salpêtrière discussing psychopathology, expanding and extending our knowledge of the intricacies of abnormal phenomena- delusions, hallucinations, the nature of reality, embodiment, and thinking itself which was our subject this year.
In the evenings, when Peter Berner was still alive we would assemble in his flat on Friday evening for an aperitif and then afterward across the road for dinner. In the later stages of his life when he was incapacitated with chronic obstructive airways disease and needed his own supply of oxygen to get about he ceased joining us at dinner. In his time Peter had been an authority on paranoia. His comments were always thoughtful and well judged. Alas, since he passed away the ritual of aperitif and joint dinner has fallen away.
As ever we were staying at Hotel Raspail. It was strange to think that we’ve been staying here year after year bar one year when I stayed next door. It is a most convenient site at the junction of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse. Hemingway, Sartre, de Beauvoir and their friends ate and drank in the many cafes and restaurants a stone’s throw from here. At night the Gaite was full of life, the restaurants, bars, and cafes were bursting with people, and the low life of sex shops and massage houses and a Hamam that has now closed, like at Soho enriched the atmosphere. Now, it is not unusual or unexpected to find a Romany mother and child, lying on the pavement after midnight, in the cold, begging for money. This was even more conspicuous as the chosen site was directly in front of a bank at the corner of the five crossed roads. Homelessness and begging the twin evils of modern life!
We spent Saturday night with C & P. It was an evening of wine, French cuisine, and talk. On Friday night we had been to Duc Lombards jazz club to listen to a 13 piece Brazilian jazz band. We sat in the gallery, sipped our drinks, J had a non-alcoholic cocktail and I had a gin and tonic. The music was exactly as we expected- whiffs of the girl from Ipanema, Santana, and Yoruba drumming (not that the Brazilian musicians would have known this). The event seemed to be a magnet for mixed couples- next to us sat a young couple, the man African and his pregnant European partner and just behind us another young mixed couple. The same was true of some of the couples downstairs.
Before the jazz club, we had stopped to have dinner in a packed place just on the approach to the bridge into Cite. I had escargots for starters, which was as close I managed to get to giant African snails. My main course was paella- French style. There was a throng of young people everywhere within miles. Even though it was a cold night, the whole world and its mother were out for a good time.
At C & Ps operatic arias played in the background whilst we talked of children and their partners. And in our case of grandchildren and the new grandson just born barely 24 hours before. Then since P is American talk turned to Trump and his divisive and hateful messages. To my surprise, they had time for Macron, a man whose comments and outbursts about Africa mark him out as barely better than Trump except for his fluency and boyish looks. But perhaps in contrast to Hollande or Marie Le Pen, he was more desirable even admirable.
These December evenings along the Gaite where there was always a crowd drinking or eating or just coming out of Bobino, there was an atmosphere of gaiety, of the artistic life, and the numerous eating houses, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Italian acted like accents in a language, embroidering and enriching what otherwise could be merely flat and prosaic.
On Sunday we caught the Eurostar returning to London but halfway before entering the channel tunnel, we stopped for fear of a flood. We were delayed for 45 minutes and arrived in a London gripped by snow and ice. Trains out of Euston and Marylebone were either canceled or running late. At one point we did think we were never going to get out of London and might have to stay overnight in a hotel. Thankfully a canceled train was followed by 1740 to Birmingham Moor Street.
When I look back now the highlight of our trip, this time, was our visit to the exhibition of Malick Sidibé’s (1935-2016) photographs ‘Mali Twist’. Sidibé was born into a Peul family in Soloba. He trained as an artisan jeweler at what is now the National Arts Institute Bamako. His photographs are predominantly of young people in Bamako, at clubs and at the local beach, on the River Niger called Egret’s Rock.
The exhibition focused on the photographs of dances, mainly twist. But my interests were different. In an untitled photo, there were two young women, sitting side-by-side and facing in opposite directions. There was one in a sleeveless dress and the other in a short-sleeved dress. They both had cornrow braids and the one with a low cut dress, her décolletage visible, had a stone bead on. Their expressions were that of modest innocence that says we are maidens, pure. They had that shy downward shift of the eyes that is at once endearing and distancing.
Another photo had another young woman, an experienced woman who looked directly at the camera. Her broad nose and broader breasts, her collarbones like oars encircling the neck, and the wonderful sheen of black skin were like confidence and tranquility personified. Behind her was a basket unfocused on the window ledge. And there was another young woman, in trousers that were flared at the ankle. Her tight fitting blouse with its broad collar and her sun hat, her stance with arms at akimbo with face turned to the world, and her eyes staring directly at the camera. She had a modern attitude that was neither coquettish nor daring, simply free and unfettered by tradition. I suppose this was nonchalance. A tall slim woman in a long dress, bare at the arms had one leg on a stool. And her arm, her elbow was positioned on her raised thigh. She was modern and independent, she was open in her attitude, her fashion and style all turned to the future. These women were all the more remarkable because Sidibé said that many of them were now Muslim women with covered heads and demure manners.
In another untitled photo, an old man in his starched brocade boubou, with Obama’s ears, two jug handles astride his bony face solemnly stared at the lens. His grey beard and short-cropped hair, the lines of worry on his forehead and the wrinkles on his neck placed him where age and wisdom combine in folklore and myth to signal antiquity and trust.
I loved “Yokoro” a photo in which two young boys, stood next to one another. One, the taller of the two stood side on to the camera but with his head turned towards us. He was wearing a pair of shorts and long sleeved oversized jersey stuffed with a pillow or hay perhaps. His companion stood facing outwards with a raffia hat, holding a stick. His body was daubed in chalk markings. His groin covered in rolled up knickers. His face was painted white and large such that he had the appearance of a midget rather than that of a child. It was a spectacular photo, iconic and enchanting, also awkward and mysterious. Who are they, these two apparitions? What was their import, their provenance?
And then ‘The three FBI agents’- a photo of three young men in gabardine mactonishes standing close together, sideways on, at night. The middle of the three is in dark colors with his lapel and collar upturned. The other two in light colors. They all, had cloches on, the brim down and their pose was full of tension, the whites of their eyes, bright against the darkness and their sumptuously black skins strangely brilliant in the dark night. These were no ordinary agents, the Bamako noir was darkly threatening.
Sidibé’s art, his photography was unintended documentaries of a time, only just recently past, when style and modernity were emerging, purposefully aiming for a future that was optimistic and confident. That was all before the failure of leadership.
Photos by Jan Oyebode