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Paris, 1962


When I was very young I was taken to France. The idea was to tour the whole country. I sat in the back of a large comfortable English car: a Humber. It had a huge leather seat in the back. That was where I sat and for much of the summer I looked out at France – at something significantly different from the south-of-England sights with which I was familiar.

In what way was France different? Well, in just about every way that my senses could perceive; France, I realised was decidedly unlike England and I especially liked its aesthetics – from steak-and-chips to the beautiful girls. I liked the design of french cars, the pages of ‘Paris Match‘ and the advertisements for Dubonnet that were painted on the walls of houses…

A few days ago I was reminded of my early experience of France when I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 black and white film ‘Vivre sa Vie’. It’s the kind if film that the lucky ones amongst us became familiar with as the 1960s unfolded. Its focus is upon life, sex, style and culture in Paris. The film was (and is) a pleasure to see – in large part because it surfaces a range of pure ideas: Godard’s film takes the intellect seriously; surface and depth intertwine: it’s an aspect of french culture that may still endure …

The film begins with a quote from the liberal humanist Michel de Montaigne:

Lend yourself to others but give yourself to yourself.

(We pause and think about this.)

It then goes on to profile the life of a young woman (Nana) who is forced to ‘make out’ in the emerging consumerist culture of Paris; Paris provides the stage and backdrop upon which and against which certain episodes of her brief life are portrayed. We see cafes and coffee bars and juke boxes and vinyl records …

We discover that the young woman is familiar with some of the central ideas of existentialism:

I choose. I am responsible. If I do something it is me who has exercised my freedom so to do. I am responsible. If I think something I am responsible.

(We pause and think about this too.)

In one remarkable scene the young woman dances alone – and the style of her dancing symbolises the idea of liberation – or, at least, the pleasure of self-expression.

(We think: When the dances change the walls of the city shake …)

And perhaps the most sustained moments of critical reflection take place when, in the very heart of Paris at the Place du Châtelet the young woman strikes up a conversation with a philosopher. The philosopher turns out to be the actual philosophy teacher of Jean-Luc Godard, himself. He is called Brice Parrain.

The encounter between Nana and the philosopher is riveting. (Do encounters like this happen any more?) Brice Parrain, who plays himself, considers, en passant, some of the deepest features of our humanity. He says:

One learns to talk well only when one has renounced life for a time.”

He considers that the flow of life moves between the ‘everyday’ and ‘detachment.’ We need, he thinks, a detachment from the pressures and problems of ordinary living because:

From everyday life one rises to a life we call superior: the thinking life. But this life presupposes one has killed the everyday” – a life which, for Brice Parrain, is ‘too elementary.’

This was Paris, 1962.

My original idea of Paris and of its role in advancing french culture, was that it valued the insights yielded by philosophy – it valued the ‘play’ of thought – whilst simultaneously cultivating and enhancing an aesthetic sensibility.

Nowadays, in the Paris of 2017, I’m not so sure. Perhaps only the backdrop remains.


A bicycle ride in Farnham park


Above – quite high and overhead – a family of oak leaves is drifting.
They’re drifting on the breeze, on the pale cool bleach of an autumn sky.
The leaves are now quite dry.
The leaves are now quite dead.
And when they come to ground they move: sad and lonely and restless:
They drift like ashen flakes – cast out –
Like those ashen flakes born in the fire storms of Dresden.

I’m cycling through the park.
I’m near the summit of a hill …
Then, too, a gathering of black, tree-top birds –
Jackdaws with their strange pale eyes.
Cut loose, a sudden dashing woodpecker in crimson,
all elegant staccato: peck, stop; and peck, peck again.

After the summit the path descends: I cross a stream –
where the spaniels love to fish.
And then a climb – and then ahead upon the climb –
a man – his tiny dog (I think he loves his dog) –
and his wife. She is lodged in a purple mobility machine.
She cannot get out and walk. She has a lovely face.
(I know he loves his wife.)

Then something extraordinary:
The man, his dog and his wife all try to get out of my way.
She does her best to orient her machine onto the nettled edges.
The man looks at me; his eyes sparkle.
The woman looks up at me with a sweet smile.
There you go,’ he says to me.

I thank them both.
It’s a pleasure,’ he says.
It’s a pleasure – no problem,’ she says.

I think back to the drifting leaves: the quick and the dead –
and then the warmth of that sweet ‘no problem’ smile.

Tea, scones and evensong: a birthday party

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Villiers, my friend and colleague, was about to be seventy years old. He sent me an invitation to his forthcoming birthday party; albeit reluctantly, he would celebrate seventy years of a life; and, at the same time, he would celebrate the beginning of his eighth decade.

Villiers had spent most of the last fifty years trying to make a difference. He took seriously both the idea of the state and how best to design the best possible state. He thought it was worth striving to create (or at least maintain) a safe, just and tolerant society. Villiers – as a certain kind of Englishman – had a deep sense of irony and a version of political realism that usually found itself in sympathy with the conservative outlook. His often acerbic humour saved him, though, from ever being an ideologue. He knew what he liked – and it was a mix of literature, politics, art and idiosyncrasy. All along he was cautious about taking the big questions of life too seriously.

Villiers was mostly a writer. Writing made him happy. It gave him pleasure. He could write plays and novels – or essays and books on serious subjects – like human rights. Although he did other things to earn his living he always made sure that he had something to write about …

Those of us invited to his birthday party were informed that we were to expect tea and scones at the family home in Oxford. Evensong, at the local church, was also on the agenda.

It’s now Sunday – the day of the party.

The family home was (and is) peculiarly idyllic. The large house is comfortable, stable, reassuring. The lawn stretches down to the river Cherwell. By the river it’s as if we find ourselves in one of those wonderful paintings by Alfred Sisley. It makes for a mood: reflective – in-and-out of time – civilised.

As the guests assembled Villiers was full of bonhomie. And things went well. Villiers enjoyed the company of his sister, his brother, and a few friends. He enjoyed, too, the company of his mother who is 102 years old. He enjoyed the company of his partner’s grand-daughter who is 2 years old. So there it was: a century of humanity for tea and scones and the singing of ‘happy birthday.’

BUT Villiers was disquieted. Who had he been? What was he to become? And, most specifically, what future was there for his writing? He reminded himself that the novelist Martin Amis had begun to write about times past; a looking back; as Martin Amis had put it he, Amis, did so as ‘not to make a fool of oneself.’ Villers could see this; there was no point in trying to ape the style of the new generations. That would be entirely false. Yes, so what did Villers have to say? What was he to communicate?

When the time came the birthday party moved on to celebrate Evensong in the lovely local church. What is it about Evensong that is so consoling and yet so tinged with sorrow? The church was lit by the soft-light of a hundred candles and, from time time, Villiers experienced a kind of reverie – a moment of enchantment …

On arriving back in the family home, Villiers detached himself from his guests. He went to choose a record: something he might even take away with him if he were to find himself on a desert island. (Sometimes he even thought that it would, after all, be best to live on a desert island. He’d make friends with the migrant birds; he’d welcome a refugee or two; in fact, he’d organise a camp for god-knows how many refugees (and stateless persons) and help them with their metaphysics …)

What record should he choose? Rachmaninov’s piano concerto came to mind. But then he paused. It was his birthday. And, where was he? I mean, where was he in the space and place of his psyche? Where? He was back with that ‘Famous blue raincoat’; he was back with Suzanne and Marianne; he was back with ‘Songs from a room’ – and the beautiful girl on the cover,; he was back with all to play for; he was back on ‘Boogie street’.

It wasn’t any old CD that he chose. It was a sleek black shining LP; it was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Twelve new songs’ – and as he caressed the record from its sleeve he started humming – just to himself. He watched the river glinting in the dying moments of the late late summer.

Leonard Cohen’s ‘Boogie street’ began. Yes, Villiers was back on ‘Boogie street.’ And as he listened to the words he thought of his next piece of writing: it began: ‘Now, as a man grows older …

Footnote: Here are the first verses of the song ‘Boogie Street’ by the late Leonard Cohen:

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:
I’m back on Boogie Street.

A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it’s time to go.
I tidied up the kitchenette;
I tuned the old banjo.
I’m wanted at the traffic-jam.
They’re saving me a seat.
I’m what I am, and what I am,
Is back on Boogie Street.

And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew;
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I’d kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.