Past is Bourgeois Propaganda
past is bourgeois propaganda,’ booms a deep voice in French from
the stage of Paris’s Odéon Theatre. I am participating after a
fashion in the May uprising of 1968. I have lived for some months in
a tiny maid’s room, eight flights up on the Île Saint-Louis,
happily exiled, insulated from reality, smiled upon by fate, blessed
and at the same time deprived. Most days I eat chicken necks and
gizzards served with rice at a corner café – and eye the
glittering and sexy world of Paris without taking much part.
English friends, Kate and her husband Robert, found it rather curious
I should be living all alone, doing a minimal amount of work, a bit
of teaching, a bit of translating, maybe one or two articles for a
newspaper, to get by, but they couldn’t see what I was carrying.
Nor could I, perhaps. I was an inner darkness, even to myself. I had
no why and wherefore, even about who I was. I was, in the words of
one of Dad’s songs, ‘wandering on life’s highway’, or perhaps
just desperately trying to avoid the past, with its mighty sucking
my friends saw was the ostensibly self-sufficient outsider spreading
himself with all the comfort of a pasha in their smart rue Washington
flat. I defended the conditions of my life with the fervour of a
recluse, concealing even from myself that I was not built to
when they teased me and I was walking across Paris, having refused
the offer of a lift back, I wondered why I was so forgiving of the
tiny, poky room in the Boulevard Henri IV. All the windows were
smashed along the corridor, and apart from the blast of air drying my
wet hands and face when my towel became too grimy, it had the
abominable trick of giving me vertigo when I passed gingerly along. I
had no head for heights, and even the vision of the opulent Tour
d’Argent on the bank nearby did not steady me. No doubt about it,
the room was a rat hole, with the bed sandwiched under the sloping
roof. The really intolerable factor was the loneliness. I had not the
simplicity to be truly alone.
was not so much the streets I dreaded, for there were always people
about, if only tramps, or police, or lovers. In the streets you could
always find detail, incident, while even the clochards swigging from
their starred bottles, drinking life’s bitterness to the dregs,
even they had the solace of the unceasing river, beside whose
primeval flow they pirouetted in grotesque capers. Even they,
unconsciously, by offsetting beauty, created art.
was the nights, sitting at that small rickety table in my room, or
lying on my back on the bed, watching the indigo cloud piling up and
deepening to black over the glittering Tour d’Argent, that I really
feared. I bought a second-hand book on cloud structures, for cloud
observation was about the only positive use to which my room could be
put, and tried to ward off despair, or wrote out epigraphs in bold,
was intent on growing a thread, or filament, from some new tissue,
circumventing some obstacle, shaping some capacity as yet only dimly
glimpsed. What was it all about? And why? I didn’t know. And all
this while I was possessed by the image of Kate, with her
interminably deep blue eyes, her lovely and volatile nature. Even had
she been free, which she was not, she moved in a different orbit, a
glorious flaming sun, I being the burnt-out cinder of a planet, a
curled-up piece of toast caught in the grill.
came the Odéon occupation. And I was there. The student leader,
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, popped up, red-headed, round and jovial, a
jack-in-the-box, or devil in a morality play, a Daniel Quilp. He knew
what to say, dwarfing the mellowed bust of Pascal, of La
Rochefoucauld. This was not the Sorbonne, where the uprising had
started, but the Théâtre de l’Odéon, which had been thrown like
a dog’s bone to the insurgents. Thousands of protesters crammed the
auditorium and the loges. The stage was so jammed it was a wonder the
worn and creaking boards stood the weight.
talked at once. It was forbidden to forbid. Everything was equal.
They were screaming at a middle-aged professor that he was a
‘sélectioniste’ – he favoured selecting students to
follow a university course. Shouting that his other crime was of not
being working-class, they started to threaten him with blows.
the professor explain himself, and if we think he’s a bastard we’ll
tell him “Monsieur Blanc, you are a bastard!”’
Blanc spoke at length but no one bothered with what he said, and soon
a murmur grew and it silenced him. By now it was so stuffy I thought
I would faint. People left for fear of suffocating. I explored
backstage. At the back was an eerie, dark little passage leading down
one side of the stage to the other. Underneath was hollow. Perhaps
the floor really would not hold! What if three or four hundred people
went crashing down into the chasm? I came back. Everyone now talked
at once. Order does not exist; licence was without licence: there
were not two sides to any question but twenty – fifty, a hundred.
There was no person in the chair – no master or mistress of
ceremonies – it would be a symbol of hierarchy, of oppression.
Every blade of grass had a tongue. Everything was equal. Everyone had
a right to the truth, and to voice an opinion. Was this a foretaste
of the twenty-first century, with its Twitter and Facebook rule, with
its faction-ridden societies and nations?
tried to speak – neat, well-shaven, ordinary men and women;
musicians, artists – the latter with the beards of anarchists. Over
and over again they told each other that bourgeois culture was dead.
Odéon – a symbol of repression – had been seized. They were
delirious. Now it, too, was dead. Henceforth it would be a political
forum. Malraux, Barrault, Renaud, Claudel, Messiaen, Boulez, these
great names of French culture – they no longer existed. ‘One
doesn’t compose with a society in decomposition.’ ‘Long live
communication. Down with telecommunication.’ Maybe this really was
a new beginning. What had André Malraux, Minister of Culture, once
said? ‘Christ: an anarchist who succeeded. That’s all!’ What
did he say about the twenty-first century, that it would either be ‘a
century of religion, or not at all’.
the next hours of night and day while discussions raged on I visited
other parts. Dressing rooms had been turned into kitchens or
dormitories. I tiptoed from room to room sometimes fearful that I
might provoke the numerous and naked two-backed beasts copulating
over or under blankets. No one seemed much bothered that I was there
to see them. Shame? They had abolished that. Others pounded tall
typewriters, issuing slogans, directives. Grim-faced militants in
rimless spectacles, bald, bearded men under banners mesmerised me.
‘the more i make revolution the more i make love.’ Next day I was
still there and I couldn’t leave.
real beneficiaries of revolt appeared. ‘You’ll get the plague if
you stay,’ Katie warned before she left, for she had been there to
begin with, begging me not to stay. ‘All that filth. There’ll be
rats. You’ll see….’
laughed in disbelief, but then they appeared. Great brown things,
their bodies could be seen bobbling among the filth accumulating
under the stage. Above, and in the auditorium, the great debates on
class, on Marxism, on poverty, on the great new future, continued
without halt. Backstage the dressing rooms overflowed with stench.
First used for rutting, they became a cesspit. Vandalism was rife,
obscenities scrawled everywhere, light fixtures broken, mirrors
cracked, costumes and make-up strewn over everything. In the costume
stores there was even worse havoc. At first these had stayed locked –
until broken into from the skylights above. The theatre’s director,
Jean-Louis Barrault, France’s greatest actor, looked in to see what
was happening, made a speech supporting the students, and then left
weeping. Half the seats had been torn up. Later, for having shown
sympathy, he was relieved of his post.
walking down a corridor, I found myself seized from behind.
assailants were two blond men, naked to the waist, scarves tied round
their necks and army fatigue caps on their heads. Their grip was like
steel and it was useless to resist. Anyway they had a purpose so they
propelled me in a certain direction.
the hell are you taking me?’
didn’t answer but pushed open doors ahead with their feet. They
looked older than the students, and were military professionals.
Breathless with fear and exertion, ‘I work for an English paper’
was about all I managed to say. I freelanced for the Financial
Times. ‘Who cares?’ said one of them. ‘We were told.’
room where hundreds of seventeenth-century costumes for Molière and
Racine lay scattered had become a parlour for clochards. ‘Parlez-moi
d’amour…. Je vois la vie en rose….’ they quavered
and warbled. The brutal-looking, gap-toothed men from the Île
Saint-Louis and old women who pushed prams from which dangled brown
stockings of uneven length, laughed and waved. Godot had arrived.
Estragon and Vladimir had infiltrated the headquarters of Phèdre and
next store was a ‘medical centre’ – so one captor told me: on
duty there was a motley collection of half a dozen lunatics in white
coats. They seemed more like junkies or members of the Living Theatre
who toured with a cast running naked up and down the aisles. In the
middle of the largest of costumes stores was an odd assortment of
weapons. Crowbars, axes – the theatre fire axes – cudgels,
chains, chunks of masonry, and what I took to be Molotov cocktails.
We had reached the inner sanctum. The arsenal. My first inclination
was to laugh – more from nerves than anything else.
are you?’ I asked.
were between twenty and twenty-five of them. The leader was
dark-haired, his hair close-cropped and thinning, cut to give an
appearance of firmness. His forehead was lined – not by thought, I
guessed, but by screwing his eyes up in extreme heat and glare. He
was a big fellow, over six foot, and looked fit. He had narrow, small
eyes, darting with the threat that he could be very nasty if crossed.
must be the Katangais,’ I said. I had heard of them. They were
mercenaries, now on leave, and with no employer. They got their name
from the fact that some of them had been in Katanga – but others
fought in Korea, Algeria, and Indo-China. Wherever a dirty war needed
to be fought, they fought it, the dirtier the better.
heard the call of the students,’ the leader answered slowly,
chewing over his words. He spoke mildly enough – as if playing down
the violent side. ‘As we haven’t any education, we decided to
join in and place our physical strength at the service of the
pay here can’t be very good.’
regretted saying this: it slipped out without my meaning it. But I
had cast a slur on their altruism, and I would be beaten for it, so I
braced myself for blows. Surprisingly, they did not seem to mind.
isn’t much work around for us at the moment,’ grumbled one.
how do you envisage your role in the revolution?’ I asked somewhat
more cautiously now – although they seemed ready enough to chat.
have founded the CIR,’ says their leader. The CIR, he explained,
was the ‘Committee of Rapid Intervention’.
why do you come here, to the theatre?’
this they went silent, and appeared to rumble with bellicose
intention. I had better not press the question.
what do you want with me?’ I asked.
must stay with us,’ he answered,’ In case there is trouble.’
purpose was plain. I was a hostage.
brought food – a baguette that was slightly stale and tasted
rubbery – and some cheese – and poured out wine. The enormity of
my trap grew on me, for the siege might go on forever. Yes, the
government had thrown the dog a bone and were waiting till he grew
tired of it.
nights were worst because I couldn’t sleep. I rocked myself
backwards and forwards on the mound of costumes that was my bed, but
it did no good. The dark had captured my brain. What if I myself
dissolved in the dark?
fought against the darkness. I listened to the sounds outside – and
inside my head. Sometimes the rain outside was fierce. I closed my
eyes. Several times my nervous condition dominated. So it went on –
and then I fell asleep and had this dream.
waiting for my dad to come on stage. I’m about six years old –
the wide-eyed boy. And I’m sitting in the front seats of the dingy
brown, upholstered stalls of the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road,
about to watch Mum’s powerful lover – the embodiment of every
woman’s dreams. You – the Vagabond Lover – are about to stride
out to bask in the glow of ambers and reds, and capture the hearts of
a thousand attentive watchers and listeners.
wriggle a bit but am rapt. But I have butterflies in my stomach.
Jerry is still, where he can, bombing the hell out of provincial
cities and ports – and sometimes London too. Air-raid sirens have
warned earlier as Heinkels and Dorniers pass over the suburbs. Maybe
they’ll be back.
linked, legs kicking, tits thrusting out, the dance duo before yours
comes wheeling, gasping and clattering off, like some monster gone
half mad and out of control.
your turn. Top of the bill. The act everyone’s been waiting for.
The big star. Beside me Mum sharply takes in breath, her eyes shining
and full of happiness as she composes herself with pleasure.
since I can remember Mum would say, ‘Come on, you’ve got to watch
your father’ (she, from a different class than his, always called
him ‘your father’).
I’d seen your act a hundred times – if not more. But I’m not
just sitting here, watching you; without me knowing you’ve become
so much a part of me, the deepest part. My dad. So I’m here, not
only out front, but with you in the wings, ready to go on before you
do – inside you, as you’re about to stride out into the lights….
pit band plays a chorus of your signature tune, ‘I’m only a
strolling Vagabond’ – a big cheer of recognition – and then out
you stride onto the stage looking as if nothing mattered to you,
throwing half a smile up to the circle as if you’ve spotted some
old friend there, and this has caught your attention far more than
the other thousand-odd members of the house.
many such little tricks, I knew and could see later, they’d be
captured by you and listen. If you can get them sufficiently at ease
with themselves, they’ll let go and float easily off into the
dreamy fabric of your songs—
bound for the hills and the valleys beyond
good night pretty maiden, goodnight.
follow Fortune that beckons me on
catch at her skirts and the lady is gone
that’s just my lot, if so right….
clothes help the informality. The Strolling Vagabond against a
backcloth of lanes and trees in the far distance, farm horses and
hills, a blue sky, endless peace. A wooden stile for you to lean
against and place your foot upon. A tree trunk as a seat.
finish the chorus of your song. We all clap. Violent and sustained
applause. I wave at you, Dad, and you smile, motion for the audience
to be silent. ‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,’ you
declare in your lilting, stage-Irish voice.
now if I may I’d like to sing you an old favourite by that most
illustrious of song writers, Irving Berlin – “When I Leave the
Applause again. The song was well known. Effortlessly your voice
glides and coasts over the colourful orchestrations.
not a millionaire
burdened down with care
that’s passed me by….
Dad, you are – in my and everyone’s estimation! A millionaire!
Suddenly I’m frightened. What if the Heinkels and Dorniers on their
way back to Germany swarm over North London again? And what if
searchlights stab the darkness, outlining hundreds of gleaming insect
structures packed under the roof of the sky, and guns lick out red
tongues at the night? What if the Germans drop their bombs on us?
you pack it in? If a stick of bombs made a direct hit on or near the
Met, with the air-raid sirens caught unawares and no warning given,
would you stop singing? Never. You would go on singing regardless.
what of the little boy sitting there, watching you? Would the song go
on for him – and forever?
woke up. The vast inside of the Odéon lay empty, desecrated,
battered – like some fetid, yawning mouth. It seemed irredeemably
fouled: the exhaust gases of idealism and spontaneous expression. The
theatre’s ghosts had suffered wholesale extermination.
CRS and gendarmes had surrounded the theatre; they were helmeted and
armed with teargas grenades. The word had gone round that the Odéon
would be reoccupied by the authorities.
will happen?’ I asked one of my guards.
sighed. He was unmoved. ‘Negotiations….’
fighting? No last-ditch stand? What’s happened to the spirit of
not negotiating with the police,’ he answered tetchily, ‘he’s
negotiating with the television and film people. Americans are
offering a big fee.’
how much would you ask – to put up some resistance to the police?’
other dropped his usual air of lassitude. ‘Why? Can you pay?’
a mercenary, always a mercenary. He was about to go and fetch the
I said, ‘I’m penniless. It’s purely an academic question.’
voice we could just about hear floated up from a loudhailer outside.
‘Let those who want come out, do it now! You will be free if you
leave without weapons, and without any bellicose intentions.’
looked at my captors.
does that leave me?’
up! I told you we have to await the results of negotiations. Jackie’s
down there now.’
Katangais put his head round the door.
on: the order has come through. We’re going!’
about him?’ asked my guard, meaning me.
nothing to do with us now.’
beat the Katangais to the exit, and hid by the pillar of an arch to
watch. They emerged clean, well-shaven, their clothes crisp and
pressed. They walked upright, without looking at anyone. In the
street quite a crowd had collected. The Katangais presented their
papers to the police control and marched off without a word.
the square, top police brass had assembled: prefects, sub-prefects,
stood to attention as everyone left. The mayor complimented the
police on the ‘cleansing of the public building’. Then an officer
in plain clothes climbed out on the roof of the Odéon and removed
the red and black flags. The French tricolour soon fluttered again
over the weather vane, but there had been no time to erase the ‘Ex’
prefixed to the ‘Théâtre de France’ on the entablature.
the rue Casimir Delavigne a young man opened a window on the second
floor, and started jeering and shouting: it needed all his father’s
strength to grab him and haul him back inside.
was the significance of my dream? Was the contrast of it with the
stinking theatre pointing to a path I would have to follow in the
future? Was this what destiny had in store?
was after me, had pursued me even to Paris. And he would continue to
be after me, relentlessly, until I turned to confront him. Would I
have the courage to investigate his life, find out all I could about
him, all there was to know? Had I resources enough to tackle the
central part of the mystery? And could I present him as he was,
expose him to the world?
line from a poem drifted into my head. ‘O maison, où donc est