Paris used to be the most self-confident city in the world. Brash, assertive, boastful: Manhattan claimed to be the best. Cool, elegant, sophisticated, supercilious: Paris knew that it was the best. This is no longer true. Paris has lost its élan, and that has created a love-hate relationship with the UK. Everyone seems to know someone who is working in London. The ones left in Paris cannot decide whether to punish us or join us: to hope that Brexit fails — or to fear that Brexit might fail, and keep able young Frenchmen from job opportunities in London.
Flics everywhere, tattiness, tension: one is reluctant to acknowledge the successes of evil, but terrorism is at the core of Paris’s problems. In this most civilised of cities, there is a fear that civilisation is losing control. On all sides, there is a loss of faith in the French system: economic, administrative and diplomatic. La grande illusion of post-war French foreign policy — Europe as a French jockey on a German horse — now seems just that: an illusion. One must always remember that French political self-belief has never been more than a sticking–plaster to cover deep wounds: 1940, Vichy, the Liberation, which did not happen quite in the way that de Gaulle described. When the French fall off their high horse, they suffer.
Yet we must not exaggerate. In Paris, you are convinced that there is only one way to translate chic — parisienne. The girls have an allure: a blend of gamine and grace, haute couture and mischief. That got us talking about the naughtiest girl of the 20th century, Pamela Harriman, a Dorset aristocrat who ended her life as the American ambassador to France, with so many adventures along the way. Few husbands could resist her; no wife ever trusted her. I once reviewed a biography of her, and one paragraph had the lawyers reaching for smelling salts. There was no use my protesting that all the facts were in the book. But death is the ultimate antidote to a libel writ, so here it is. ‘She was the grandest of grandes horizontales, the most luxurious of poules de luxe. “I carry my house on my back,” she often said. She certainly got all her houses on her back.’ Apropos horizontal, she was probably the first horizontal collaborator of the war, but with an ally. Her role as Averell Harriman’s mistress undoubtedly facilitated cooperation between the UK and the US. The unit of charm ought to be a milli-Helen: a face that would launch one ship. Pamela’s collaboration may well have launched a number of lend-lease warships. Around that time, a young officer ran into her father, the then Lord Digby. As she was already… well-known, he put his voice into neutral before asking after her. ‘Pammy’s doing very well. I was worried about her coming up to London, because she’s used to a quiet life down here. But she’s turned out to be a good manager. I don’t give her much of an allowance and I can’t imagine the War Office pays her much — but do you know: she’s got a flat in Berkeley Square.’
We indulged in these reminiscences over wine made by one of the best female vignerons in France. Nathalie Tollot of Tollot-Beaut herself a gamine enchantment, produces excellent Burgundies throughout the price range. The lesser wines, Bourgogne blanc or rouge, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Chorey-les-Beaune, are always good value. But Jacques, our host, had a couple of special bottles: the Beaune-Grèves ’88 and a Corton-Bressandes of the same vintage. An expert, he was well aware that 1988 Burgundies are contentious. There are those claim that they are over the hill, and those who insist that they will never climb it. We awaited with expectation. The Grèves was past its best, but only a little. It would have been better three years ago, and now needs drinking. But the Bressandes was outstanding. Fully exposed, certainly, but its silkiness was still reinforced by power. If only that were true of France.