Back to Texas to prepare for guests arriving for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Once again we left our Paris home not knowing whether we would return as citizens or aliens. As for so many others, the number of uncertainties introduced into our lives by Donald Trump and Brexit are legion. Reaching my 80th birthday I also feel a bit cheated. I religiously paid into social security for some 45 years, now to be told that, because I lived abroad for more than 12 years, I am no longer eligible to claim a UK pension or healthcare. Much as I continue to support the NHS, I doubt a private insurance company could do this. My US insurance refuses to pay for ‘foreign’ healthcare and, being over 75, I can’t get private insurance in Europe. I suspect such experiences are common and that many of us remain in limbo.
I had hoped to perform a few gigs in France to promote our new record, Live at the Terminal Café (Cleopatra Records), which we recorded in Montmartre. Sadly our guitarist Martin Stone died before the album was completed. Martin came to fame as lead guitarist with The Action/Mighty Baby and lastly with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, but in recent years was a legendary bookman, finding titles in English and French which collectors hardly guessed existed. Everyone who worked with Martin, including our mutual friend Iain Sinclair, has stories about his astonishing nose for rarities. We all featured a few years ago in Sinclair’s film The Cardinal and the Corpse, about a quest for a mythical Sexton Blake story by Flann O’Brien.
Martin and I had nearly identical enthusiasms. We both lived in Paris but grew up in Norbury, south-west London. Kingsley Amis said he was the only famous person to come from Norbury. I suppose that depended on your definition, since the police-killers Craig and Bentley were our neighbours, as well as the crime novelist ‘Berkeley Gray’ (E.S. Brooks) and Dan Dare and Garth artist Frank Bellamy. Others included performers Jenny Hill, Queen of the Halls, Will Hay and Wee Willie Harris. We were proud of our work on Terminal Café, which was superbly produced in San Francisco by Don Marino Falcone. Listening to Martin’s extraordinary guitar reminds me why the Stones approached him as a replacement for Brian Jones.
This year, we were constantly being asked by concerned people if we didn’t feel threatened by the gilets jaunes and I have to say we hardly saw them. Americans in particular seemed to think we were in constant danger. We live in a part of the 10th arrondissement which is only slowly gentrifying and is still occupied by many people of Vietnamese, Chinese, Maghrebi or Somali descent. In our street we have an Orthodox synagogue, a church (now mostly used by Catholics from the Indian subcontinent) and two small mosques. Not once have we noticed even a hint of tension between people of different persuasions. Nonetheless, armed police and soldiers occasionally patrol the neighbourhood, usually on Fridays. In 2015, Islamist terrorists murdered 130 innocent people in our favourite local restaurants and a rock venue. Customers had to clamber over the bodies of the dead to get out. Respecting those killed, some customers refused to leave. Le Bataclan, a famous and much-loved venue, saw some 90 people killed at a rock’n’roll concert there. One of our friends was seriously traumatised by the experience but returned for the first new concert. My wife’s favourite restaurant, Le Petit Cambodge, re-opened quickly. Although a few regulars could not face eating there for a while, most soon came back. Parisians, like Londoners, refuse to be intimidated by cowards.
Shortly before we left Paris I went to see La fameuse invasion des ours en Sicile (‘The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily’) with one of my oldest friends. Its scriptwriter is Jean-Luc Fromental, whose new graphic novel with illustrator Miles Hyman is a semi-fictional account of Graham Greene in Vienna and Prague (The Prague Coup), recently out in English from Titan and enthusiastically received in Berkhamsted at this year’s Greene festival. The Bears film is based on Dino Buzzati’s wonderful children’s classic and is very faithful to the spirit and style of the book, which Buzzati illustrated himself. Highly respected in France and Italy as a major novelist, Buzzati is hardly known in the Anglophone world. That shouldn’t stop you from taking the family to see the film, which is engaging and charming, without a trace of Disney’s formulaic sentimentality.
In London we helped my daughter Kate Abley, a principled Leaver, celebrate the publication of her comic near-future novel, Changing the Subject. One of its predictions has already come true. Can you guess what it is? Then we left for the Cotswolds, where an old friend’s daughter was to be married. It was a joy to see her so happy and to recall the beauty of that part of England. Not much has changed since we lived there in the 1980s and 1990s. For a few days we left urban realities behind to enjoy a visitors’ fantasy of rural Shireland at the White Hart Inn, Winchcombe, whose hospitality and delicious local food tempted us to consider spending next Christmas there. A few days of local ambience would soon banish all uncertainty and allow us again to believe wholeheartedly in jolly old Santa Claus. Happy holidays, everyone!