Today’s homework is to compare and contrast this RATP Paris Metro announcement and Magritte’s famous painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. The text of the Metro announcement reads, in English: “The information on this screen is temporarily unavailable. Our agents are working to restore it as soon as possible.”
Fluide Glacial, the French monthly humour magazine (BD), is 40 years old this year. When I first came to Touraine in 1976, an impoverished young unemployed couple living in an old barn invited me to see their collection of cartoon books, and the first hilarious issues of Fluide Glacial had pride of place. I immediately became a regular subscriber, and learned most of my street French from this wonderful source, with its strip cartoons about the oafish Bidochon family, the grouchy Carmen Cru (a wizened old hag living in provincial France), or the gross Catholic nun, Soeur Marie-Thérèse de Batignolles with her inflatable Christ-on-the-Cross, and great artists like Edika.
The magazine began as an offshoot of Pilote, and was allegedly inspired by the American Mad magazine (which had great graphics, but was never outrageously funny, to Europeans at least), and stands alongside l’Echo des Savanes and the defunct Hara Kiri as part of that great 1970s’ wave of irreverence through a medium in which the French have always excelled. Today it’s just as droll, ribald, hare-brained and cheeky as ever, with a great stable of artists and writers.
When my sister Clare came to Paris many years ago, I took her to a street market and she stared at the huge variety of fruit, vegetables, cheese and seafood and said “Why don’t we have this at home?!” I always felt the same about Fluide Glacial. When Viz popped up, it was a close runner, but too puerile and relentlessly scatological. There is simply no British equivalent of Fluide Glacial. It’s surreal, quirky, silly, witty – a hoot. The more people tease me for liking it, the more I think I will… So there.
Happy birthday, Fluide Glacial!
From Zelig to Tom Ripley or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the chameleon-like ability of con-men and imposters to pass themselves off for someone other than who they are has a lasting fascination in film and fiction, not least because it throws into relief the specious basis on which our social and human judgements are made.
Real life has generously provided us with a motley crew of career imposters, perhaps the most intriguing recent example of which is the Frenchman Christophe Rocancourt (born 1967) who, in France and the USA, has masqueraded as a movie producer, a former boxing champion, a venture capitalist, the son of Sophia Loren, fooling along the way Mickey Rourke and French filmmaker Catherine Breillat.
One of the most stupefying tales of imposture is told in the documentary The Imposter (2011), narrated largely by the imposter himself, another Frenchman – Frédéric Bourdin. In a nutshell, Bourdin had a long history of impersonating lost youngsters – real or imaginary – when, from Spain, he phoned a lost children centre in the USA to find an American identity he could adopt. That identity was Nicholas Barclay, an American boy of 13 who had disappeared three years previously. To his own astonishment, his more or less random choice worked, he passed all the lie-detection hurdles and he was taken back by the family.
This was all the more amazing since he was tall and Nicholas was short, he had dark hair and Nicholas was blond, he had brown eyes and Nicholas had blue eyes, he was and looked half French and half Algerian and Nicholas was an all-American boy, he spoke with a marked French accent and knew nothing of America, and – in short – looked and behaved nothing like the child he was impersonating. Moreover, he was 23 and Nicholas Barclay would have been 16.
There is no doubt from his own commentary that he knew all the tricks and wiles of the imposter, but nothing could explain the scale of this deception and the odds against it. To all appearances, the Barclay family was desperate to find their long lost darling and were so eager to believe that he had reappeared – allegedly after years of sexual abuse at the hands of high-ranking military – that no evidence to the contrary would deter them.
What was in it for Bourdin? In short, a life in America, and a warm family environment that he had never known. In this stunning documentary he recounts each stage of his deception, and his growing amazement at what he was getting away with. Until, that is, a sharp-eyed private investigator, Charlie Parker – a character who seems to have stepped right out of a film noir – spotted the obvious, and it had to do with his ears.
But the incredible twist in this story is when Bourdin himself begins to suspect that his adoptive family has been telling a much bigger lie than any he himself has told.
Patricia Highsmith could have written this, but she didn’t. It’s all true. This documentary will knock your socks off!
The Mysterious Schneider of the Club Artistic Israëlite advertises his mysteriousness on a tin plaque with a rear prop that features, to the left, an oval portrait of “Miss Sonia” and, to the right, an oval portrait of “Sim’s”. In the middle is a three-legged cauldron with a serrated edge, like a decapitated soft-boiled egg, from which fire and a question mark emanate.
Miss Sonia is in a black dress with a lace collar and has dark hair, an odd kiss curl on her forehead and strong eyebrows. Sim’s is in evening dress and black bow tie, with short hair and prominent ears, a rather long white handkerchief hanging from his breast pocket suggesting the art of prestidigitation. Why “Sim’s” has an apostrophe is part of the mystery, since the possessive form is followed by no object of possession, unless it be the French foible for putting apostrophes in the wrong places for an air of Englishness, which the surname Sim’s might connote – and here I recall that when I was no more than nine or ten, in a cinema, a boy called Roger Sims struck a match and set fire to my scarf in the dark. “Sim’s” is also an anagram of “Miss”, and “Miss Sonia” and “Sim’s” combined are an anagram of “Amiss Missions”. Indeed, the letters “M” and “S” proliferate in the three names. And why the use of English in what is apparently a French club?
There is no indication that either Miss Sonia or Sim’s are The Mysterious Schneider who may, indeed, be a third person or entity entirely, cryptically alluded to by the question mark in the fiery cauldron. The mystery deepens when, on closer inspection, a marked similarity between the facial features of Miss Sonia and Sim’s becomes clear. Is it because they are both Jewish? Could they be brother and sister? Could they in fact be one and the same person, perhaps the female and male manifestations of a split-gender Schneider? The name “Schneider” means “someone who cuts”.
The little metal plaque – picked up at a flea market – is old, from before the Second World War, and one can only imagine the fate of the sibilant SSS – Sonia, Sim’s and Schneider – perhaps at the hands of the slightly less sibilant SS. An Internet search reveals that others have alighted on this same image, in the form of postcards, but no elucidation is forthcoming. The Mysterious Schneider has locked up his mystery in a burning question mark and time has smiled, sealed its lips and tossed away the key.
“Among other things in Kafka’s posthumous papers there were eight little blue octavo notebooks of the kind we used to call ‘vocabulary notebooks’ at school … made up almost entirely of literary ideas, fragments and aphorisms.” Max Brod
The Blue Octavo Notebooks date from 1917 to 1919. The diversity and singularity of the entries lead us through the inner corridors and antechambers of this prodigious man’s mind. Here is a personal selection.
WIKIPEDIA ENTRY, SOMETIME IN THE NEAR FUTURE. A pub /pʌb/, formally public house (a house “open to the public”, as opposed to a private house), was a drinking establishment, principally in the culture of Britain and Ireland. In many places, especially in villages, a pub used to be the focal point of the community. The history of pubs can be traced back to Roman taverns, through the Anglo-Saxon alehouse to the development of the tied house system in the 19th century. The last pub closed its doors this year.
I was brought up in South West London, in Sheen and Mortlake. The following pubs, that I knew as a teenager, no longer exist: The Queens Arms, The Derby Arms, The Bull, The Railway Tavern, The Jolly Milkman, The Charlie Butler, The Lord Napier, The Spur, The Market Gardener. They have not been replaced. I remember with particular affection The Queens Arms, a real street pub with a unique local atmosphere, The Bull, a big, spacious pub where great music could be heard in the 1970s, and The Railway Tavern (see photo above, as it is today, now a private residence), a pleasant local beside Mortlake Green.
Of the remaining pubs, the legendary Hare and Hounds – haunted by the spectres of yesteryear – is now scarred by the curse of poncey interior decor and gentrified and gastro-pubbed beyond recognition, its wonderful billiard room a thing of the past. I recently dropped into the Jolly Gardeners near the Thames, the last pub in Mortlake to have retained its fogeyish and unashamedly lugubrious character over the decades – in my family, we call it The Jolly Funeral Directors. I reminisced with the landlady about the old days when fishmongers would swing by with wicker baskets round their necks selling cockles, mussels, shrimp and jellied eels to eat with your beer. Most of the clientele are now in their 80s and 90s and the place is comparable to nothing so much as the Tardis. It also has the particularity of being a Youngs tied house (which possibly accounts for the longevity of its customers, Youngs beer being the closest London gets to an elixir of eternal youth) with the former Watneys brewery literally built around it but failing to convert it – a brewery that now seems to be devoted entirely to producing Budweiser, that lacklustre American pastiche of Budvar, the great Czech beer.
It’s not just the pubs. For anyone returning to England after a period of expatriate absence, it simply doesn’t feel – well, English… Samuel Pepys described the pub as the heart of England, and this is dying fast – with 31 pubs closing every week nationwide. But other vital organs are expiring too. Even the charity shops, one of the last bastions of English dottiness – though flourishing in number – are now manned by Poles, Russians and Latvians. And the bar staff in the pubs are French, Portuguese, or one of a dozen other nationalities. “English Broken Here….”
London has famously been described as France’s sixth city, with over a quarter of a million French people living in the capital – a total reversal of the flow of immigration not so long ago. Whatever you think of that, the English face in the English crowd is now a rarity, and the Google Maps app a boon, since asking directions in the street is almost invariably a total waste of time. There was once a Private Eye cartoon of two rats lost in a laboratory maze. One says to the other, “Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself.”
But back to pubs…
What explains this situation? The Tory Peer Lord Hodgson says that it is because traditional working class areas have become homes to Muslim immigrants – true enough in many urban areas, but this is not the whole story. Pubs are victims of taxation, over-regulation, the decline in beer consumption, the availability of low-cost alcohol in supermarkets, large pub conglomerates selling off unprofitable venues, rising rent and falling trade. These days, a couple of pints will set you back in the region of £10, for which price you can buy 8 large cans of beer to drink at home. In short, they are pricing themselves out of existence.
CAMRA has launched a campaign to safeguard hundreds of pubs listed as community assets, Tory Baroness Cumberledge has pleaded for pubs to be kept open because “Single men who are lonely and depressed are very often welcomed into pubs.” And The Lost Pubs Projects on the Internet is the online pub cemetery, archiving the decline of the English pub.
When I look at the situation in rural France where I live most of the time, it is not very different. Virtually every village has a defunct little bar with its fading sign – Le Cheval Blanc in my village – the expired heart of the spirit of community. National identity and a sense of belonging are fragile things, and those iconic hubs on which they once depended are being extinguished before our eyes.
Only occasionally, a positive item makes the news, like the Maida Vale Carlton Tavern – a 1920s building, replacing a far more ancient hostelry, that was the only edifice standing in its street after Nazi bombing. It was recently demolished by developers without planning permission and to the dismay of its customers. For once, the culprits got their comeuppance: they were ordered to rebuild the pub brick by brick…
But far too often the knell is heard. In the words of T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land”:
Ordering a taxi with the London Taxicard Scheme from their Scottish call centre, a verbatim exchange: