According to Garrison Keillor “a postcard takes about fifty words gracefully, which is how to write one… fifty words is a strict form but if you write tiny and sneak over into the address side to squeeze in a hundred, the grace is gone and the result is not a poem but notes for a letter you don’t have time to write…” These are my Postcards from France:
My Friday job involves reading utterly depressing newspaper reports – reminders of man’s inhumanity to man, the death of democracy, plastic pollution, climate change, a planet in crisis. Recently, we’ve moved into space: “… As the density of debris grows, it could cause follow-on collisions and make parts of space too hazardous to enter.”
And a text about gender divide in American elections: A woman asked her husband how he could vote for a misogynist “and his bottom line is, ‘I will vote for the Republican, I will vote for a goat if it’s a Republican, it doesn’t matter’.” It argues men are used to seeing brash leadership in the corporate and sporting worlds and like that Trump is a businessman, not, quote “a normal politician”.
Uneasy when I hear people say they’re proud of their children. As though they’re taking some of the credit. That said, were I a former Scotland international rugby player in the stands at Murrayfield watching my son trounce the English, or at Twickenham winning the Calcutta Cup, I think my heart would burst with pride!
Looking back on my years in France I’d highly recommend doing in-depth research before moving abroad. I was clearly very idealistic at 42, thought Utopia merely a question of locating it. Older now, greyer, on balance I’d say it could be paradise, if you’re rich or a civil servant. Less so for artists, entrepreneurs, dreamers.
A friend of mine went to a “Ladies Who Lunch” lunch only to find her contemporaries not in good shape. Botox, wigs, pills, regrets, affairs, divorce, disappointing children, unfulfilled marriages, insomnia. Time has not been kind. There wasn’t, she says, much to celebrate.
The illustrator Edward Gorey made elaborately crosshatched, humorous though shockingly violent black and white drawings of suffering children, rain and tombstones, flitting aristocrats and a strange guest, in white sneakers and long stripy scarf said: “I tend to think life is pastiche,’ he said, “but I’m not sure what it’s a pastiche of.”
I met a man called Goebels. My son had teachers called Mme. L’Anusse (say it out loud) and Professor A. Poil (naked, in French). I’m told it’s not easy in France to change your surname. Luckily not the case in England, when the jazz saxophonist and club owner Ronnie changed his name from Schatt to Scott.
Tidying up I come across beautiful drawings and long ago notes from very young sons which say things like “Moto do wat you can and you shall be rewordid!” and “Moto continued: If you do wat you can it will reword the perso you’re helping. Nether give up!”
Making a list of the eight best moments (not films) in cinema history. At N°1 is the final scene of Big Night, Stanley Tucci cooking an omelette. Terry Jones is likewise there, at a window saying “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” And Alan Rickman on cello, Juliet Stevenson at the piano, playing my favourite piece of Bach.
November 1963, New York. A seminal book is published. Perfectly crafted, cleverly illustrated, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are ushered in the modern age of picture books and continued the Grimm tradition of empowering children by using scary stories to help them face terrors that lurk in the real world.
Each time I pass my old primary school, I fight back tears. Bousfield conjures nothing but happy memories and has produced many remarkable people. Quentin Blake lives nearby. He writes, to see children of so many sizes, shapes, origins and temperaments respecting and appreciating each other in imaginative collaboration is raising to the spirits.
In need of escape, I pick up Le Petit Nicolas whose creators, Sempé and Goscinny, are on my list of ultimate heroes. Had I written just one of their books, I’d feel deserving of a lifetime achievement award. The peculiarities, ironies, injustices and sheer ridiculousness of life are narrated by a child in a series of perfect, humorous vignettes.
I really love my Friday job though it constantly forces me to confront the ugliest sides of humankind. And there are many. Just when I thought we’d reached bottom, I learn about Frazzeldrip a lurid deep fake fantasy showing Hillary Clinton assault, disfigure and drink the blood of a young girl, then order the murder of cops who saw the tape.
Between the wars Germany’s pharmaceutical industry flourished. Abuse of cocaine and opiates was widespread. When Hitler rose to power “seductive poisons” were outlawed, drug users deemed “criminally insane,” dealt with by lethal injections, sent to concentration camps. But at the 1936 Olympic Games a wonder drug appeared, an amphetamine called Benzedrine and things changed.
A chemist in Berlin developed Pervitin, a powerful performance drug found to boost confidence, motivation, concentration, conquer tiredness, reduce inhibitions and suppress appetite. The Wehrmacht ordered 35 million tablets in 1940 for the invasion of France. Soldiers who took Pervitin stayed awake for days at a time, walked for miles without resting, and felt no pain or hunger. Pervitin is crystal meth.
Diagnosed with terminal cancer, an ageing New Mexico high school Chemistry teacher with poor health insurance and a pregnant wife finds a creative if unconventional way to provide for his family. That was back in 2008. The result was a hit TV show, Breaking Bad. It comes to mind because, though the academic year began last September, I’m still waiting to be paid.
Riad Sattouf’s Breton mother led her son to believe Georges Brassens was God so God is how the child Sattouf pictures the French singer in his autobiographical series L’Arabe du Futur. Although his own mother was profoundly religious, the boy Brassens was no saint. Taken to cemeteries to pray, instead he stole skulls.
Jacques Brel said it was a mortal sin not to listen to Brassens; Gabriel Garcia Marquez once called him the greatest living poet in France; it’s said Brassens is to French song what Molière was to theatre. As a teenager, though, he was wayward – and then he discovered poetry.
Brassens lived on Rue des Morillons in the 15° arrondissement of Paris, a street that’s still home to the Bureau of Found Objects. Around six or seven hundred objects a day are brought there. A poet of the Oulipo school wondered why there isn’t an aisle for lost hearts and misplaced lovers.