Thursday, May 29, 2014

Flann O'Brien's Taxi Man

The two protagonists of Flann O'Brien's story "After Hours," hearty drinkers not unlike their creator, take a taxi one convivial evening in the 1950s to various country pubs outside Dublin City, pubs which in that benighted decade were allowed to stay open an hour longer than their city counterparts. Their pilgrimage starts with a pleasant conversation in Pub A and continues in like fashion in Pub B, but in Pub C is disturbed somewhat by one of our drinkers asking his friend if he's noticed that the same sinister little fella in a raincoat has been in all three pubs they've visited, his back turned to them. Now that you mention it, I have, says your man. Who is this mysterious little person? both wonder, mildly unsettled. They press on to Pub D and order their pints. Sure enough, after a few minutes the same little man enters and sits down at a table across the room, his back turned to our two heroes. "I've got to get to the bottom of this," says your man. So, when the same scenario repeats itself in Pub E, he boldly goes across to the sinister little clurichaun and loudly demands, "Who are you, little man? And why do you follow us so remorselessly?" The little man turns and says, "I'm your bloomin' taxi driver. I'll stop followin' yez when I'm paid." Or words to that effect. Illustrating, anyway, my experience in the profession, as one required to be invisible yet always on the job. More anon.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

Any jabberings by me would be superfluous. 

For the Fallen

Laurence Binyon

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

School Days

The International School of Geneva is celebrating its 90th anniversary next month. I won't be there, but that's OK; I have little interest in reunions as such. Anyway, I was there for thirteen years, and came away with mostly positive memories, as we find, dipping yet again into the treasure trove that is my memoir Run Like Blazes

                 School Days
The French pedagogical principle is not Spartan strictness but Roman freedom accorded to the individual disposition — it is not discipline but civilization.
     Joseph Roth

      And so to school, realm of bullies and the bullied and of me, who was neither. I spent thirteen years at the International School of Geneva, through all its grades and forms, in two languages, English and French, with smatterings of German, Russian, Spanish, and Italian; doing well in some classes, badly in others, and making a few friends along the way. The school’s great virtue was its heterogeneity. Like all large schools in all large cities, it was a good place to grow up free of prejudice among kids of different backgrounds. But Ecolint (so-called for its French name: Ecole Internationale), went a step further and made internationalism its creed and mine, too—and I stress the distinction between internationalism and the cultural self-abnegation represented by certain elements of contemporary politics. Ecolint was a many-faceted preparation for life for which I have always been grateful. There I was educated in the Western canon, and I grew up alongside Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist and Communist; black and brown and yellow and white. Some were fools, some not. Thus is humanity divided up; thus do I judge it. Regardless of origins, art thou an idiot? This universal truth I keep close to my heart.
    The school had a French side and an English side. In each one the other’s main language was the obligatory second language, so no one who stayed for any length of time emerged monolingual. I attended the English side, where most students were American or British, or satellites thereof, like Canadians or Indians and Pakistanis, although there were one or two Taiwanese, and Argentineans, and a Brazilian or two; and I remember a solitary, gawking Japanese boy who simply disappeared one day, probably back to Japan rather than into thin air.
     Is he a prosperous and paunchy salaryman today, riding the 7:18 into Tokyo every day from his dormitory suburb? 
     The school sat on the upper north slope of a gentle valley, overlooked by the Salève Mountain. The main school buildings were at the high end of the slope, and the grounds then fell away for a few hundred yards to an outdoor amphitheatre, called the Greek Theatre, which had been carved out of the hillside sometime in the ‘40s, and where in clement weather graduation ceremonies took place and plays were performed: I remember a pretty bad Macbeth, and some pretty good Molière. Beyond the Greek Theatre were the playing fields, each section kept neatly flat and grassed, marked out for rugby, soccer, cricket (for the Commonwealth kids), baseball (for the Americanos), or track, according to the season. At the bottom of the lowest slope were some ragged woods, and just where the grass of the playing fields yielded to the woods were several small barrack-like buildings used by the school’s physics and chemistry departments. This was the demarcation line of the English side; everything else, including the old chateau, was in the French-speaking sector. The “English” and “French” in “English side” and “French side” referred not only to the languages spoken on either side but to a certain way of doing things. On the French side all the teachers were French or Swiss-French, and that half of the school was run along the brisk and officious lines of a provincial French lycée, which is in essence what it was. On the English side most of the staff was British, and there was a distinct air of downmarket English public school about it, together with more than a touch of shambling but endearing Britishness: boots piled in the corridors, dog-eared textbooks, tweed jackets, etc. We had headmasters and headmistresses and pipe-smoking teachers of Latin and Physics and Literature with bumbling and shy personalities, most of them congenial if somewhat dim.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Me and Dad in Ireland

My first sojourn in the country of my forebears, from Run Like Blazes:

I acquired a home in Ireland: a downstairs flat on Morehampton Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 (not as ritzy an address then as it is now), furnished in post-war frumpishness and permanently scented of sour milk and stale pipe tobacco, a heave-inducing mixture. But Dad loved the place, and put me up on a sagging sofa in the sitting room while he slumbered under a single electric heating bar in the chilly little bedroom down the hall. It never occurred to me that the existence of one residence per parent, separated by hundreds of miles, was a sign that all was probably not well; but children, as we know, accept pretty much anything and carry on from there. So I became used to the notion of visiting Dad in Dublin a couple of months out of the year and living with Mum and going to school in Geneva the rest of the time. My visits to the old man were in an odd way a glimpse of the future, fifteen years on, when I, living in New York, would spend many a weekend coughing and shouting and boozing with him in his Wilmington digs, which showed clear signs of having never benefited from a woman’s touch. Similarly, in the Morehampton Road flat Dad had reverted, at the speed of light, to his bachelor ways. Burned matches, half-smoked pipes and cigarette butts filled the ashtrays, all of which had been nicked from cafes and bars and bierstuben across Europe. Radio magazines and unread newspapers spilled over the edges of beer-ring-stained coffee tables. Laundry never made it out of the laundry basket. Rolls of dust dozed like drugged lizards in the corners. My mother took a long look on her one and only visit and left to check in at a hotel. But Dad was happy enough—with or without her, I’m afraid. There were the bottles of Guinness. There was a half-Siamese cat that he’d adopted, in fond memory of Pete Toy. There was the tuft-grown back garden with its view of clotheslines and neighbors’ rooftops and the melodious Irish sky. There were the lopsided double-decker buses lumbering like ailing pachyderms up and down Morehampton Road, south to Donnybrook and north to “Cathair,” the city center.  There was the occasional whiff in the air of yeast from the Guinness brewery at St. James’s Gate—where I had my first drink, a free pint of stout after a brewery tour. I was 12 or so and my proud father looked on, claiming me to be 14 and therefore entitled to a drop. We went straight from the brewery to his favorite pub, the now-defunct Mooney’s on Abbey Street, a high-ceilinged place that looked like a church inside. I had my second drink, a half. More than Guinness: It was the bottomless well of Irishry I was drinking at. And when I saw in the National Museum of Ireland and the Long Library at Trinity College the brooch of Tara and the tattered tricolor that had once flown above the GPO in 1916 and the Book of Kells and the Harp not of Brian Boru, my quivering soul heard from afar the soft insistent strumming of Ireland’s melancholy and beautiful past and… I was Irish from that moment. Well, what else would you expect? I was an Irish-American, untested by life, of uncertain nationality and romantic disposition. I became then, and have remained, Irish, through all the lesser transformations—Frenchman, Greek, Swiss, Scot, New Yorker—and it’s as a paddy, however self-modified, that I shall die. Yes, I grew up in Florida, then France, then Switzerland, then elsewhere, and I have at times become enamored of Greekness and Frenchness and Italianness and even Americanness; but when I first went to Ireland I felt the force that rose through me at the sight of the name “Boylan” on an Irish shop: it was the atavistic force of my ancestors, of ancient Niall and old Great-granda Ned and Granda and all the other McRorys and Boylans up and down all the messy, turbulent years….and I blame my father, in part. He was simply the most Irish man who ever lived. He even wore a stained Donegal cap and smoked a Peterson’s pipe—and these were not affectations. They were near-instinctive responses to what he was. He would have denied it, and he incessantly complained about the “stupid micks,” especially when they began asking him awkward questions along the lines of “Eh, do you have a permit to employ people in the Irish Republic? Eh?” But I recognized him again and again among the Dubliners of Joyce (“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”) and the Corconians of Frank O’Connor and Sean O Faolain and the Monaghan bogmen and gombeen men and other green fools in Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn—and there he is again, danderin’ about with Carleton in Poor Scholar, and over there whiling away a day, a year, a life, at a crossroads in the Tyrone hills somewhere deep in the tales of Benedict Kiely or the gray-shaded verse of Seamus Heaney (give that man a Nobel, it’ll add some color) or the rain-dripping hard-drinking Belfast pubgoers of Sam McAughtry’s pavement paeans…and this hopelessly feckless Irishman, this father of mine, this utter failure as a dad and a husband, tried to set up, finance, and run an international corporation! It was like handing a ten-year-old the keys to a Ferrari. It was a scenario scripted by one of the Marx brothers, probably Harpo. Oh, Dad knew all there was about electronic carillons, right enough, and as a radio man he was a poor man’s Marconi. But when it came to actually hiring and employing people…well, he did that, too, fair play to him, with many a fond pat on the back and squeeze of the elbow and pint after work. Only he never investigated their backgrounds, nor did he apply to the Labour Ministry for permits for his workers or for himself. And after a few months, as a Yank living in the Irish Republic without a residence permit, never mind if his own Da and Mam were Irish-born (not that he ever bothered to track down the parish records), he was breaking all kinds of laws by just unlocking the door of his Morehampton Road flatlet and stumbling across the threshold every night. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

London 1957

My first visit to London, 1957, from my memoir Run Like Blazes:

Dad took us to London, not to see the Queen but to buy a car (although we saw the Queen too: still young, quite lovely, and just starting in on her record-breaking reign). He’d had struck a deal with one of his ex-RCA cronies on a slightly-used gray Ford Squire station wagon with wood inlays and British plates (SYU 729), not a bad ride for the time, with red vinyl seats, chrome bumpers, synchronized first gear and an AM radio. How Dad acquired it, or for how much, or via what matey backdoor arrangements, I never knew or cared, but that quick visit across the Channel in early ’57 was my first of many tastes of Blighty, and Mnemosyne has transcribed the experience into a series of vignettes of such everyday minutiae as (of course) Underground trains that were deeper-running and more sinister than the friendly Paris metro, with the ghostly pong of Virginia rather than Caporal flavoring the warm subterranean air; elephantine double-decker buses with a pukey sea-sway on the upper deck; pavements broad and gray and surprisingly bereft of cafés, although quite well-littered. 

London, like Paris, was slow in shrugging off the effects of the war. It reeked of peasoupers, pigeonshit, coal fumes, cheap perfume, detergent, and cut-rate kerosene. I remember a restaurant in Soho that featured coffins instead of tables and from which I acquired a small plastic spoon in, roughly, the form of a skeleton—and suddenly, out of one of the dustiest drawers of memory, occasioning screams of panic and an all-points search high and low, pops the stuffed seal from Harrods that I lost on Trafalgar Square. Far more concerned with my seal was I than with Nelson, or the pigeons, or St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. Tea came later, also at Harrods, where a replacement stuffed seal soothed the howling brat. There must have been pubs: Dad was with us, after all, and families with small kids used to snuggle in the snugs, which tended to be cozier places than the chilly basement flats and redbrick “semis” most low-income families were condemned to in those pre-council housing days. We stayed in a Bayswater hotel and had tea, and scones, and hearty John Bullish breakfasts, and went to Madame Tussaud’s and the Tower and Windsor Great Park to see the deer. We did other echt-Englisch things that tickled Mum’s fancy; she read the likes of Waugh and Galsworthy, and therefore was an Anglophile. She loved the place. But London never touched my heart the way Paris did, and does, although for sheer down-and-out potential I found it nonpareil, many years later, when for a year or so I was down-but-not-quite-out there.

Friday, May 16, 2014

First Memories of My Favorite City

First memories of Geneva, from Run Like Blazes:

Of all the cities in the world, of all the homelands that a man seeks to earn, Geneva seems to me to be the one most likely to bring happiness.
                                           Jorge Luis Borges
    In our Ford Squire, Dad at the wheel (Mum never drove when he was available, regardless whether he was drunk or sober—although she was never drunk), we returned to the Continent, Dover to Calais across the choppy Channel under November skies the color of a pigeon’s breast and, bidding Paris au revoir from the périphérique, traveled down the poplar-lined Roman highway, Route Nationale 5, through the dirty golds and muddy midwinter spinach-greens of Burgundy and over the Col de la Faucille into Switzerland, a mountainous land of mystery, and Geneva, placid city of plenty and plenty of mysteries and my home for the next seventeen years.
      Yes, the Swiss-French metropolis had (and has) boulevards; cafés; the French language; bookshops; a Left Bank and a Right Bank; an opera house that is a faithful replica, in miniature, of the Palais Garnier; and even a mini-Pigalle (les Paquis), all of which make its Parisian parentage apparent. But there’s a hidden heart at its core, and the wild is nearer in Geneva than in domesticated Paris. When we arrived and the fogs of November blew away in the express train of an Alpine wind they call La Bise, I experienced color and space on a hyper-Floridian scale. The lake was immense, blue, and unruly, stirred into foaming whitecaps by the wind. Shunning the city were the Voirons’ forested slopes, on which every pine tree was clearly silhouetted in the preindustrial clarity of the light, and from which timid wisps of cloud were whipped away by the bise. Great snowy mountains called the Alps rose to the heavens. Two rushing rivers, the Rhône and the Arve, blended blue and brown in a confluence of snowmelt. Outside the then-sparse suburbs the countryside rolled away comfortably in every direction, bearing vines and farmhouses to the foothills of the mountains. In the lake was ice; in the streets, snow. It may have been my first sight of snow; in Paris it merely rained, and before that I’d known only Florida. And indeed, what I mostly remember of those early days in Geneva is snow. Meteorological history (via quick research on the Internet) bears me out. The winter of 1957 was one of the coldest on record, with mini-icebergs clunking and grinding up and down in the harbor. The swans were taken squawking and flapping from their lakeside nests and housed in a disused theater for the winter. There they honked and hissed and, I suppose, paddled about in tubs of tepid water until the thaw came.
      Geneva turned out to be quite different from Paris in other ways. For one thing, it was surrounded by mountains. For another, it had no metro. This was a disappointment to me, although as an aspiring future Paris metro I could have applied for the position; but Geneva would be a hard place to stick an underground train because a) it’s as hilly as a sick man’s fever chart and b) it’s a palimpsest of ancient artifacts dating back to Neolithic times. Also, its extremities are in another country, France, just down every side road. History, customs formalities and the up-and-down topography therefore make an underground impractical. But there were, and are, trolleys and streetcars that sway and lurch down the middle of the city streets, transporting nine-to-fivers to and from the dormitory communities now creeping up the green lower slopes of the Jura Mountains to the north and colonizing the foothills of the Alps on the southern side—but many of those commuters need their passports, for all these mountains are in France. In fact, when you look out over the city from the North Tower of St. Pierre Cathedral, the only countryside you see is in France, except for a slice of Switzerland along the north shore of the lake; and even that was French until 1815 (Congress of Vienna and all that). The border lies at the end of every lane, every suburban avenue. Rare is the bus or trolley line that doesn’t finish its run at the booted feet of French customs guards. With the same language, culture, newspapers and TV on both sides of the border, Switzerland becomes France, France Switzerland. Tens of thousands live in France and cross the border three or four times a day to go to jobs and the theatre and the restaurants in Switzerland. The tide turns on weekends when the Swiss flood to French supermarkets for food bargains. Everyone speaks a kind of French, or English, or Italian (the third language; to see the tip of Mont Blanc from Geneva on a clear day is to see the northernmost sliver of Italy). When you live in Geneva, you fully appreciate the fluidity of national identities. Living there sealed my mongrelism; I was multicultural avant la lettre. Half the city’s population is foreign, yet the place contrives to be simultaneously wholly Swiss in its order and cleanliness (less so now, with drugs and urban graffiti) and wholly un-Swiss, if by “Swiss” one wishes to denote the leather shorts and alpenhorns of, say, Appenzell or Unterwalden, in the heartland of the picturesque country the urbane and urban Genevese dismiss as “la Suisse primitive.” Geneva’s root culture is French, for the distinction between Swiss-French and French is much less than that between the Swiss-German of Zurich and the German of Berlin or Hamburg. Geneva, herself a world capital, acknowledges only one cultural capital, and that is Paris. So it is quite fitting that her suburbs should be in France, and fitting that I should have made the transition from the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysées to the remote borderlands of the Léman Basin, where mountain hamlets an hour from cosmopolitan boulevards doze in the slumber of the ages. Where in the remote pastures of the High Jura the solitary mas, alpine barns, slumber beneath their eiderdowns of snow through the long winters. Where paths footworn over the centuries lead from the forest’s edge of the mysterious Voirons to the hut that hides among the trees like the witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel,” its chimney smoking quietly. And where, too, the ski slopes echo to the rollicking of Geneva jet-set millionaires and lesser party animals seeking the oblivion of sex and booze and a fast schuss to the nearest disco. (Solitary myself, I was always more drawn to the somber solitudes, although once or twice in my teens I drunkenly roamed the snowy streets of high-end Alpine resorts in an intoxicated and fruitless search for a friendly girl or two.)
                                               *       *       *
    In Geneva, as in Paris, we lived first in a hotel of faded elegance, en l’occurrence the Hotel Beau-Rivage, on the lake, with a view of the Jet d’Eau and the elegant lakeside villas and the mini-Fujiyama of the Môle mountain pointing the way farther up the geological staircase to the noble Grande Jorasse range and culminating in imperial Mont Blanc, whose profile has been compared by Bonapartists to that of their lamented Emperor, asleep, with his bicorne on. This panorama is the grandest in Europe.