DIARY 25 April 1968 Paris in the spring

Paris in the spring

It was not only my first trip abroad but also my first flight; not that I spent much time in the air. I had booked through the National Union of Students’ travel agency which sold me a return ticket for the unlikely sum of about five pounds. It meant a coach trip from Victoria almost to the south coast where the terminal was a wooden hut on a former RAF base. I did not expect a large airliner but, even so, I was relieved when it wasn’t a biplane. I was a slightly nervous passenger but the flight lasted only fifteen minutes, barely time to start hyperventilating.

We landed at Beauvais airport which is over 60 miles from Paris. By the time we reached the outskirts, about half of my ‘flight’ had been at ground level. We did not even reach the centre of Paris; the coach stopped at Porte de Clignacourt, the northern end of the Metro line. I went off to buy a ‘carnet’ which I was informed was the best way to buy a ticket for the Paris Underground without having to use too much French.

placestmichel

M = Metro Place Saint-Michel

In the six months that I had been in London, I had learned to use the Underground to navigate that metropolis. I would do the same here in Paris using le Metro; ligne no. 4 became my geographical centre of gravity for the five days or so that I would be in Paris. 

Paris-Saint-Michel-gezisi-1024x768

I would come up out of the Metro here. Behind the grand building, to the left, is the Seine and a view of Notre Dame. Just to the right is the less grand Rue de la Huchette where I stayed.

I had nowhere to stay but decided to head for the university area where I might find a fellow student to let me sleep on the floor. Ligne 4 took me directly to Saint-Michel, the nearest stop to the Sorbonne. I had inadvertently chosen the Left Bank, Quartier Latin, le Boul’ Mich’; it was fortuitous.

The students I saw in the Place Saint-Michel were too well-dressed and middle class to be approachable by this scruffy Englishman with poor French. Wandering down a side street, I found a grubby hotel which offered a cheap room and hot water for two hours a day. I paid the old woman who sat in her concierge’s booth giving me incomprehensible instructions while I tried to look attentive.

rue_du_chat_qui_peche.1379079.w630  lechat2  Caveau UF

There was a jazz club under my hotel named after the Rue du Chat qui Pêche. I only went once, unsure of my credentials as an intellectual.

I was now lodged in the Rue de la Huchette, in the centre of bohemian Paris. A good choice for an erstwhile beatnik and aspiring intellectual. I had found my way here on my own, I had somewhere to sleep, and I was not confused by public transport. I felt surprisingly at ease on my first day as a foreigner.

My next prime necessity was something to eat. Again, the university failed to provide anything even for its own students in terms of catering so I wandered off down the Boulevard Saint-Michel where, to my great satisfaction, I found a cafeteria called ‘La Source’. Restaurants, with their maitres d’hôte, menus in French and prices in francs, were impossible to negotiate so to be able to see what I was buying, with prices I could quickly calculate, put me in control.

To a young man used to a diet comprising what was available in the Bull Ring in the 1950s, cafeteria food in Paris was a revelation. I am not even talking about exotic unknown foods cooked with unusual ingredients. I had never before had raw grated carrot with olive oil; or boiled eggs in jelly; or meat patties in breadcrumbs; or salads with a garlic dressing; or warm crusty baguettes. You could even have a small carafe of red wine with no fuss whatsoever. With an individual fresh strawberry tart.

Next to my hotel there was a narrow alleyway called Rue du Chat qui Pêche which opened onto the left bank quai opposite Notre Dame cathedral. Passing the bookstalls, this became the first steps of my perambulations through Paris. In the few days I had to explore, I rarely used my carnet except as a quick route to Les Halles and the flea market at Porte de Clignacourt. At that time these were lively working markets which I preferred to the more formal boulevards cut through the city by Haussmann.

I visited the great monuments and parks by foot, somewhat surprised by the compact size of Paris. I bestrode the city from the Luxembourg Gardens to the Etoile, Invalides, Eiffel Tower, taking artistic inspiration on the way from the Louvre and the Impressionists housed at that time in a small gallery called L’Orangerie. There were plenty of places I did not see but I had already decided that this was a place I could enjoy and would return to.

The reason I was in Paris was a young woman. Her name was Lyn; I had walked her home one night from Selly Oak Youth Club but, unlike other girls, she had let me repeat this gallantry. She lived on the other side of the Bristol Road which meant a half-hour return walk for me; after a few weeks these solitary homeward promenades allowed me to revel in the fantasies of a young man who, if pushed, might admit to being in love.

Scan_20171017 (2)-002  Lyn, Paris, April 1968, taken by me.

We were at different schools when we met, both studying for ‘A’ levels. She was serious-minded, intelligent, and knew many things that I didn’t. She was in her final school year when I went to London and we could meet only occasionally. When she announced that she would be going on a school trip to Paris, it seemed obvious that I should try to follow her. Although she would be shepherded, cloistered and secured from any actual experience of Paris or French people with the rest of her class, I thought it suitably romantic if I could whisk her away from her custodians even for a short time.

She and her class were taken to a high walled school which was not even in Paris but in Sceaux, to the south. Crammed into dormitories at night, fed from communal marmites in a refectory and subjected to classes and tests every day, her visit seemed to be more about sequestration than education. She had a highly regulated programme; there was insufficient information for me to intercept her. Somehow, she managed to escape for a few hours one afternoon; our assignation felt surreptitious and we went to the cinema as if to hide from public gaze.

Le Samourai UF

We watched ‘Le Samouraȉ’ starring Alain Delon; he acted the silent type and there were long periods of no dialogue, fortunately for my lack of French comprehension. A walk from the Arc de Triomphe to Les Tuileries and along the Seine in sunshine took us back to Rue de la Huchette. The concierge grumbled as we entered my hotel. We had only a short time alone together. The train back to Sceaux stopped at Saint-Michel, just yards away at the end of the rue, and I reluctantly took her back to incarceration. I did not see her again until we were both back in England.

It was quintessentially romantic; two young lovers meeting up in Paris, snatching a few hours together. But like all interesting love stories, there was a shadow. This brief encounter was a prelude to many other rendez-vous over the next year or so, lasting at most a few days. In England, as in Paris, we would have separate lives, but in different cities. Marriage was a rejected bourgeois notion; I expressed a wish that we should live together but I could offer no means to do so. Perhaps we should have just run away; at least we would have been together.

Huty21891 003  B1EA57C3-5F4A-4C40-8B61-396041DC6821_cx0_cy6_cw0_w1023_r1_s  Rue St Jacques

Scenes from Paris, May 1968

Back in England, barely a fortnight later Paris was in the news. On 6 May, a demonstration against the police occupation of the Sorbonne was broken up by riot police. I watched on television as tear-gas exploded outside the Café Saint-Severin where I used to take coffee. I was still a long way from political awareness but I could not ignore the flickering flames of revolt now evident so close at hand. There were barricades in the street I had recently walked and the cobble stones were being ripped up to be hurled at the police.

Ends

Copyright Derek Perry 2018.

 

 

DIARY 18 March 1968 Taking to the streets

Taking to the streets

At the time I moved to London, my awareness of politics was very low. Unable to vote, I had never been asked to make any political choices. But in this momentous year, 1968, history was on the move.

Traf Sq 1968

Trafalgar Square 17 March 1968

On Sunday 17 March I took the Piccadilly Line and made my way to Trafalgar Square. I was attending my first demonstration, against the war in Vietnam. I had never been in such a large crowd before; even going to see the Blues at St Andrew’s could not match this crowd. Reports said there were over 80,000 people.

Most of those on the demonstration appeared to be in their twenties or younger; students, hippies, many too young to vote. Much like myself[1]. There were a few older people who were identifiable as pacifists, including the occasional priest, nun or Buddhist. CND members were prominent, identified by their duffle coats.

Hue MArch 1968

The destructive liberation of Hue by South Vietnamese and US troops 1968

The war in Vietnam had lasted for years. The USA decided it had to ‘stop the spread of communism’ by sending hundreds of thousands of troops and billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. 1968 was to be the crucial watershed year of the war. The North Vietnamese Army launched its Tet Offensive in January 1968, their attempt to end the war. In response, the US poured in more and more men and equipment. By the end of 1968 there were 820,000 troops in the South Vietnamese Army and 536,000 US troops.

 My-Lai-massacre-vietnam-war-usa-military-pentagon  My_Lai_massacre

My Lai 16 March 1968

The people on the demonstration, including myself, had seen all this in colour on television and in magazines We had witnessed forests sprayed with defoliants, napalm fire bombs ripping across the treeline, terrified Vietnamese farmers and their children, angry and desperate American troops slogging through jungles. The demonstrators would have been even angrier if they knew what had happened at My Lai[2] on the previous day.

 Ali Redgrave HAwking

Tariq Ali, Vanessa Redgrave and Stephen Hawking (left) on the demonstration

Two of the leaders of the demonstration, Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave[3], made their way to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square to present a letter of protest. They were allowed through a cordon while the rest of the protesters were held at bay by hundreds of policemen.


Protests of 1968  Girl on the floor

Grosvenor Square 17 March 1968

Ordered to leave, many protesters refused and tried to break though the cordon. In response, the Police broke up the demonstration using horses; over 200 demonstrators were reported injured. This was before the Police had special riot units and protective gear[4]; nevertheless, these ‘bobbies’ with their pointed helmets and big boots demonstrated what they could do.

 I left as the trouble flared up; being on my own I thought it wiser to go back to my digs in Acton. This was the first of many demonstrations that I would attend over the next few decades. I learned a lot from this one. Here was a place where I could express my opinions and be part of a group of like-minded people. I began to learn that there was a possibility that we might change the future. I could now identify at least some of the enemy. This was one spark of many that would turn 1968 into an inferno.

Copyright Derek Perry 2018.

For newsreels of the day:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgbAsiW9Q3Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLRL6qYSDuI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXFII8x2BXs

[1] In 1968, the voting age was 21. Already seen as anachronistic, the voting age in the UK would be reduced to 18 in 1969, just in time for my 21st birthday when I would have got the vote anyway.
[2] The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by US troops in South Vietnam on 16 March 1968. Between 347 and 504 unarmed people were massacred by the US Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. It would take a year and eight months for details to emerge.
[3] Tariq Ali has long been associated with the New Left Review. Ali was involved with The Black Dwarf newspaper and joined the International Marxist Group (IMG) in 1968. He continues to be a writer and political activist. In 1961, Vanessa Redgrave was an active member of the Committee of 100. Redgrave and her brother Corin joined the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s. Since then she has maintained an acclaimed acting career and remains a political activist.
[4] Riot shields and helmets were developed in the early 1970s. The Special Patrol Group (SPG) was set up to control public order in the 1960s but was unarmed and had no special equipment. One of the SPG’s most controversial incidents came in 1979, while officers were policing a protest by the Anti-Nazi League in Southall. During a running battle, demonstrator Blair Peach was struck on the head and died as a result of his injuries; a report later stated that it was an action of the SPG. In the inquiries which followed, a variety of unauthorised weapons were found in the possession of SPG officers, including baseball bats, crowbars and sledgehammers .