There are few photographs of my years in Paris. The camera I had back then was minimal, film expensive to process and anyway, postcards did a far better job that I could ever do. It doesn’t matter. Back then it was all about art. Not mine, of course… It would be twenty years before I picked up brush and courage and laid them on a canvas. No, it was all about the Place du Tertre.
I haven’t been back for a very long time… over a quarter of a century has passed and I cannot say how much has changed there, and how much remains the same. But there are things that remain fresh in our memories; bright and sparkling.
For me, Paris was a time of intense emotion, friendships so deep they stripped away illusion and, until the last couple of years, the happiest I have ever been. Some things we don’t forget; times, places, memories that stay in that special corner in our hearts where treasures are kept.
And there was Paris 1981.
And of course, I still have the Diaries.
I had been to Paris once, years before, and fallen in love with the place. Of all the fabulous buildings and museums two places had stuck in my mind and felt, in some indescribable way, like home. One was the Rue Mouffetard, a little backstreet off the tourist track, just behind the Pantheon, where I had wandered very early one morning. The narrow street seemed timeless; archetypically Parisian. The aroma of fresh bread and coffee hung in the morning and a tramp slept beneath the pages of Le Monde in a doorway, clutching the green glass of an empty wine bottle to his chest.
The other was the Place du Tertre, the artist’s square in Montmartre and a painted canvas on a rickety easel. The picture showed another bearded tramp wearing a cap pulled low against the night; just the grizzled face illuminated in the darkness by the match he was holding to half a cigarette.
So when I was lucky enough to go back to work there, Montmartre was the first place I headed for, walking right across Paris as if I knew the way in search of a memory.
I found the square and somehow, incredibly, soon found myself amongst friends; mainly amongst the resident artists who stayed there all year round and took their art seriously. Others came and went chasing the concentration of summer tourists and francs. Those I came to know had made it their home. I modelled for them and fed them when they were broke, and when they sold a painting, we partied. They were some of the best friends you could wish for and we took care of each other.
The bar on the corner of the square, Au Clairon des Chasseurs, was our meeting place. I could arrive for coffee on a Saturday morning and still be there in the wee small hours of Sunday. Just talking. My friends would come in, one after another to warm their hands and as one left another would arrive. Back then, everyone went to Montmartre. I met actors, writers, diplomats and aristocracy. I knew the tramps and the prostitutes who worked there. For all the surface commercialism the tourists saw, there was still a true Bohemian life under the surface and they invited me in. Everyone, it seemed, found their way there. Mini, Tahar and Thierry the waiters joined the conversations as we discussed and debated just about every subject under the sun and then went further, delving into the mysteries of the inner universe. All nations, all languages, all faiths and perspectives met there and the only rivalries I ever saw were in jest.
It was an education sans pareil. From a mousey little creature with neither confidence nor any great opinion of her worth I slowly opened up to life and laughter and began to see that perhaps I might have some kind of value after all. You could not hide in Montmartre. It demanded that you be real… warts and all.
The first Christmas in Paris stands out for many reasons. I had been ‘adopted’ and nicknamed ‘la Tomate’ for my penchant for wearing bright red, or they called me ‘Yorkshire’ in heavily accented tones. I really felt I had come home.
My closest friend was Tom Coffield, a brilliant Glaswegian artist. He was a small, wiry Scot with a deep love of Burns and a gift for holding up the mirror of the soul. We had met after I had been sitting on the kerb talking philosophy with Big Boris. He handed me a portrait he had sketched, but I wasn’t buying. “An I’m no’ sellin’!” said Tom as he joined me on the kerb. We must have talked for six hours straight.
We became firm friends. He was my conscience, mirror and confidante, and he was my teacher in the fine art of living. He tore strips off me when one of the artists developed an unrequited passion and taught me a new slant on responsibility. And he taught me to laugh for no reason except joy. He stripped away every illusion I could hide behind and made me see myself as real. We spent most of the summer talking, yet the dour Scot was a few years older than I and I was never quite sure what he thought of me. Except the courage. He told me I had courage. I’d never considered that before and it was a new slant on the way I saw myself.
He promised me a proper portrait, but it never did materialise. Each time he tried to paint me he saw something new, and knowing me so well he tried to capture it all. But that Christmas he gave me something better. He gave me a memory.
It was snowing and Paris is magical in the moonlight. We bumped into Thierry Arnault at dinner chez Denise on the Rue Lepic. Tom insisted that Thierry show me his studio and his work, in a tiny garret next door. Thierry, however, seemed more interested in introducing me to his cats, Snoopy and Pigalle. Mini at the Clairon had presented me with a bottle of Chateauneuf for Christmas and it accompanied us all to Montparnasse where the layers of this Bohemian world came together to party.
It was, according to my diary, a wonderful evening. I must have written the entry as soon as I got home. There was dancing and song. “I have no idea what possessed me to join Vince in ‘Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at’ to drown out Tom’s Gaelic. I may be obliged to plead the fifth… not amendment, but Chateauneuf.” “They decided to rename me ‘La Princesse’ with great ceremony and so much laughter!”
Tom kissed me a Merry Christmas. I was leaving next day for England. He told me to come back soon as I was loved by many and would be missed. It was the first time in my life that I felt I really mattered in the world. One is born into a family, but those who find and cherish us for who we are, they are very special. My diary records, “ …and that was a good day. So many friends I have made! I am a lucky woman.”
Tom also gave me a Christmas gift that night. It hangs on my wall today close to that very first sketch he made the day we met. The pen and ink drawing shows the Clairon and all my friends. Tom is the small guy with the beret on the left talking to Monsieur Steve and old Marcel who loved the light in my hair… I am listening to Big Boris somewhere below his beard. Sam Yeo, Mini, Thierry, the dogs and the ‘no credit’ sign…. Even the pigeons on the glass roof. The tall figure of Alain, with his fiery eyes…but that is another story. Once upon a time, I knew them all.
It still stands… I am a lucky woman.