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Wednesday 16 January 2013

One Morning in Paris: Oh, Cecilia and the Olivetti

IN the early hours of one April morning in 1973, I staggered off the Metro at Saint-Lazare and was making my way back to the Grand Hotel de Normandie, after another ignominious night at the Quatre Vents, and yet more entanglements with a tolerant gendarmerie, when I saw a woman, dressed like something out of the Roaring 20s, opening her door across the Rue D'amsterdam.
Being still full of brandy, bad manners and a benevolent devilment to be the bane of someone else’s life, I crossed the deserted street and engaged her in a sort of conversation. There was an instant, brief reciprocating of what the French call raccordement, and the next thing I found myself inside her apartment.
I had a chill of recognition, as if I was standing in the room I imagined to be Miss Havisham’s when, as a child, I had first read Great Expectations. One jarringly incongruous item which held me back in reality was a portable typewriter, perched on stacks of paperback novels against a far wall, its inordinately shiny typebars gleaming in what little lamplight helped guide our way.
The dusty, dingy front lounge, which is far as I got, was otherwise full of cats and chaise longues, from all of which seemed to drape scarves of a length and strength that might well have saved Isadora Duncan from strangulation. Indeed, in this state bordering on hallucination, I saw myself with the ghost of Isadora Duncan, someone with whom, unlike Miss Havisham, I wish I’d cavorted in another life, never breaking my heart.
What probably fuelled my wandering mind that night was this woman in Paris was not, it turned out, French at all, but a British expatriate, with what sounded like a slight dash of Scot. And she was, even from such close quarters, of indiscriminate age.
Her furnishings were not. They were decidedly Art Deco, the little alabaster lighting shining off the few clean and clear spaces of the Frank Lloyd Wright flooring and the China tables. It reminded me very much of the way Maureen Kiely Cusack had decorated my flat on Hatch Street in Dublin, so I sat back, put my feet up on one of the cats and relaxed and waited for my new friend to serve me cognac and coffee.
In the dimly-lit surroundings I could clearly hear my mind recite the words of another English writer, one of far more modern times, yet perhaps no less evocative than Dickens. He was recounting his own wine drinking session, with a journalist, in a chairless room decorated with Norwegian Wood: "We talked until two and then she said, it’s time for bed/She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh./I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath."
My Paris friend was a Cecilia, not a Maureen, and she had a truly fascinating life story to tell. There were moments, I confess, when my mind strayed to question its credibility, but each time I came back to the realisation that, while that very special brand of what we now call multiculturalism, which had thrived in the Gay Paree in the 20s, had been tossed up against the rocks of the Depression and the War years, there had been survivors, particularly women, people who had managed to see through the austere 50s and live into the Swinging 60s, and beyond, increasingly being considered eccentrics and relics from a sadly lost time. Them and their typewriters.
Cast aside from mainstream society, they still, alone, held out a hand to an age we could but cherish from a distance, through the writings of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Miller, e.e. cummings and Gertrude Stein, the last of whom had called her compatriots the Lost Generation.
Cecilia and I corresponded for a few years, cards at Christmas, postcards from the Costa del Sol, snatches of dispatches of diminishing interest, that sort of thing. She must have kept my letters, for when she died, aged 82, I was surprised to get word from one of her sons, Anthony, who had settled in Australia after a career in the military and the secret service.
So I kept an eye out for her obituary, and it duly appeared in The Daily Telegraph. Everything Cecilia had told me that night in Paris turned out to be true.
She was born in India while her father had been commandant of the staff office at Quetta, now capital of the province of Balochistan in Pakistan. At six she’d been shipped off to St Margaret’s school in Edinburgh. Back on the Sub-Continent, Cecilia first married at 18, simply to escape the army life. She and her husband, a private, settled in England, and the marriage produced a son and a daughter. But, given its foundations, it was doomed to fail.
Divorce could not slow her down. Through the late 20s and the 30s, this brilliant social butterfly floated everywhere from London to Paris and, in the years before the Civil War, Madrid. She mixed it with the great writers, the artists and their hangers-on. She matched them in the cafes and the nightclubs. She was, best of all, the subject of stories and the grabber of gifts.
After quieter War years spent in Scotland, and being married and divorced a second time, Cecilia had returned to the Continent to try to make what there was of her acquired wealth last, but she was soon back with the fast crowd, frequenting bars either side of the Mediterranean. In time, she had to settle for the grimy ground-floor apartment on the Rue D'amsterdam.
As for me, Cecilia could find but one, tenuous, degree of separation. Or maybe two. I used to watch Cyril Connolly, the year before he died and spending his summer at Crookhaven, west of Cork, scribbling notes on the beach and writing funny little stories about geese on nooses being sent down holes in the ground to find the straightest line to sewerage outlets. Cecilia told me how she’d woken one morning to find Connolly in her bath.
Connolly, she said, had left behind his bright red Olivetti typewriter. It had been given to him by his old Etonian classmate, Lord Alec Dunglass, after a cricketing tour to Argentina.
It was the gleaming machine I'd seen that morning in what little light there was in Cecilia's lounge. Even in that pĂ©nombre, its design of geometric abstraction, from Aldo Magnelli, spoke more elegantly of its era than any of the words it typed could possibly match. 
I so earnestly wanted to ask Anthony if I could have it. It would have been the torch to a generation into which I wished I was born. Yet I believed I had no claim. Better to be owned, I reasoned, by someone ignorant of its provenance than knowingly by an imposer on its time, an impostor to its age.


Jasper Lindell said...

My word, what can you say in reply to a story like that? That's fantastic, Robert, fantastic. Amazing, really.

Ray said...

I can only echo Jasper: that is a fantastic story. Thank you.

Rob Bowker said...

Great story, Robert. Reads like fiction, rings like fact.

Richard P said...

What a fascinating reminiscence.

Robert Messenger said...

Thank you Jasper, Ray, Richard and Rob, and also Jasper for your email on this. Rob, I know what you mean, but it's all too true! There will be more of these to come.