An Interrupted Life – Part Fourteen

With John Moult’s letter in my hand I felt only a huge rush of relief. I had a job. I was overwhelmed and could hardly contain my joy. Until that moment I’d had no idea how I was going to find a foothold in this city. It was perfectly obvious even from the little I had seen that most people were poor and struggling. There were many beggars, invalids selling matches and lottery tickets, men who looked as though any job might save their lives.

Clearly it would be menial work of some sort, since I had no qualifications, but I was no stranger to mind-numbing jobs. Like most university students in those days I had looked for work in the summer to help out my mother and to pay for my small pleasures, and they were usually no-brainers. One summer I swept up lion’s droppings at the Regent Park zoo, when the lions were safely tucked away of course. I remember there was a notice on the outer side of the enclosure warning the public that the penalty for climbing over the fence was Ten Pounds. I don’t think anyone told the lions.

I also got work from Joe Lyons. At that time the Lyons teashops and restaurants were a major feature of London life. In the less-than-charming engine room of Lyons’ magnificent Marble Arch Corner House I poured tea from big ugly pots into cute little silver-plated pots. It was the Nippies, as the waitresses were called, who took the little silver pots out into the grand salon. They were pretty girls in cute uniforms with mother of pearl buttons down the front, and lacy things on their heads but they weren’t interested in me. The swells out in the dining room made better targets, and a surprisingly large number of them found their husbands out there.

During my first college vacation I worked for a manufacturer of electric kilns called Catterson Smith at the Wembley Trading Estate, and I had to be there at eight in the morning. Having to get to the factory at the same time as hundreds of others opened a vivid window into a workingman’s life. I went by bus and trolleybus early in the morning, and if there were empty seats they would be on the upper deck where smoking was permitted. The fug from all the Woodbines and Player’s Weights was impressive. It was clear that many of the men, and some women, were enjoying (if that’s the word} their first cigarettes of the morning, and the rasping cacophony of men coughing their lungs up was daunting.

Cigarettes were omnipresent in life and death. It is easy to see in hindsight that they were as important as food, shelter, alcohol and faith. People who didn’t smoke were slightly odd, like atheists. Dying men, in bed or before a firing squad craved a last cigarette. I started smoking at school when I was seventeen as a ritual of growing up. Nobody ever tried to dissuade me. I went through the gamut of brands, from Players Navy Cut to the black oriental ones with the gold tips. At the time I was travelling to and from Wembley I was in transition between Lambert & Butlers’ Straight Cut and those fancy oval Passing Clouds. I was trying to calculate whether, being oval, they might contain less tobacco. Cigarettes and smoking accessories were a gift when it came to choosing birthday and Christmas presents, rivaling handkerchiefs, ties and diaries. They were everybody’s little luxuries in times of austerity.

My job at the factory was exceedingly humble and consisted of squeezing clay into moulds. I stood on one side of a broad table, and opposite me was an older man, Albert, doing the same thing. His true expertise, he told me, was sculpting plaster of paris on the ceilings of fine houses and exhibition halls; all those floral cornices, pineapples, cherubs, he could make free-hand standing on high trestles before the plaster set, but that was before the war. There was no call for it any more and I came to feel quite sad for him thinking that such an enviable talent had no outlet.

These vacation jobs always offered enough novelty to keep me interested for the few weeks that they lasted but whatever this new job was I hoped it would last a lot longer. It mattered not at all what the job was. I would do anything just to be able to stay alive in Paris. It would be as dreary or as interesting as I wanted it to be and I always chose to be interested.

Suddenly I had a whole weekend free of worry, time to explore this place that I was determined to call home. I got my coffee and croissant at the Suisse and this time walked down to the river and wandered along the left bank, lined with second-hand booksellers, still marveling at my good fortune. Somehow I managed to hang on to most of the little money I had, though the temptation to spend it was severe. Instead I went back to the Petite Source for another helping of eggs and frites and then ventured into the Café Danton.

I was entranced by the cafés. Back in London it had been scarcely a year since the first coffee house had opened in Notting Hill Gate, the harbinger of the great wave of social evolution that was still a decade away. Throughout my adolescence there had been no public social life, nowhere to take a girl. All of Britain was still clamped down by rationing and shortages into a miserable mood of emergency. The streets were grey, business-like spaces meant only for getting from one place to another. In fact the English had never known the European tradition of sidewalk cafés, and in pre-war London it was only an affluent minority who could afford to patronise the few places that offered anything like the ambience of a Parisian café.

I remembered my mother telling me how cold and unfriendly she found London when she first arrived there in 1928. It was a city of business, grey, rainy and inhospitable. Only in the pubs would there have been any kind of social warmth and for a single woman that was out of the question.

For me, and others like me, in 1952 Paris without cafés would have been just as grim, but with them it was a low cost paradise. You could sit there as long as you liked with just a coffee or a glass of wine. The waiters were generally pleasant and efficient, and you could still call them garçon.

The Danton was almost always busy because various branches of the university were housed nearby but through the hub-bub I could hear people speaking English and I saw Jeffrey at a table in the far corner. He was sitting with some other obviously expatriated souls. Buoyed up by my exhilaration my normal diffidence evaporated and I simply crashed their party. I met Heather, a tall pale Canadian girl, and Walter, a black American. When I told them my news it was obvious that they knew just how triumphant I was feeling, just how much it meant to be given the keys to the city. From that point on my world expanded through the weekend across various cafes where the citizens of my new world spent their time.

Most of the English-speaking foreigners in the Latin Quarter – as the 5th arrondissement was known – were Americans who had been in the war. Some were famous, like James Jones who wrote ”From Here to Eternity” and Irwin Shaw who rote “The Young Lions”, others were benefitting from the GI Bill. They were all older than me, and not only in years. They talked about people and places I didn’t know, but I was content to just pick up what I could and it was a beginning. There were writers, painters, poets, actual and would-be, and Paris embraced them all. From that day on I quickly came to know a number of people, almost all in their twenties, men and women, black and white, British and American, and some who came from what was left of the British Empire.

By the end of the weekend I had a pretty fair idea of how most of the English-speaking population of the Quarter lived and survived. Most of them had some sort of small fixed income. Walter Coleman, an ex-serviceman, was a painter who had the GI Bill to support his education, for a while at least; Heather Chait got money from home; Jeffrey Craig had some kind of trust fund, and so on. There were two writers on grants, and one or two who found freelance work with French radio, doing foreign language broadcasts, some worked as translators. Most of them lived in hotel rooms, many of which were remarkably cheap. I guessed that I would probably not be able to afford the room I was in and I absorbed all the information greedily.

Then on Monday morning, as my appointment with Moult drew closer I began to feel a cold chill as I considered his letter more closely. “May be able to help you . . .” it said. Why not “I can . . .?” What if he wasn’t able to? What if I’d spent the weekend in cloud cuckoo-land?

I decided to walk back to his office on rue Sentier, and by the time I got there I’d almost convinced myself I was on a fool’s errand but I need not have worried. Moult received me with good grace and almost apologised for offering me such a menial position. He said he could give me a job as a copy boy, or messenger, and I would be paid fortnightly at 5,000 francs a week, minus deductions.

At a thousand francs to the pound it was a miserable wage, but for me it was a fortune. I would survive on it somehow. He said he wanted me to start straight away, that very day. My hours were from four in the afternoon to eleven at night. Eventually he said I would have to sort out some bureaucratic problems, like a work permit and an official document giving me permission to live in France, called a carte de sejour. He said his secretary would try to help me with that. He must have guessed what a huge impact he was having on my life, but he behaved as though it was all quite normal.

That afternoon in September I entered the office for the first time and was told that my first job when I arrived would be to collect the paper that came through a telex machine from London, cut it up and arrange it suitably on the copy-taster’s desk. Of course I had no idea what a copy-taster was, but all I needed to know was which desk he sat at. The paper came out of a machine in the next room and was fed to me through a hatch in the wall. The copy taster’s job, I found out, was to read through it and decide what was worth keeping and what to discard, which seemed to me to be a pretty important job.

In 1952 the copy taster was a middle-aged man called Dougal. He came to work at five and started to sort out the piles of paper that I’d put in front of him, to have something ready for the night editor and the other sub-editors who came in around six. He was a casualty of the war, though I never knew in what way he’d been injured, and he sat in a wheel chair near the hatch. I hardly remember his face, since all I saw was the back of his head, and the loose, rather drab cardigan he always wore.

Also at five came my work mate, André, and I was no longer alone in that corner of the room. André, it seemed, had been working there forever. It may be that he was a token French employee to mollify the authorities. He was short and thin and fortyish though he looked much older. From above sunken cheeks he viewed the world with a rheumy, sceptical eye, and his jaunty little moustache looked like a mistake on his melancholic face. A Gaulloise megot always hung from his lip and the sweet scent of liqueur always drifted out on his breath, which I must say I preferred to the more usual garlic. He wore a beret and an old, dark brown suit polished at the edges, and under it a knitted jumper.

Our jobs were very simple. Apart from feeding paper to Dougal we had to stand in the corner of the room until somebody told us to do something else, like carry a piece of paper across the room, or fetch sandwiches and cigarettes. André couldn’t speak English, the language of the office, but he needed only to know the names of the recipients of the pieces of paper and the word “sandwich”, of course, is universal. He had been standing there for years and would have been content to stand there until his retirement, when he hoped instead to be standing up against a bar – until he couldn’t.

Everything remained quiet until six o’clock when the people, the night editor and the subs who actually made the paper came in. It was the first time I had ever been in a newspaper office, and I was deeply impressed. The small band of men who gathered there every night and filled the air with spontaneous irreverence seemed to be completely free of all the formality and pigeon-holing that was such a feature of British life in those days. To my young eyes they were more like an air crew getting ready to fly over Germany, and that wasn’t such a flight of fancy, since two of them had been RAF pilots, and not too long ago.

Ted Hodgson was clearly the boss though not in the way that I was accustomed to see authority exercised. The work flowed so easily between them, people knew what they had to do, discussion was brief and if Hodgson made decisions they were rarely explicit. The sense of energy was very real but there was no passion or argument and for me it was exciting – no, more than exciting, it was a revelation – to see a group of men who all seemed to be very good at what they did working together under some pressure to produce a finished newspaper on a deadline.

Hodgson sat to the right of me behind the central table in a row of brown wooden tables. He was, I guessed, in his early thirties, but he may well have been younger. He was quick, athletic, with a boyish face, ruffled hair and a small moustache. His manner was calm but lively, with an engaging grin accentuated by prominent upper teeth. He was one of the two ex-RAF pilots, and it was all too easy to imagine him in the cockpit of a fighter plane. Because he was called Ted – and only first names were ever used in that room – I had to be called Eddie to avoid confusion.

To his right sat an older man called Rosen whom I never got to know and who seemed to be excluded from the general camaraderie. He was an intermediary between Hodgson and the rest, and I learned that he was called the chief sub-editor. Everything that went into the paper passed through his hands first. Behind a second row of tables, almost touching the first sat Danny Halperin, Max Marquis, and Frank. Danny was a sleek, tanned Canadian who I came to know very well much later. His neighbor, Max, was the other ex-pilot, who in his own way was as much a stereotype as Ted, with a lean, debonair profile and a penchant for white silk scarves. Frank, whose other name I cannot retrieve, was ex-army and very different from the others. He had come, I was told, from Agence France Presse, a French news agency like Reuters and AP. Stolid, square jawed and matter-of-fact, he spoke in a provincial accent I couldn’t locate and took no part in the banter that flowed between the others.

Beyond this quintet, at the back of the room, was a stylish fellow called Bigelow who wore braces (or rather, suspenders, since he was American) and a bow tie. I asked once what he did there and was told that he wrote a social diary. In fact he produced the only original copy to appear in the paper. He tapped it out in the early evening and handed it to Ted Hodgson himself, so I never had anything to do with him. Everything else in the paper was pre-digested in London and piped over the Channel by telex and I became the custodian of this machine.

From early afternoon it chattered away ceaselessly in the next room, and the endless spools of paper poured through a hatch in the wall until midnight, relaying the entire contents of the London paper, as well as everything that came out of Associated Press, Agences France Presse, and Reuters. It was from this mountain of miscellany that the Continental Daily Mail was created, for it had no reporting staff or local contributors at all except for Bigelow.

Over time, at the office, as I cut my way through the reams of copy, I read anything that caught my eye. There were running stories, about Charlie Chaplin exiling himself from the USA rather than face Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition, about a terrible train crash that killed 108 people, about the British atom bomb, and the end of tea rationing, and gossip about the Royal Family. After a few months I became quite well informed about the state of the world. Even more importantly, after a few weeks I began to know Danny Halperin and Ted Hodgson as people I could talk to. Even though my job was absurdly trivial I began to feel myself drawn into this small lamp-lit microcosm of what was a universal activity. It would be impossible, reading every day the work of hundreds of reporters and writers as they poured out of the telex machine, not to be aware of this little office as part of a grand profession.

However, everything was not suddenly plain sailing. As I was warned I did indeed have to deal with the French bureaucracy. The company, I was told, could not employ me unless I was legally resident in France, and for that I needed that Carte de Sejour. I went to the prefecture, the office that issues such things and was told by a remarkably unsympathetic woman that I could not have one unless I had a job.

“But, but, but . .“ I stuttered. “I do have a job. Here is the paper . . .”

“You cannot have a job without a work permit, Monsieur. Au revoir.”

With no help from her I found the place that issues work permits and was told by an even less sympathetic woman (if that were possible) that I could certainly not receive a work permit unless I had a Carte de Sejour. It is almost impossible to describe the cloud of doom and frustration that enveloped everything official in those days. At Government offices, the post office, ticket counters, clerks were defiantly arrogant and the waiting times were outrageous and a Yes could only be extracted as a whim, or when all avenues to No were blocked.

I made several journeys to and fro between those women until one of them finally cracked and let me through. This was an important experience that served me well in later life. At about that same time Joseph Heller was writing Catch-22 and when I read it I recognized the trap immediately. Happily my version was not life threatening.

 

© Ted Simon 2020

 


 

< An Interrupted Life - Part Seven

 


 

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