The deckchairs are all theirs
In the past month some mundane words seem to have regained their old mystery. “Travel” is one. In my dutiful daily hour on the rusting exercise bike in the garden I’ve been listening to favourite audiobooks of the remarkable far away: Jan Morris in Venice, Peter Matthiesson in the Himalayas, Bruce Chatwin in Patagonia. In the absence of the possibility of any kind of abroad the great descriptive passages seem doubly evocative.
As summer approaches and – as seems inevitable – our failure to control coronavirus will warrant greater restriction on British travellers, the confinement will no doubt be felt ever more keenly. Germany is negotiating an agreement for its holidaymakers to visit Greece and the Balearics. The tourism minister for the latter has not been alone in explaining how such arrangements will need to be selective: “There are countries like the UK that have taken too long to adopt containment measures. That puts us in a different situation with respect to them.” The Little Englanders might have been careful what they wished for. Their shiny blue passports may have to wait a long while to collect any stamps.
A bar sans pareil
Of all the pubs in London, few can boast a history quite as glamorous or telling as the French House in Soho. During the war the pub became the unofficial home of the French resistance. Charles de Gaulle, in exile, used to walk down there from his home in Hampstead to meet his lieutenants to plot over dinner. His great rallying cry to the Free French – “À tous les Français, la France a perdu une bataille! Mais la France n’a pas perdu la guerre!” – was said to have been written in the upstairs bar.
The inspirational powers of the pub persisted in peacetime: Brendan Behan wrote much of The Quare Fellow in a favourite corner; Dylan Thomas, after a long night, left his only manuscript of Under Milk Wood under a bar stool. Lesley Lewis, landlady for the past 30 years, has made sure the pub retains its heritage as a home of artists and free spirits, but in common with all other hostelries in the country the French House is facing an uncertain future. Last week, a crowdfunder was established to help the pub pay its eye-watering Soho rent.
My contribution to VE Day celebrations was to make a small donation: vive the French!
One rule to survive by
Thinking of risks and travel, I’m reminded of a day I once spent in Warsaw interviewing the celebrated reporter Ryszard Kapuściński who, as the Polish press agency’s only Africa correspondent at the height of the cold war, covered 27 revolutions and coups. He had many brushes with death – once, at a road block, he was doused with petrol, while the drunk guards argued among themselves whether to set him alight (How did that feel? “Very cold indeed.”) The thing that had scared him most, however, was not war itself, but the prospect of falling ill in a place without healthcare.
“The question of life and death in our culture is very important,” he said. “But there are places that those questions are not so important.” To keep himself well, he had one rule, which I subsequently adopted the few times I’ve been reporting in any place where a hospital might be two days’ drive away. “Do not eat anything that has been cut with a knife. The edge of a knife carries all the bacteria. Bananas OK; oranges OK.” Other than that, he trusted to luck.
• Tim Adams is an Observer writer
Credit: The Guardian
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