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Essays

 

 


The Left Bank Draws Those Going Against the Stream
by Patrick Henry

Extract from "The Visit South," a section in A LIFE AD-LIB (autobiography), Ariel Books, London, 2008.

In Paris it has always been much easier to reach the vital literary scene than in London, because in the latter it does not exist as a graspable entity. The prominent are too aloof to notice newcomers, and a class-driven insider suburban mentality pervades all. Based at the Left Bank's Shakespeare Bookshop, I soon met Ginsberg, and many other rebel poets, and read alongside them. The best event saw several Beat poets, and myself, in the audience of a hall where Voznesensky, the Russian dissenter poet read for two hours, no text, out of his head, and all we out of our minds with admiration. French translations were read out after each piece, to provide meaning, but the force of the lines of Russian brought to life, struck like symphonic music out of The Steppes.

Afterwards, fellow writers gathered around the man for a few brief words, before he was whisked away by organisers: a valuable property whose presence globally could be, politically and artistically, pure dynamite. Time later, his reputation has become that of a quasi-showman, essentially contributing modestly to literature and political change. To me his figure then, and now, is similar to the standing of the Ginsberg generation, many of whom were right there at that moment. Brash, highly-coloured, public literary cult might seem overblown or deceiving, when seen at considered perspective, but the charisma of tough attractiveness and a genuine, if na´ve force of dissent is valuable always, and has osmotic effect on individuals and generations, such as myself within my own

More prosaically, but as memorable, I met the novelist James T. Farrell, who won the Pulitzer Prize in for the Studs Lonigan Trilogy, about a young Irish-Communist worker in the melting-pot of 1930s Chicago. At a discussion in the American bookshop, a young man argued an Anarchist case against Farrell, now forty years on, still being doggedly Socialist. I took his side in this dispute, and he was impressed enough to invite me to dinner. His tough Chicago wife joined us at a Chinese restaurant, along with my friend, Mathilde, whom I had urged to dress lavishly. She arrived looking intriguing as a Russian actress from1930s Hollywood. Farrell seemed overwhelmed. Later he took us on to Les Deux Magots, the swishest intellectual café in Paris. On the terrace we drank Cognac or liqueurs, as the sophisticated bustled past on the street, maybe wondering who the hell we were. Farrell slightly resembled Sartre. Mathilde resembled every man's wildest dream.

The irony of us turning the heads and the curiosity of the rich and chique of Paris, lie in the Leftist dissent that marked ourselves: James most obviously and notoriously. But Hannah Farrell had manned union picket lines and strode in Peace Marches. I had been jailed in England for anti-nuclear weapons protests; and carried the Red Flag on May Day through Paris, for Mathilde, being taller and stronger than herself. Her family destroyed or driven apart, far across the globe, by The Bolshevik Revolution, she ended up studying Russian at The Sorbonne. I met and fell for her in The Tuileries Garden, and the rest is history, as they say. Now she worked for the Paris Broadcasting Service, and belonged to the Committee of a Communist Trade Union. Any one of these matters could make James fall for her, but I think the turquoise eye-shadow, false long lashes, and the pursed Slavonic lips pronouncing the order for another Cointreau, finally caved him in. He murmured to me that his wife made good flapjacks and read stories to children at their library in Illinois. So was I going to marry her? No, not his wife, but Mathilde. Maybe. We were on the verge of making big journeys on the road through Spain, Italy, Greece, North Africa, and The Balkans. We were both committed to revolt, and to finding the dissenting world sparking beneath the one shown on the surface. Marriage of true minds, might be a description, a binding ceremony was, as yet, nowhere near on the cards.

(Reprinted with permission of the author)

 

Patrick Henry: Born 1938, Yorkshire, England, Irish parentage. Customs Officer London, Royal Airforce Draftee, Cyprus, 1957-59. Wrote poetry in London, Paris, Cornwall; worked construction, farming, factory, café, bookshop jobs. Published On the Track, Peterloo Poets 1971. Published translations of Fruits of Winter, Prix Goncourt, 1970 and Women of The Celts, Cremonesi, 1975. Adult student at University of Wales, University of East Anglia, Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut during 1980s. Painting exhibition Paris, 1998. Poetry Reading Tour in New York 2001 arranged by Big City Lit. Painting Exhibition, Australia, 2003. Poetry Reading and Painting Exhibition tour New York State, 2004, arranged by The Author's Watermark and Poets & Writers. Poetry and prose featured in BigCityLit and in www.thisisull.com (UK website), 2001-2007. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.