Downtown, where all the lights are blighted

Oxford Circus, London, the way we were. (Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash)

A reflection for times of pandemic inspired by the lyrics of songs by British and French pop divas of the Sixties.

I woke up with Petula Clark in my head the other morning. The British pop diva of the Sixties was alternating between Downtown, arguably the most seminal of her punchy Sixties pop ballads, and Don’t Sleep in the Subway, her wistful song about a lovers’ tiff. Her songs always conjure London, just as the whimsical pastiches of the Kinks do; Waterloo Sunset, not least. Listen to them and you’re wandering between Leicester Square and Piccadilly, browsing in Soho between a fussy gents’ outfitters and a sex shop, or sashaying down Carnaby Street doing your little rounds ’round the boutiques of London Town. Pretty much everywhere the Carnabetian army marches on. Or did.

I try to picture London in lockdown, and I just can’t. Even though I’ve watched those little videos that proliferate on YouTube, showing exactly that. But they seem surreal. No Carnabetian army on the fashion prowl, no (one imagines) huddles of colleagues over pints at lunchtime in the pubs, no darting into food halls for a bite, whether Harvey Nicks, Selfridges or Harrods. And what must the tube be like? Running empty, all clatter and no chatter? That slow rumble as the tube train approaches, with no one on the platform to hear it? No one listening to the Mind the Gap man, no one jostling for the handrails near the carriage doors, no pushing and shoving at every stop as Londoners clamber in and out?  

What is London’s West End (and whenever I write about London, that’s the London I mean) without the food and drink that assails you in every street, on every corner, in bars, cafés, shops; the food and drink of the West End have a ubiquity like no other.

And Paris. What is Paris without its street café life? And here’s another British Sixties pop diva, Sandie Shaw, singing in her oh-so continental way that achingly evocative little song in which she walks along “the city streets you used to walk along with me; and every step I take reminds me of just how we used to be; oh how can I forget you, when there is always something there to remind me…? But now the lyric attains another meaning, because, as shadows fall, “I pass a small café where we would dance at night…”.

And in my glum reverie, just as for Sandie when she sang it, there’s no one there. But not only the lover she’s missing; no one. Nobody’s there; the door is shut, the lights are off.

Paris by night; happy tables, happy punters… the way we were. (Image by Gerhard Bögner from Pixabay)

Its composers, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, creators of some of that decade’s finest songs and lyrics, may have been writing of London or somewhere else, but for me, even as a 10-year-old when I first loved the song, it always seemed to be Paris. And what did a 10-year-old kid from Oranjemund know of Paris, yet somehow something of the city was there, in my mind; how strange, but true. And further poignancy in this lyric: if you should find you miss the sweet and tender love we used to share, just come back to the places where we used to go and I’ll be there

But the mind has a way of filling in the colour and flavour of how things used to be. Can’t you just smell the pastries and creams emanating from the patisserie as you pass by in your mind; then nip in and come out with a Paris-Brest and relish the praline cream; and then I wonder when these simple, wonderful things will become normal again, how long we must wait for things taken for granted barely a year ago to become ordinary once more.

What is a night stroll in Paris without walking into a corner café for a plate of steak et frites, or grabbing a croque monsieur to eat on a park bench while busy Parisians bustle by? The French call their lockdown a “confinement”. Trust the French to find a subtle way not to call it lockdown. It’s clever, though, because it seems to suggest that while you’re confined within your home, the virus is confined too. What must it be like to look down from your Juliet balcony onto a disconsolate Parisian street longing for the return of human life? I find myself longing to disembark from the Eurostar train at Paris Gare Du Nord to relish being insulted by an Algerian taxi driver while being dropped off at a grim little hotel in Montmartre and the poker faced concierge, overhearing the man’s rudeness, sighing at me. “Je suis désolé, monsieur.” Nobody apologises like the French: I am desolate on hearing of this dire news, sir; my heart is as a parched desert, my soul stricken, never to recover. They stop just short of committing seppuku, but that’s another culture. Rather French rudeness followed by a French apology than deathly quiet everywhere in Parisian streets where you can’t pop into a patisserie or fromagerie.

Croque monsieur. There’s no time like the present. (Photo by petradr on Unsplash)

A Montmartre corner café is nothing without people sitting on green French bistro chairs on the street, and expressionless waiters bustling in and out of the door with trays of confectioneries and coffee and sugar lumps to be set before you with contempt. I would pay to be the victim of Parisian contempt now, and give the old grouch a tip so he can buy himself a blond beer in a glum bar on the way home, and complain to Sasha behind the bar about the ridiculous foreign customers he’s had to serve all day, but I won’t, and he can’t.

In my mind I climb the steps of La Butte, those endless stairways which can make the wretched sigh, and sit on the ramparts of the basilica of Sacré-Cœur, and look down on the city and try to blank out the Paris of lockdown and replace it with the one of my memories of July 2005, when we sat there and the Eiffel tower twinkled afar while we pulled a baguette from a brown paper bag and unlidded a plastic tub of paté de foie gras and felt like proper Parisians who’d been out for a night-time stroll from our little apartment off the Rue Saint-Rustique.

I knew I had to visit Paris, even when I was a no-nothing kid. I was infatuated with Françoise Hardy as a young teenager. I wanted to marry her, but the age difference, well… then I was in boarding school in Windhoek when she toured South Africa and performed in Cape Town, so it was not to be. I smile at my youthful passion now but my smile turns downward when I revisit the lyrics of her song All Over the World, and the words suddenly seem to fit our times.

All over the world people must meet and part… now, every line in the song seems to ring of people separated, nobody together, and to ask whether they ever will be again, and I dismiss the song from my mind and grasp for something uplifting.

Croque madame; a croque monsieur with an egg. (Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash)

And suddenly Petula is back, and we’re mingling on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty, breathing in, breathing out, cross your heart and hope not to die. A Häagen-Dazs sign flashes enticingly; come into our store for a scoop of strawberry cheesecake with a side of spittle.

Now Petula’s singing I know a place where the lights are always low; I know a place where we can go All around there are girls and boys; it’s a swinging place, a cellar full of noise. The Swinging Sixties, captured in cheesy lyrics; a fromagerie of pop schmaltz. It was a simpler time of what you wore being the thing; the music, the style, the haircut, the makeup; a time of breaking out of the straitjacket of the earlier decades, and of young people asserting themselves, saying this is how we are, this is how we look, this is what we have to say and we’re damn well going to say it.

And I googled Petula Clarke last night and she’s 88. So I googled Sandie Shaw and she’s only 73 (she could bring out an album then; Cher did one two years ago and she’s just 74). Françoise Hardy? I’d be married to a 76-year-old. And they, all of them, are in lockdown somewhere, just as you and I are, to one degree or another.

Since we’re in somber mood, we can’t end this without bringing on the Little Sparrow. Edith Piaf sang and recorded mostly in earlier decades but one of the songs she is best known for was recorded in 1961, Non, je regrette rien

So, non, rien de rien; non, je ne regrette rien; ni le bien qu’on m’a fait; ni le mal, tout ça m’est bien égalno, I regret nothing; not the good things that have happened, nor the bad; it’s all the same to me. France’s national chanteuse, urging us down the ages to look ahead, not back; to watch and wait and be patient, for this too will pass. While, on La Butte, another minstrel, Rufus Wainwright, wonders whether the windmill wings of the Moulin will shelter you and I.

The stairways of La Butte, Montmartre, Paris, leading up to the Sacre-Coeur, in ordinary times. (Image by Frank Meitzke from Pixabay)

There’s got, to quote another diva’s maudlin song from the decade that followed, to be a morning after. In the meantime, we’d best put our minds to the other side of all this, and aim to get there.

So, there’s the kitchen. Time to try your hand at a croque monsieur. DM/TGIFood


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  • Sir… Wonderful to read! Your interwoven descriptions of the familiar places, the music I grew up with, the food, the attitude of the French (which changed remarkably and temporarily toward a band of us as Bok supporters decked out in green and gold when we invaded the essence of Paris in the week before the 2007 RWC Final – we were loved because all of Paris wanted us to demolish the “Ros Boeuf!) and the servitude of our confinement is masterful. Although it’s nowhere near the same class as the work of the musicians you have described, the song “Those Canaan Days” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat sung in a French accent also comes to mind as describing how things used to be. Thank you for a sublime piece of writing.

  • Dear Tony, I loved this article, so evocative, so full of nostalgia for what we hope we will get to see and experience again. I have shared it with about a dozen friends and they all had a similar reaction. Perfectly pitched and timed. Thank you, Yvette

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