Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.

2013 June

A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Curiosity Killed the Cat

Or: our love/hate relationship with the Phoenix, Chelsea

It was an unusually warm evening for a night in March, which is to say that it was not horrendously cold and you could tarry a while outside without fear of frostbite. Given the nature of his job, Nicholas is not frequently free to socialise, as he has to be doing certain things in certain places at certain times, which sometimes involves being in Greece or a sudden trip to Anguilla (“I’m not doing any more Caribbean islands — I’m fucking tired of them.”). But when he does manage to free himself from indentured servitude, we often find ourselves at the Phoenix on Smith Street.

All sensible right-minded people love the Phoenix and hate the Phoenix. It is a wonderful place, comfortable and delightful, yet somehow attracts the very worst and most tiresome lot of humanity. “Look at these estate agents,” Nicholas moans in the put-on snobbery which has become one of his traits. “They all live in Fulham I’m sure.” (Which is rich, as I live even beyond Fulham). Kit and H. were dining there with Ivo & la B a week or two earlier (or later) and such was the tiresomeness of the crowd that Kit texted Ivo “What a bunch of overgrown yuppies” (or something along those lines).

It’s delightful during the day, and there was one afternoon not long ago when, sauntering down the King’s Road, I ran into Prof. Pink on his way to John Lewis and managed to waylay him into an enjoyable conversation at the Phoenix over two large glasses of the house white. But during the evening the crowd gets so horrendously up-itself that it almost becomes an attraction in itself. “It’s ten o’clock on a Friday night. Shall we drop in to Smith Street and see how awful everyone is?” The experience ends up infecting one with a reverse snobbery almost as snobbish and pretentious as the pretentious snobbery one is reacting against in the first place.

As I was saying, it was a warm evening and Nicholas managed to find an ideal parking spot within sight just round the corner on Woodfall Street. I think it was a Friday or a Saturday so naturally the place was packed inside and I’m partial to the occasional Dunhill so enjoying an exceptionally refreshing cider outdoors with a cigarette was the obvious way forward. I lit up and Nikolai — very generously, as I’m sure it was my round — went inside to brave the crowds in search of drink. Now the curious thing about the smoking ban is that it has turned previously insular cells of humanity — smokers, that is — into a sort-of fraternité universelle. People who have absolutely nothing in common but for being at the same drinking establishment now, for better or worse, through the medium of tobacco, enjoy a recognisable commonality which can frequently turn conversational.

A little Spanish man with a moustache had a party inside celebrating his birthday — 31st, I think — and he ventured outdoors for a smoke and somehow or other conversation was initiated. A pleasant enough fellow but his chat was unexceptional and was suddenly interrupted by the arrival by cab of two tall-ish and rather fashionable Azeri girls, who may have been friends of friends of his or may have had nothing to do with him at all. Being a chatty Spaniard (and perhaps a bit ambitious) he engaged them in conversation almost as soon as they alighted their cab.

After the innocuous pleasantries of introduction all round he eventually asked the Azeri duette, “So where do you girls live?” “Knightsbridge” they replied. “Ah, cool, I’m in Knightsbridge a lot,” our Spanish friend replied as Nicholas, turning away, launched upon a severe, disapproving rolling of the eyes. “Why?” I interjected, somewhat mischievously pricking the balloon of his pretentiousness. After all: what possible excuse could anyone who neither works nor lives there reasonably have for being in Knightsbridge a lot? He turned towards me and with an irritated smile said “My friend, you are too curious; you ask too many questions.”

The Azeri girls remained unconvinced of him, and the birthday boy, having finished his cigarette (which I think came from my pack), sheepishly returned inside where his presumed friends had doubtless continued the celebration of his birth in his brief absence.

But we still all love the Phoenix.

June 14, 2013 1:45 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Some Aspects of the Fall of the Fourth Republic

(Only interesting, I’m afraid, to those reasonably acquainted with the situation of France in May 1958)

• When the Gouvernement Général was stormed during the 13 May protest, the enterprising businessmen of Algiers took the opportunity to destroy all the police files relating to “economic crime” (smuggling, tax-dodging, and the like).

• The French-Algerian instigators of the military rebellion led by Salan didn’t know what to make of him when he was first appointed to Algeria so they decided, just to be on the safe side, to assassinate him on his first day on the job. Salan survived the bazooka attack on his office but his ADC was killed. The general later became the only socialist freemason to lead a right-wing terror group (the OAS).

• Once the Algiers rebellion commenced and travel between Algeria and metropolitan France was cut, many supporting figures made their way across the Mediterranean by whatever means at hand. Soustelle managed to escape his police guards and get to Algiers via a secretly chartered Swiss plane, but the more romantically inclined Roger Frey — later Minister of the Interior — first tried to get to Algiers on the actor Errol Flynn’s yacht. It didn’t pan out, and instead he was forced to hire the boat of an English ex-naval officer turned smuggler.

• The man in charge of wiretapping French telephones was unsure which side would emerge on top so cautiously refrained from giving the government the full picture of the information his wiretaps revealed.

• When Corsica was seized by the rebels, Moch, the Interior Minister, decided to send in the elite of the police force, the CRS. He was afraid, however, that military transport planes would fly them directly to Algeria, so he was forced to commission Air France planes instead. Upon landing in Corsica, the entire CRS contingent was met by the rebel parachute regiment and immediately defected to the rebellion.

• So widespread was the reluctance to support the government against the military rebels that even the meteorologists send false warnings of storms in the Mediterranean in the hopes of keeping the French Navy from moving against the rebels in Algiers.

• The air force was particularly keen for de Gaulle to take power, and took to flying planes in a Cross of Lorraine formation, as well as sending troop transport planes to Algeria in case they would be needed to invade mainland France.

• Regional military commanders in France varied in their loyalty to the government and sympathy for the rebels. One commander is alleged to have told the regional prefect “M. le Préfet, I am not here to defend your préfecture, but to take it.” Other prefects warned the cabinet that any orders for the police to arrest those suspected of aiding the rebellion might result in the prefects instead being arrested themselves.

• The government had sometimes ordered firemen to unleash their water hoses against rioters in the past. As popular support for the cabinet faded away, the head of the fire brigade felt compelled to inform ministers that his men would not take part in any anti-riot measures but would merely put out any fires that erupted. “And,” he said, referring to the home of France’s National Assembly, “in the Palais Bourbon, they wouldn’t bother.”

• As Philip Williams reports in his article “How the Fourth Republic Died”:

At that night’s cabinet Pleven summed up: “We are the legal government, but what do we govern? The Minister for Algeria cannot enter Algeria. The Minister for the Sahara cannot go to the Sahara. The Minister of Information can only censor the press. The Minister of the Interior has no control over the police. The Minister of Defence is not obeyed by the army.” Said a left-wing Gaullist in the Assembly, “You are not abandoning power — it has abandoned you.”

June 14, 2013 1:40 pm | Link | 5 Comments »
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