Monday, 30 January 2012


The photograph of me as a little sailor when I was five has set me thinking of my grandmother, whom I called Maman,  and her friendship and fascination with the prostitutes she chatted to when she took me for evening walks round the back streets of Nice.
 She married twice. Her first husband, my grandfather, was a croupier at the Monte Carlo Casino when she first met him. Her second husband was a comparatively dull but rich lawyer. Her father, your great great grandfather, was Van Gogh’s dentist and later, by coincidence, Auguste Renoir’s as well.
  Her apartment, on the top floor of a block on Avenue de la Victoire, was all Persian carpets, different flowered wallpapers in ever room, dark red curtains and matching sofas and settees. She used to laugh about the heavily draped hallway looking like the entrance to a brothel, a word I did not understand, though I gathered that it had some connection with Le Cheval, La Vierge, Cous Cous and La Lesbienne, nicknames she gave to the garishly dressed, long legged,  sharp finger-nailed ladies who smiled down at me with their crimson lipstick smiles.
  Maman also had a pair of opera glasses hanging by the bathroom window which gave onto the courtyard and the back of a rather seedy hotel opposite. She looked through these binoculars to check that the chambermaids changed the bed linen after the rooms had been vacated by clients and often asked me to focus on one particular room and call her the moment La Goulu entertained a customer. La Goulu, a massive woman with voluptuous breasts, was so called because she looked like the dancer on the Lautrec Moulin Rouge posters and sported the same coiffure. The fact that I should not really be spying on the curious gymnastics that she indulged in never occurred to me. Maman had explained that La Goulu was a famous circus performer who kept in training with visiting acrobats and that they preferred exercising with no clothes on because their routines could be quite warm work.
  The binoculars were confiscated by my grandfather when I excitedly informed him and Maman over dinner that I had watched three circus performers training during the afternoon, La Goulu, a female snake charmer and a lion tamer.
  ‘How did you know he was a lion tamer ? ‘ my grandfather asked.  
  ‘Because he had long curly moustaches and a whip, ‘ I answered. 
Resulting in Maman collapsing with laughter and my grandfather leaving the room exasperated with her.  

Sunday, 22 January 2012


The old black and white photo of a little sailor boy, which dropped out from the pages of the book you took away with you is, indeed, a picture of me aged five. It was taken in Nice when I was living with my grandmother, an eccentric woman  who was regarded by most as strikingly attractive if a little too flamboyant in her appearance. Then in her early fifties, she insisted on me calling her ‘Maman’ so that people would think I was her little son and, obsessed by sex and all its thrilling peculiarities, regularly took me for evening walks down the back streets of the town so that she could chat with the prostitutes with whom she loved to gossip about their clients demands. 
‘Why is it that most of you always fall in love with and marry matelots instead of rich business men ?’ she once asked a group of them.
 ‘We like the uniform,’ came back the answer in unison

Which prompted her to buy me that sailor’s suit, more to amuse them than to please me. 
She would have enjoyed being a Madame and, when I last saw her shortly before she died aged 96, one of the last things she said to me was that she remembered sex had been fun but couldn’t think why.