Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Paris

A funny thing happened to me on the way to l'Opera the other day. I was taking a break in the Cafe de la Paix. Perhaps a curious choice, but I've always wondered if the old cliche were true that, sitting there, you would see the whole world pass by; and I had spent the morning studying the surrounding artefacts of Prefect Haussmann. Under the glass-enclosed terrace I was reading a newly published French book on Paris under the German occupation. I had just paid my bill when - boom (Fr boum) - something smashed into the plate-glass window six feet from me, on a level with my head and with considerable impact. The window, a large slab about four feet by seven, shattered from top to bottom, but fortunately it must have been of reinforced safety glass because, like the windscreen of a car, only a few fragments splintered inwards. In the centre of the spider's web of cracks was a crater, about one and a half inches across; almost certainly the mark of a bullet of some sort, probably too powerful to have been an airgun - possibly a light rifle with a silencer? It seemed unlikely to have come from the crowded street. I noticed that across the road, in the Boulevard des Capucines, on the top floor of the Commerzbank, a window was open - and it was lined up with the hole in the window, and with my head. Had it been ordinary glass, or no glass at all, without a shadow of doubt I would have had to travel home at Robin Cook's expense.

If I had been a man of action like the intrepid Max Hastings, with whom I had been dining the previous night, I would have whizzed out to see if there was a Jackal figure sliding out of the Commerzbank, reassembling his lethal crutch. However, an Italian at the next-door table moved out as quickly as Marshal Graziani in the desert, and I decided there was no point awaiting the questioning of some imbecilic Inspector Clouseau. The management did not seem unduly perturbed and there was no instant wail of sirens, such as there used to be in the good old days when the CRS would arrive to beat up a few harmless students. Brushing off the odd sliver of glass back in the safety of the Meurice (General von Choltitz's HQ back in 1944), I set to wondering what it was all about. What had the unseen assailant got against the Cafe de la Paix? Surely not just an excessive bill for an indifferent lunch? A protection racket? Or what had someone got against me? Had it been at a time when I was writing about the Algerian war and the OAS, it would not have been unduly surprising - some rum things did occur. But that was three decades ago. I retell this curious incident, not out of any false sense of self-importance, or to suggest that all is not currently total sweetness and light in la ville lumiere which I so adore, but chiefly because I am fed up with the invidious comparisons constantly being made between this country and France. The Daily Wail recently told us how the French, once more, are talking about la maladie anglaise - and it's not the aphteuse, foot-and-mouth. But do the French really despise us so much? I don't get that impression either from my French friends or from a casual reading of the Paris press. Young French enarques are still flooding to London; and the Lycee in South Kensington has a two to three-year waiting-list. …

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