When I try to remember the glorious, the marvellous, the lost and luminous city of Paris, I find it hard to separate the city that exists in the mind, that existed even then, perhaps, mainly in my mind, from the actual city whose streets I once trod. We see what we choose to see, we see what we think we see. In Paris my mother first took me to the opera. A matinee of La Bohème – a Parisian tale. And there, in Act One, behind Rodolfo’s garret window, and again, in Act Four, as poor Mimi lay melodiously dying, was a painted vista of Paris rooftops just like any you could actually see, and perhaps still can, around Sacré Coeur or Montparnasse. It had never struck me before that Reality and Romance could so poignantly collude with each other; so that ever afterwards I saw Paris as a palpable network of ‘scenes’, down to the subtle lighting of a smoky-blue winter’s morning or the blush of a spring evening; the incarnation of something already imagined. It scarcely occurred to me – my imagination did not go in this simpler direction – that this same Paris which we came to in November 1945, had been occupied not so long ago by Hitler’s soldiery and that our very apartment in the Rue de Bellechasse, in the heart of the ministerial quarter, had perhaps been the temporary home – as it was our temporary home – of some official of the Reich.

My mother (whom I would definitely not, in the final analysis, call Romantic) must have been moved by the same ambiguous, uncanny reality as me, because I can recall her, only days after our arrival, saying in a rapturous if half-startled voice, ‘Look darling, this is Paris, darling,’ (I knew it was Paris, we were in Paris, we were strolling down the Champs-Elysées), ‘isn’t it divine?’ And that word, through the refining filter of Paris, is all I need to conjure up my mother: as she flung the new Armstrong-Siddeley through the flashing, leafy lanes of Berkshire (me, a gaping, gleeful, eight-year-old passenger beside her); as she licked from her lips the residue of some oozing cream cake (a sweet tooth which only slowly taxed her figure); as she held up to herself, like some flimsy, snatched-up dancing partner, a newly bought frock: ‘Divine, darling! Isn’t it just divine!’

I cannot summon my father so easily. I have no touchstone. Perhaps because of what happened. Perhaps because, in any case (sons need time – they truly need time – to get to know their fathers), he was always a distant and sombre figure, outshone, first to his delight, then to his consternation, by my mother’s heedless brightness. Yet I remember him once attempting to draw near – or so I think that was his intention. It was in that same Paris apartment, on a cold, windy evening, with winter still at war with spring, the lights on outside and a fire burning hearteningly in the massive, grey marble fireplace. He was standing by the fire, one elbow on the mantelpiece, in full evening rig, waiting for my mother before they left for another of his official functions.


Sitting on Top of the World
Cairo