Man with a blue cornflower

Story: Man with a blue cornflower


At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel
and the Rue Cujas, the sidewalk slopes a little.
Beautiful, fervent days of youth, I haven’t
lost you

…from Paris, by Miklós Radnóti


I had come to Paris because my life was a mess. I had come to Paris to sing. Early in that broken-down year of 2009, my birthday had turned up with its usual present, a question it had asked for ten years and I had never been able to answer. I had been given another year yet my son Riley, who had died just short of his fourth birthday in 1999, had not. Why had I been given every chance at happiness yet he had been given so few. Never another birthday. The years that should have been his–where were they?

People like to think loss doesn’t last, that grief and its shadows follow some timetable and fall away. And while it’s true they fade, inside you nothing changes. You get busy, not better–or you get better at least, at disguise. You give nothing away. And then a day comes, an anniversary perhaps, and something hits hard and that appearance you have built up comes tumbling down. You were a Russian doll of secrets who ended up in pieces. Years after I had turned my back on a public musical life, when my boy had become sick, a French journalist, Emmanuel Tellier, asked me to come and play some shows. I have been forgotten, I told him, no one will be there. He simply said, “trust me”.

When the lights of hope had gone out, a man in Paris was offering me a rope. And I would use that rope and climb out of the hole I found myself in. I slept that night on a pillow of doubt. The next morning I wrote back to Emmanuel: “I am coming to Paris”.

On the Eurostar from London–I had to get up at 5am to catch the train–I fell asleep crossing the Channel and woke as the sunlit blue and white skies of France emerged, a stream of fields and green farmlands rushing past the window. London, with its grim greyness that inhabited every sky, building and street, disappeared from my mind like smoke. I had a wonderful place to stay. A friend had a small apartment in the 5th, and though she and her family had moved to Tunisia, they kept the place empty so that they could visit Paris whenever they wanted. The first morning I went walking, and just around the corner I found a plaque that said Paul Verlaine had once lived here. Another marked James Joyce’s house, Hemingway’s. The next night I found that, though there were over 2 million homes in Paris, Emmanuel lived just two streets away. None of this could ever have been planned; destiny was at work.

A week later, it was raining in Paris, it was a holiday, and it was 11th November—Remembrance Day, 2009. Autumn. Sometimes in Paris the rain was beautiful and as I moved through it, I would write letters in my head to people who weren’t here anymore. All along the avenues the chestnut trees were losing their leaves. Our concert was that night, and I walked to soundcheck at l’Européen in the late afternoon and saw an old man on rue d’Amsterdam with gold in his teeth & a blue cornflower in the buttonhole of his jacket. Who did he want to remember?

That night, in a Paris room in which I felt I no longer knew how to talk, I discovered how four hundred people had together created a kind of sanctuary, there among the low lamps, the piano, the flugelhorn, the guitars and tambourines, so that the old songs could sing themselves up out of the past. All I had to do was step out of the way. In Paris, there are miracles in the rain.

A year later, I was invited by a French music magazine, Magic, to play a show on their rooftop after I had released a duet with a French singer, Natasha Penot, which had a line it saying “and your song floats down over the town”. The magazine’s editor, Christophe Basterra, listening to it over a glass of wine, decided it would be a good idea to hear it sung live, and from a rooftop. Songs would float down over the town and that town would be Paris, on the longest night of the year. This kind of whimsical, fantastic thing could never happen in Australia—in Paris, it did.

So I flew over and stayed in a small hotel in the 6th on rue Monsieur-le-Prince, only later finding out it was the street in which so much of the decadent action in Sartre’s The Age of Reason takes place – the nightclubs, restaurants & bars. Then somebody told me that the nouvelle vague was born at the cinema called Les 3 Luxembourg just across the street, which seemed too good to be true – mainly because it was too good be true. My wife had read ‘The Age of Reason’ for the first time during the Summer, and then I read it as well, in translation, the same way I read everything French, just as I watch French movies with subtitles. Most of the people in Sartre’s story were caught in the chaotic whirlwind of their 20s, trying to work out their lives – what to do, how to get ahead, who they are. Though it’s set in Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1938, it could have been written yesterday, and could be any city around the world. The same old confusions live on now in Lena Dunham’s Girls and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha.

There have been other scenes, other times when Paris has seemed to work on me like a spell. Rounding a corner in the Montmartre fog, looking for a street that Melville had shot on, and suddenly finding this was where Satie had written the Gymnopédies, three songs he wrote when he was just 23 in three months between Winter and Spring of 1888. Songs the world would always remember but which Satie, in his later life, had wished the world would forget. Or strolling down the Quai de la Tournelle, the green boxes of the bookstands being taken down and crossing Pont Alexandre III for the first time, with the street-lamps coming on and the warm, glowing light in the restaurant windows and thinking this is how evening comes to Paris. After we had played on the rooftop that night, I was speaking to a girl who, someone told me, had been proposed to by Julian Casablancas from The Strokes. He wanted her to elope with him to New York. For some reason, I decided to ask her if this was true. “Julian Casablancas…maybe,” she said “But leave Paris?? Never.”

La photo qui illustre l'article : Eugène Atget, Notre-Dame, 1922