PARIS – With the world no doubt feeling tense over the possibility of an Act II to the riots of D.C. at tomorrow’s inauguration for Joe Biden as president of the United States, and the end of the reign of terror by Donald Trump, I wanted to do a post of a kind I have never done before. It has to do with the writing of my new song, “What’s All This Talk?!” Normally I prefer to leave as many interpretations open as possible for a song I write, since I do believe that sometimes songs can be interpreted even in ways the author did not intend; so why limit it with an explication de texte?
But as you can see from the video that I made for this song – which I will put here below again – I have already decided, by using news footage from several different sources of the riots at the Capitol Building on 6 January to give one interpretation to the song. In fact, I was pretty surprised myself how well those riots seemed to illustrate the meaning. Especially since I wrote the song in late October, early November, just before the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
And it is true that Trump was first and foremost in my mind when I wrote it. But he wasn’t the only one. I also had Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Orban and many other world leaders involved in the current trend for populist destruction and manipulation in mind. And I even had past such leaders, like Hitler and Mussolini in mind. But when I saw the riots at the Capitol, I said, crap, this thing is really coming to a head here, and these images are the perfect illustration for this sad protest song “What’s All This Talk?!”
So I decided to try to string them together as a background for the song. For me, personally, it was an interesting project, because pretty much without fail all the songs I have ever composed have had to do with a broken heart, a love story, an emotional relationship with a lover, etc. The old stories. I never thought I could write a protest song about politics.
Then something happened and I only saw it once I made the video. In fact, there were one or two listeners who when I sang them the song wondered if it was about a personal relationship rather than the politics I had intended. But now I know and understand: For the past four years I have been emotionally devastated by witnessing these political populist movements we are surrounded with and by the seeming loss of a world where the highest values are truth and beauty for one where lies and ugliness seem to reign. In other words, I did indeed have an emotional crisis; but not with any particular person, rather with our vanishing world of decency.
So it turns out that this is only just another love song of a broken heart after all. Let’s hope for a clean and peaceful transition of power tomorrow, followed by the whole world coming back to its senses bit by bit.
P.S. I also decided to put up the video on my YouTube channel, so anyone who doesn’t use Facebook, or who wants to link the video somewhere themselves, can have access to it. So here is that link here for “What’s All This Talk?!“
As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.
Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.
I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.
Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.
I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)
One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.
On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!
That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.
That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)
From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.
In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.
One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.
Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?
I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together.
Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today
I took a lot of video footage of the parade in Castellammare del Golfo with my telephone camera and then we decided to make an edited video of the footage along with the reading of a poem of a local poet, now dead, named Castrenze Navarra. That was Ornella’s idea – to read the poem – after we had found a wine bar in the town that was not only named after the poet’s first published collection, Timpesti e Carmarii, but it was located in the groundfloor building area where the poet also had his photographic studio, as he was also a photographer.
There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.
The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.
Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.
But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!
Despite the lockdown, despite the Paris transport strike, despite the gilets jaunes, despite the mice we had at home for a while, and finally, despite the two-month-long illness that I had in January and February that was apparently NOT coronavirus, everything worked out fine in the extraordinary year of work that we all had at TAC Teatro, of which Ornella Bonventre is the director, and I and six others are actors. It culminated with a high moment at the beginning of June when we began to make a fabulous video of our show that we are hoping to complete soon.
Although Ornella created TAC Teatro several years ago and it had some success based in Milan, when she moved to in Paris in 2017, it was impossible for her to not transform the project into both an Italy- and France-based company. But there was much work and preparation involved in rebuilding the company in her newly adopted location. After spending her first year in France shuttling back and forth regularly to Italy to operate TAC there while living in France and laying the foundation for the company in its second country, she finally settled down to working full-time building the company with new actors in France.
That began last fall in what proved to be difficult timing: starting with the gilets jaunes occupying the streets every Saturday (which did not really directly affect the project) and then the metro strike came in November and lasted for around two months – the longest ever such strike – and made the challenge of creating the company all the more difficult, as the actors had to come for their training, creation and rehearsal sessions three times per week by foot, car, bike or any other manner possible aside from metro from all around Paris.
We thought that would be the worst of it, when along came the Coronavirus and its lockdown. Still, the metro strike gave us all the fighting spirit and a sense of imagination so we were able to continue creating the show and training during the lockdown through three-times-per-week online video conferences.
When I say creating the show, here’s what I mean: Since last fall and the beginning of this new phase of TAC Teatro, the actors of the company used the method that Ornella specializes in for creating theater shows: The French call it écriture de plateau, and it entails the actors all together, along with the director, writing the show through body actions, personal texts, music, improvisation and an original idea that Ornella presented to us in the form of a story that was intended to fire up our imaginations and get our creative juices going.
We performed a first “work-in-progress” show of the piece in the small theater at the Theatre Armande Béjart in Asnières-sur-Seine in October, which we called, “Première Etape,” or first step, and it was well attended by the public. We were about to do the second stage of that in February, after we spent a week the whole company together working in residence in Italy in Emilia Romagna. But, yes, the day we were supposed to put on this second show for the public, France declared that anyone who had been in Emilia Romagna in the previous 14 days had to go into quarantine, as it was the epicentre of the then “young” coronavirus in Europe. So we had to cancel the show. Fortunately, however, none of us got sick of the virus.
Then came the Paris lockdown a couple of weeks later. We continued working online, but we had to cancel the premiere of what was going to be the completed show, which we had scheduled to perform in Asnières in late May.
Still, the story had a happy ending when in early June the mayor’s office of Asnières donated to us the big stage of the Armande Béjart Theatre, as well as the city’s technical crew, to film the piece. It was a gesture to help out the creative sector, so badly hit by Covid.
Now I want to talk very briefly about the extraordinary synchronicity in the creation of this show, which for the moment we are calling “Terminus,” but which might change its name before it is staged. There was an amazing foreshadowing of subsequent world events reflected in this creation that we did not do on purpose, but that somehow came about of its own accord. In brief, the piece is about a group of immigrants who come from various parts of the world to a land where they hope to make a new life. They are, in fact, badly treated by the locals, and even duped by the military, and their world begins to fall apart; just as had their own countries before their emigration.
Working behind them, invisible and unknown to them, however, are the “constructeurs de rêves,” or the dream creators, who try to help them. The dream creators are dressed in white doctors’ coats and work in another layer of reality to try to change the course of human actions.
When the coronavirus came along, the show took on another sense to us, as we could not believe the way our futures – the future of the whole world – had fallen into the hands of doctors in white coats, and for everyone on earth almost without exception, their world had fallen apart.
I have often found while writing creatively that such strange synchronicities with real life do indeed happen. And now that we have almost completed the show, we hope that the constructors of dreams will allow the world to get back to some state of normalcy in the coming year so that we can finally perform it in public. I will keep you posted on this blog as to what happens.
The company consists of Ornella directing and the following actors acting, performing, playing music, and writing the show all of us together: Julie Lossec, Janice Zadrozynski, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, Marine Lefèvre and Sara Baudry. You can find all of our bios through the TAC Teatro “About us” menu.
And, by the way, I have only spoken about our new show here, but we also performed in public this last winter doing a street action to commemorate the day against violence to women, for which we also created quite a complex flash mob performance, and we ran an online open stage for all kinds of performances throughout most of the lockdown . So it was, in the end, a productive season for TAC Teatro, despite all the elements and human nature itself seemingly fighting against us.
We chose to give ourselves a quick escape method should things go wrong, by having driven here from Paris in my old Ford Focus, taking the ferry boat from Genova to Palermo, with the car aboard. It was a peaceful, fun, in fact magnificent journey, topped off on the boat by a fabulous seafood pasta in a restaurant that only we and an English couple, and perhaps another one or two people, decided to use. So there was little worry about the virus spreading there! The point was that if the pandemic grew back into the danger zone, as it has in Spain, we could just jump in the car and drive back to Paris or some other country. (Plus the flights were getting really expensive.)
A Free Music Performance in Castellammare del Golfo
We feel so blessed to have had this summer in Sicily, in fact, that this year we decided that we would live it a little differently than in past years: This year is devoted to staying as much at home and at the beach as possible, while avoiding the center of the town as much as possible on the weekends. The reason for that is that if you are currently aware that there is a virus out there, you would be entirely unaware were you to venture out into the nightlife of Castellammare del Golfo this summer: It is difficult to find any bars or restaurants not bursting with clients wearing no masks as if there were no cases of the virus at all on this island. (And, yes, that is actually almost true: the known daily cases are rising in single digits at the moment…but….)
In years past we had decided that every year we would discover a new part of this historical jewell of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. But this year, as I said, we are staying put and feeling blessed. Personally, I decided that I would use my experiences of learning about the island in the past years as a base for a new project: Reading the daily Giornale di Sicilia not only for the coronavirus statistics, but also in order to practice my Italian, and make a real, strong effort to finally learn the language as well as another way of exploring the local culture and getting to know the place of Ornella’s birth and childhood upbringing much better.
And what an education it is turning out to be. In addition to reading stories all about the places I have visited in the last few years with Ornella each summer – Marsala, Palermo, Trapani, among other cities, and such ancient archaelogical sites as Segesta or the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento (which is also the home of Pirandello, Camilleri and Sciascia), as well as Scopello and Erice, the medieval town on the hill – I have found the second most comprehensible stories for my limited Italian to be those about all the local crime. Yes, like any such local newspapers, the Giornale di Sicilia – preferably my local Trapani edition – brings me daily news of mafia arrests and crimes.
So, after the storm, a break. Let’s hope it continues. I’ll check back in as soon as possible with more news about virus life from here or elsewhere….
As it turns out, both of the pieces were introduced by the same member of the company. But the skills and talents that we have in the company mean that the music can be performed to a degree that I never imagined likely. I mean, I knew we have great musicians in the company, but here I am talking about Irish music! And the company is made mostly of Italian and French actors and musicians.
So how amazing it was when over recent rehearsal days the troupe began playing and incorporating into the play the famous Irish piece of music dating back to the 1930s – and one of the most popular pieces of the last century – called “Cooley’s Reel.”
I was familiar with the piece from so many different sources from my initial period listening to Irish music during the Celtic revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s and with bands like Planxty, The Chieftains, the Bothy Band, the Sands Family, Horslips and many more. And you go to any Irish music jam session and you are likely to hear it there too, as I’m certain I did in recent years in Irish pubs in Paris or elsewhere.
Anyway, I made a video of the musicians rehearsing the piece (and I added into the video some of the first exploratory acrobatic workout we did with the ladder that is also part of the show – check it out, above). It was only one of a handful of the first efforts to play the reel, so there are a few minor moments off the rails, but it sure sounds great to me already! Bizarrely, for me, I have found myself playing the bongo a little bit like a Bodhran, rather than me doing my usual musical instrument, the guitar. My Seagull guitar is here played by Pacôme Puech – I didn’t have the confidence to get the rhythm right on the guitar – and on flute is Marine Lefèvre, and on fiddle is Marina Meinero.
The other bit of music that I was stunned to find one of the actors – Marine – wanted to incorporate somehow in the show was “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” which I also first heard through Christy Moore’s version in Planxty. It is one of the few traditional Irish songs that I occasionally have the guts to try to do myself on stage, as to me if feels like a great Bob Dylan protest song, and I try to ignore that I’m not Irish and I can attack it like a Dylan cover.
It was written in 1965 by Mickey McConnell, who was only 18 years old at the time. He went on to have a career as a journalist at the Irish Times, before decided in his 40s to return to a career in music. Extraordinary. The poetry of the song is astounding, and even more so when you realize it was written by an 18-year-old. I love that line, “are you gone like the snows of last winter?”
So that’s the update from my adventures at TAC Teatro. In the meantime, I hope the snows of winter go fast and I’ll be able to post some great thing about the completed show in April! In the meantime, we will be inviting the public to check out our progress in our “second stage” open-door event on 29 February, as the poster at the top of this post explains….
The first time I wrote about Michel Onfray was in December 2006, and the story was published by The Toronto Star – because the newspaper where I worked did not have either the courage, the savvy or the understanding to publish the story about one of France’s most popular, but controversial writers. Ultimately, I was overjoyed that the story made the lead, front-page, Insight section of the Star in its Sunday edition, which reached more than a million subscribers.
Even better, I had been worried – and told – that it was too long a story. But when finally after several rejections elsewhere, the Star accepted it, they asked me to expand it even more, and it ended up well over 2,000 words. I was then delighted when another editor at my own newspaper wrote me an email and said he had just read the article on a famous literary web site – I think it was based in Britain – that he subscribed to, which had picked up the story after the Star publication. He said he was a fan of Onfray, and he asked me why had I not offered it to our newspaper?!
Anyway, my own newspaper did, the following year, accept another, less deep article, from me about Onfray’s Université Populaire, and I ended up feeling a bit better about the original multiple rejections – from multiple editors – at that newspaper.
The other day, I went to a projection of a film about Michel Onfray’s upbringing and home town, in a cinema not far from where I live. It not only brought me back to that period more than a decade ago, but it allowed me to meet Onfray again, as it was a special soirée with the film, a Q&A with Onfray, and then a party afterwards with wine and canapés. There must have been between 600 and 1,000 people present in the 7 Batignolles cinema, on the edge of Paris across from the new prefecture de Police, right next to Clichy.
The documentary, “Sur les chemins de mon enfance,” (“On the Paths of my Childhood”) went way beyond my expectations. It was made by a couple of Onfray’s friends – also accomplished filmmakers – and filmed in his home town of Chambois, in Normandy – where he still lives. I assumed in advance that it was a small-budget, maybe no-budget, production. But the simplicity with which it was done combined with the depth of the material made it a fabulously genuine document that shows a lot to us of the connection between the writer and his environment. How Onfray became Onfray.
Upon returning home from the screening, I discovered in my computer archives that after my own visit to Chambois, and Onfray’s personal home itself (which, interestingly, does not feature in the film), in 2006, I had written a nearly 10,000-word diary item of my impressions, which I wanted to use as a basis for the eventual article I would write. Re-reading that account after seeing the film, made me realize how valuable the film is in showing how his childhood environment made Onfray who he is – which, of course, is true of us all. I am very thankful to have seen the film as my own written account – and the memory of my visit – painted a picture of his world without seeing how that world was the stimulus of his existence.
The structure of the film is simple: Onfray takes a walk on a circuit around his town and the neighbouring couple of towns, starting at Point A and returning at the end of the film at Point A, but after walking a large circuitous route, the “chemin de la Garenne.”
Onfray draws our attention to how this microcosmic walk is actually representative of our whole existence, and how his garden is the center of the universe in that way. Of course he does not see his little world as the center of the world … except in how it IS the center of his own world and how it is representative of how the center of ALL of our worlds is also the center of the world. (Ornella, who attended with me, was struck by how similar were so many things in her own childhood upbringing in Sicily. When I pointed that out to Onfray, he said it had to do with the similarity of a rural upbringing everywhere, which we agreed was true.)
Like one of the other philosopher writers whose works have influenced me in my life, Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British letters, Onfray is both massively loathed and massive loved by the public in his country. As I said in the beginning, he was France’s best-selling philosopher in 2005-2006 or so. Now, I have no idea what his position is in terms of sales, but like Wilson as well, he is mighty prolific.
And his works and words and persona continue in France to elicit massive amounts of public attention – love him or hate him.
What is fabulous about this documentary is how we see the simple, normal, but at the same time exceptional man behind the public persona. And we see the people who were important in his life: His mother and his most influential elementary school teacher are not only both interviewed in the film, but they were both present at the screening last night, and present until after midnight at the party. Both are pushing 90 years old or beyond!
And this in itself is one of the most convincing aspects of Onfray that most people who dislike him probably have no idea about: What famous public persona philosopher would make his mom and school teacher of his childhood as welcome a part of his literary world?
When I first met him in 2006 and attended a dinner with him and some of the teachers of his Université Populaire at a meal at his home in Chamois, I remember at one point in the evening his parents coming in to say hello.
But, as it turns out, this aspect of Onfray’s life – connecting the real with the philosophical – is central to this thinking, and it was not entirely new to me – even if the film strengthens my understanding through the power of the images. One of the first books I read of his, was “La Puissance d’Exister,” or “The Strength to Exist,” in which he recounts how his life led to his philosophy. I find in my notes from 2006 this paragraph:
“I told him I had finished reading the Atheist Manifesto, and then had started reading the Strength to Exist. I told him that I was very surprised by the account of his youth, but said that I thought it worked very, very well to show where his philosophy came from, what inspired it. He said that he had done this in many of his books, in fact, starting from a personal point and moving to the philosophy. I then recalled the same had indeed been the case with “The Stomach of the Philosophers,” (his book “Le Ventre des Philosophes”). But no sooner had we said these few words than his parents entered the house, almost on cue to put an end to the discussion about his unhappy childhood.”
The documentary shows a man who is so deeply in touch with the natural world – the plants, gardens, streams and fields – of Chambois, that there is a sense coming through the film of this attachement to the earth that seems to feed his writing. Colin Wilson was often accused of existing ONLY in the world of books. But Onfray in this film makes it clear how in his life and world, nature came first, and the books came second. And the best writing is one that brings us back to the real world in which we live.
We meet also his childhood friend, Ghislain Gondouin, who we learn introduced him to many minor poets, and also to politics. In fact, this is one of the shocking, interesting parts of the documentary: We learn where so many of Onfray’s seminal influences came from, and they were not coming from institutions or café culture, but from humble, simple, local people like the barber, butcher, school teacher, farmer or every place and person imaginable.
There will be nothing in the film for critics of Onfray to like, or even for many professional journalists, as there is not a bad word said about him. But why should there be? As Onfray said in the Q&A after the film, “This was a film done amongst friends. I knew I could trust them.” And what’s wrong with that, when the result is such an important understanding of one of France’s most important modern writers and philosophers?
The film, by Alexandre Jonette et Stéphane Simon, had appeared on local Normandy television once, and it is also now accessible on Onfray’s web site MichelOnfray.com.
Before I say more about my feelings on that, I want to mention the other synchronicity – the next day, or rather, at around 1:38 AM that same night/next morning: Saturday, 7 December. That day is my birthday – which my brother, Scott, likes to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt on regarding the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy” – and in France’s Journal Officiel dated 7 December 2019 published around 1:38 AM that day, I found the decree that said I had become a French citizen. I had been fighting for that honor for 3 1/2 years – ie, since the Brexit referendum – and that it should fall on my birthday, and precisely three years after ending my career as an NYT journalist, was beautiful – and felt full of significance.
So the whole weekend was a blessed time. Despite having to battle my way through a French transport strike and rain, arriving at the Louvre drenched in both sweat and precipitation (from running through the rain for the last 40 minutes of the journey), the visit to the prize giving was an extraordinary moment. It was the first time I found myself involved in an F.I.A. press conference while no longer reporting for my newspaper. While I did decide that I would do a few tweets and write something about it on this blog – thereby making it a legitimate invitation – my biggest reason for attending was to see the world in which I had lived for more than two decades from my new point of view as a fan only.
I was delighted to meet up again with so many of my former paddock friends and colleagues: Journalists like Joe Saward, Jonathan Noble of Autosport, Frédéric Ferret of L’Equipe, Alain Pernot of Sport-Auto and other publications, and Andrea Cremonesi of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Tom Clarkson, who interviewed the drivers for the F.I.A., or Dieter Rencken, the South African journalist; team press officers like Bradley Lord of Mercedes (who has been press officer in teams that have now won the title 8 times (Renault and Mercedes), and his boss Toto Wolff. And of the drivers, there was Jean-Eric Vergne, the Formula E champion whom I have known since he was 15; Fernando Alonso; and, of course, Lewis Hamilton. And finally, Jean Todt, the president of the F.I.A., whom I first met as the Ferrari team director in 1997, who was also present as the organizer and key officiator of the event, of course.
I guess the word best to describe the experience would be: Flashback! But for the first time attending a press conference, I felt no pressure to produce any reports.
It was, though, very strange to hear the same kinds of questions being asked in the same way by the same people to the same people. It made me wonder how it feels for the drivers and teams to confront the same members of the media year after year, decade after decade. This, of course, is the same situation we find in any media circus: at the White House, the Olympic Games, soccer or even in coverage of show business, fashion or even science, no doubt.
But I thought about how surreal it must feel sometimes for the stars, such as Hamilton and Alonso, (and even for the not as successful drivers who must sit next to these stars and be ignored by the media while all the questions go to the stars, as happened in Alonso’s World Endurance Championship racing team, as the Spaniard received all the questions from the media). How surreal it must be to see the same inquisitors asking the same questions year after year.
And I am not here criticizing the work of my former colleagues or of the F.I.A., all of whom are doing a fabulous job. This is just the nature of the beast. But having been away from it all for so long, it felt strange to find myself plopped right back into the paradigm, as if time had stopped, and all that I had done for the last three years had never existed, and I was again reporting on Formula One and other car racing series.
It was a little like how it felt a few months ago when I visited The National Theatre in London where I had worked 42 years ago as a bartender, and I found the place unchanged. And I thought, had I stayed there and made a career of it, I would have been in a world unchanged, rather than having felt as if I have lived a full, adventurous life since then….
It certainly comes down to our passions: Probably most of the people who have and will spend their lives in Formula One – or at the National Theatre – cannot imagine a life they would love better than that, cannot imagine a life without that environment. I spent 33 years employed by the International Herald Tribune and its successor, the International New York Times. While I would have happily continued, I am even happier that I have been able to transform my life into something else since then – working in the TAC Teatro theater company (back to the past?!), playing my music, writing on other subjects, avoiding much travel, and making films – while remaining a fan of racing.
These observations are probably obvious to most people, and probably I had many of them to a slightly lesser degree while in the thick of reporting on Formula One. But during such an emotional couple of days, it was all perfectly timed: The world DOES change. If we choose to make it change. I no longer cover Formula One as I used to. I still watch every session and race, and I still love it. But I am no longer part of the circus – or perhaps never really was. I am now French, after 36 years living in this country, and while I may feel like that is a fabulous consecration, I suppose that in many ways I have been French for decades.
But no wonder that the thing I found most interesting about the press conference was hearing Hamilton and Alonso talking about their life-changes, about the different worlds they live in, not just Formula One. I managed to film a bit of that, and I am putting it up here on the blog – in my role as a journalist attending a Formula One press conference again….