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Chargé d’affaires will be out here quarterly; the first Fridays of October, January, April and July.

Photograph of an unidentified boy playing with bicycle parts [c.1949–c.1956]
Nigel Henderson, Tate Archive 
Photo © Tate, © Nigel Henderson Estate
CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Hors-série: At Home

The Man who Topples Statues

Back and forth on the Caledonian Sleeper throughout December, setting out Westminster’s come and go.
Oliver Briscoe


Fiction

The Calcutta Correspondent’s Club

Calcutta’s foreign outpost in the amber of India in 1947
Callum Ruddock

Abroad

“The Fête du Rondeau de Castelnau-Barbarens will soon begin. Nothing like the melancholic country fairs of Britain’s village greens”
Callum Ruddock


Review

Showtunes and shimmering costumes, France’s great thespians take a frivolous turn in vaudeville.
Oliver Briscoe


Joan Didion, 1934 - 2021
“It is a comment on our press conventions that we are considered ‘well informed’ to precisely the extent that we know ‘the real story,’ the story not in the newspaper.”
     Alice and the Underground Press




The Man Who Topples Statues
Oliver Briscoe
December 2020 Y ou see much of a small part of the country, working for an MP in a seat you had never thought of.  Life of late seems to be a series of weekends; going to and from the constituency on the Caledonian Sleeper some of the more pleasant. Well-staffed, not too busy, one sleeps well enough.

Up after Storm Arwen, I was coming back for the Westminster week; Monday, votes late, until ten; Tuesday, votes until seven; Wednesday also seven and Westminster’s Friday, only to go up again for the weekend.
  Westminster is the proverbial village; Parliament, a palace with an estate, the Red Lion pub right outside one of its gates. Downing Street and Nº10 sit together, either or in print, except when it becomes domestic, the PM’s private apartment actually at Nº11, with Nº10 like a department. Whitehall and its mandarins run through it all up to Trafalgar.

I had left the Northern club around half eight, Aberdeen was baltic, Union Street harsh and depressing on a Sunday night.

After a wait, pacing alone down the platform of an empty station, which had no clock, I boarded as soon as the doors opened, pleased to find a warm, nifty en-suite cabin, well thought out and functional.
  Bags stowed, I made straight to the club car, which I found mine but one, taking a booth for a warm supper and a snifter.
  The spirit gave its sweet, smoky embrace just as the train pulled out and the car started to fill; a couple Scots, too lively and pleased with the train for a Sunday evening, a man on business and his computer and a Chinese couple.
  Nearing ten, I was quite ready for my pyjamas, a quiet, cosy bunk, tightly tucked sheets and Sunset Song; a wake-up call set and eggs royale ordered for breakfast.

The romance of waking in the sleeper, finding the Highlands in violent summer colours, breakfasting by the window, is not the same forty minutes out of Euston, on a Monday morning benighted by winter. Unlike rumbling through Scotland, nearing London one feels the rush to arrive on schedule.
  London looked foul.




A Village Prepares
Callum Ruddock




I have always described Castelnau-Barbarens as being like an island. The village on the hill, whose winding throughways, seasonally covered by trees, rise high up off the landscape, protruding from the fields like a steep mountain from the sea. It commands respect from the terrain in a way that only a child appreciates; when small eyes face the trunk of a large camphor, neck craned upward in awe. There isn’t a straight line in the village, shackled to the hillside, each lane seems to defy sense with some of oldest houses having begun to lean into the street.

Atop the hill is a church. Beside it, resting on a border wall is a toposcope set in marble; its worn inscription drawing attention to varying local scenes, all of which are oblivious to the weight of the sun. There, outside the one shop, in front of the one school, on some run-down farm, people’s lives play out in a perpetual state of rural monotony, offering lessons in slowness and how best to spend one’s life.
    You could reason that Castelnau, the stony outcrop, a mere black dot on any map of the Gers, delicately sandwiched between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central, might be some jerkwater wash-up. An old town, with old buildings, old people and an old regimen. Yet on one of its rich unruffled days, no amount of distance will get between you, Le Monde, and breakfast, no reclusion will slow the fibre optic internet, and there is no greater rush experienced than that of buying one’s morning bread in Castelnau. 

Because, in the town whose name is now foreign even to its inhabitants; behind the shutters of bastide homes; each a different shape and shade of that same stone, one finds a concerned French smile and warm welcome. As attentive locals swarm the baker’s idling Peugeot, gaze politely over shoulders, hesitate between fresh, hot baguette, and flaky oil croissants, for which the region is famed. Bide your time and strike with a definite, ‘Excusez-moi!
    Once the sortie ends, climb the hill again. Take to the tilt with your bread in hand and admire the view. In the winter months, if you do not look too hard, strain your eyes, and make out the buildings, you might mistake the place for England. The fields share the same curves as home. The same sharp dulcet tones. The same promise of springtime resurrection. And then, in the shadow of a cliff, you might find my grandmother’s courtyard; where white pebbles carpet the ground, a few beans grow out from wooden boxes and a grove of stout olive trees stand, rooted, waiting for me to tend to their bitter harvest come autumn.

This is not England, as the arrival of summer reveals to me. A landscape transformed, sufficiently dry that any plum exposed to the warmth shrivels and cracks no sooner than it falls from mother tree. An ignition of browns, greys, and greens, with dead fruit under foot and a vast sky that welcomes the coming solstice, high up, under an old lamppost. The te du Rondeau de Castelnau-Barbarens will soon begin. Nothing like the melancholic country fairs of Britain’s village greens, a provincial beacon sworn to the cause of the Gascogne and quite aware of its own peculiarity.
    People are rushing up and down Castelnau’s steps. They skirt the village’s petanque patch, behind a towering bush, over the trickling river Arrats, and past the plant pots that mark the corner of each street. No one seems to take the route, not that there is one, on their way to the grand staircase that kneels before the Church.




The Calcutta Correspondent’s Club
Callum Ruddock
1947 – The Club
The Calcutta Correspondent’s Club, next to a ditch, near a marsh, just past the railway tracks, was not the sort of place where a person might die peacefully. Humble in its design and purpose–meant for work - and especially fitful since the 15th of August. An arangement of men whose membership was drawn from the hordes of journalists that littered Calcutta’s grand Corinthian ‘General Post Office’. Wormy types waiting impatiently for their turn on the ageing imperial telephone exchange, to meticulously recite handwritten reports meant for London’s breakfast tables.
    It was the sort of club with a half-decent chef, having spent at least 30 minutes with someone trained in France, and with a doorman who however bent, rickety and old, would rise to his feet to scold young journalists for money owed on their tabs. It too drew the Kipling lot, who like pieces of firm Georgian furniture sat untouched in its well-lit day room, only vacating up the hill from the heat of the plains, to Shimla.

By the dust of late summer, the club was left sleepy with a few hangers-on to cover the rest of India’s busy news.  Its drawing room was kept company by the club’s principal centrepiece, a worn parlour piano, dutifully dusted by underpaid staff and played only on New Year’s. Other than that, there were drafting tables, various sources of coffee and a decent stationary cupboard, as well as a Dutch built radio that no one much liked.
    The CCC was not down on its luck, but assuredly no longer at its best. An adequate old beast and a place to get writing done; the world’s best and worst reporters free to come and go as their editorial schedules asked.

For those who remained, lunch was served with copies of most papers (or as a gin with bar snacks). One could suppose the nationality of each diner from the tint of their lunchtime digest. The French journals used rich blueish sheets, the Brits opted for cream, and the American heavyweights with their brash and scandalous op-eds, were a crisp tooth white; though a week out of date and therefore flavourless.
    The club, unlike its publications, had never discriminated on terms of race, class, or caste. Doing so would have meant gossip worthy of the colonial magazines, and that was bad for business. The newspapers did not like ‘bad for business’; certainly not in Calcutta.




Chargé D'affaires - Depuis 2020