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


At Home

“This Indian summer rather suited Parliament. It came and went over three weeks; a sitting to ease MPs back.” Oliver Briscoe

Fiction

Edward Gifford–The Saxon is not like us Normans.
/His manners are not so polite.

But he never means anything serious until he talks
/about justice and right. - 
Kipling

Abroad

A Paris exile, through a window, out the avenue; what to say about Paris, only clichés.  Is that cliché though? Yes, annoyingly. Callum Ruddock

Review

Gifford also “ In this sense then, it was right to hold the concert here; jamming a sing-a-long version of Nessun Dorma up against a pitifully short excerpt of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No 2.”



At Home

Diary from Westminster; Michaelmas Sitting

Oliver Briscoe

︎Nandy was in The FT  last weekend and The Times had Rayner, the former Shadow Education Secretary who left school with more children than GCSEs. Starmer had put out his little piece through the Fabian earlier that week. Streeting had a Times write-up the weekend before and Jarvis made clear he would not be mayor again; early Brighton scheming. Ours is on Sunday, Manchester. Johnson has steadied himself in the run-up with a good reshuffle; despite fuel, gas, food, pensions, taxes, benefits and furlough.

This Indian summer rather suited Parliament. It came and went over three weeks, a sitting to ease MPs back; dead winter held back for Conference season.

Walking down to get bread on that first morning, the morning of the sixth, all the school children were dressed to go back, short trousers and gingham, holding their parent’s hand and I too felt those happy schoolboy nerves; we were going back to proper Parliament.  
    Bobbing is back by Speaker’s orders, no more booked questions and speeches by zoom. The lobbies are back along the Commons dining rooms corridor, busy at lunchtime with canapés and pictures; in and out, in and out, drop-by, ‘I care about cancer’ badges and briefing packs handed and quietly put down somewhere and left there. The NFU had booked Jeremy Clarkson in one of the grand rooms of One Great George Street. Thus MPs were pushed and tempted back and with them the twenty somethings who make Westminster run, finding time for emails between lunches and drinks.
    Out Derby Gate on those fair evening, one is drawn like Odysseus past the rocks against the siren’s call; drinking, chatting outside the Red Lion pub in second bloom. Out and on course, headed for the Carlton, I passed Katy Balls chattering away in St James’ Park and, under the cloisters of St James’ Palace, Steve Baker, the Wycombe cowboy, making back with steady step. ‘It’s good to see all the players back to the stage’ as one of the old hands had put it to me.
By week two, we had a cold snap and a bit of rain and embittered it felt like winter had set for good. The Westminster beggars were wrapped in blankets, covered up, under the Portcullis arcade; eyes wide awake as if shocked by the anger of the rain. The Big Issue man was waiting for me at the top of the stairs; no good trade through the subway part closed for repairs.
‘Good morning sir’ as I met him eye to eye.
‘Good morning’ I mumbled back, having just noticed him as I came by.  
  Settled by then, Westminster was playing out inside. The Government had dug in to get things through. The chamber was full and nothing much seemed to happen beyond the palace gates. Only cutting from the cloisters across courtyards did the grey and the rain come to mind.  
    Lunching over the Thames, from that other side, one heard the vague hum of protest not too far off; an hour’s fresh air before making back to the carpeted corridors and banker’s lamps; back to one’s desk set back from the street, where we in-and-out-tray papers and handle the public.  
    Nothing one works at there is really the work, politics has no true aim; politics is, a tautological state of action, humans behaving around each other. Yes, there is change, power, principle, difference but they all come and go, only the arguing, the acting out, politics runs through it all. 
    A false fire alarm forced me out onto Richmond Terrace and its neat whorled cobbles. Staring back, I was pleased to find a handsome Georgian terrace and learn Stanley had once lived two doors down. We are not allowed to come and go that way, just a gate from the people on Whitehall, behind the banners, tannoys and protest songs that blare at Downing Street all day long.

The House rose last Thursday, by then few were still about. The summer recess silence came back to the Palace, up the stairs, along the corridors, down the halls; doorkeepers and officers about like gargoyles or players in the painted friezes and the rest of us walking past without a whisper, with some purpose elsewhere︎


Abroad

Avenue Junot

Callum Ruddock

︎ She came in through the window. I don’t think the door made sense to her. Amongst the scuffle of party patter, she chose the 9ft shutters.
“Shhhh you’ll wake the neighbours” said the host above the noise of Mac DeMarco, before turning to some lo-fi paired with background visuals, another of those evenings at a friend of a friend’s birthday. Looking up from the couch, seeing her rise to the hand that helped her down, watching her take to a glass of wine so effortlessly, picking up conversation quickly, I felt this was somewhere I ought to be.

(Callum from Junot, 2021)
Now the morning after, in Café Cépage Montmartrois, all is well on Avenue Junot. Life is afoot; the air is soupy; like a good little Parisian I am drinking my clopes and smoking my coffee. Beholden cigarettes, my saving grace. “Votre pass sanitaire si vous plait” – my hangover interrupted as I cough up my NHS app for the man to scan. Boop Beep – PASS VALIDE - safe now from Covid.

I don’t deserve distractions. I need to be still and for everyone else to be sensitive; a tall ask when the prune like woman to my left insists the loss of a submarine procurement contract represents “the worst injustice in the course of the Republic”.

I am here in Paris, with Tom (from university) to escape all employment has to offer. The girl through the window makes up one of our two accomplices, the first an old friend, the other new – keeping with us all weekend. Both of them French, restless, and as gripping as people our age should be.

The older of friends is playing host to us in Montparnasse. Yet to buy a kettle she brews our tea in a saucepan. Tom has taken to guarding his mug and always insists on two teabags, “I am certain French tea is weaker”.
On a previous hunt for milk in her fridge, I find an Amazon package still in its delivery plastic. Stale bread, chickpeas, and pickles too, which speak of her care and generosity. Beer and brie which show hospitality.

She had warned me Paris would be different this time over. There is the essence of school trips, but when I was here last, we were dating, and Paris looked and felt so different. Not lacking now; but different. Maybe because I was distracted by her, or because I was younger, Paris held my romance without rising to its romantic hollows and kept me focused on her beauty.

I now want it to throw off its cliches, swallow its pride, and get on with itself. Paris is a movement of people that do not move but between tables and conversations. Filled with ladies that lunch and men that moan, Paris is like any other metropole in most ways, but the only one where daughters wait on park benches for their mothers to finish a chapter, and waiters can be seen trying customers’ desserts. In the urban domain, Parisians opt for passion above all else. 
Faith in their opinion and a very French form of tact, which in the main means having a world view and declaring it (even if it upsets English people). Sloping down the hill and around the corner, Avenue Junot, lined with freestanding villas sat back from the street, goads me with a cliché, and reveals a quieter Paris to me. 

For now then, I will sit, and tonight, at La Coupole, I will eat creamy things, rich things, and all things tasty. I will bleed for butter and yearn for salt. I will be told off for using “la pain” rather than “le”. I will put on my glad rags, shine myself up for the food gods; with the unemployed, the architect, the waiter, and the Sorbonne scholar; foods to gorge upon – sweet coffee gold.

And what if we later bump into friends from home? Forced in and out of a Monoprix for late-night wine. The newer of our two might speak of life, love, and satisfaction, making promises to be less of a coward – which we know she is not. What will we do if I smudge the apartment access code written to remember on the back of my hand? How will I make myself busy when she leans in and leaves lipstick on his mask? As Paris opens up to me, rising like the stale metro air from below, how will I feel? Will I miss the Paris of before with her beside me? Will I want my hand held?

We’re just friends now, Paris and I have changed. It charms me and enrages me, settling into new kinship and brotherhood. I am not here for its rawness, passion, and beauty, but for new scenes and new things.

Back in the café, on Avenue Junot, something is happening. Tom has breached the peace by asking for the toilet. Having sampled every piss pot he possibly can, stopping in bars, cafes, Pret a Mangers’, and even his friend’s parent’s apartment, he tells me proudly, “I pissed in the street you know – twice on the walk home yesterday” – before taking off to test the latest.

To a be freeman in Paris. A city that is not special to me, calls me no more than Tokyo or London or the Cape or Rome. A city that asks me to pay reverence to it for no good reason. Maybe I like this city. Even as she struggles to define her latest self. It is where some of my French friends are.
               Tom returns and proposes we have a beer to take the edge off; I want lemonade. ‘A shandy in Paris’ – how romantic. 

Unable to determine what she means to me; I offer you a list of what I have observed:

What Paris does better:
Emergency service sirens
Food (including cooking with butter)
Smoking
Public officials in uniforms
Public spaces and parks
Cemeteries
Kiosks
Corner shops

What London does better:
Accessibility (especially access for the disabled)
Public Transport
Alcohol and drinking
Milk
Covid testing
Waiters
Ties     ︎

Fiction

Gold Pendant
Edward Gifford

︎A long marble counter curved lazily, stalked by high, spinning stools, minty green with cream accents, like a meandering river shadowed by its fauna; forked by a gleaming, refrigerated ice cream cabinet’ homemade flavours set like harboured ships, a riot of colour and taste. Behind, a few staff in pressed whites, breasted with curious silver instruments, attended the few seated up top.

Into this indulgent arena stepped a young lady, brown haired, with striking eyes, jade-green, lively against the dimmed walls. A young man sidled behind at an exaggerated distance, red having just trod on her heel; both the wrong side of twenty.
    Seated now, his navy greatcoat draped on the high stool, flush he busied himself behind an overly ornate menu, hiding his embarrassment. She, neat and unconsciously efficient, had decided what she would have a week earlier, when he had asked. Impatiently then, but not obviously, she waited for him to say something. 

Feverishly alert, like all young men on a first date, he felt the weight of their silence. He looked at her; her sleek black turtleneck, softened by a tartan skirt and a delicate gold chain clasped around her slender neck.
    He ordered tea, toast and ice cream for both and gazed at her pendant as Carter had at a golden speck in the black void. An Eastern symbol of Love, it had puzzled him first at that choral service; at the right time he would unearth tentatively its meaning to her, brush by brush as an archaeologist might.

Tentatively broaching their hush, ’When did you join the choir?’
‘First year, but I come back each Christmas for carols; beautiful, aren’t they?’
Oh, he agreed; how enchanting she had looked in choir silks, gently making down the nave; mellifluous chords sailing on the air.
    Swivelling in her chair; tantalised by the brush of her deniered knee; they caught one another’s eye. From then, conversation flowed and trickled naturally as the tearoom emptied.

Silence, encroaching steadily, made itself known as polite cough from the Maître’d; a rare intrusion from an otherwise discrete host, clearly meant to clear stragglers and allow the staff rest before evening duties.
    Breaking off, turning her head back, then down to check the slim watch poking out from a black cuff; an island of polished enamel buoyant on her athletic wrist. 

‘…I…er, we best make a move; I didn’t realise the time.’

He wanted to say something bold, witty. ‘Time in your company is never a drag’ pulsated across his mind. Instead, a disconsolate assent was offered which rather than dispersing their unease, strained it – not what she had expected to hear. Overcoats in arm, he strode off first. He was not going to clip her heel again. They came out by the side street, opened with a knowing smile by the cloaked doorman.
Waiting under the heavy awning, rain pattering gently on the canvas, the breeze swirled around them and a city pigeon wheeled by. The rasp of leather soles, the click of heels roused his senses again. He took a deep breath, clearing the lethargy of that blasted tearoom.

She stood just in front of him, gazing across at the portico of the Royal Academy recalling a recent visit. He picked up the odd phrase but his mind was elsewhere, tripping over itself to think of a bar with blue notes. A drink too, a real one; tea and toast was fine for a Sunday but not when those eyes struck back at his ironic barb about out-of-town boyfriends. ‘How stupid,’ he thought, ‘to spend our little time in such sultry stuffiness.’

Mullioned windows, neatly lining the faces of the buildings running away from the Circus, began to ripple with phosphorous tints from passing cars; the oranges, reds and yellows briefly playing across each pane like a violent sunset.

Realizing that she had been talking to no-one, she spun around, playfully cocking her head, as if to chastise his inattention, doubting he had heard a word of the wonderful exhibition – ‘No’ he had been emphatically otherwise absorbed. But his eyes sweeping the street, came to rest. He looked at her. Drawing her eyes down she ran them up his sleeve, all the time attentive to his gaze; wondering if it would move.
    Decided now and beginning to feel the nip of the night air she closed the space between them. Consciously pressing up against the warm folds of his greatcoat but not quite daring to lace her chilled fingers in his.
    He did not protest and she noticed he had turned, imperceptibly to any onlooker, to meet her.
    He was looking down at her and as her cheeks gently coloured and eyes flashed, he reassuringly held her waist. She pressed in and swept back the auburn strands behind her ear. Paused, one to the other, waiting for the other’s better judgement, the crashing motions of a taxi plying for custom broke their peace.

Sat at his desk now, reflecting on how peculiarly delicate that night had been, Charles wondered if she thought of him; cloistered under the Elder, in that quiet spot of the garden she had described, quiet enough for… for that time to come to her, a pang of something unfulfilled. Or does that salted sea-breeze, wafting in from beyond the fields and grassy dunes where the Cavalry decamps for summer, carry away with it all thoughts of tall, darked haired young men met in Town? Would she ponder on him over her book, waiting for dinner to be called.
    Yes, he thought, the latter was probably, cursedly, more likely – ‘but what did I fail to do? The invite I gave, firmly and without second hopeful thought. And she came, she assented readily to come down. Oh, the trodden heel; no, that wasn’t much but maybe it had given her an inkling.’
  Charles  often second guessed himself, uncomfortable to leave a memory intact rather liking to toy with them insufferably. ‘Next time then, knowing that the energy of a moment defies logic I must just act - to, oh, kiss the damn girl’︎


Review

Castle Howard
Edward Gifford

︎ Huddled beneath umbrellas, a whorl of red and white crouched away from the dark, thunderous clouds rising from the House, drawn as if by some invisible thread over the stage and out across the Great Lake; swirling grey and misted green, Turner in monochrome. Wet English faces peering about, moon shaped and dog eyed; a wrinkled hand with a glass of fizz and a cold sausage; couples wrapped in Gore-Tex and Musto, as if waiting on a quay for expeditions needing crew; just a wet summer’s evening.

The musical particulars, despite best efforts, were poorly arranged. Included were the favourites of the Prom regulars: 633 Squadron, Pomp and Circumstance march No.4, Colonel Bogey – unfortunately, played at the beginning, by an orchestra straight out of a two-year hiatus, left them flat without range, especially at the lower end.
    They were followed by a terribly odd interlude as the GoCompare actor appeared on stage,  not to sing but for a comedy sketch, evidently cooked up over lockdown and tried on nobody. It garnered sniggers in places, mostly his Welsh drone reverberated tinnily off pediments and urns. His voice did manage to claw back some impression of self-respect, singing excerpts from Puccini and Verdi woefully mingled with Pop hits. ‘Bread and games’, my brother leaned in.
    Slinking off at the interval, umbrellas hooked over chairs just in case, to wander about unincumbered by the usual tourist hoards granted some perspective on the evening. The House, recognisable from Brideshead and more recently Bridgerton, held its chin up proudly against the assaulting rain. Atlas, bearing a weighty world, exalted by a triton quartet propelling jets of gleaming water, in turn kneels to Vanbrugh’s masterwork.

A work that brought English baroque out of infancy, drawing together various threads of monumental design that had existed in isolation; Wren’s drawings, Webb’s block at Greenwich, and Talman’s Chatsworth.

Observed, as we did, from the South Parterre rather than the quadrant forecourt, the façade looked rather over-done; too busy in an effort to trick the eye, too many pilasters and un-transomed windows; the frontage unsteady and top heavy, a Georgian glutton on high-heeled wedges. On closer inspection one finds the décor excessive; curvilinear and bar tracery clash needlessly; the entablature hangs heavy with vines, figs and cherubs; stiff-leaf is pushed into every nook and cranny; fluted pilasters sprout Corinthian capitals.

In this sense then, it was right to hold the concert here; jamming a sing-a-long version of Nessun Dorma up against a pitifully short excerpt of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No.2; the rousing melody of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Finale butting heads with the GoCompare advert theme.  
    The organisers, perhaps working off pent-up steam, crammed too much for too long without theme. By the time the usual, worn-out ending of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory came, the event had dissipated, leaving grotesque figures, silhouetted against a smoky glow, jerking and lurching to some esoteric rhythm; spasmodic in the dark hollow whilst the surface of the lake rippled gently, gracefully receiving the rain it had lost only hours before︎


Chargé D'affaires - Depuis 2020