While all right-thinking people and crisp-advertisers were preoccupied with small boats carrying economic migrants heading one way across the Channel, your correspondent in Paris was rather more concerned with large boats, trains and planes carrying moneyed ones in the opposite direction.
And not just the sort of rich people you expect to see swanning around the restaurants, galleries and cafes au centre ville, but ones displaying a level of cultural insensitivity towards their surroundings that makes the eponymous heroine of Emily in Paris look like the Goncourt Brothers.
It might seem crass, bathetic – au dessou mépris, in a world of famine, warfare and flight, but the sight of a middle-aged Englishman wearing saggy-arsed trackies, a baseball cap and a T-shirt with some gibberish scrawled across it entering one of the most beautiful brasseries on the Left Bank as a matter of right, prostrated me: I lay gasping across our own table, scarcely able to pitchfork the next mouthful of andouillette between lips not so much pursed as clenched with disapproval.
Can you clench a lip? You certainly can teeth – and while I was chowing down on that distinctive Alsatian sausage, redolent of the Rabelaisian intestinal reality it so recently was, I was fervently hoping that members of the European Research Group, and all true Brexiters everywhere, were suffering the most terrible bruxism, with entire molars pinging from their mouths as they bit down on the hard realities of swallowing any alternative to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But of course, they weren’t – instead, Braverman’s grandstanding and Lineker’s tweeting provided them with just the match of the day they needed: a domestic row to serve as a smokescreen behind which realpolitik could continue unabated.
You might have thought the Brasserie Lipp, a venerable institution on the Boulevard Saint-German, would strenuously object to saggy-arsed Englishmen – and at least in theory, they do. Beneath the ceiling paintings of Charly Garrey, and beside the tiled murals of Léon Fargue hang anachronistic signs, inveighing the diners in a reassuringly arrogant fashion.
For, Chez Lipp, the customers are very frequently wrong, while the waiters wander around, chins and noses quivering with hauteur. Pipe aficionados aren’t required to desist – merely to be mindful of their fellow cigarette smokers. If you bring your brace of yappy lapdogs to the restaurant, be sure not to allow them anywhere but on your lap – the purple-moleskin-covered banquettes are sacrosanct – and don’t feed them from your plate. The menu, besides listing such shockers as the aforementioned andouillette, specialises still in the Alsatian cuisine it began serving in the 1880s. Basically, we’re talking a lot of meat and cabbage, which in the past was washed down with copious drafts of beer – and diners of the vegetarian persuasion are admonished that a salad is not to be requested as a main course.
Finally, there’s a sign forbidding the wearing of shorts – which is not some nod to revolutionary sans-culottes, but very definitely aimed against a certain sort of vulgar visitor from the Anglosphere. But withal this political posturing, there was the saggy-arsed solecism, in plain view, talking at the top of his voice, and accompanied by three more of his kind. Indeed, looking about the gilded interior that had once been the poetical setting for the likes of Verlaine and Apollinaire, I was confronted with this prosaic reality: in common with all of the most famous old Parisian brasseries and cafes, it’s really nothing more nowadays than an aesthetically baited tourist trap.
Not, I hasten to add, that the French are immune from such behaviour – the quartet sitting on our other side were also dressed like giant babies and behaving like them as well. Elegance and poetry have long since paid their hefty bills and departed from Brasserie Lipp, leaving behind only a log-rolling literary prize (one year you win, the next you’re on the jury – typical for the Parisian literary milieu), and me: a ghost, howling with contradictions.
Because what do I really want – only something altogether unattainable: a version of the past that forecloses on any future; a permanent Now, in which bougnats are forever arriving from the French provinces to open grog shops and deliver coal. France’s peerless gastronomic culture owed its richness and variety to this relationship between rural diversity and metropolitan concentration; and we can see the contemporary era as a scaling up of this dialectic to the global level. The trouble is, every other European capital has its “Indian” restaurants.
Walter Benjamin styled Paris as “the capital of the 19th century” – but it’s struggling to be much more than the cultural resort of the 21st.