Rachel Johnson's Diary: On travelling to Paris and Tessa Jowell's memory
PUBLISHED: 15:00 17 May 2018
Rachel Johnson reprises her fortnightly column to pay tribute to Tessa Jowell and venerated French publisher Bernard de Fallois.
I checked into the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, very hungover, and made for Pret before boarding the train to Paris. I ‘grabbed’ a flat white and then found a table. Someone had left a plastic bottle with one of those sucky nipple tops you pull out, empty. Just looking at it made me realise how dehydrated I was. But I’ve watched Blue Planet II. I hate the tide of plastic as much as the next man. It’s crazy that there are instructions on the Underground saying, “in this hot weather carry water at all times”, as it’s an incitement to buy yet more single use bottles. So I picked it up and sailed back into Pret. At the counter, I asked the nice girl (from Romania, I guess) to fill it up. This caused consternation. The manager was summoned, who explained the tap water was not filtered and not drinkable. They ended up filling my bottle by taking another new plastic bottle and transfusing the liquid from one to another. Total fail.
I could say I’m in Paris because my beloved and venerated French publisher, Bernard de Fallois, died a couple of months ago, aged 91. He was the most charming and beautiful man, who genuinely bestrode the world of books here in Paris, where books still matter. A personal friend of Georges Simenon, and Marcel Pagnol, Emmanuel Macron issued a statement in his honour at the announcement of his death in the American Hospital, Neuilly. I will go in to pay my respects at Editions de Fallois, his publishing house, on the Rue de la Boetie, as being published by Bernard was the most exquisite honour of my life (he published my Notting Hell trilogy, may God bless his soul). But the truth is, the real reason I’m here is to watch the fourth series of Le Bureau – the spy series about DGSE (the French intelligence agency) – being filmed in St-Denis. I’ve become hooked. Watching Le Bureau is like a masterclass in the French language, spy-craft, Middle East politics, how to pull off business casuals, and look sexy even while carrying a tray in the office canteen, all at once.
The outpouring of love for Tessa Jowell was extraordinary, but bore testament to a quality much unprized in public life: niceness. Politicians and notables of every stripe including Theresa May and David Cameron erupted on Twitter – some, unfortunately, tweeting photographs of themselves with Tessa, to show their intimacy with the deceased. But all hailed that rarest of beasts in party politics, a woman who saw the human side in everything and the best in people, and who gave all of herself in service of others.
I hate the word ‘humbling’ and people who declare themselves ‘humbled’ but I admit: there are no other words for how I felt at the death of Dame Tessa Jowell at 70.
Her sad death briefly united a divided country.
We are staying with the bestselling author and former Telegraph foreign correspondent Patrick Bishop, and his wife Henrietta, who have moved to Paris with their daughter for a few years, lucky them. Patrick is a former hack who has found fame and fortune as the author of boys’ own history books which do disturbingly well. This year he has hit paydirt again – damn his eyes – as he wrote Air Force Blue about the history of the RAF, which is 100 this year. I have a theory not yet disproved that any success when it comes to writing is very hard-earned indeed.
If you have a father or uncle of a certain age and a birthday coming up you can’t go wrong with one of Bishop’s books, Fighter Boys, Target Tirpitz, Battle of Britain. Even the titles alone are exciting. I might add that Patrick and Henrietta – we discovered over late night whisky on our first night – are Brexiters, but we will draw a hasty veil over that and move on.
For I bring good news on the plastic bottle front from Paris: here there are over 700 public water fountains, all quality checked and tested by Eau de Paris. I even spotted spigots on Metro platforms so you can fill your own bottles. This, I learn, dates back to the sieges of the Franco-Prussian war and Paris Commune, when water was in such short supply that Parisians drank alcohol instead (a bit like Captain Haddock, who preferred whisky to water).
The tradition of ornate public fountains was invented and financed initially by a francophile Brit, called Richard Wallace. I drank from one on the Place St Michel near Notre Dame that spouted chilled sparkling water, which to me was the essence of spritz and fizz. I almost burst into tears, it was so ineffably stylish.
How nice if as a thank you the freeflowing French repaid the favour by installing Perrier fountains for us in poor old besieged Brexit Britain in return.