Foreign Correspondent: Peter Lennon’s Paris

Image: The Guardian

Vingt Paris Magazine, 09/08/2011

Peter Lennon died in March of this year at the age of 81. He worked throughout the 60’s as Paris correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, and also worked for the Sunday Times, the BBC and The Irish Times. He produced, alongside Nouvelle Vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard, the groundbreaking and controversial documentary film The Rocky Road To Dublin, and had short stories published in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly.

Lennon detailed his time in Paris in a book, Foreign Correspondent – Paris In The Sixties. He left his native Dublin and arrived in France at the end of the 1950’s, attempting to find work as a journalist. He got his break as a foreign correspondent in his mid-twenties when a train he was travelling on, full of Irishwomen returning from Lourdes, struck a lorry at a level crossing. ‘Miraculous escape of Irish pilgrims to Lourdes’ was the front-page splash the next day. He eked out a living contributing articles to Irish newspapers The Irish Times and The Sunday Press, giving English lessons for extra cash on the side. Jumping from cheap student hotel to cheap student hotel, he eventually settled in the 6th, making cafes like the Select, the Tournon and the Monaco his home. “For a short while, an area of hardly more than one square mile supplied all the emotional, intellectual and erotic needs of my life,” he wrote.

For any new arrival to Paris the early sections of Foreign Correspondent will provide invaluable inspiration; for established Parisians who arrived here broke and clueless (does anyone ever arrive anywhere in any other state?) the insights and stories will have you nodding and laughing in equal measure. Unpredictable landlords, language difficulties and early sexual encounters (and diseases) are recounted in Lennon’s restrained, self-deprecating and hilarious prose.

Indeed it’s Lennon’s honesty and wit in describing both the good and the bad of Paris that separates Foreign Correspondent from the many overly romantic, self-serving accounts of life in Paris in the ‘good old days’. Personal failures and career false starts are recounted with the same clarity and enthusiasm as encounters with great authors and film stars.

Having arrived to the set of Playtime to interview Jacques Tati, Lennon was corralled into becoming an extra for four weeks, before being sent to Tati’s office and instructed to write additional scenes for the film. He eventually escaped, unable to handle the boredom and increasingly aware of the legendary director’s waning powers of, well, direction.

Interviewing Salvador Dali he found the great artist a somewhat defeated man, obsessed with his own dwindling relevance. Having been suddenly and unexpectedly granted the interview Lennon had raced to Dali’s hotel room still dressed in his pajamas, fearing the great man might change his mind if he paused to get dressed. He considered informing Dali of this fact at the end of the interview but thought the better of it, deciding it “better not to try to compete with surrealists.”

Peter O’ Toole once threatened to throw him down the stairs of the Falstaff after Lennon drunkenly rubbed him up the wrong way; an intervention from Samuel Beckett was required to calm the situation down. He failed to interview the great American writer James Baldwin  (“the bugger just didn’t like me”), and once accidentally told the Vice-President of Universal Studios to “fuck off”. Having chased him to a film set outside of Paris he carried out an abrasive but fascinating interview in a car with a reluctant Jean-Luc Godard, who he later described as being “tremendously talented” but “a complete fucking lunatic.”

At the start of the 60’s the National Liberation Front (FLN), an Algerian nationalist paramilitary group, were carrying out a campaign of assassinations of police and public figures in Paris. French police had launched a brutal crackdown on Algerian nationals in Paris.
The increasingly visible conflict led Lennon into political reporting for the first time.In a theatre review for the Guardian he included an account of his difficulty getting to a play because of the demonstrations and riots, expecting it to be cut from the published piece. The article ran in full without a word from his editors, under the headline ‘Strange Fruit In The Trees’ – a reference to the hanging of Algerians taking place in the Bois de Vincennes at the time. He continued to cover the conflict, including the terrible events of October 1961, for the Guardian, and later the student riots of May 1968.

It was his friendship with Samuel Beckett that eventually earned Lennon his greatest fame. While in the book one suspects Lennon is being careful not to reveal too much (his discretion was one of the reasons Beckett valued his friendship so greatly), those sections describing their quiet drinks together in the cafes of the 6th provide rare and fascinating insights into the personality of the man known to Lennon simply as Sam.

But out of the enormous cast of famous writers, actors and intellectuals (a night is described at the Falstaff where Beckett, Godard, Sartre & Eugene Ionesco were all present at separate tables), it’s Lennon who emerges as the modest star of his own life; a witness to and participant in the extraordinary events happening around him, an outstanding journalist and a talented artist in his own right. His enthusiasm and industry provide valuable lessons to anyone starting out in a career, while his passion for the best aspects of big city life – people, culture, cafes, making connections – is present in every chapter.

For any aspiring journalists, those interested in history or Paris in the 60’s, or indeed anyone who enjoys a good story well told, Foreign Correspondent makes for essential reading. Who knows, maybe by the anniversary of his death next March some tribute will be organised by the Marie to celebrate the life of an outsider who truly embraced all the possibilities that this great city has to offer.

4 thoughts on “Foreign Correspondent: Peter Lennon’s Paris”

  1. Excellent piece which I was directed to from your Twitter account. I went straight to Amazon and ordered a copy of Lennon’s book. Greatly looking forward to reading it.
    best wishes, Peter Allen

  2. Just finished it, and loved every word. What a delightful book. Especially enjoyed recollections of meetings with Sam Beckett, but the day-to-day descriptions of Paris are outstanding….Thanks again, Aidan – I’ll continue to read your excellent blog.

    Peter

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