My Writing Space
The Last Refuge
Burial at Sea
MY LIFE AS PAUL POTTS
When I failed to communicate my deep knowledge of French culture and vocabulary to shopkeepers, I despaired of myself, and thought of Paul Potts, the secular saint of self-effacement, and digging into my trunk of books, found his Dante Called You Beatrice (1960), the saddest autobiography in the world (‘A lover that is not loved is a river which can never get to the sea’).
‘This book is not factually true, but it contains the atmosphere of truth.’ There is an inner truculence underneath his sackcloth and ashes. Though introducing himself as a ‘failed poet’, he said, ‘If I wrote a real poem they would still spit at me, but then they would have to spit upwards’.
I saw Paul Potts in the French pub in Soho in the late sixties, shrunk into a raincoat too large for him, on a barstool. Already posing for his death mask, two decades ahead. The moon head loomed large, half in shadow. I sat next to him on his dark side. Happily, uncheerful sages were two a penny in the West End (‘I am the man. I suffered. I was there’). Paul Potts was the other way around. He seemed cheerfully unhappy, muttering to nobody in particular, ‘Never complain about having no shoes in the presence of someone without feet’. His raincoat dragged in the sawdust. I couldn’t see his shoes.
Now in Bras de Venus I’m Paul Potts for a week. Children hide behind their parents as I approach, dogs follow me. The body language bespeaks the morgue, the undead, holding itself back all the better to pounce. My underlying body language expresses itself most fluently in aggression, a legacy, perhaps, of rugby playing days as a blindside wing-forward. This doubles the hazards of being Paul Potts on shopping trips.
I prepare a monologue to buy roast chicken, and deliver it mooingly to the grocer, an amiable man in his seventies. It is stalemate until his bossy daughter-in-law rushes out from the kitchen. ‘What-do-you-want.’ Politesse lost in forcing her English is my red rag. ‘You wouldn’t talk to a clochard like that, only Paul Potts. You think he doesn’t notice.’ ‘Vous an Englishman’, she explains, reasonably enough.
I stomp out with a shrug of my shoulder, spitting ‘degueulasse’ on the pavement (‘You make me sick.’ Belmondo’s last word to Jean Seberg in Godard’s A Boute de Souffle, 1960). I know I’m being unfair. Madame’s pidgin is no worse than my patois (‘English speaker’ is not easy to say). Now what am I going to do for dinner, I ask myself. As Paul Potts, self-effacement requires you to say, ‘The only difference between me and a real artist is that I’m not one’.
‘What I think and say and write is always the same.’ But what Paul Potts appeared to be had its false bottoms. There were so many things that he admitted he was not, that what was left was more like a scarecrow than a man. His inner truculence apart, there were other hidden depths, which made him an exceptional fraud detector and ‘the most memorable’ critic of life and literature of his generation, according to George Barker, who nevertheless couldn’t remember a line he wrote. For instance, Paul Potts’s extreme Englishness was a cover. He moved to Canada when he was a babe in arms, which probably means he had reasonable French. Maybe that is why I’m making such a Spanish cow of being him.
The shrug of my shoulder, though, is eloquent. I am proud of it. Not a word wasted. French people aren’t just talking mouths. They are the best mimes in the world, which is probably why I understand more than I hear. Gestures lead their verbal sallies: arms to the heavens precede ‘mon dieu’, a slap of the wrist ‘j’en ai marre’. It is possibly a reaction to the rhyme-riche acronyms that hamper the language. Meanings are constantly blurred by unintentional punnings. For instance, ‘soûl’ and ‘seul’ are pronounced the same, more or less, and to distinguish between been drunk or alone you accompany them with a hiccup or by hugging yourself. My quarrel is with spoken French, not the bewildered grocer. I could have helped him with a nod and a wink. After all, at his age he could be partly deaf, and his incomprehension may not have been just me. I noticed he put his hands to his ears when I spoke.
I’m about to cheer up when an ample corporation with a lethal aura of tobacco bursts out the door of the Marin Bar and bumps me off balance without so much as a pardon. The bounder didn’t notice me. Not much fun being Paul Potts, I think. Perhaps I should revert to being myself. I still mind being knocked off-course, having hopes even yet of getting somewhere. Paul Potts had given up on the literary and social possibilities of Paul Potts (‘I have not made a mess of my life. My life has not even made a mess of me’). Though I still covet his inner truculence. Mine is skin deep and I have a thin skin. I don’t want to have to choose between being Paul Potts and me. But all the same I’m obliged to pick myself up.
Paul Potts always said less rather than more. Reading between the lines, there is a hymn of joy. Paul Potts is explaining to a woman who rejected him why she made a good decision and does it so well that he knows it will make her happy. His self-effacement soars at the thought that ‘at least she had a fair few cigarettes that otherwise she would not have smoked’. And so, as Paul Potts, I become more open to the hidden light on the dark side of the moon, casting off my potted Englishness for an Irish-Canadian devil-me-care (The Luck of Ginger Coffey) and I notice people smiling at me for no obvious reason, except I am passing them on a quiet street or at the entrance to a Bank. I learned to reciprocate the smiles after the initial shock. Embarrassment, surprise or a sense of isolation translates nicely into courtesy. In London such behaviour would be regarded with a raised eyebrow. An Englishman would think that lowercase smarmy wants something from me, something precious like my privacy, and, depending whether it was in the Underground or on the street, the newspaper or umbrella would go up. I’ve even accustomed myself to add a bonjour to my smile, and a ça va, if it’s a repeat performance. Paul Potts wouldn’t know himself.