Saturday, 1 February 2014

A la recherche du temps perdu

Mademoiselle de Paris

Paris, 45 years on .....
We arrive at the Gare du Nord on a crisp and sunny winter's day to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary in Paris, the city where we inadvertently became embroiled in the dramatic events of May 1968 when the student riots escalated into civil unrest.  The taxi queues are long and the Metro heaving with luggage laden people, so we walk from the station to our hotel in the Ile St Louis. By the time we arrive, we really feel we are in Paris.  The Hotel Lutece is a charming, tall, narrow building in a street filled with shops, restaurants and galleries,  their windows sparkling for Christmas and all much smarter than when we last stayed there. Our spacious room is right at the top, with large windows overlooking rooftops, domes and spires. Unlike Lindsay Duncan in Le Weekend, we are very happy with our choice.

This evening we are invited to dinner by our Finnish friend Jorma and his French wife Sylviane who live in the 16th arrondissement. After celebratory champagne,  Jorma unveils a selection of wines from his formidable cellar,  chosen to relate to our wedding anniversary and beginning with a 1970 (the nearest he has to 1968), followed by 1978, 1988 and 1998. We are invited to choose which to drink with the saddle of boar (shot by Jorma in Fontainebleu Forest!) and which to drink with the cheese. On a higher culinary plane than madeleine cake - and certainly far more sophisticated than the food we enjoyed all those years ago -  the meal and companionship triggers a Proustian stream of reminiscence.

We share memories of being in Paris in May 1968 - the seriously scary riot police, the noise, the shutdown of banks, airports and railways, the general strike. We tell our tale of getting a Hertz car (by dint of our journalist accreditation and determination), taking two and a half hours to drive along the Champs Elysee and then setting off to Brussels via country roads, gambling that petrol would be more available than in the cities. We learn from Sylviane that we made the right decision - she too set out by car to escape the rioting city, but was forced to return because she could not find any service stations with fuel. Meanwhile we arrived in Brussels to find no seats on flights to London for days, so we drove on to Ostend to catch a ferry - we had jobs to hold down at a time when the economy was challenging.

And challenging it certainly was in the UK back in 1968. Harold Wilson was trying to increase British competitiveness by asking workers to do more without getting paid,  Enoch Powell was dismissed from the Cabinet after making his Rivers of Blood speech about the consequences of uncontrolled immigration. There were severe storms, killing seven people and resulting in The Great Flood which inundated large areas of the south east of England. Like Paris, the capital saw major unrest,when 91 policemen were injured and 200 people arrested in protests against the war in Vietnam, outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. And more ominously, a civil rights march in Londonderry revealed the full spectre of sectarianism in Northern Ireland that triggered the events that resulted in The Troubles. Despite all this doom and gloom - or perhaps as an antidote - we decided to get married.

The Dagenham Ladies
And then I recall celebrating another significant event from 45 years ago, just a few weeks earlier in October 2013. In the Intercontinental Hotel ballroom,  surrounded by extraordinary individuals at the Women of the Year lunch, I join the huge applause for the winners of the Outstanding Achievement Award.  Up on to the stage go eight of the women who took part in the strikes for equal pay and recognition of skill that took place in 1968 at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, Essex.  Machinists Vera Sime (83), Eileen Pullen (84), Gwen Davis (81), Sheila Douglass (77), Dora Challingsworth (74), Pamela Brown (59), Sarah Kavia (60) and Bharti Patel (64). They won their battle - but the fight for equal pay for women is not over yet. Plus ca change.....

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