Friday, 17 June 2011

Le Train du Livre

Actually it was not a very promising start. Having woken at 6 am and caught the fast train to London I thought foolishly that nothing could go wrong. The train was on time, I got a seat, my bag was not too heavy, I hadn't forgotten anything and the day itself looked set fair. Then, as our train manager told us to read the safety leaflet, we pulled out of the station. And stopped. And stayed there for the next two hours. 
Something about brakes I believe, or was it the signal? There certainly weren't any leaves on the line on this occasion. My Eurostar to Paris was at 10.

Paris, when I finally get there some seven hours later, is bathed in sunlight and my hotel looks out onto the trees and a cafe below. Another world, civilized and very serene, yet so close to home. I decide to forget about Britain's third world incompetence and its woes for a few days. I am here to launch the French translation of my novel Brixton Beach. Or Retour à Brixton Beach, as they are calling it. Dinner at eight is to be at my editor's beautiful flat where she has invited a few journalists and friends. 
Naturally we drink champagne...

Earlier in the week I had been writing an article about my first trip to the city. Paris in the 1970s. On that visit my mother had waved me off at the station and today I find there are faint traces of my excited adolescent self walking beside me. Forty years have passed. How could I have known that one day I would return to promote a book I had written?
Retour à Brixton Beach is in part about her life and what it was like for her to be an immigrant from Sri Lanka. After she died someone remarked that her life had had 'too many longings' in it.
Time shifts momentarily allowing me glimpses of a past I cannot bring back before closing in on the present.

Saturday, and it's a dawn dash to Montparnasse in a taxi to catch "Le Train du Livre": a whole train dedicated to the book festival at St Malo!  Albin Michel has reserved us seats, there are coffee, croissants and orange juice as the countryside rolls down towards the sea. There is gossip and laughter and more laughter. And always we return to the topic of books, that abiding passion linking everyone on that train. 

Asking my French publisher about the dreaded Kindle her answer surprised me.
'You must not fear it, Roma,' she said, 'especially someone like you who has visual art as well. Think of what you can do with illustrations and text?'
She is right I think, now, staring at David Hockney's iPhone drawings which grace the cover of the current New Yorker. Hockney is a great one for New Media. One has to move with the times. Reinvent. Search.
'Of course books will not totally disappear,' the publisher had said. 'Maybe in this current  form they will be fewer but they will not disappear.'
She spoke softly, a string of pearls wound around her neck, her hair beautifully cut. An image of ease and elegance.

At Saint-Malo the sea is waiting for us. It has swept the beach clean and far away on the horizon the sun glimmers in a thin line. 

I meet Lydia.
'My book is about oral legends,' she tells me. 'It is a book about someone who has never seen the sea.'
'One of my characters in The Swimmer,' I reply, 'is called Lydia.'
We both laugh. 

Now we are sitting in a cafe watching the rain. Which is grey but filled with light. How can this be so? It is another day and we are planning writing a play together. Lydia's day job is in a theatre in Paris but she has always loved the sea. Me too. Language difficulties hardly matter. I already know who will play the part of one my French character, I tell Lydia.  
Later on I meet Marie, a young interpreter, whose English is so perfect that I am stunned when she tells me she is French. I want her to stay with me for all the panel discussions in which I participate because she makes me feel safe. Talking through someone else is like looking through a sheet of glass. It is the interpreter's skill that make the glass clear. 
Our events come and go and the sea changes colour. The tide, they tell me, comes in and goes out at six hourly intervals.

'Tell us about the war in Sri Lanka,' I am asked at one event. 
I nod. Then I ask the audience to look at their programme. Look I say, there's a map on the back. A map of India. But Sri Lanka is nowhere on it.
'You see the problem I have,' I say, and everyone laughs.

At the book signing a little girl hands me a drawing of my book. Her mother is reading it and enjoying it. People talk shyly to me, buy the book, hesitate, and ask me a question or two. Sometimes I see from their eyes and the way they look at me that they are moved by my mother's story. And I wonder again and again what on earth she would have made of it all.

And then it is over and the house of books by the sea folds up like a fairground tent and we are bussed back to the station. Just as we are leaving a man hurries towards me.
'Are you Roma?' he asks.
He is Jaspreet Singh, author of  Chef  but more interestingly, someone mad about W.G. Sebald. As a Sebald fan myself there is much to talk about. On the four hour train journey back to Paris we force everyone who passes through our compartment to tell us whether or not  they have ever stolen a book. 
The noise of laughter is so great that there are complaints.

Time is running out with only two day left in Paris, and Marie the interpreter invites me to her house for supper. To be invited into a home brings the country and its people into sharp focus. Nothing quite beats such a privilege, I think, as I taste the variety of cheeses in front of me.    

Then, lunch with my son who lives in the 10th arrondissement, a quick trip to a shop that sells old photos, and one engagement with France 24. The beautiful Joelle is with me making sure everything runs smoothly. On the way we look at the gallery where I plan to have an exhibition in the spring - my first in Paris. At the television studio I look at myself on the TV monitor and think, hmm, not the greatest of hair days. 

But then it is time for the train to London. 
English voices everywhere. The newspapers write about NHS shakeups, unemployment, problems over teen drinking, problems, problems....ah well! I must be going home!



  1. your reflections are as compelling as your fiction. now I want to read Brixton Beach.

  2. Last year, when my adopted son (23 years old) was traveling in Sri Lanka, I have read your book "Retour à Brixton Beach".
    I just want to say : Thank You.