Lewes, East Sussex, where this column began all those horned moons ago. As I walk from the station under another horned moon I spy, standing outside a cosy-looking pub, the cuddly dolmen of Matthew De Abaitua. Thirteen years ago, Matthew – who is now a talented novelist in his own right – spent a six-month sojourn as my live-in amanuensis and secretary. It was a thankless task: so far as I can remember I was completely spark-a-loco. We were living in a tiny cottage in Suffolk, and I was given to harvesting opium from the poppies that grew wild in the field margins, then driving my Citreon deux-chevaux across the same fields, solely by the light of a horned moon, Matthew placidly crammed into the passenger seat.
Bizarrely, he retains affectionate memories of his secretaryship, saying that I taught him how to prepare lobster, and also impressed upon him the importance of convincing foreign journalists – who had come to interview me in my rural fastness – that we were an elderly lesbian couple, akin to the Ladies of Llangollen. But this lies in the past, nowadays Matthew and his burgeoning family are ensconced in Lewes, where come Guy Fawkes Day, the incomer crystal-danglers and the native hobbits make common cause: promulgating the anti-Popery of the local “firework societies”, which roll burning barrels of pitch down the tortuous medieval streets.
A couple of hours later, Ralph Steadman, who has materialised looking like Great Uncle Bulgaria with an attitude problem, is sitting on a stage in the local arts centre, taking an enthusiastic audience on a strange journey through the labyrinth of his creative unconscious. Juxtaposing his own projected images, with a staccato commentary, in the manner of Chris Marker’s La Jetee, Ralph imagines a conversation between Marcel Duchamp and Luis Bunuel, in which the venerable – and now, quite dead – Surrealists animadvert on the relationship between chance encounters, narrative and destiny.
Far be it from me to extol the virtues of my collaborator, but he’s definitely hit on something here – and quite brilliantly: the relationship between psyche and place can only, it occurs to me, be understood through such abrupt transitions. The memory is not Bayreuth – or even a multiplex – but a converted provincial church hall equipped with a PowerPoint projector, operated by a young man called Simon.
Nineteen hours later, I’m sitting in the front row of a lecture theatre at the Sorbonne in Paris, listening to Didier Gerard, a handsome young professor of contemporary English literature at the University of Perpignan, take a somewhat less enthusiastic – but for all that, I hope, engaged – audience on a strange journey through the labyrinth of his creative unconscious. Or is it mine? To begin with the only PowerPoint projection is this gnomic slogan: “Radical No Saying, Paradoxes and Contradictions of the WILL / SELF “, but Professor Gerard then supplies several disconcerting canvases by the German painter Neo Rauch that he feels evoke the same imaginative hinterland as my fiction.
Here we are, buried in the venerable foie-gras-coloured masonry of the Sorbonne a few score metres in one direction from Shakespeare & Company, publishers of Ulysses in the other, a few hundred from the Ile de la Cite, where the Situationists who coined the term “psychogeography” slept off their drunken derives. On our way in, Francois Gallix, the Sorbonne professor who has invited me to address this conference on contemporary inglit, pointed out the chapel, a stable for revolutionaries’ horses during the Terror, and where an annual mass is held for Cardinal Richelieu.
It was also in this courtyard, during Les Evenements of 1968, that the students camped for weeks, attempting to lie down on the Society of the Spectacle until it gave up the ghost. Francois, who was a young academic at the time, and who joined in the demands for direct, participatory democracy, recalls those days with a certain wry regret: “And now, with these recent disturbances we have over Sarkozy’s new education bill, well, yesterday the University was closed, the road was full of the police, and the students, they were split into two groups – one of which was fighting on the police side!”
Since my last visit to Paris, a mere six months ago, the Mairie has launched a bike-hire scheme. I never really believe these schemes work, but as I leave the Sorbonne in the winter lamplight there are scores of people – Parisians and tourists – toodling up and down the Boulevard St Germain on their eco-Noddy-bikes. At L’Odeon there’s a customised rank for the things right beside the statue of Danton, which, in turn, is right in front of a multiplex called the UGC Danton.
And there you have it, as we contemplate the arrival of 2008, and another year of speculative venturing, what is it that we can offer you save more of the same? To whit: a chance meeting between a dead fish log and a caricature on a picnic table.