I just took the Métro up to the 17th arrondissement for a party to welcome the new editor of the Paris Review, Philip Gourevitch. (The Review, although born in Paris in 1953 under George Plimpton, is published in New York.) The beautiful Susannah Hunnewell, who was hosting the party, answered the door in distinctly un-hostess mode. No tray of dry Martinis. No little sausages. No welcome peck on the cheek. The party, she told me, was tomorrow night. And tomorrow is the beginning of the big strike, when a Métro to the 17th will be as rare as an honest politician.
I have done this before: a week late for the nuptials of the Times man James MacManus, when the church doors were strangely bolted; one week early for Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s birthday – he invited me to stay for dinner anyway; and occasional dinners and lunches with friends and lovers that went awry because of my dyscalculia and unreliable memory. I have never, alas, missed a funeral.
One overdue requiem is for our old friend – free speech. In London, the police arrested Brian Haw again on Sunday, breaking his long anti-war vigil in Parliament Square. (Note to David Cameron: if you guarantee to rescind the legislation making it a crime to protest within a mile of parliament without police permission, you have my vote.) Austria incarcerated David Irving for three years over his view of history. I agree with Haw and disagree with Irving, but the denial of both men’s right to speak is the denial of our right to think.
In Dublin, republican mobs rioted rather than permit unionists the right to state publicly how they see Irish history. (I hear Yeats: “You have disgraced yourselves again!”) Last month, the New York Theatre Workshop cancelled My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the successful Royal Court play about a young American who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer. New York’s burghers forced Richard Rogers to retract his statements of sympathy for Palestinians under military occupation or face a boycott of his work. This, from scoundrels who said boycotts were wrong. When two Harvard professors published a treatise suggesting that criticism of Israel was too often labelled anti-Semitic, their colleague Alan Dershowitz – the torture apologist and proponent of razing Palestinian villages in response to suicide bombings – said their argument was . . . anti-Semitic. Palestinians are denied a voice in New York and Harvard, even when the voice comes through Jewish architects or English thespians.
RIP, Free Speech. I knew him well.
No one – especially not governments, the police and mobs – owns history. The French have enacted some of the most absurd laws to enshrine interpretations of history on African (but not other) slavery (against), Jewish and Armenian genocides (they happened) and French colonialism (for). “There is apparently no limit to the conceit – and to the humourlessness – of a French intellectual, ever ready to pontificate in public on this issue or that,” the great British historian Richard Cobb wrote in 1983. Cobb had in mind the March 1942 manifesto of the collaborationist writers Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. He might have extended the observation to those intellectuals who promoted la loi Gayssot, la loi Taubira and the rest that proscribed certain interpretations of history and compelled teachers to propagate others.
The dean of French history, 74-year-old Pierre Nora, founded the group Liberté pour l’Histoire to challenge the notion of official memory. I hope he opens chapters in New York and London.
Back to the strikes. The spring is alive with wildflowers and the enchanting cry, “Aux barricades!” Poor Dominique de Villepin must blame himself. He forced the CPE (“contrat première embauche” or contract of first hire ) through the chamber of deputies in the way he accused the US and Britain of reneging on their UN war resolution in 2003. The UN debate was Villepin’s finest hour, when Britons longed for a foreign secretary of his calibre.
The interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has implied that Villepin got it wrong when he said that “social dialogue is an essential condition to the success of all reform”. Sarkozy will be running against him for president next year. I am reminded of Bismarck’s dictum: “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.”
We may not be able to count the lies told in Washington and London over the Iraq war, but I may miss the Paris Review party if Villepin and Sarkozy don’t get the trains running.