No rants today, for ‘tis summer and Wimbledon has begun – or to be precise they managed 44 minutes’ play yesterday. It’s 11 years since they had a Wimbledon uninterrupted by rain, and fifteen since I sat at the Centre Court in a monsoon, hoping vainly to watch my then heart-throb Sabatini. I went home wet through, Sabatini-less, and swearing that henceforth I would watch it on television. (Why do Americans pronounce it Wimbleton – or is it just a yankee thing?)
Am reading a book recommended by friend Ed, which has a chapter on cemeteries. Not the sort of thing you normally see in travel books – in fact it’s my first encounter with anyone else who likes them. It's part of why we do, I guess: if everyone did, they’d be full of live people and not the calm retreats they are. Another odd thing is that the author, James Salter, likes many of the cemeteries that I like.
But our favourite is the Père Lachaise in Paris: it really is the Rolls Royce of cemeteries: an island of calm in the whirlpool of traffic that rushes around it. All the cultures are represented – cast includes Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Chopin, Voltaire, Bellini and Jim Morrison - as is a whole gamut of architecture – Gothic, Baroque, Arts Nouveau and Deco. (How to distinguish between the last two: early - twirly; later - straighter.) It’s not an age thing: I made my first visit in 1952, when some of today’s residents – like Yves Montand and Simone Signoret – weren’t even dead yet. (Appropriately, Montand’s defunct neighbour is Edith Piaf – one of his earlier loves.)
He was a great performer but not a nice man. Once when we were having coffee in his favourite haunt, the Colombe d’Or in St. Paul de Vence, I asked him if he would do an introduction on a documentary I was doing about the village. Certainly, he says. How much? I ask. Don’t even mention it, he says - anything I can do for St. Paul is a pleasure for me. But when the script is agreed and the sound and camera crews assembled he says no – if I do it for you everyone will want me to. So forgive me if I am less than convinced when I hear him sing the Song of the Resistance.
Ah yes, about the Père Lachaise. It’s the best value in Paris: this much talent would cost a fortune if they were alive. There’s even a New Orleans jazzman: Mezz Mezzrow. But my favourite tomb is that of Gertrude Stein. After the flamboyance of the French mausoleums, here is a simple slab of Provençal granite bearing her details in a valiant attempt at English. On the reverse are those of Alice B. Toklas, and at the base of the stone lie the disintegrating remains of a single rose, its petals faded and grimy and much of its colour now transferred to the stone, but still discernible as having once been red.