May Uprising, Paris, 1968

by Garry O’Connor

‘The past is bourgeois propaganda,’ booms a deep voice in French from the stage of Paris’s Odéon Theatre. I am participating after a fashion in the May uprising of 1968. I have lived for some months in a tiny maid’s room, eight flights up on the Île Saint-Louis, happily exiled, insulated from reality, smiled upon by fate, blessed and at the same time deprived. Most days I eat chicken necks and gizzards served with rice at a corner café – and eye the glittering and sexy world of Paris without taking much part.

My English friends, Kate and her husband Robert, found it rather curious I should be living all alone, doing a minimal amount of work, a bit of teaching, a bit of translating, maybe one or two articles for a newspaper, to get by, but they couldn’t see what I was carrying. Nor could I, perhaps. I was an inner darkness, even to myself. I had no why and wherefore, even about who I was. I was, in the words of one of Dad’s songs, ‘wandering on life’s highway’, or perhaps just desperately trying to avoid the past, with its mighty sucking action.


Then came the Odéon occupation. And I was there. The student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, popped up, red-headed, round and jovial, a jack-in-the-box, or devil in a morality play, a Daniel Quilp. He knew what to say, dwarfing the mellowed bust of Pascal, of La Rochefoucauld. This was not the Sorbonne, where the uprising had started, but the Théâtre de l’Odéon, which had been thrown like a dog’s bone to the insurgents. Thousands of protesters crammed the auditorium and the loges. The stage was so jammed it was a wonder the worn and creaking boards stood the weight.

Everyone talked at once. It was forbidden to forbid. Everything was equal. They were screaming at a middle-aged professor that he was a ‘sélectioniste’ – he favoured selecting students to follow a university course. Shouting that his other crime was of not being working-class, they started to threaten him with blows.

‘Let the professor explain himself, and if we think he’s a bastard we’ll tell him “Monsieur Blanc, you are a bastard!”’

Monsieur Blanc spoke at length but no one bothered with what he said, and soon a murmur grew and it silenced him. By now it was so stuffy I thought I would faint. People left for fear of suffocating. I explored backstage. At the back was an eerie, dark little passage leading down one side of the stage to the other. Underneath was hollow. Perhaps the floor really would not hold! What if three or four hundred people went crashing down into the chasm? I came back. Everyone now talked at once. Order does not exist; licence was without licence: there were not two sides to any question but twenty – fifty, a hundred. There was no person in the chair – no master or mistress of ceremonies – it would be a symbol of hierarchy, of oppression. Every blade of grass had a tongue. Everything was equal. Everyone had a right to the truth, and to voice an opinion. Was this a foretaste of the twenty-first century, with its Twitter and Facebook rule, with its faction-ridden societies and nations?

Actors tried to speak – neat, well-shaven, ordinary men and women; musicians, artists – the latter with the beards of anarchists. Over and over again they told each other that bourgeois culture was dead.

The Odéon – a symbol of repression – had been seized. They were delirious. Now it, too, was dead. Henceforth it would be a political forum. Malraux, Barrault, Renaud, Claudel, Messiaen, Boulez, these great names of French culture – they no longer existed. ‘One doesn’t compose with a society in decomposition.’ ‘Long live communication. Down with telecommunication.’ Maybe this really was a new beginning. What had André Malraux, Minister of Culture, once said? ‘Christ: an anarchist who succeeded. That’s all!’ What did he say about the twenty-first century, that it would either be ‘a century of religion, or not at all’.

During the next hours of night and day while discussions raged on I visited other parts. Dressing rooms had been turned into kitchens or dormitories. I tiptoed from room to room sometimes fearful that I might provoke the numerous and naked two-backed beasts copulating over or under blankets. No one seemed much bothered that I was there to see them. Shame? They had abolished that. Others pounded tall typewriters, issuing slogans, directives. Grim-faced militants in rimless spectacles, bald, bearded men under banners mesmerised me. ‘THE MORE I MAKE REVOLUTION THE MORE I MAKE LOVE.’ Next day I was still there and I couldn’t leave.

The real beneficiaries of revolt appeared. ‘You’ll get the plague if you stay,’ Katie warned before she left, for she had been there to begin with, begging me not to stay. ‘All that filth. There’ll be rats. You’ll see….’

I laughed in disbelief, but then they appeared. Great brown things, their bodies could be seen bobbling among the filth accumulating under the stage. Above, and in the auditorium, the great debates on class, on Marxism, on poverty, on the great new future, continued without halt. Backstage the dressing rooms overflowed with stench. First used for rutting, they became a cesspit. Vandalism was rife, obscenities scrawled everywhere, light fixtures broken, mirrors cracked, costumes and make-up strewn over everything. In the costume stores there was even worse havoc. At first these had stayed locked – until broken into from the skylights above. The theatre’s director, Jean-Louis Barrault, France’s greatest actor, looked in to see what was happening, made a speech supporting the students, and then left weeping. Half the seats had been torn up. Later, for having shown sympathy, he was relieved of his post.

Then walking down a corridor, I found myself seized from behind.

My assailants were two blond men, naked to the waist, scarves tied round their necks and army fatigue caps on their heads. Their grip was like steel and it was useless to resist. Anyway they had a purpose so they propelled me in a certain direction.

‘Where the hell are you taking me?’

They didn’t answer but pushed open doors ahead with their feet. They looked older than the students, and were military professionals. Breathless with fear and exertion, ‘I work for an English paper’ was about all I managed to say. I freelanced for the Financial Times. ‘Who cares?’ said one of them. ‘We were told.’

A room where hundreds of seventeenth-century costumes for Molière and Racine lay scattered had become a parlour for clochards. ‘Parlez-moi d’amour…. Je vois la vie en rose….’ they quavered and warbled. The brutal-looking, gap-toothed men from the Île Saint-Louis and old women who pushed prams from which dangled brown stockings of uneven length, laughed and waved. Godot had arrived. Estragon and Vladimir had infiltrated the headquarters of Phèdre and Harpagon.

The next store was a ‘medical centre’ – so one captor told me: on duty there was a motley collection of half a dozen lunatics in white coats. They seemed more like junkies or members of the Living Theatre who toured with a cast running naked up and down the aisles. In the middle of the largest of costumes stores was an odd assortment of weapons. Crowbars, axes – the theatre fire axes – cudgels, chains, chunks of masonry, and what I took to be Molotov cocktails. We had reached the inner sanctum. The arsenal. My first inclination was to laugh – more from nerves than anything else.

‘Who are you?’ I asked.

There were between twenty and twenty-five of them. The leader was dark-haired, his hair close-cropped and thinning, cut to give an appearance of firmness. His forehead was lined – not by thought, I guessed, but by screwing his eyes up in extreme heat and glare. He was a big fellow, over six foot, and looked fit. He had narrow, small eyes, darting with the threat that he could be very nasty if crossed.

‘You must be the Katangais,’ I said. I had heard of them. They were mercenaries, now on leave, and with no employer. They got their name from the fact that some of them had been in Katanga – but others fought in Korea, Algeria, and Indo-China. Wherever a dirty war needed to be fought, they fought it, the dirtier the better.

‘We heard the call of the students,’ the leader answered slowly, chewing over his words. He spoke mildly enough – as if playing down the violent side. ‘As we haven’t any education, we decided to join in and place our physical strength at the service of the revolution.’

‘The pay here can’t be very good.’

I regretted saying this: it slipped out without my meaning it. But I had cast a slur on their altruism, and I would be beaten for it, so I braced myself for blows. Surprisingly, they did not seem to mind.

‘There isn’t much work around for us at the moment,’ grumbled one.

‘So how do you envisage your role in the revolution?’ I asked somewhat more cautiously now – although they seemed ready enough to chat.

‘We have founded the CIR,’ says their leader. The CIR, he explained, was the ‘Committee of Rapid Intervention’.

‘But why do you come here, to the theatre?’

At this they went silent, and appeared to rumble with bellicose intention. I had better not press the question.

‘Please, what do you want with me?’ I asked.

‘You must stay with us,’ he answered,’ In case there is trouble.’

His purpose was plain. I was a hostage.

They brought food – a baguette that was slightly stale and tasted rubbery – and some cheese – and poured out wine. The enormity of my trap grew on me, for the siege might go on forever. Yes, the government had thrown the dog a bone and were waiting till he grew tired of it.

The nights were worst because I couldn’t sleep. I rocked myself backwards and forwards on the mound of costumes that was my bed, but it did no good. The dark had captured my brain. What if I myself dissolved in the dark?

I fought against the darkness. I listened to the sounds outside – and inside my head. Sometimes the rain outside was fierce. I closed my eyes. Several times my nervous condition dominated. So it went on – and then I fell asleep and had this dream.

I’m waiting for my dad to come on stage. I’m about six years old – the wide-eyed boy. And I’m sitting in the front seats of the dingy brown, upholstered stalls of the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road, about to watch Mum’s powerful lover – the embodiment of every woman’s dreams. You – the Vagabond Lover – are about to stride out to bask in the glow of ambers and reds, and capture the hearts of a thousand attentive watchers and listeners.

I wriggle a bit but am rapt. But I have butterflies in my stomach. Jerry is still, where he can, bombing the hell out of provincial cities and ports – and sometimes London too. Air-raid sirens have warned earlier as Heinkels and Dorniers pass over the suburbs. Maybe they’ll be back.

Arms linked, legs kicking, tits thrusting out, the dance duo before yours comes wheeling, gasping and clattering off, like some monster gone half mad and out of control.

It’s your turn. Top of the bill. The act everyone’s been waiting for. The big star. Beside me Mum sharply takes in breath, her eyes shining and full of happiness as she composes herself with pleasure.

Ever since I can remember Mum would say, ‘Come on, you’ve got to watch your father’ (she, from a different class than his, always called him ‘your father’).

So I’d seen your act a hundred times – if not more. But I’m not just sitting here, watching you; without me knowing you’ve become so much a part of me, the deepest part. My dad. So I’m here, not only out front, but with you in the wings, ready to go on before you do – inside you, as you’re about to stride out into the lights….

The pit band plays a chorus of your signature tune, ‘I’m only a strolling Vagabond’ – a big cheer of recognition – and then out you stride onto the stage looking as if nothing mattered to you, throwing half a smile up to the circle as if you’ve spotted some old friend there, and this has caught your attention far more than the other thousand-odd members of the house.

By many such little tricks, I knew and could see later, they’d be captured by you and listen. If you can get them sufficiently at ease with themselves, they’ll let go and float easily off into the dreamy fabric of your songs—

I’m bound for the hills and the valleys beyond
So good night pretty maiden, goodnight.
I follow Fortune that beckons me on
I catch at her skirts and the lady is gone
But that’s just my lot, if so right….

Your clothes help the informality. The Strolling Vagabond against a backcloth of lanes and trees in the far distance, farm horses and hills, a blue sky, endless peace. A wooden stile for you to lean against and place your foot upon. A tree trunk as a seat.

You finish the chorus of your song. We all clap. Violent and sustained applause. I wave at you, Dad, and you smile, motion for the audience to be silent. ‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,’ you declare in your lilting, stage-Irish voice.

‘And now if I may I’d like to sing you an old favourite by that most illustrious of song writers, Irving Berlin – “When I Leave the World Behind”.’

Cheers. Applause again. The song was well known. Effortlessly your voice glides and coasts over the colourful orchestrations.

I’m not a millionaire
Who’s burdened down with care
Somehow that’s passed me by….

But Dad, you are – in my and everyone’s estimation! A millionaire! Suddenly I’m frightened. What if the Heinkels and Dorniers on their way back to Germany swarm over North London again? And what if searchlights stab the darkness, outlining hundreds of gleaming insect structures packed under the roof of the sky, and guns lick out red tongues at the night? What if the Germans drop their bombs on us?

Would you pack it in? If a stick of bombs made a direct hit on or near the Met, with the air-raid sirens caught unawares and no warning given, would you stop singing? Never. You would go on singing regardless.

But what of the little boy sitting there, watching you? Would the song go on for him – and forever?

I woke up. The vast inside of the Odéon lay empty, desecrated, battered – like some fetid, yawning mouth. It seemed irredeemably fouled: the exhaust gases of idealism and spontaneous expression. The theatre’s ghosts had suffered wholesale extermination.

The CRS and gendarmes had surrounded the theatre; they were helmeted and armed with teargas grenades. The word had gone round that the Odéon would be reoccupied by the authorities.

‘What will happen?’ I asked one of my guards.

He sighed. He was unmoved. ‘Negotiations….’

‘No fighting? No last-ditch stand? What’s happened to the spirit of Katanga?’

‘Jackie’s not negotiating with the police,’ he answered tetchily, ‘he’s negotiating with the television and film people. Americans are offering a big fee.’

‘But how much would you ask – to put up some resistance to the police?’

The other dropped his usual air of lassitude. ‘Why? Can you pay?’

Once a mercenary, always a mercenary. He was about to go and fetch the others.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m penniless. It’s purely an academic question.’

The guard shrugged.

A voice we could just about hear floated up from a loudhailer outside. ‘Let those who want come out, do it now! You will be free if you leave without weapons, and without any bellicose intentions.’

I looked at my captors.

‘Where does that leave me?’

‘Shut up! I told you we have to await the results of negotiations. Jackie’s down there now.’

Another Katangais put his head round the door.

‘Come on: the order has come through. We’re going!’

‘What about him?’ asked my guard, meaning me.

‘He’s nothing to do with us now.’

I beat the Katangais to the exit, and hid by the pillar of an arch to watch. They emerged clean, well-shaven, their clothes crisp and pressed. They walked upright, without looking at anyone. In the street quite a crowd had collected. The Katangais presented their papers to the police control and marched off without a word.

In the square, top police brass had assembled: prefects, sub-prefects, stood to attention as everyone left. The mayor complimented the police on the ‘cleansing of the public building’. Then an officer in plain clothes climbed out on the roof of the Odéon and removed the red and black flags. The French tricolour soon fluttered again over the weather vane, but there had been no time to erase the ‘Ex’ prefixed to the ‘Théâtre de France’ on the entablature.

In the rue Casimir Delavigne a young man opened a window on the second floor, and started jeering and shouting: it needed all his father’s strength to grab him and haul him back inside.

What was the significance of my dream? Was the contrast of it with the stinking theatre pointing to a path I would have to follow in the future? Was this what destiny had in store?

Dad was after me, had pursued me even to Paris. And he would continue to be after me, relentlessly, until I turned to confront him. Would I have the courage to investigate his life, find out all I could about him, all there was to know? Had I resources enough to tackle the central part of the mystery? And could I present him as he was, expose him to the world?

A line from a poem drifted into my head. ‘O maison, où donc est ton maître?’

Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. The Vagabond Lover, his father-son memoir, is an incisive probe into the life and career of his father, Cavan O’Connor, famous as a popular tenor and active throughout most of the twentieth century, and into his own life and career as a writer. The above is an excerpt from it, published by CentreHouse Press in hardback, paperback, and on most ebook platforms.

A bas le fast-food


Jacques Chirac famously stirred up a hornet’s nest of indignation when in 2012 he had the temerity to criticise British cuisine. “We can’t trust people who have such bad food,” he said. “After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food”.

At once the British media was aflame with outrage at such a jibe, with Andrew Neil, ex-newspaper editor and right wing TV pundit, apoplectically leading the charge. To paraphrase his outburst, Johnny Foreigner has absolutely no bloody right to diss our food when we have some of the very finest restaurants in the world – thereby, as ever, missing the point entirely.

How does one evaluate a nation’s cuisine? Certainly not by fixating on a handful of restaurants that only a tiny percentage of the population could ever dream of eating in. You have to look at how people actually eat, how different sections of the population eat, how different regions eat – what your neighbour, your aunt, what the banker and the postmen are popping into their mouths. The food that’s being prepared at home, that’s served up in cafes, in works canteens, in hospitals and schools and take-ways and pubs and… wherever people eat. Posh restaurants for the One Percenters don’t loom large in such an assessment.

Of course, as well as Andrew Neal entirely missing the point Chirac was being deliberately disingenuous – and his jibe had exactly the desired effect. He must have loved the reaction. We Brits have served up some truly gruesome fare over the years, especially in our institutions, but there has always been a core of fine British cooking and there is no doubt we are getting a bit better at it. Leave aside the fetishism of TV nonsense such as Masterchef and top end culinary onanism, most people, where they can afford to, are eating better food. But this piece is not about the British relationship with food, it is about our neighbours across that strip of water.

French cuisine ain’t as good as it used to be. The rot set in well before Chirac made his famous remarks, and seems to be accelerating. As someone who has visited and stayed in France frequently over the decades, I chart this decline with great sadness. French cuisine has always been celebrated for its excellence and variety, and has been inextricably a big part of my seventy year bout of Francophilia.

I have early memories of family holidays in France. When I was four I recall our car being hoisted onto the deck of the channel ferry by crane, the Hotel Tamise in Paris where I lost my favourite soft toy, and the endless drive through rural France: the numerous stops for punctures, the heat and the din of crickets, waiting for trains at level crossings, stopping in creaky, shadowy hotels in small towns and eating in gloomy restaurants with nicotine brown wood panelling and colourful gingham tablecloths. The British had austerity, the French had food – although at that age my tastes didn’t run much beyond steak-frites, and meats were often hidden under baffling sauces. Fortunately, children’s menus were still several decades in the future; little by little my horizons were broadened, it was eat what the grown ups are having or chew on bread.

At some point I learned about the distinction between countries and continents. France seemed so vast to me, my parents could not convince me that it was not a continent. Looking back I see we were really privileged to be taking holidays abroad, in an age where they were still the province of the few. Not that I knew it at the time; your family is your normality.

The next phase in my relationship with France and its food began when I was seventeen, when in pursuit of a doomed romance I found myself staying for a summer’s holiday in a working class quarter of Paris with Uncle Ladis and Aunt Henriette. Henriette, a formidable cook, set about repairing my broken heart and bruised ego with some of the best food I have ever tasted. It was good, honest, inexpensive cooking, and I became fascinated by the alchemy involved in its preparation. In her hands even a mushroom omelette was a work of art. My mother by that time worshipped at the altar of Elizabeth David, but it took Henriette’s omelette to kindle my desire to learn to cook.

My romance with the young lady had not worked out, but my romance with France only intensified. The next year found me staying with my cousin and her husband just around the corner from Ladis and Henriette. They too were talented cooks, and took my culinary education seriously. Did I like horsemeat? Jacques asked me when I was half way through a steak chevaline a la sauce d’armagnac. It was too late for squeamishness, I finished my plate.

Despite having fought in the Algerian War of Independence, Jacques had plenty of Algerian friends in the neighbourhood, and I was introduced to couscous and other North African dishes in many of the cheapest, noisiest and best restaurants. They had become part of French eating habits in the way Indian food established itself in the UK. On an Easter visit I tagged along with Annie and Jacques to the wedding of Jacques’ brother, in a small town near Tours. The three day eat and drinkathon was exceptional, but one dish sticks in my mind to this day: brochet du Loire a la sauce moutarde. Here’s a stolen recipe (which is even better for the dodgy Google translation):


See the source image
Brochet a la sauce moutarde


1 2 kg pike 1 onion bouquet garni 2 cloves pepper salt 0.5 dl white vinegar lemons parsley For dijonnaise sauce: 4 egg yolks 400 g butter 1 tablespoon white mustard salt pepper 1/2 lemon


The preparation of the short broth and the cooking of the pike: Boil in a large saucepan 2 l of water, white vinegar, onion stung with cloves, bouquet garni, salt and pepper. Let it boil for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the short broth cool.

Place the pike in a fishmonger at its waist, and water it with the short broth passed in the fine sieve.

Bring it to a gentle boil; When the liquid boils, turn down the heat to maintain a slight simmer. Cook for 30 minutes.

When the fish is cooked, it can wait in the short broth for the time of serving.

Dijon sauce: Allow the butter to soften at room temperature.

Put the egg yolks, salt, pepper and a small knob of butter in a small saucepan. Place this pan in a double boiler and whisk the egg yolks until they thicken. Add the butter in small pieces, whisking constantly and always in a double boiler, until all the butter is incorporated into the sauce. Add mustard, lemon juice. Whisk vigorously, always in a double boiler, until the sauce is foamy.

Presentation: Take the pike out of the fishmonger; place it for a few moments on a folded cloth, then slide it onto the serving plate. Decorate with parsley and half lemons. Serve hot and place the sauce in a saucepan.


I’ve never cooked a fish in a fishmonger, but you probably get the idea.

In a previous existence I had a French girlfriend who came from Normandy. On visits to her family in Le Havre we were indulged with a wide variety of seafoods, plus the usual Normandy dishes swimming in butter, cream and cider. Delicious. It’s no wonder that traditionally Normandy had the highest rate of heart disease in France. But one dish that was new to me, which was soon rolled out for me whenever we appeared, was Langue a la sauce piquante. I simply loved it, although it’s a slight faff to prepare – more in terms of time than difficulty. Here’s how:

See the source image
Langue a la sauce piquante


1.7 to 2kg beef tongue, 2 small glasses alcohol vinegar, 1 glass dry white wine, 1 onion studded with 5 cloves, 1 bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaf, parsley), 3 cubes broth, salt & pepper, 2 shallots, minced, 60g butter, 4 tablespoons flour, 120g gherkins, chopped, 1 tablespoon tomato paste,1 teaspoon mustard, Sugar.


Soak tongue in refrigerator for 24 hours. In a large pan, cover with water and add glass of vinegar. Boil for two minutes. Drain tongue and discard water. Return tongue to new boiling water. Pour in second glass of vinegar then onion with cloves, plus the stock cubes and bouquet garni. Season. Cook for 2-3 hours (when cooked the skin comes away from the tongue). Remove the tongue from the broth and remove the skin. Keep broth. Make the sauce: Soften the onion and shallots in butter. Stir in the flour for 2-3 minutes, then add tomato paste. Stir in the white wine and add 1 to 1.5l cooking stock, allow to thicken, then add chopped gherkins and mustard and sugar. Slice tongue, arrange in oven dish, pour on sauce and then reheat.


In the early 1970s my sister very kindly moved to Paris, where she was to live and work for the next twenty years, giving me a convenient base whenever I visited. Being a fellow foodie, she had an intimate knowledge of where to buy the best ingredients and which restaurants to go to without busting the bank.

Visits continued fairly regularly, with young family in tow, until in the late 1990s I inherited a lump sum of money that enabled me to indulge in the bourgeois fantasy of buying a modest holiday home in Gascony, deep in South West France. A new cuisine awaited us – very heavily reliant on duck and heavy, hearty flavours. I won’t include a duck recipe, however, because where duck is concerned it is too easy to gild the lily. To over-complicate cooking duck is a mistake, simple is best. Instead I’ve included a treat I’ve loved since childhood, Raie au beurre noire, skate in black butter sauce. In any of the ports we arrive in or depart from in France, it’s what I try to order.


See the source image
Raie au beurre noire

Serves 2

2 servings of skate wings
4 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 onion
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
1 bay leaf
6 peppercorns
pinch of salt
60g/2 oz butter (ideally fine, unsalted butter – don’t stint – it is the co-star of this dish)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp capers
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (leaves only – no stalks)

Use a large pan big enough to take the wings side by side. Add enough water to cover them, but not yet the wings. Chop the onion, carrot and celery roughly and add to the water with the bay leaf, peppercorns, half the wine vinegar and the salt. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the wings. Return to a boil then turn down to a simmer. The water should be barely bubbling. Cook for 10 minutes.

While that’s happening, melt the butter in a frying pan. Watch it carefully, stirring a little. It should go brown, not black. When it does, add the lemon juice, capers, parsley and the rest of the wine vinegar. Stir until blended.

Drain the fish, transfer to plates. Pour over the sauce.

Simple, wonderful.


So where has it all gone wrong? I think even Mr Chirac would have conceded that for a long time the French have been losing their culinary mojo. There’s still wonderful food in France, make no mistake, but there’s less of it. What has been happening?

I think one can trace the decline to the start of the 1980s, when in France and well as the UK business became more cutthroat, leaner and nastier. The French two hour lunch started to be frowned upon, le fast-food arrived. Working practises changed, family dynamics changed, people had less time to prepare food lovingly. Globalisation had arrived, and with it the big food manufacturers. In France convenience foods may have a Gallic flavour, but look at the small print on the packaging and the same global, mega-corporations keep cropping up.

I am an inveterate supermarket trolley snoop. And a quick peek in an average French supermarket trolley is a depressing experience. So many pre-packed, convenience foods. And quite often the quality of the fresh food isn’t all it should be. If you want better produce go to the food markets, but you had better have deep pockets.

Of course – the charcuterie is still wonderful, there are still hundreds of fantastic cheeses, the average patisserie is still a wonderland compared to poor old Greggs. But where good food was almost universal once in France, and I mean decent, well-prepared bourgeois nosh – not the frou-frou poncey stuff that only hedge-fund managers and Andrew Neal can afford – it is getting much harder to find.

It is still a treat to meander through small-town France, looking for the kind of unassuming hotel/restaurant whose menu (whatever was best at the market that day) can cost more than its inexpensive rooms. There are still restaurants that serve escargots and coq au vin (when they’re good they’re very very good). There are still lunch only joints where working people can get an affordable three course meal with wine and coffee compris. In the corner of Gascony we frequent there are still a few restaurants serving authentic cuisine Gasconne. But more and more they are turning into pizzerias or Vietnamese restaurants or fast food joints. Leave the countryside and go to the cities and tourist resorts and good, middle-range restaurants and brasseries are giving way to clip-joints selling homogenised Euro-cuisine, burger bars or high end establishments whose menus make your eyes water. What the French truly excelled at, good regional cooking, is being throttled out of existence.

I think Jacques Chirac was very well aware if what was happening to French cuisine when he uttered his little provocation. He would certainly have eaten in in the most frou-frou of restaurants, but he still would have seen the way the wind was blowing – he was a Frenchman. But for getting Andrew Neal into such a lather, I can forgive him almost anything.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Animation with a social conscience

Halas and Batchelor, Animal Farm

Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films 1940 – 1995

By Vivien Halas

This year marks the 80th year since my parents, John Halas and Joy Batchelor founded Halas & Batchelor Cartoons, in its day a household name responsible for over 2000 animated films. 

Their best-known film Animal Farm (1954) was the first animated feature to be made in the UK. It has become increasingly relevant, as George Orwell’s fable of power, revolution and corruption continues to have fresh resonance today, 70 years after the writer’s death. Students are still amazed by wonderfully fluid 2D animation made long before the introduction computers or digitization to the medium.

All animals are equal, from Halas and Batchelor, Animal Farm

The studio’s output covered a huge number of genres from propaganda and information films during World War 2 including Dustbin Parade (1941) and the Charley Series that introduced the idea of social welfare (1946/7), to entertainment films such as The History of the Cinema (1957), Tales from Hoffnung (1964) and the FooFoo series (1960). They also made films for children such as Hamilton the Musical Elephant (1961), the Snip and Snap series (1964) and experimental films such as the Owl and the Pussycat (1952) and the Figurehead (1953), including early computer animation like Dilemma (1979), educational films such as the Evolution of Life (1964) and What is a Computer? (1967). 

With the money made from these they were able to make personal films that expressed their own beliefs such as Magic Canvas (1948), The Question (1967), and Automania 2000 (1963), which was the first animated film be nominated for an Oscar and remarkable for its script by my mother, foreseeing the terrible effects of consumerism.

See the source image
“Automania 2000”

My father was born Halász János (later anglicised to John Halas) in Budapest’s Petersezbet district on 16 April 1912 (died in London on 21 January 1995). He was the seventh son of a Jewish couple, Gyözö Halász, a journalist and Bertha Singer, who had been a dancer in Vienna when young. Their comfortable life before my father was born ended with the increasing intolerance of Jews, when the family was forced out of the centre of Budapest to a shared house in an outer suburb where my father remembered sleeping under the table. The family was so poor that my father was sent to stay with an aunt in Zurich to be better fed. He remembered the Red Cross giving him food on the train and how his greed made him sick. It was the first of many journeys John made during his formative years that fuelled his appetite for escaping his background.

Although clever at school, John spent his time truanting, playing football with a gypsy friend, hiding under cinema seats to see films for free and running errands for his father. He made money from painting film poster hoardings and eventually got a job at Hunnia Film, putting subtitles onto silent movies. It was here that he met George Pal, the renowned puppet-film maker, and together they taught themselves to animate by embellishing the titles with moving figures. 

Having no money, John blagged his way into art school. He persuaded the painter and graphic designer Sandor Bortnyik to hire him as an assistant at the renowned Muhely Atelier that taught Bauhaus principles. This brought John into contact with thevartists Victor Vasarely and Moholy Nagy. He was able to help them with their kinetic experiments while they imbued him with the Bauhaus ethos. He said ‘I learnt construction from them and how to look behind the surface to solve a problem’. It was here that he met his future partners Gyula Macskassy and Felix Kassowitz. They started their first studio in 1932, making ads and short films. When in 1936 a client asked them to set up a studio in London to make an entertainment series, John jumped at the chance and set off, undaunted by his lack of language. He was a natural communicator.

Once in London my father put an ad in a newspaper calling for animators. This was how he met my mother, Joy Batchelor. A happy accident, strangely brought about by the forces of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. His drive and my mother’s talent for drawing, animating and writing ensured their success in difficult times and underpinned their belief that animation was the most complete art form that could make the world a better place. 

Joy was born in Watford, England, 12 May 1914 (died in London 14 May 1991). Her father Edward Joseph Batchelor worked in London as a lithographic draughtsman. Her mother Ethel gave up running a prestigious golf club to marry Edward, and Joy was born exactly nine months after the wedding. 

Joy took interest in drawing from an early age, encouraged by her father who brought home long paper off-cuts for her to draw on. Always top of her class in everything Joy won a scholarship to grammar school, and later to the Watford School of Art. Though she was subsequently offered a scholarship to the Slade, she could not afford to go, so instead she looked for work.

The best she could find was painting trinkets in an assembly line. The job ended quickly as she criticised the working conditions and was fired. In 1934, she went to work for Dennis Connelly’s animation studio in London. She had had no training in animation but learned on the job and was soon promoted to key animator and trained the other animators. By the time she saw John Halas’s ad for an experienced animator, she was ready. 

John and Joy started working together on a film titled Music Man, very loosely based on the life of Liszt. John took the production and Joy back to Budapest as he already had a studio there. Joy remembered that time with nostalgia as she was made a great fuss of by all the partners. By then she and John were in love. The idyll was soon ended as Hitler entered Vienna and their funding was abruptly cut off. In fear for their safety John and Joy borrowed money to flee on one of the last trains out of Budapest, in June 1938. 

John and Joy in Budapest

Once back in London they took any graphic design work they could find. John’s English was almost non-existent, so it was Joy who looked for employment. She found illustration work for newspapers, Harpers magazine and cookery books. John, who was an expert with the airbrush, was lucky as Moholy Nagy (who was briefly art director for Simpsons on the Strand) gave him a few ads to design.

Eventually they found work at the J Walter Thompson agency in Bush House. Although there was a shortage of paper there was still a film unit and at last they were back in business making animated ads, for Lux soap and Brook Bond Tea. As the war started in earnest, the agency was taken over by the Government and the couple found themselves making information and propaganda films for the war effort, for which my father was given special dispensation to stay in England. However, to be paid they were obliged to set up a company, and to save John from internment they got married. Both events took place in May 1940.

This backfired slightly as by marrying my father Joy found herself stripped of her British citizenship and suddenly considered Hungarian; an enemy alien in her own country! 

She said, “I ended up being Hungarian on paper. There were some inconveniences, like observing an 8 pm curfew, or not being allowed to own a bicycle, but John and I survived this period quite well’. They did indeed as during the war they made over 70 films, two of which were feature length training films. In this way they honed their skills and developed a sophisticated style. My mother in particular had the knack of turning dry subjects into engaging films. 

After the war they continued making information films for the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Europe. One of them, The Shoemaker and the Hatter (1949), explaining how lowering trade tariffs and working together would encourage prosperity, was responsible for the studio being asked to make Animal Farm in 1951.


From that time they expanded the company and continued until the early eighties, becoming the most influential animation studio in Western Europe, responsible for employing and training many new generations of animators. Without them British animation would not have flourished as it did and still continues today.

Their story and that of the studio was recently seen in a new documentary made by Richard Shaw at Unity House, broadcast on Sky Arts this spring. Also visit our website where you can watch clips of the films, buy DVDs, the book ‘Halas & Batchelor, an animated history’ and ‘A Moving Image’ that traces the life and work of my mother.

First published in The Jewish Review

Vivien Halas, March 2020

For more information please go to:

The Animated World of Halas and Batchelor –

Vivien Halas

Vivien Halas

​She is co-author of Halas & Batchelor, an animated history 2006 and A Moving Image, Joy Batchelor 1914-91, Artist, Writer and Animator 2014. With the help of Martin Pickles, Vivien has directed and produced two documentaries on her parents, Remembering John Halas 2012 and Ode to Joy 2014. She has contributed to numerous animation and design publications worldwide and served on many juries at international animation film festivals. In her spare time she is a printmaker.


From the forthcoming memoir: Eve and Tony

Extract originally published in The London Magazine

By Eve Hall

My heroine of very early days was Joan of Arc, whom I loved passionately. I dreamed of martyrdom and detested the English soldiers who burned her at the stake. 

Every Friday afternoon I used to wait for my mother outside my boarding school, buttoned up snuggly into my Petite Madeleine uniform, a double breasted navy coat with shining brass buttons, a sailor hat trimmed with white ribbons, and knee high white socks. I usually held a posy tightly in my sweaty little hand, to give my mother as she swooped down to kiss me. At the worst of war times in Paris people sold flowers and I always saved my little bit of pocket money.

Lisa, Eve great grandmother Rose and great aunt Tini

She smelt lovely, better than my favourite snow drops. Her soft blond hair tickled my neck, her velvet skin stroked me, her large blue eyes enchanted me. She was so beautiful and fair, and I was her dark little changeling. I wondered how she could love me, but love me she did. I had proof of this seventy years later when, peering at a photograph taken of me then, she said in a puzzled voice: “But I thought you were so beautiful!”

I usually had a gleaming white and gold medal pinned on my chest: best in my class again this week. But sometimes, I only wore a blue medal, second best, and I couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on her face then. Second merited “Good girl”, the white and gold “My wonderful clever girl”. I never got third class red.

Eve with her poupe, Pierre

Opposite the pensionat there was a huge field that the Germans used to launch barrage balloons. It was fascinating to see it float down, to watch the soldiers trample down the enormous spread of grey cloth flat, to see it gradually swell and slowly float into the air. I watched these different stages while my mother and my teacher spoke of my great future. My mother’s German accent wasn’t mentioned. The school staff had been told my history, that my German mother had been brought to France by my heartless French father, who had abandoned instead of marrying her. The poor thing, so young, so pretty. Strangely, neither my mother nor I were victimized or bullied in any way for our German connection, never called “sales boches” by teachers or pupils. She charmed effortlessly. None knew that my father was Jewish, but I believed it would have made little difference.

I knew my mother was German, and came from Germany, but no one seemed to speak badly to her or against her, although they patently hated Germany and all things German and spoke constantly about les sales boches. The German soldiers in the streets were feared and hated by all, including my mother. She was in a singular friendly German category of her own.

The teacher never mentioned my lack of appetite either. If my mother asked, she was reassured that I ate the butter and cheese my mother had got for me from the black market. It was probably through absent mindedness rather than malice that she didn’t say I gave away the food to keep my classmates, all quite older than me, well disposed. It was the custom to put the food brought by the girls on the dining room tables, so that all could share the meat and fruit pupils brought from the countryside, or butter and jam on the black market. But the teachers focused only on my grades and my exercise books, they had great plans  for my future and took no notice at all that I was malnourished and unhealthy.

I was one of the youngest girls in the school and younger by more than a year than any girl in my class. I remember little of the way I was taught – and I probably excelled at learning by rote. When a distinguished visitor appeared, I was presented to recite, to multiply, to conjugate, to sing (although in another school, in another country, in another language, I was asked unkindly to “mouth the words, don’t sing them” in music lessons). The visitor approved, the headmistress approved, my favourite teacher beamed at me. None saw that I was lonely and pining. Luckily, I liked learning and I worked hard.

My mother had great faith in this school. A lot of her salary as an interpreter at the local maternity hospital went to the school fees. I had a place there only because the mayor of our suburb was her close friend. But she worried that I slowly lost weight. I came back to the pensionat at the end of every weekend with a stomach well purged of worms and more and more butter and jam and pate that plumped up the girls in my dormitory. I didn’t mind that they gulped down all my food. I wasn’t hungry, and I warmed a little at the casual thanks they gave. Any bullying they meted out was casual, I was too small and young for them to be jealous of the petting and the praise the teachers gave me.

A bus, when it was running, took us home through the edge of the Bois de Boulogne?…… Surennes.

Suresnes, the idea of Henri Sellier

Why there was war, and why who was on whose side, was surely puzzling for any seven year old child who chose to think about it, but it strikes me from the memoirs of those times that few did. I was probably the most confused child in France during the war. I knew that Germans, Germany and anything that was German was really and truly bad. I knew my mother was German, and came from Germany, but no one seemed to speak badly to her or against her, although they patently hated Germany and all things German and spoke constantly about les sales boches. The German soldiers in the streets were feared and hated by all, including my mother. She was in a singular friendly German category of her own.

To this singularity there was the confusion surely presented to all children in occupied France, We recognized immediately the drone of a friendly engine – American and English, its make, its capacity to harm. But, although we rejoiced, it was precisely when we heard those engines that the alarm sirens rang out and we hid in cellars and were terrified. On the other hand, when we heard the sound of a German plane, we hated it though we knew it meant us no harm.

Lisa and Eve as a top student in the Institut Port du Parc

The liberation of Paris added to my confusion. In those first few days my mother and I stayed at home, as everyone else did in the apartments around us. As I remember, the streets at first were eerily empty, with little noise except for shouts and shots of snipers. I remember that Madame Petit, in the flat below us, narrowly escaped death as she lay on her bed and a bullet whizzed over her head and buried itself into the wall. She was hysterically excited at her escape and came rushing into our flat to grab my mother by the arm and drag her to look at the bullet. She and my mother had quite a tussle before we could pushed her out the door promising to come “in a little minute”.

It was probably during these few days that my mother’s life was most in danger. The underground emerged, making flat to flat searches, looking for collaborators and spies. It was then that my mother was most at her  neighbours’ mercy. We were searches several times. In each case, a neighbour or two (presumably in the underground themselves) slipped into our flat, and spoke for my mother, gesturing her to be quiet.

As the members of the underground emerged, so did the abandoned German soldiers. My mother and I leant out of the window, along with our neighbours, booing and making farting noises. Until sniping started again and we ducked down. I remember all this distinctly as fun, with one miserable German soldiers squaking past on a bicycle with no tyres. I wonder, now, if my mother felt any pity for her miserable compatriots? Did she see them as compatriots then, after six years of dodging and ducking them?

A few friends arrived. Four or five of them came through with the British army, splendid in uniforms, far removed I suppose from the looks of the miserable refugees who had slipped through to England and Canada several years before. (They had better luck than the refugees from Austria and Czechoslovakia, who spent their war years in detention camps). A few came from America, Charley the most memorable guest.

Eve Steinhardt with friends

My mother and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating our evening meal of grey pasta. As my mother told it, Charlie came in and saw us and swept this miserable meal off the table and out of the window, crying the while, and starting unpacking goodies. He was a Captain, I don’t know what limits there were to his access to sweets, but I was the drooling envy of all the children in our apartment block.

My mother and Charley celebrated late into the night. Charley had brought a lot of whiskey. I sat on his lap and cuddled him sleepily for hours, thinking dreamily how wonderful it would be when I finally saw my father. We had just gone to bed, Charley in the spare bed in the sitting, me as usual with my mother in the bedroom, when we were woken up by several men of the underground. The men walked straight into our bedroom, looked around astonished at the litter. Is there anyone else here? Any arms? Said the leader gruffly?

My mother must have drunk too much whisky. “Come with me” she beckoned and led them to where Charley slept. I slid past them and into the bed next to Charley, terrified. My mother pointed to Charley’s revolver. Charley sat up, and swore at them energetically in French. “Sorry Captain” the leader said and they saluted as they jogged out. My mother heard one say to the others: “strange: he sleeps in bed with one child, and she sleeps in another bed with the other child.

Eve Hall Steinhardt

Eve Hall Steinhardt was born in Paris, France in 1935 of a German mother and an Austrian Jewish father. Her father escaped just before thee war leaving them behind in Paris. Some of Eve’s close relatives died horribly in German concentration camps. After moving to South Africa Eve married journalist Tony Hall and they both joined the ANC after Sharpville. Eve was jailed for her activism and Tony banned so they left with their three children to newly independent Kenya. Eve became the woman’s editor of the Daily Nation. In the UK Eve became a feminist and wrote and published articles on feminism. When the family moved to Tanzania she edited and published The Voice of Women for the ANC. When Eve moved to Kenya in 1973 she worked on assignments for Oxfam focusing on the position of women in African society. One of her assignments was to write a report on the situation of women in Somalia. She was given an assignment reporting on the famine in Maharashtra and subsequently in a job share with Tony Hall they reported on India for Oxfam and wrote articles for Oxfam news and national dailies in the UK as Oxfam’s Press officers for the subcontinent. In the UK, Eve worked for World University Services while she was doing her MA and from then on became a pioneering force for woman in in the International Labour Organisation. Her first assignment was to the refugee camps in Somalia in 1981. She was there for nearly ten years. Her next assignments were to Zimbabwe and Ethiopia and subsequently she became a senior consultant for the ILO throughout the region and beyond. On returning to South Africa, Eve got involved in activism again, joining her local ANC branch. In retirement Eve chose to live in a wild part of the South African countryside in Mpumalanga. She died of breast cancer in October 2007.

How to be a Gourmet

– like Richard Steinhardt

By Phil Hall

Richard Steinhardt in 1939

Grandpa was an admirer of Napoleon and this was partly why he chose to live in Golfe Juan in 1972. The other reason they both chose to live in Golfe was because they had gone on honeymoon to Cannes and Nice in 1935.

My grandfather, Richard Steinhardt, became a gourmet. How did it happen? I see a picture of him in Zemun in 1914 and he and his brother and sister look unhappy and hungry.  Richard’s father, my great grandfather, was rather grand. He was the foreign editor of the famous Nueue Freie Presse and used to go out into Vienna in the evenings dressed in furs to meet important Viennese people in expensive, brilliantly lit cafes and restaurants. There he ate plates of impossibly delicious food, drank wine and sipped coffee. He left his little family at home to eat stew and dumplings. That’s where it started.

Richard, Else and Artur Steinhardt in Zemun

Richard married a beautiful young German girl, and they went to live in Paris. He met her after a play in Frankfurt. Her brother, my great uncle Heini, an actor, was her twin.

Richard invited the whole cast to dinner. After a few weeks he proposed to Lisa. He showered her with gifts and left to Paris. From Paris he sent Lisa a ticket and she got on the train. In Paris they had a business-like wedding near the Pigale, where Richard had a flat. He was very busy and immediately after marrying her he rushed off. It was 1935 and marriages between Jews and Germans had just been disallowed in Germany.

My grandmother describes Paris between the Wars as heaven on Earth. Not the city of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’; rather more like Hemingway’s ‘A Movable Feast’.

When Grandpa Richard came back from his business trips, he would describe in minute detail all the dishes he had tried and my grandmother would work hard to reconstruct them. This is how she became such a tremendously good cook.

Uncle Heini told me: 

‘When I came to Paris to visit Lisa and Richard and see little Eve it was 1937. Richard met me at the station and he asked me with his charming smile. He could be terribly charming. You know how charming he could be. He said:

‘Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?’

‘I said “Yes, thank you.” and he took me to a little restaurant that he knew near the station that had just opened.

‘It was more like a bistro, really. It was very small, but very fashionable. The only table available had a pillar coming out of the middle of it and so, as we ate, in order to talk we had to lean over to one side of the pillar or the other.

‘The restaurant was famous for its hors d’oeuvres and had a long tasting menu. Richard ordered all 40 hors d’oeuvres. And I had to try each one.

‘After a while I couldn’t continue. I was stuffed. But he gave me his thoughts on every dish and asked me for my opinion. In the end I was completely exhausted and full. I couldn’t eat another thing. But Richard carried on. He ordered both main courses. Your grandfather loved food.

‘As he was travelling all over Europe for his company, as far as Russia, he knew where all the good restaurants were. Sometimes he made a special trip to another country to try a restaurant that had had a good review and that people were talking about.’

We visited Richard and Lisa in Paris in 1966. But what created such a huge impression in my mind and my brothers’ minds was Christmas in Paris in 1969.

We were struggling in London. My mother was a French teacher in a secondary Modern. Some of her female students were great brutes. Fights started every day and she said all she could do was to pipe:

‘Stop it! Stop it!’ The girls ignored her, of course.

My father was working at Drum magazine for very little, commuting into London on the Northern line. My brothers and I were three soft little boys at a working class school where  the main form of entertainment seemed to be fighting.

We spent Christmas with Richard and Lisa in their little flat in Meudon la Forêt in 1969. We went over on a ferry. Lisa prepared roast goose stuffed with chestnuts, and red cabbage. There were beautiful deserts. We were allowed to taste wine and liqueurs. There were walnuts and cheese. There were chocolates. After the dinner grandpa smoked a good cigar. It was a cold winter, but we were very cosy. The meal was colourful, fragrant and memorable.  Christmas 1969 still sparkles in my memory.

There was an old fashioned civility and charm to the way grandpa ate food at restaurants. Early on he took my parents with him and occasionally we would join them. There was so much more rigmarole about going to a restaurant with Richard. If the meal was good, he had to have a conversation with the chef to congratulate him.

In 1974, I was at a school in the north of England. The food was appalling, but, even so, I quite liked it. I liked the baked beans on toast. But what I liked most was tea time at 5 pm. In fact it was the evening meal.  I drank cup after cup after cup of hot, milky sweet tea and ate lots of slices of white bread with margarine and strawberry jam.

The author in 1974

In spring I went down to Golfe Juan to stay with my grandparents. I have big hair in the picture because I never went to the barber’s at my Quaker boarding school in Great Ayton. I am 14, standing next to the stone commemorating the return of Napoleon from his exile in Elba. 

My grandfather loved going early to the market in Cannes. Once, with a smile, he said: 

‘Try this. Lean over the balcony when you bite into it.’

He gave me a heavy peach. When I bit into it the peach water dripped down my chin onto the patios and balconies below.

‘Is it nice?’, he asked.

We never had Bouillabaisse, we always had Soup de Poisson. It is a powerful dish with its own ritual. Scrape the garlic onto the dry stale bread. Sit the bread in the soup plate, spoon the rouille onto the bread, sprinkle Gruyere over the rouille and then ladle on the hot fish soup which melts the cheese.

This, he said, is delicious, but wasted on you. It tastes of the sea. He cracked open a purple sea urchin and scooped out the little wet orange blob in the middle and ate it.

The thing about the apartment was that it was built right by a busy railway line and so all conversation halted while trains rushed through at high speed hooting. Grandpa had bought his flat on the strict promise from the local government that there would be no further construction to block the view. Of course that promise was broken by the local mayor, a Communist. Grandpa said he hated Communists and liked the books of Don Camillo by Giovannino Guarseschi.

The priest, in the books of Don Camilo, was based on a partisan Catholic priest, Don Camilo Valota. Don Camilo in the stories is involved in a comical war with the local Communist mayor in a small Italian town.

In the end, Grandpa Richard took me to all his favourite restaurants along the coast. We went from Juan les Pins to Antibes to Monaco, Nice to Vingtemille, Cannes to St Tropez. We walked up to Vallouris up past all the villas and ate buttery almond Picassos at a little cafe famous for them. Picasso, who had a house in Vallouris, had died there a year or so before. He was another Communist.

In those days Graham Greene lived nearby in Juan les Pins. That was another walk. All along the coast past the little restaurants, past the large, sharp, concrete tank traps on the shore, laid to prevent allied landings. They were removed in the 1990s.

Grandpa exchanged letters with Graham Greene. He wrote proudly of Mom’s activism in South Africa. He boasted about his daughter’s courage. He was secretly very proud of her, though at the time he had expressed strong disapproval.

Richard and Lisa outside the Fondacion Maeght

Grandpa Richard disliked modern art, but he felt I should know about it so Granny Lisa and I went inside the galleries to look at Picasso’s bold designs, at Giacometti’s pinched figures, at paintings by Leger and others.

The highlight for me was Chapelle Matisse. I was moved by the Chapel’s interior at 14 and felt the same emotion when I revisited it 40 years later. I can smell the concrete of the church, the damp grout. It was quiet and the Provencal light penetrated through the stained glass, strong and sweet. 

Best of all, perhaps, was to wake up, sit on the balcony with my Grandfather and Granny Lisa and eat pink grapefruit segments followed by lacy croissants spread with French butter and fruit conserve. Then to drink hot chocolate from wide brimmed cups as the sun slowly warmed us all up. When we were older we drank café au lait.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Mon Oncle

German soldiers in Paris during the war

By Paul Halas

On my very infrequent visits to Paris, passing Drancy Station on the RER suburban line between Orly Airport and Paris is always a poignant experience. My Uncle Ladis – Ladislaw – spent some time there during World War Two.
In 1966, as a seventeen year old, I had a heavy crush on a girl at my boarding school. It was not to be. Her family, part of a rich Persian dynasty, took a dim view of her consorting with anyone from the wrong milieu – especially someone with my family background. She was promptly whisked away to Paris to continue her studies. Naturally I wanted to follow.
This was the deal: pass my French O’ Level re-take and I’d be allowed to spend the summer holidays with my relatives in Paris – which is how I came to enjoy the hospitality of Uncle Ladis and Aunt Henriette.
The romance? No sooner had I set foot in Paris than my paramour was bundled onwards to New York, where she eventually married a banker. I stayed for another seven weeks, and my broken heart was quickly filed away under life’s rich pageant.
My father’s family was Hungarian. There were seven Halasz brothers. My father was the youngest and Ladis the oldest of the clutch – the only two to emigrate. Four of them survived WW2, but not without some astonishing survival stories, as I was to learn.

Ladis had three things going against him during WW2. He was Jewish, he belonged to the Communist Resistance, and he was captured.

When I stayed with Ladis and Henriette they lived in a small flat in the working class district of Goncourt, a melting pot of Jews, North Africans and native Parisians. Henriette made the couple a meagre living by assembling plastic flowers, whereas Ladis did little more than run errands for l’Humanite, the Communist newspaper.
During my stay Ladis took me all around Paris, to various museums, to the Humanite offices, to the Fete de l’Humanite, a great celebration of the Left, famed for its mergeuz sausages, and to various sites where the French Resistance had been active during the war. Ladis had three things going against him during WW2. He was Jewish, he belonged to the Communist Resistance, and he was captured.
Drancy achieved notoriety as a transit camp for Jews, before they were taken onwards to the extermination camps. But before that it was a detention camp, a repository for undesirables of all
descriptions. For a while Ladis survived there by trading cigarettes for the almost non-existant food rations. At length, however, it was his turn to be interrogated by the Gestapo. He was left for dead, with smashed-up hands and feet, and a badly broken jaw. The details of how he got out of there are sketchy, but Henriette corroborated that the Resistance managed to spring him, and she was one of their helpers.
The couple were successfully hidden until Liberation. Ladis was never the same afterwards. He’d suffered brain damage, he was clumsy, his walk was a hobble, and his crooked jaw made understanding him difficult, especially for a seventeen year old who’d just passed his O Level. His main, and frequently only topic of conversation, was the Communist Party. But he was well liked by all, and very affectionately indulged by all his comrades at l’Humanite.

My weeks chez les Halasz in Paris laid the foundations for my lifelong affection for Paris and for France – warts and all. And during the war the Halaszes experienced both the very worst and the very best of humanity.
As a footnote, a couple of years after my stay Ladis was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his efforts and tribulations during the war. He point blank refused to shake DeGaulle by the hand, but was more than happy to accept the very generous pension that came with it. Henriette never had to put together another plastic flower.


Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

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