Carneby Street outside ‘The Roaring Twenties’ early evening and two or three spades are hanging around the doorway waiting for business. Cars stop in the street not bothering to pull over or park and the guys rush over to make the deal, grass, acid, whatever. Nobody looks, a copper walks by on the other side, more interested in the latest see-through fashion in ‘Granny Takes a Trip.’ Going into the basement with Norman, spade territory, smells of hash, patchouli, joss sticks; funny looks but we play them at table football, badly, drink rum and coke and smoke Balkan Sobrany. Everyone’s cool. Outside it’s night and the crowd is gathering outside the ‘Twenties’. Girls in micro-minis with kohled eyes and vermillion lips, long haired guys with flares, Frank Zappa moustaches, joints hanging out of mouths. Everyone’s cool.
St. Michael Street 1968 and David arrives with Angie, they are both stoned and giggling. I let them hear a Jonny Winter LP I’d brought back from the states, unknown in the UK then. He’s a sort of white Jimmy Hendrix David said. I lent him the LP, never got it back.
Upstairs in the house in Clareville Road, David’s trying out Space Oddity on me, he’ s got this thing he calls a stylophone, sort of weird grating electric sound I think, but the track is great.
Shooting the cover of Space Oddity with David, Calvin Mark Lee, Zin my assistant. I tell David the strobe is as bright as the sun, the ‘Sun Machine’ he and Calvin laugh. Zin looks blank. Then Calvin freaks out because he thinks Zin is himself twenty years ago. Happy days.
Taken from ‘The Way and The Light’
L’Hotel des Arts, the Transvestite, and Albert the Giant.
It was a dump, but an interesting dump, even a unique dump, and at 11F a night was my kind of place. It was about half way up the Rue Tholoze, convenient for the fleshpots of Pigalle and Clichy, a narrow five story building with peeling red paint on the door and a battered sign across the front proclaiming it to be the ‘Hotel des Arts’. I had been recommended there by Christine, who did a turn down the road at the Moulin Rouge. She had a bizarre act with a couple of dolphins in a huge tank of water. As far as I could understand it involved the beasts removing her bikini while she swam underwater with them, very popular with the tourists I guess but I’m not sure what the dolphins made of it. ‘They are so clever!’ she would enthuse, ‘Sometimes I think they are more clever than me.’
The hotel was home to a motley crowd. There were dancers, strippers, singers, waiters, a guy who played sax. in a jazz combo, and a six foot four transvestite called Charlotte who had deserted from the Foreign Legion. Charlotte’s pitch was in the Rue Houdon where she would lurk in a dimly lit doorway like a giant grotesque painted doll. We got to recognise each other as I passed her most nights on my way back to the hotel, and she would always greet me with a deep rasping ‘Bon soir cherie,’ I wondered why she didn’t try harder with her appearance as she always sported two or three days growth of beard and her micro mini exposed long skinny and very hairy legs. She was a friendly enough soul: ‘You and me, against the world!’ she was in the habit of growling as I walked by ‘That’s it Charlotte, you and me.’ I’d reply.
She had a friend that she introduced me to one winter night in the Aristide Bruante when I had dropped in for a vin chaud before heading to bed. She was standing at the bar with another girl and she called over to me to join them and brought me a drink. She introduced me to her friend Berte, a short plump creature with long red hair and heavy make up. ‘I’ve seen you walking up Clichy’ she informed me, ‘I’m there most nights.’
‘Berte’s special,’ imparted Charlotte, ‘Bet you can’t guess how.’
I confessed I could not, and they both laughed, ‘He’s English, he wouldn’t know.’ Said Charlotte.
‘Here cherie, give me your hand.’ Berte said, and grabbing hold of me thrust my hand down onto her thigh, ‘Feel! Go on give it a good squeeze. It won’t bite!’
Her leg was hard, hard like wood. The girls collapsed laughing, ‘Very hard huh? Hard like wood. You like that? You don’t know darling, but every town in France has a whore with a wooden leg, it’s a speciality!’ I couldn’t figure out the attraction myself, but then I was just a naive Englishman, and if some people liked six foot four hairy transvestites I guess a whore with a wooden leg wasn’t all that outrageous.
It wasn’t exactly a quiet place to live, as most of the inmates worked evenings and nights. Nobody seemed to move before early afternoon except the occasional waiter on an early shift. People were coming and going until the early hours, slamming doors, shouting and laughing, and impromptu parties being held. The manager, a ferocious looking gentleman of Turkish origins called Maurice with a head as bald as an ostrich egg and an incongruous jet black beard and untamed eyebrows, would very occasionally make a sudden appearance at these affairs wearing a long striped night-shirt. ‘Alors! Ca va pas! Il faut dormir maintenant!’ He would proclaim like a school teacher addressing a noisy class of uncontrollable pupils.
The only guest who kept more or less civilised hours was my friend Albert, the strongest man in the world, at least that was what the postcard he tried to sell me said. I came across him in the Bar du Theatre one evening. I was stood at the bar getting slowly but steadily drunk when I sensed a presence. I didn’t see him come in but the level of conversation suddenly dropped, and I sort of felt someone stand next to me. I turned and was confronted by a close view of a badly knotted tie over a dirty white shirt. This struck me as so unusual that instead of looking up I looked down to see what my neighbour was standing on. Two very large feet were planted firmly on the ground. I looked up and found myself gazing at a bland moon-like face at least seven feet above the floor.
‘Seen enough yet?’ A deep voice seemed to emerge from somewhere underground, ‘You can buy me a drink.’ This was said in a tone that implied there was no real choice for me and I nodded to Bernard behind the bar. My new neighbour ordered a Ricard and offered me a cigarette.
‘Do you want a souvenir?’ he asked, ‘Ten Francs.’ And displayed a bunch of dog eared postcards in black and white. They were pictures of him in various settings like lifting dumbbells, standing over a couple of dwarves, and one I liked where he had a woman in a bikini perched on each of his outstretched arms. All of the cards were captioned “Albert Delaplace, le Plus Fort Homme du Monde”
I confessed to being being broke and he shrugged his mighty shoulders and stuffed the cards back in his pocket.
We talked for a while, a couple more drinks or so, until neither of us had enough left for even a small wine. “I need a cheap hotel. I’ve got to move, where I am now well, it’s not convenient anymore.’ He said as we left the bar. I didn’t ask what the inconvenience was but learnt later it wore a skirt and was married to a sailor.
‘Mine’s F11 a night,’ I told him,’ five minutes from here. A bit noisy but reasonably clean.’
Albert moved in to a room on the fourth floor two days later, and Charlotte had cause to be thankful that he did.
Maurice had good relations with the police so I was surprised when early one Sunday morning I was woken by shouting and banging, and saw from my third floor window two police wagons outside. I could hear banging on doors and shouts of ‘Papiers! Papiers! Montrez vos papiers s’il vous plait.’
I opened my door and peered out. All along the corridor my neighbours began to appear, some calm, some angry, others looking terrified. Charlotte, who had the room at the far end of the corridor appeared in a ridiculous shorty nighty, her blonde wig askew, her face white. She advanced a few feet along the corridor, her mouth opening and shutting silently and stopped a few feet away from me. ‘Mon Dieu! What will I do? Its prison if they get me. What can I do?’ Her voice, normally deep, had gone up a couple of octaves.
‘What’s up?’ Albert called down from the floor above, peering over the balustrade.
‘Police raid.’ I hissed back, ‘You OK with that?’
‘Ach! The filth, they won’t bother me, I’m in order. What’s up with her?’
‘She’s a got a big problem, she should be in the Legion now!’
At that moment we heard footsteps mounting the stairs to the floor below. Charlotte emitted a sort of strangled wail and collapsed in a heap.
I looked from her to the moonlike face of Albert over the banister, ‘She’s fainted, what shall we do?’ ‘Cache-la!’ ‘Hide her!’ came the immediate reply, ‘Put her in your room, they wont bother you.’
I bent down to seize her around the shoulders but failed to shift her. ‘I can’t move her, she’s too heavy.’ I whispered frantically.
‘Wait, I’m coming.’
Moments later Albert appeared, he bent down and lifted Charlotte as if she weighed no more than a baby. I held my door open and Albert carried her into the room.
‘Behind the bed! Put her behind the bed.’ I whispered. Albert dropped her non too gently on the far side of the bed then hurried out and back to his own room. I closed the door and waited.
‘Papiers! S’il vous plait!’ accompanied by a loud knocking sounded a few moments later. I half opened the door and peered out, doing my best to look as if I’d just woken up and offered my passport. The cop leafed through it, looking carefully at the photo and then at me. ‘Merci Monsiour.’ He said eventually and handed it back to me, ‘Desole de vous deranger.’ He turned to go, but then stooped and picked up something from the floor, Charlotte’s blonde wig. He stared at it for a moment, turning it around, obviously curious. ‘Excuse moi!’ I said, and reached out and took it from him. ‘C’est a moi.’ He took a step back. Looking me up and down, a sly grin spread slowly over his face.
‘Ah! You English!’ he said with a wink.