Jason Goodwin: ‘The negligees hanging on the washing lines blocked the camera’s view’

Our spectator columnist reminisces about Paris, and discovers the most important thing about life.

Whenever my father thinks the pace of life has grown too slow, he packs his kit, picks up his retractable stick with its fold-out seat and ferrule, pulls on a woollen hat knitted by his sister and catches the Tube to St Pancras. A few hours later, he alights at Gare du Nord and makes his way to the apartment of a friend who is making a film about nuns and monks.

There are various reasons why he goes to Paris, if reason one needs. He’s never been the sort to say that Paris would be wonderful without the Parisians. Years ago, on his first film job, he was sent, with his schoolboy French, down a street in Marseille to persuade the madams to bring in their laundry, because the towels and negligees hanging on washing lines blocked the camera’s view. He suffered a good deal of badinage and the amusements of that day have left him well-disposed towards the French ever since.

Much later, when he was in charge of his own films, he recreated Istanbul’s Haydarpasha station in a disused Parisian goods shed. Every holiday, we chugged through Burgundy or the Languedoc in a Medway
tugboat he’d converted, opening and closing locks, eating pâté and cornichons, drinking our first wine, listening to Piaf and Mistinguett.

D6P4NP Notre Dame de Paris cathedral and River Seine, Paris, France, Europe

For a while, he lived on the boat in Paris, exploring its ateliers and capturing its craftsmen on film. We would visit his widowed mother-in-law, who lived in a huge apartment in the 6ème. She did Impressionist paintings of girls with parasols sauntering along the Seine, which she sold to an American art dealer. She’d discovered that Americans would buy pictures that contained water – even a glass and a carafe on a table would do.

Recommended videos for you

She was set in her ways by the time I knew her, but she was entirely Parisian, beautifully coiffed and dressed in purple, and liked my father taking her to a restaurant in St Germain, neither pricey nor pretentious, and coffee at the Café de Flore.

So he has reasons of habit and memory to go to Paris, a doctor he trusts and now the film about la vie religieuse, for which he has been translating the interviews with the monks and nuns. The filmmaker is Polish and, when they converse, by telephone, in French – hers distinctly Polish, his much as it was when he faced the ladies of Marseille – they occasionally run into a linguistic impasse and he has to go over to deal with the issue in person.

Recently, he’s been working on the English subtitles. He claims it’s a case of the blind leading the blind, but I know, as he also likes to say, that in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

The day before his return, he discovered his passport was missing. The consulate charged him £100 for a temporary document, which was lifted off him by immigration officers at the Gare du Nord, but at least he got home. Now, he must apply for a proper one that’ll last 10 years. ‘Which should be enough,’ he tells me, mischievously.

‘Of course it won’t.’ We don’t often talk about this sort of thing. We talk about our projects and other people and crack jokes. We agree on what’s ridiculous and he keeps me up to date with the latest technology.

‘I think so. In the film there’s this monk who has grown so old people come to ask what life is really about.’

‘Which is what?’

My father chuckles. ‘He says “the most important thing about life is life”. He’s very wise.’