Peter Lennon (Dublin, 1930 - London, 2011) is guilty of writing Foreign Correspondent, the funniest and one of the most perceptive books ever written on life in Paris in the 1960s and on the foibles of various intellectual figures of the time. For forcing his reades into bouts of uncontrollable mirth, he will be punished in an area of hell where he himself will have to laugh himself tearless for eternity.
Lennon was a bored and restless young man who quit his job as a bank clerk to become a journalist. After a time covering the Dublin district court for The Irish Times, he was banished to Longford where, he writes, “on fair days, the main street ran with shit.” A couple of weeks wallowing in the delights of the Irish Midlands convinced Lennon to move to Paris. Just like James Joyce, he did not last long in the City of Light first time round (just five weeks). But the train taking him from Paris to the Channel port hit a flour lorry at a level crossing. Nobody was injured and the train soon got going again, and yet Lennon felt sure he could spin something out of the fact that the train was packed with Irish women returning from a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Sure enough, when Lennon ‘phoned his story from London to the Sunday Press in Dublin, the newspaper splashed the story of the “Miraculous escape of Irish pilgrims to Lourdes” across the front page next morning, with “names and home villages scrupulously listed”. And so Lennon had his scoop and he returned to Ireland not with his tail between his legs but rather, in his own words, in “triumphal raiment”.
Within a couple of weeks of returning to Dublin, he decided to “get out while the energy of my ambition was still alive”. Back in Paris, he had some problems making ends meet before he fortuitously found a job teaching in a secondary school in Vincennes. To obtain the job, he had obtained a false student card from University College Dublin, while a friend supplied a forged academic reference. “It purported to come from my professor,” Lennon writes. “He extolled his pupil’s virtues in an ironic style while being sarcastic about certain scholastic deficiencies. There was a final masterly touch: it was written in green ink.”
Lennon’s life in early 'Sixties Paris revolved around a series of cheap cafés in a small area around Carrefour de l’Odéon. Among these were the Monaco on Place de l’Odéon (neither café exists anymore) and the Café Tournon in rue de Tournon (6th arrondissement). Both establishments, Lennon says, often “took on much of the aspect of Salvation Army refuges for international clochards". In the same arrondissement, the Irishman also hung around Chez Maurice, a crêperie, also on rue de Tournon, and Eliane’s on rue des Quatre Veuves (establishments no longer exist). Apart from a brief stay in a furnished room in rue Beaubourg, Lennon also favoured the Left Bank for living quarters. After rue Beaubourg (3rd-4th arrondissements), he moved to a cheap hotel in the rue Dauphine, then to the Hôtel Princesse off the rue du Four (both in the 6th arrondissement). “For a short while, an area of hardly more than one square mile supplied all the emotional, intellectual and erotic needs of my life,” he writes.
Coming up a little in the world, Lennon moved to a two-room, bathroom-less flat in rue Odessa (14th arrondissement) in Montparnasse and finally, with his Finnish wife, went to live in rue Mayet (6th arrondissement) in the same district. Lennon became a stringer for The Guardian, contributing features for the Arts and Cinema pages. In this capacity, he interviewed a number of the leading intellectual lights of the time, including Salvador Dalì, who he interviewed wearing pyjamas under his coat. Lennon even had a role writing script for Jacques Tati’s Playtime and had a bit part in the same film. But this was a desultory experience for Lennon, “with the atmosphere on the set…aimless and dejected”, he writes. Tati was also a skinflint to whom the Irishman never warmed. “Tati’s creative powers were never robust,” is a typical barb in Lennon’s book.
Lennon formed a close relationship with Samuel Beckett, whose confidence he never betrayed. Most of their drinking was done at the Falstaff, a late-night bar at 42, rue Montparnasse (14th arrondissement). Jean-Paul Sartre also used the Falstaff “to entertain the young Algerian girl who was later to become his adopted daughter”, while Beckett and Lennon sometimes went just around the corner to the Rosebud on rue Delambre (14th arrondissement) for a bit of variety. On one occasion, Lennon claims, Eugène Ionesco, Sartre, Beckett, Jean-Luc Godard and himself found themselves at the same time within the narrow, nine-table Falstaff, “perhaps the greatest concentration of talent in a single place…But each party made a conscious effort to avoid the other”.
Lennon went on to achieve a certain degree of fame with a low-budget documentary film on the woes of Ireland called The Rocky Road to Dublin. This was the last film shown at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival before Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and the “temporarily revolutionary” Claude Lellouch (who arrived in Cannes on his private yacht) decided to close down the festival in sympathy with the événements of May 1968. Lennon left Paris in 1970 to take up a staff position at The Guardian in London.
Foreign Correspondent – Paris in the Sixties (1994)
Peter Lennon: Obituary, The Guardian, March 21, 2011