“Tu te souviens le mec avec le cahier – l’écrivain?“
She was looking for a writer with a notebook – I asked which one. She described him. Dark hair, light brown eyes, and glasses that made him look like John Lennon. She kept returning to the fact that he was a writer, who always wrote in a black notebook. I said sorry and got back to cleaning the windows.
The windows seemed huge at the start. The glass stretched from waist level to just within an outstretched hand’s reach. Eight panels across folding doors that allowed the pub to be a touch more open in summer and still cozy in winter. The windows adorned green doors.
I arrived at around 3pm, picking up Le Figaro and the Irish Times on the way, then a few simple food items – some bread, ham, and cheese, which would be the pub’s food offerings. Then I cleaned the windows. Soapy water and the previous day’s Le Figaro. Never the Irish Times. The Irish Times was collected for a week and stacked at the end of the bar.
“Le propriétaire le connaît peut-être?“, she asked whether the owner perhaps knew him.
I looked at her and sensed the desperation in her voice. Maybe it was a runaway brother? A lost lover? The fact is, Johnny knew most people who came into his bar – especially the regulars.
Tigh Johnny, 55 Rue Montmartre, Paris – an address added to innumerable backpacker routes – great craic; travel guides – oldest Irish Pub in Paris; or music guides – traditional Irish and Breton music. Most regulars knew it differently. Sure, it was fun, sometimes celebratorily Irish, and regularly musical, but for most regulars, it was a place of quiet reflection and community. Tigh Johnny – home of exiled writers and poets in Paris.
Johnny Granville was a magical soul. Gray-blue eyes that sparkled when he talked about training to be a pilot, playing a soldier in a film, his neighbors in le quartier, or Dingle. Yet, they sparkled most when he washed in the sea of poets and writers that passed through his pub. There are multiple dedications to him – from editors, famous poets and writers. Some are elegant and well-constructed, others are raw – like this simple memory.
Other remember Paris differently. The intergenerational haunts of the Shakespeare and Co bookshop; the bouquinistes, or used book sellers, from the Quai de la Tournelle to the Quai Voltaire; and the cafes Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore, or La Closerie des Lilas.
For the lucky few to pass time in 1990s Paris, their memories settle on Tigh Johnny. Nights spent between two great passed souls: the kindest beret-wearing, jazz-loving, and dancing poet, John Kliphan; and the storytelling patron and hierophant of Hibernian culture, Johnny Granville. Through interaction with these two souls, an entire generation of writers, poets, actors, musicians, and lovers, learnt the expressive arts were not merely youthful indiscretion, but could be part of who they really were.
“Oh, alors… je reviens ce soir“. She’d return later that night, she said but didn’t move. Her face looked so incredibly sad. I told her to wait, take a seat inside, and wait for the boss. A simple act of kindness changed her face for just an instant.
Johnny did things by routine and so did I, by consequence. I arrived at around 3pm with the papers and food. I cleaned those monstrous windows, swept the floor, wiped the tables, which seemed to get sticky overnight, filled the shelves, and polished the glasses. I had around one hour for preparation before customers started arriving, and then one hour before Johnny arrived.
She took a seat at the bar. She’d wiped away a tear from her cheek, which left a touch of red on one side, and a weight on my heart. I gave her a glass of water. We talked for a short while. I didn’t know who she was looking for. Maybe it was Paul, Micky, Damien, Ratibah or Eva – any one of the regulars? In a bar, you only ever see one dimension of a person. The dimension they want you to see. Johnny said that’s what makes bar work interesting – customers would tell you the same story over and over again, changing details dependent on their moods, their changing attitudes, or their state of inebriation. Even Johnny’s stories changed as he drank Guinness half-pints from his regular position. When I challenged him on it, he said all our memories are transient, sometimes they change according to the audience, and each one is as true as the other.
I had more tasks to complete. Tonight, was a poetry reading. John Kliphan organized Live Poets – an open mic night for expatriate and local poets and writers. He encouraged friends and regulars to just express themselves, “let it out”, he said. Customers would arrive soon. The normal customers. There Norwegian who drank and wrote in a notebook, the Irishman who wrote in his notebook and drank, and Damien – he just drank and we talked. Between him, Johnny, and John Kliphan, poetry – something I’d never understood, actually took on meaning.
The young girl was now calmer, but still clearly sad. I again told her not to worry. She smiled weakly. We talked more. She was incredibly sweet. When I didn’t understand her French, she gave an explanation like third-grade teacher.
Customers would soon come, and then Johnny, I now had to rush. I had to make sure the cash float was ready in the register, that the noticeboard told people it was a Live Poets night, and the sandwiches – alors, I’d forgotten the sandwiches. Then there was le cave – the eerie basement accessed from a trapdoor behind the bar. I had to line up the refills and know the gas levels and weights of each keg. I excused myself and went about my tasks.
We talked intermittently. She was at university studying literature. She wanted to visit Ireland. I excused myself again – it was time to prepare le cave. I opened the trapdoor and climbed down.
It was not dark, but shadowed and cavernous with closed-off cages and shoddily bricked sections. In my mind they were impromptu creations built to vengefully bury someone alive like Poe’s Cask of Amontillado. Johnny said the caverns reached all the way down the street, on to the post office, the metro, and even further. Tigh Johnny’s was not just a place of history for Irish in Paris, but a historical place in Paris.
I climbed back from le cave. The girl was gone – so was the cash float.
I panicked. Should I call the police? Call Johnny’s detective friend? Race onto the street and look for her, or go to the bank, take out my money – next week’s rent – and refill the float? I felt a tear fill my own eyes. How could I be so stupid?
The door opened. I prepared my best French to say we open at 4pm. It was Johnny – he had a grin on his face from ear to ear. His eyes sparkled more than usual. He took off his coat and cap then sat down in his usual spot. There was something different. He was beside himself, like a four-year old with a secret. “What’s new?” he grinned. I prepared to tell him the story with a deep breath that came out as a sigh.
The door opened again and in walked the girl. She was also smiling. She gave Johnny a peck on the cheek and in heavily French-accented English said, “Well, we got him!”. They exploded in laughter. Johnny’s co-conspirator was a trainee detective and daughter of his friend. They taught me well. In the following year, I ejected “a friend of the boss who needed money to get to the border”; a “a lawyer who needed to be paid or the bar would be closed”; and a strangely French-accented “fellow Irishman fighting for freedom on the run” – the last guy had all sorts of problems, I was an Australian appendage to the Tigh Johnny community. Johnny didn’t fire me, tell me off, or make fun beyond the occasional poke. He merely told me to write a story about it. I did Johnny – some thirty years late. I wish you’d read it.
(c) Jeffrey Robertson