William Palmer on Shusha Guppy, A Girl in Paris - Slightly Foxed Issue 26

Left Bank Memories

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It wasn’t at first sight the sort of book I would choose, but there was nothing else remotely interesting on the single shelf in the charity shop. The dust-jacket showed a number of vapidly drawn  images of Parisian life in pale reds and yellows. The title, A Girl in Paris, was not encouraging. But on the back was glowing praise by Patrick Leigh Fermor for a previous work by the author, Shusha Guppy. I opened it and was hooked.

I should explain. I’ve always loved jazz and one of the earliest and greatest of all New Orleans musicians was the clarinettist and soprano saxophone player Sidney Bechet. Born in 1897, Bechet was a wandering spirit, performing before the royal family at Buckingham Palace in 1919, touring the newly born Soviet Union, and appearing in a silent film playing in a nightclub in pre-Nazi Berlin. In 1949 he settled in Paris and there he became an enormously popular entertainer, as well as maintaining a lifelong reputation as a relentless womanizer.

Here he is, in the mid-1950s, accosting the young and beautiful Shusha Guppy on a street in Paris:

‘Mademoiselle! . . . mademoiselle, excuse me . . .’ the chance of meeting anyone I knew in the middle of the day on the Right Bank was remote, but I turned my head, and saw an old  black man approaching me, smiling.

His face was familiar . . . His picture was everywhere, playing his clarinet. Or smiling at the camera, his hooded eyes, squashed nose and round cheeks giving him the expression of a mischievous child . . .

He led me to the first café-terrace on the Champs-Elysées, and I told him that I heard his records every day, and that all the students loved his music. But he had more in mind than a
fan’s admiration . . .

Shusha Guppy had arrived in Paris from Tehran in 1950 aged just 16. The daughter of an intell

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About the contributor

William Palmer has published six novels and two collections of poems. Three of his novels, The Good Republic, Four Last Things and The Pardon of Saint Anne, were reissued in 2009 by Faber Finds. He has just completed Under the Influence, a study of alcohol in the lives and work of writers.

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