The "Paris Sketchbook" arrived on our bookshelf by airmail - as a wonderful surprise. It was intended for my husband, so, being its secondary (if illegitimate) safe-keeper, I've been marveling at its drawings after hours.
In fact, I hesitate to call them drawings because they are much more. As I see them, they are energetic notes on a thriving post-war Paris, unselfconscious personal reflections, and tiny tastes of music, poetry and romance. Above all, they are a glimpse in Ronald Searle's bright mind and a testimony of his extraordinary life.
Here are some of my favourites (on lifestyle and nightlife), with selected words by Kaye Webb, Searle's then-wife and travel companion:
" 'I THINK EVERY WIFE has a right to insist on seeing Paris', wrote Sydney Smith to Lady Grey, in 1815.
There is little doubt that his sentiments are endorsed by the ladies who can be seen throughout the spring and summer ogling the shop windows in the Faubourg St. Honoré and sitting, exhausted but still animated, on the pavement outside Café de la Paix. Their sensible English and American heads are all adorned with French hats which, on a swell of remembered gaiety, they will wear once in their native town before slipping into a hat box against the 'suitable occasion' which never comes."
"Of the endless stretch of cafes lining the Champs-Elysées we chose to record Fouquet's. Not only because it seemed to us to have the most character but because, it is said, Edith Piaf was discovered there one night as she sold violets and sang for sous."
"Toward morning the market grows more business-like. At dawn, buyers from houses and restaurants come to do their bargaining. By breakfast-time they are replaced by the smaller fry; the little restaurateurs, the enterprising housewives. These are followed by the tragic and the destitute. Beggars who turn over the sodden piles of refuse in search of scraps for soup. Crippled ex-servicemen offering bunches of faded parsley given to them in pity by the merchants. Hungry-looking women asking for five francs' worth of vegetables with which to make a meal. It was at this hour that I remembered that Les Halles stands where there was once a graveyard."
"The Square du Vert-Galant is on the extreme point of Île de la Cité and we chose to imagine that the ancient poplar, which is at the foot of the steps below the centre of the bridge, was a sapling in the days when the King courted here. Perhaps it even witnessed his anguish in the days after his lovely, and loving, mistress had been poisoned in a nearby cherry orchard, and had died before he could reach her."
Café des deux Magots.
"[At Club Saint-Germain-des-Prés] The dancing is the main entertainment. On the evening we visited it, the 'stars' were a lively American girl wearing no make-up, and a tall, thin, collapsible negro. These two never talked to each other and rarely smiled. When they stopped dancing to wipe their wet faces, they immediately separated."
"[The habitués of The Club du Vieux Colombier] cling to 'pure' jazz which is served up to them around midnight by an enormous negro. Bouncing every pound of his seventeen stone and streaming with perspiration, he sang brilliantly while a group of delirious female youngsters sat gazing up at him from the floor, wriggling and jerking with every beat."
"The Bal Montagne" is a dancing establishment not generally visited by tourists. Its most numerous clients appeared to be women who preferred to dance with each other. The band played perched on a platform against the ceiling, the cabaret was limited to a naïve dramatic recitation followed by a bawdy song and dance routine from a female impersonator."
"Down a side street we found a normal-looking pig complacently advertising a charcuterie.
Ronald set his stool up outside a shoemaker's. He was unseated twice by crocodiles of sight-seeing schoolgirls being hurried rapidly up to the purer atmosphere of the Sacré-Coeur, and was finally scared away altogether by the two young women in the picture, who refused to believe that his interest lay entirely in the pig."
(From the first American edition of the "Paris Sketchbook", by Ronald Searle and Kaye Webb, published by George Braziller Inc., in New York, 1958.)
If you'd like to see (a lot) more of Searle's work, please visit Matt Jones' wonderful Ronald Searle Tribute and Chris Beatles Gallery's Searle Section (and make sure to look at the rest of their amazing art!)