Man of Montmartre

Monday September 27, 2004

I was just finishing the serving of Harry and Dolly’s breakfasts when the postman tapped on the door. He was bearing a padded white envelope and a couple of advertising fliers. The advertising went straight into the bin unread and I should have put the envelope on one side while I finished up rinsing the old dishes. Should have.

“Oh, wow, Harry,” I said. “It’s the book I ordered on Friday!”

Harry’s face remained buried in his bowl. Dolly looked up from her tuna momentarily but decided my book was of no interest whatever.

“I’ll just sit down and read the first couple of pages,” I excused myself, and toddled off, book in hand, to my warm spot by the dining room radiator. The dirty dishes stood on the draining board, a sad reminder of my age-diminished enthusiasm for housekeeping. Harry and Dolly finished their breakfast, sat for a while in the centre of the kitchen for a quick lick and wipe, then they slipped away quietly to their morning doze spots, resigned to a quiet, uninteresting morning.

When the phone rang I jumped, looked at the clock with considerable alarm, and realised that a very large chunk of the morning had disappeared without trace.

“Where are you?” Graham asked.

“Well, I’m supposed to be in Boston, but I’m still home, reading.”

“There’s time to get there before lunch.”

“Yes, I know, but my book came and I seem to be stuck in a reading trap.”

He conceded immediately, knowing full well how difficult it is to escape from reading traps.

“Oh, enjoy it, then. Just be sure to shake your bones and go tomorrow.”

Which I shall do, promise. Not today, though. Today I’m reading.

It’s a rather special book, you see. Not a great work of literature, nor yet a significantly accurate biography, but Stephen and Ethel Longstreet’s Man of Montmartre, a fictionalised life of Maurice Utrillo, is a book I read and re-read with almost indecent obsession back in the late 1950s when I was going through my first Utrillo period. I lost the book—a paperback—many years back and have been looking for a replacement ever since. On Friday I was searching through my library to find the volume of Utrillo prints that I know I have somewhere, and lamenting the loss of my old book.

“Have you checked on the Internet?”

“Well, no. It’s been out of print for an awful long time.”

“Feeble excuse. Do a search, why don’t you?”

To my astonishment there were several pages of bookseller sites with the book for sale. I checked the most promising of them, an American used book service, but recoiled in horror when I saw the bottom line price. Seven dollars ninety-nine cents for the book, twenty-five dollars for shipping. So I clicked the Google button that restricts the search to UK sites only, the American sites whistled away into the aether, and I found half a page of UK booksellers offering the volume for sale at rather more reasonable prices. I opted for Zardoz Books, found on, and ordered a ‘fine’ copy in paperback at two pounds plus two pounds fifty pence for next day shipping.

And that, along with a satisfying secondhand bookshop smell of musty paper, was what filled the padded white envelope, and has filled my whole day. Isn’t it good when things go right, and a day has a happy ending?

Oh. The cat dishes. I cleared them up at some point, of course. Must have done, because they’re not there now. And Harry and Dolly got their lunch and dinner in fairly good order, too. Must have done, because they seem happy enough. I’ve been somewhat distracted, performing my essential chores in a bit of a haze. Instead of gazing out of my window at the familiar Stickford landscape, I’ve been building Montmartre in my imagination, and seeing very little besides dirty white walls with narrow gates opening onto steep cobbled streets.

Montmartre isn’t like that now. It’s been gossied up for the tourists. I’d love it and hate it if I hopped on the train for a visit, I know that. No matter—the Montmartre in my imagination is a different place altogether, and it’s not a bad place to be, not bad at all.


Sleaford, Sep,'04
Churchyard, Sleaford



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