Shakespeare & Company

shakespeare and company

Currently residing at Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. Guy in photo is not me; is the late founder, George Whitman. See below for some words about jogging in Paris, writing in the shop’s library, and taking a road trip with three guys I lived at the shop with.


I ran past Chopin hiding in the trees, his bronze side-parting unseen. I ran past Montaigne on Rue des Ecoles, hopeful people unwisely touching his maybe-lucky toes. I ran past Auguste Comte and thought it good for a philosopher to be named after a cheese. I ran past a Grecian actor and the Statue of Liberty and Baudelaire, each untroubled, each unmoved, by my not stopping to stare. The tour de Montparnasse was there, overhead and long and dark, and I briefly saw while puffing hard the pantheon’s slow repair. I ran down St Jacques and along St Germain to a Romanian poet whose name I mustn’t forget. I ran by the river to Notre Dame, its bold religious bulk ready to take as many picture-taking people as Time can send. I ran past Jeremy, a camping English vagrant, unbuilding his nest. I ran upstairs and took off clothes and said hello to a boy from Ireland turning eggs. I ran water through my sweat and through the small window saw the so brief blossom of the ever-steady tree. I dried with a wet towel and told myself not to waste time anymore.

I ran to Shakespeare and Company.


Text Message

Fucking tall guy comes into the library, wearing flared jeans that stop at the ankle, exposing striped socks. Disgusting floral shirt, beautiful Roman nose, eczema. Sees the couch, is delighted. Sits. Starts to damn well limber up, as if reading the adventures of Huckleberry Finn or whatever were some tough physical activity. I adore his enormous finger as it runs down the page. And I mean run, for this boy can read. Either that or he’s got a fetish, and likes to know the first word of every goddamn paragraph ever written. Who knows. Anyway, I return to my work.

roman nose

I return to my work until he receives a text message. The whole of Paris knows this guy just got a text message. (Can’t you turn that shit down, boy?) He starts to reply, busily stabbing at the screen with several enormous fingers, and fuck me if he doesn’t carry on for a while, for like forty minutes this guy is stabbing away, telling his aunt or whoever gives a shit that he won’t be in for supper, and then he finally sends the goddamn volume of poetry he’s just composed.

But he doesn’t, I mean he hasn’t, because he says, loudly, ‘Oh no – the signal’s gone!’ and it seems that he’s lost the text message, the one he spent six months crafting in goddamn iambic pentameter, because he says, ‘Shit – I’ve lost the— Fuck, man.’ I feel sorry for the guy, I really do. I almost offer to make him a cup of tea or something.


On the Road

Any account of travel ought to start with a description of the weather, so I should say that it was generally overcast in Paris on June 13. Before heading east to Nancy, we dropped by the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, where we had all met as tumbleweed, the name given to those underperforming artists who, as payment for walking the dog, get to sleep on the floor next to Science-Fiction. As I parked-up illegally next to the second-hand books, several members of staff, desperate to get out of the shop for five minutes, clambered uninvited into the back of the campervan and started making pretend cups of tea and playing with the fridge. Another staff member presented us with an emergency tin of sardines, which, thank fuck, was never required; and a volunteer at the shop offered some home-made biscuits, which came in useful when we had to scrape ice off the windscreen.As I tethered our national flags to the van, Davy asked why he had been attributed a Nigerian flag. I explained that Ireland hadn’t qualified for the World Cup, and therefore the Irish flag wasn’t available anywhere in St. Michel. He looked unsure. ‘But I look the opposite of Nigerian.’

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Stuck in traffic near the Gare du Nord, we each expressed impatience in different tongues. To onlookers, we must have resembled a small, filthy version of the United Nations. Davy had arrived in Paris from Lagos, Nigeria, with nothing but a guitar case (no guitar, just the case; he had planned to sleep in it if there was no space at the bookstore). Peter, by nature restless and melancholic, had arrived from Seattle, USA, inspired by the Waterboys’ song Fisherman’s Blues, whose protagonist wishes he ‘were a fisherman / tumbling on the seas / far away from dry-land / and its bitter memories’. Sadly, no one had told Peter that Paris was landlocked. Santiago – well, as far as we know Santiago was on the run from the Mexican police. And for my part, I arrived in Paris the previous Valentine’s Day, having taken a long empty bus from London Victoria, killing the nine hours eating a box of discounted chocolates.

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You are likely to see things when you travel. We saw the flat yellow fields of eastern France, the undulations of northern Italy, innumerable service stations – all very nice. And you’re also likely to do things. We made music in the squares of Bologna and Budapest, swam in polluted lakes and got fined 600 Euro at the Croatian border for having a pouch of cannabis in the kettle – again, all very nice. You might also, god forbid, learn something. We learnt that Dante fled Bologna because the pasta was shit, that during WWII the Balkan countries carried out a more efficient genocide (per capita) than Germany, and that if one guy gets lice the rest are fucked.

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For sure, these were all nice fleeting things to have seen, done and learnt. But somehow it was the constants – the invariables – that made the moving wonderful. It was the van, it was the boys, it was reading The Hobbit aloud on the freeway. It was the spooning, the larking, the conversations about nothing. It was busking disco covers for our daily bread (Kelly Marie’s Feels Like I’m In Love – Google it – paid for the cannabis penalty on its own).  In short, it was the road.

To be honest, being on the road was a bit like living at Shakespeare &Company. When you tumbleweed, it is akin to entering a family. The limited space, the shared responsibility, the sense of excitement – all contribute to bring everybody together. A similar alchemy was at work in the van. An unnatural, and most likely unhealthy, tolerance developed. All ideas, habits, ticks and needs were welcomed and shared. If Peter wanted a shot of whisky with breakfast, well, we all had one. If Davy wanted to approach a good-looking Slovak, we all went over. If Stan wanted to chain-smoke while swimming, we all sparked-up. We became parodies of one another, ludicrous versions of our regular selves. By the time we got back to Paris, we must have been positively repugnant to anyone but each other. As if to illustrate the fact, in Geneva Santiago got an email from his parents explaining their decision to cancel his allowance. ‘You’re a road dog now, honey. You’re too far off the leash. There’s nothing we can do.’ I started the trip with 80 friends on Facebook and a dozen more on Tinder. Now I’m down to 37.

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As inevitably as they start, journeys end. As we crept back into Paris through the south east of the city – Vincennes, Nationale, Place d’Italie – we knew that our curtain was starting to draw. To announce our return, we thought about pulling up outside the bookshop and maybe doing a skid and jumping out and swinging our polluted flags around our heads. But then we reasoned that such behaviour would have been indulgent, given that the shop had closed an hour earlier.

Instead, we humbly rung the bell of the small studio attached to the shop where the tumbleweeds hang out in the evening. The plan was to ask to use the toilet and then crash the place. Of course, someone answered. Someone always does here. As we climbed the stairs and entered the studio, taking in its familiar look and smell and promises – a cheap meal bubbling on the stove, open wine bottles, damp towels – our faces all seemed to be saying the same thing. ‘You know what, boys? I could do another few months here.’



6 thoughts on “Shakespeare & Company

  1. Bashing Bill Bryson

    So during the tour, I was directed to, “One of the better book stores in Oxford” where I stumbled upon your book. I don’t know whether finding it in a better book store signifies success or just that they’ll sell anything published. I’ve read most of the Bryson canon. I like to think I was one of the first Canadians to pick up a copy of “The Lost Continent” after reading a review in The Toronto Star. Got a lot of cred for lending it to coworkers about to go on vacation. “What happened to that asshole, Stan?” “Yeah, he was a jerk, but at least he turned us on to Bryson.” The Lost Continent was for me Bryson’s best work, and though he hasn’t exactly strayed, neither have his subsequent efforts been as much fun.

    I love to travel, it seems the stories write themselves. For a silly minute I thought of retracing the steps of a writer who, in turn, was retracing the steps of another writer. But then I realized that this would be too much for even the most loyal of Facebook followers, even that cousin who ‘likes’ everything. Anyway, I bought the book.

    Of course in Bath we visited the Roman baths (price included in the tour). The audio guide was segmented into three sets; the primary, serious guide, a secondary trail designed for children and a third set of commentaries by Bill Bryson! We (i.e. my wife and I) plowed through the site making sure to tune-in to all the Bryson observations. What a disappointment! Not a guffaw or even a chuckle to be had. Bill looks like he took on the gig and decided to play it straight. There was already a git on channel one giving us the dry, academic take. You would think the baths would be a wealth of opportunity for making fun at the Romans and their world view. Homo-eroticism in Roman times, sexual mores before Christianity, Romans and body image, etc. It’s like Bryson jumped over the banana peel, didn’t see the banana peel or worse, didn’t recognize the banana peel. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I was further disappointed that this man, born and raised in Iowa (because someone had to be) has affected an English accent. And not just the accent, but that mumbling, stuttering, upper-class twit of presentation (think Hugh Grant or Peter Ustinov). Maybe some find this delivery endearing, I just want to strangle them and say, “Get on with it already!”

    So maybe now I should get to the point. I found you book to be very Gold-Oscar-Oscar-Delta. Hope you find your muse, I’ll be waiting. (And please, don’t turn into an American.)

  2. Thank you for writing well Ben.
    I read ‘A chip shop in PoznaÅ„’ immediately after re-reading my favourite titles by Clive James (a tough act to follow – I’m my humble opinion).
    I was thoroughly surprised and equally cheery to find that your book is great,, and I shall try to read the rest ASAP (although I’m in Murcia, in Spain, under ‘lockdown’ for the crisis, so must depend on Amazon and its wonderful delivery people!)
    I hope you can keep going and stay interested interesting and creative.

    Thank you! Muchas Gracias!

  3. I have just read your ‘The Odd Couple’ in the Sunday Times mag… lovely lovely to read it and I so wish that Winnie was returned home to her home and to you.

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