‘She was not crying for France, or for the doctor, who represented France, or for her father, shot with his own revolver. She was not even crying for himself. He felt she was crying for something that he could never have understood without her, and now did understand because of her. Deep and complete, within himself, all these things were part of the same thing, and he knew that what she was really crying for was the agony of all that was happening in the world.’
HE Bates, the English author who lived in my former home county of Northamptonshire in England, wrote these haunting lines in Fair Stood the Wind for France, one of the finest war novels I have read. Lines that could have easily echoed the sombre mood in France in 1917 in the midst of the First World War. In the summer of that year, American soldiers (nicknamed Sammies by the Europeans) got off their ships in the commune of Saint Nazaire in Brittany.
A hundred years have passed. And such events have got to be remembered. So in commemoration of this centennial event, even as I write and we go about our lazy Sundays, four trimarans are racing on the Atlantic alongside the Queen Mary 2, the iconic transatlantic ocean liner from the Cunard Line.
(On the first day when we moved into our building in Bayonne, I remember standing on the rooftop, watching the Queen Mary 2 as it docked in the Manhattan terminal, with a sweet old woman called Lorraine. And that was a completely blatant aside. So blatant that a few eggs my way would be not welcome but well deserved.)
Now the race ends tomorrow. But my post is not about a transatlantic race where expert seamen are vying with each other for distinction as they trace the voyage of the Sammies, nor is it about a trimaran (which if you are wondering about it, is a sailing boat). Instead the post finds its matter in the twin American passions for jazz and basketball – that the American soldiers carted along with them to France.
In December of 1917, in the middle of the war, a New York bandleader called Lt. James Reese Europe led his infantry troops of black soldiers through the small farms and concert halls across France, introducing locals to the sounds of swing and jazz. It confounded the French alright but they could not ignore its allure. In time, the Nazis did their best to do away with this brand of ‘degenerate music’ during their occupation of France yet the end of WWII saw jazz clubs accompany the wonderful proliferation of smoky literary cafés in Paris.
Years and years later, there we were on a hot hot summer’s day in Central Park, sitting with a big bunch of Frenchmen and women dressed in vintage straw boaters, white dresses and pinstripes, fanning ourselves and tapping our feet to the thrilling sounds of jazz. All in remembrance of those brave men.
You see it was Adi’s birthday, and being broke – how a move slashes the pockets through and through – I wanted to reserve a fancy dinner place. It was the only expensive thing we could do last night. The thought of a free jazz concert made my eyes twinkle.
If you are in New York during summer, you will be delighted to go find yourself a place in the SummerStage concerts. They are often staged for free in the blissful part of the city where its heart beats. I mean Central Park, of course.
In the concert area, you might find yourself scrambling up to the top of the stands, and seated next to a trio of jolly old men. As we did. Three veteran concert goers they were, and by that I mean, they were darned serious about it, attending about 6-7 shows every week, if you would believe that. They are the NYC concert know-it-alls. We were in hallowed company.
The frail old man, a former Texan, who sat next to me, was one who remains on top of the game with Twitter. He receives 250 tweets a day, which inform him about every cultural event in the city, and they also importantly update him about the whims of the clouds. ‘It will start raining again, you know,’ he informed me seriously. ‘And then the police – who are wonderful in times when you need help, so I cannot say bad things about them – will wrap up everything. No matter how important the singer up there on the stage.’
Half an hour into sitting up there, I wondered aloud to Adi, ‘What about beer?’ I could see tumble-y topple-y times ahead if the stand filled up soon. A bit alarming that, given me my well-placed concern for beer, ah icy beer. Plus my former flatmate would arrive with her husband and son soon to say hello before they took off for an opera. I got up and turned around to take our leave of our chatty friends. Their eyes had crinkled up with amazement. ‘What, moving already?’ they seemed to say. I assured them quickly that there were matters of beers, friends and loos at hand to be dealt with.
‘Ah very wise,’ they quipped. We would probably see them soon anyway around the city, they promised us with big smiles on their weathered faces, gleaming with kindness and sweat.
It had rained earlier in the day and a blanket of humidity was ready to choke the happiness out of us even as the sun chose to mellow down gradually. That mellowing down took a such long time – isn’t it surprising how a stifling summer’s day can seem to stretch forever?
A couple of purple bands issued at the entrance helped us bag a couple of excellent India Pale Ales each, for free, and the evening was beautiful. Suddenly we could say hah to the heat with impunity.
The French crooner sang her heart out in deep, dulcet tones. The violinist did a wonderful solo, exhaustive and electric, making me want to go break into a crazy dancing routine, while the sounds of the trumpet and the saxophone and the cello came together in perfect harmony. All for the cause of the Sammies who had fought valiantly in a war in a land not their own and taken along with them these sounds across the Atlantic that stayed on in that distant land for a long, long time.
But our remembering had to be short because the clouds had gathered in their dark numbers in the skies like determined hooligans and the ushers had sounded out the ‘the-stands-shall-be-evacuated-soon’ routine. Our former Texan friend, it turned out, was bang on target about the drill.
So in going with the theme called life where a few gaps, inconsistencies and anti-climaxes have to have their say, the perfect-imperfect end was at hand. The heavens did break loose upon us.