Something I was determined to do while we were on holiday in Paris was make a small pilgrimage to the Rue Broca, where Pierre Gripari lived and wrote his wonderful fairy tales. Earlier in the summer, you may remember, I happened upon ‘The Witch in the Broom Cupboard’, a splendidly anarchic collection of tales from the 1960s, but only recently published in the UK by Pushkin Press. I adored these stories (as you’ll gather from my review – here) and one of the things that made me very happy was learning that Gripari had sat in a café in a small, shabby, tucked-away street, and took all his best ideas from the kids who hung around the café owned by Papa Sayeed. That’s how his stories are all so authentically odd – with their talking guitars and potatoes, rubber jewels and strange witches.
I loved discovering that Rue Broca is only a matter of steps away from Rue Mouffetard and Place de la Contrascarpe (more or less the setting of Puccini’s La Boheme) – places very much on our itinerary when we go to Paris. Rue Mouffetard slopes down from the university and the Latin Quarter, down to the mosque and the Natural History Museum (with its crazy stuffed animal parade…) and its gorgeous botanical gardens. Rue Mouffetard jostles with fruit shops and bistros and toyshops and, on certain Sundays, there is a band and a swarm of dancers in the market place. It’s just the kind of eccentric spot you could imagine Pierre Gripari setting down his stories.
Well, when we visited, I was chuffed to see that the bookshop halfway up the hill featured a copy of his book, along with a witch doll. This made me think of the line in his afterword about how no one on the Rue Broca believed M. Pierre was really a writer, for no one had ever seen his books in the book shop. Writers always obsess about finding their own books in shops…
We wandered about and eventually found our way off the beaten track. Gripari’s own directions are quite complicated, since he starts whiffling on about rifts in the time/space continuum… as a way of explaining how you have to go through an underpass…
But soon we found our way to Rue Broca and, eventually, number 69 and the café. It’s still there. It’s a greasy spoon now. It was deserted and the boy at the counter told us that we could only have fruit juice. There was no more coffee: ‘Coffee is finished.’
We sat in the doorway (with Panda, of course) and thought about Gripari and those kids bustling round him, shoving in and shouting their ideas at him. The mansion blocks are squeezed together. We’re in a strange kind of dell, with more respectable streets rising high above the underpass. This is a hidden little enclave. It makes me think of Gripari as a kind of urban Hans Christian Andersen: his world a somewhat grubbier one, and a more multi-cultural one. I read some of the afterword aloud to Jeremy, telling the tale of how M. Pierre ran out of formal fairy tales and was forced to create new ones, from the strands of stories that the children ravelled up for him. It was sunny and we drank juice and then we wandered off, and found the famous Paris mosque, where we sat in the busy courtyard and sipped hot mint tea from orange glasses and scoffed baklava stiff with honey.
I never really go on writerly pilgrimages. They’re usually so commercial and overdone. Wordsworth and the Brontes and all that gang. I wondered if anyone had ever visited Pierre Gripari’s home and local café yet? It’s just over fifty years since he was down the Rue Broca, and becoming famous because of the stories he wrote there. Maybe there should be a plaque? Or a little sign beside the broom cupboard with a warning about the witch..?