No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood.
British Army Exhibition
British Army Staff
Jessie Mine: How have you spent this bank-holiday? At home, I guess… up to the eyes in housework… and Barry. I would like to be able to think that you have been out into the country… away from the house and chores… but I doubt whether you can have managed it alone. Everything will be different next year, won’t it… there will be three of us… and we won’t be tied to the house. It is nice to be able to look ahead… into a happier future… this is one of my principle pastimes nowadays.
I haven’t done a lot today myself… but I must tell you about the little I have done… I went to the exhibition at 9.0am as usual… but there was the usual verdict – ‘no orders’… so I went with a Canadian colleague to a canteen and rest centre for Canadian troops – on the Avenue de l’Opéra. It is a beautifully equipped canteen… and must have been a high-class restaurant in peace time. We had coffee and ham sandwiches… and I was amazed to find milk and sugar supplied separately – we just helped ourselves ad-lib. I was surprised, too, to find myself sitting next to a Canadian army Major… and several other officers in the place. We never see our officers in British canteens… they have separate places.
After lunch… well, I remained in the hotel. I had that blessed indigestion again and didn’t feel like wandering around. I am now convinced that this indigestion is caused by those wretched little beans which we have had almost every day for the last fortnight or so. They are as hard as iron and taste bitter and I’ll bet pigs wouldn’t eat them. And probably Hitler has left dumps of them all over Europe as a means of destroying the human race. Anyhow, we had another whacking dose of them at lunch time… but I couldn’t stomach them – having had them for lunch and tea yesterday. I’m not going to eat any more: they’re deadly.
During the afternoon, I wrote a letter to Marjorie and Fred: I have had a suspicion for ages now that I owed them a letter… so my conscience feels easier now.
At tea-time there was another lousy meal… tinned-fish rissole and de-hydrated potato… a ghastly mixture. I couldn’t manage it… and decided to go to the Naafi Imperial Club, where I knew I could buy a snack of salad and spam… Jake accompanied me and we had our snack. I then told Jake I was going out to see a bit more of Paris, and he said he would come with me, much to my surprise. We headed towards the old Montmartre where there is an ancient windmill I wanted to see. I don’t think Jake really enjoyed the walk up the long hill… but we kept going and eventually reached the ancient wind-mill. It is supposed to have been built in the twelfth century and is one of the showpieces of Montmartre… but we didn’t see much of it because it is not open to the public after 6.0 pm… But we had walked to the top of the ‘Montmartre’… and as the Sacré Coeur was close by, I took Jake to see it – and the extensive view of Paris from the church. He was quite impressed. I enjoyed mooching around this locality. It is a very ancient part of Paris, and the tiny winding streets and high tenements and poky little taverns help one to appreciate what Paris may have looked like at the time of the revolution.
I saw too a few artists squatting on their tiny stools on the pavements and making pictures of the squalid neighbourhood. One man in particular was doing a crayon sketch of a dingy winding street, with the domes of the Sacré Coeur towering above the houses in the background. The sketch was a mass of light and shade and shadows, and seemed to me to capture the peculiarly sinister atmosphere of the place remarkably well. He was a real craftsman I imagine, but I suppose there was too much realism about his picture for it to be classed as art in the modern sense.
From the Sacré Coeur, we wandered along to the Pigalle locality. This is a not very savoury part of Montmartre – altho’ it is reasonably respectable before dark. It was here that I had my most amusing experience since coming to Paris. It was only 8.0pm… and we were in no particular hurry. We came to a place which looked like a mixture of a fairground grotto and a smugglers tavern: a queer sort of ‘hole in the wall’ with a cash-desk in the alcove and a small and gaudily painted doorway just beyond: it looked queer. There were a few Yanks standing by, and some going inside… so I asked them what it was – a theatre, cabaret, dope-den or what the hell… They didn’t know… but were going in to find out… and invited us to join them. “We can always tear the place apart if we don’t get our money’s worth” they said. The entrance fee was only 13 fr… which seemed cheap enough – for Paris – so we all went in. And here I don’t mind telling you, Jess, that I wouldn’t have gone inside that place alone, not for a gold-clock-!
And when I got through that tiny door… well… I just couldn’t believe my own eyes. We found ourselves in a room about the size of our front room and dining room combined… but what a room! Down the centre, lengthwise, was a long table covered with a white cloth… and lots of ash-trays: around the long table were seats, some already occupied by bewildered looking Yanks: I suppose there would be about thirty seats all told. At the far end of the room was a small screen about eight feet square… presumably hiding a stage of some sort… And the room itself!! It might have been a temple for the sinister performances of black magic or something. The walls were covered with cheap imitations of religious knick-knacks. At one side, there was a ‘bulge’ which seemed to represent a pulpit: at one side of the screen was a full sized model of a pig sitting on its haunches and poking its snout at us. At the opposite end was a large bell suspended from an imitation beam… and it was a wooden bell! Close to the bell was a banner-pole, with a silver coloured effigy of a bull mounted on top… The whole place reeked of something sinister… and the general effect was the very essence of tawdriness.
But, there was something else: there were three men in that room, apart from the audience: I almost fled when I saw them. One was dressed as a monk…complete with sandals, dirty brown cassock, and shaved head (presumably a wig). Another was dressed up like a high-priest… or a fortune teller:- long velvet gown in maroon colour, decorated with various sparkling ‘diamonds’ and crescents and stars… and he had a hat to match… The third man… God! I laugh every time I think about him! He was dressed as an angel! He wore a white shroud to his ankles, a golden ‘bangle’ affair around his bare head… and a pair of dinky little wings sprouting from his shoulder blades. What in God’s name were we in for-!!
Jake and I sat down at the table and it struck me that we may be participating in a modern version of the ‘last supper’… it was the same long white covered table anyway – and we had at least one angel waiting on… But what tickled me most of all – and I nearly burst myself during the show – was the behaviour of the Yanks. It was pandemonium. They were heaping some frightful abuse upon the poor angel… and, of course, they addressed him as “Gabriel”… usually followed by “you bastard”. The ‘high-priest’ was getting his share of abuse too: he was referred to as ‘Moses’… and the ‘monk’ was “Joshua”.
I wish I could convey some of the atmosphere of that place: to me, it was just a riot of fun – during the preliminaries, and the performance.
Most of the Yanks were clamouring to know what it was all about. They obviously had no time for all the mumbo-jumbo, and wanted to know what they were in for… They cursed Moses and all his brethren for five solid minutes… and I had the impression at one time that the table was going to be heaved somewhere – but the situation was saved by the angel. He calmly strutted round asking “you want beer please?” “Beer!” said the Yanks “Jesus Christ almighty, what is this bloody joint? Why doesn’t someone organise the God-damned show – Hey! Moses! – Joshua! Get crackin! We want’a see something not sup that bloody gnats-piss. Aw. shucks… the stupid bastards can’t speak English!” And so it went on…
But the angel got some orders for beer, and while it was being served, I managed to learn from Moses that the show would start in five minutes… and this news seemed to pacify the impatient ones…
And then the show really commenced…! It deserves a fresh page!
‘Moses’ mounted his pulpit, and in a powerful voice, started a sermon or something – in French: meanwhile, Joshua went to the rear of the room, and appeared a moment later carrying a pole from the top of which dangled a large silk “bell” – very much like a lamp shade. He walked round the table, dangling this bell affair over our heads.
It struck me that we were supposed to be witnessing a very crude representation of some religious fable, and that it was supposed to be serious… But, unfortunately for Moses saying his ‘stuff’, the Yanks had their own ideas… and their commentary was the only audible one. After the ‘bell’ performance, I heard Moses say ‘Josephine est malade’… and then Joshua appeared with another pole: the one carrying the bull. And when I heard a Yank scream “Christ! He’s bringing round the bloody elephant now” I nearly died laughing: apart from everything else, it was so obviously a bull… I must admit that Moses stuck to his lines like a hero, in spite of all the disturbance: and Joshua too knew his stuff alright.
And then the lights went out… and my spine began to creep. Moses was bellowing like a bull, and I had visions of being cracked on the head and robbed by Joshua and the angel… but nothing happened. After a minute or so of darkness, a voice said in crude English “and now you see Heaven soon”. The curtain went up – and we beheld Joshua in a prison cell on the stage: he was wringing his hands and tramping around his cell – looking a picture of misery. This ‘scene’ was greeted with further highly coloured criticism, as you can imagine. Meanwhile, Moses carried on, bellowing from his pulpit. And then the lights went out again – but only for a few seconds. When they were switched on… the prison scene had disappeared, and in its place, lying a little further back on the stage, was… well, I suppose it was a tableau. It revealed a girl sitting on the back of a peacock… with the latter’s tail spread out fanwise behind, forming a backcloth – and two other girls standing, one on each side. I imagine this ‘tableau’ was simply an excuse, in the name of ‘art’, for displaying as much of the female form as possible. Anyhow, the sitting girl was naked except for a small covering around her waist – her breasts were bare – whilst the two standing girls wore tiny brassieres, in addition to the minute ‘scanties’, or whatever you call them. The whole picture was very colourful, and perhaps, almost artistic… but it seemed quite irrelevant to whatever Moses was talking about: he just kept on with his tirade tirelessly. And the Yanks – well – I hope those female artists couldn’t understand English: they were insulted horribly.
After a few seconds of this, the peacock’s tail divided in the centre, and each half dropped to the side… and then we saw a further woman standing behind, without brassiere, and holding a shield upon her shoulder. And behind, there was a cyclorama (is that the word?) showing a star lit sky with moving clouds. And still Moses carried on with his declamation. He had become a bit throaty by now, and sounded very much like the raving Hitler we used to hear on the radio. So that when a tall Yank stood up with raised right arm and yelled “Heil Hitler”…, everyone roared, including Moses, and the girls on stage! The lights went on again… and when we recovered from our laughter we just sat back and awaited further orders. Meanwhile, those who wanted more beer were attended to by the silent Gabrielle.
A few minutes later, Joshua appeared and announced “upstairs next”… And then I found a tiny stairway leading to a passage along the upper edge of the left wall of the room: it was a queer room, Jess. We followed Joshua along this musty moth-eaten corridor, and then found ourselves in another room… about the same size as the one down below, and equally as tawdry, but this time the seats were arranged in rows facing another tiny stage. There was more amusing and highly-coloured heckling from the Yanks, but it stopped, temporarily while the lights went out… This time, we saw the same women, but in a revolving tableau this time. They appeared to be revolving vertically amongst the clouds… but I imagine they were actually lying horizontally on a revolving wheel, and we looked at them through an inclined mirror. Anyhow, it was rather clever, and fairly artistic… but I’m hanged if I knew what it was all about – unless this scene was supposed to represent Heaven.
Later, a Yank soldier was invited behind the scenes, and he went – to the accompaniment of much queer advice from his pals! And then we saw the Yank – revolving gaily amongst the clouds – with a lovely pair of wings to his shoulders – and blissfully smoking a cigarette. This was the end of the show.
Gosh! my tummy ached with laughing as I went outside. It was a strange performance, Jess – and I afterwards realised that the whole idea of getting us inside was to sell the beer – and collect tips… And the semi-naked women were supposed to be the special attraction… and yet, they weren’t advertised from the outside. I don’t think we were inside the place for more than an hour… but I’m sure I laughed more in that hour than during the last five years… thanks to the Yanks.
I couldn’t conscientiously recommend anyone to visit that ‘theatre’… and yet, as laughter is so rare these days, I should have to say ‘yes’ to any potential audience providing they could guarantee to go with a bunch of “G.I. Joes”.
And now to bed… Am going to Fontainebleau tomorrow – and will tell you about it later…
Goodnight, dear Jess –
I love you –
Always and forever –
P.S. The queer theatre was called “Le Ciel”: I found this out later, when I got outside.