“My first visit to Paris! What wouldn’t I give to relive that experience of May 1948…
The Hotel Floridor was built above a bicycle shop, the lift didn’t work, the carpet was faded and threadbare, and a strong smell of cooking arose from the patron’s quarters.
I liked it at once, and liked the patron, a broad-shouldered, red-faced Berrichon whose accent it was to take me four years to understand completely.
The room was large, and so was the bed, there was a small wash-room with a hot and cold tap. This was for the look of it only, like the lift, hard experience taught me…. I flopped on the wide bed and sniffed Paris smells deeply… A knock at the door – the patron again. He made me understand – if I was to save money, let me just bring some food back from the shops, and a bottle of wine, his wife would cook it for me… I was en famille…”
Denison Deasey, memoirs
I never knew my dad until I found his diaries.
After I found them, I became obsessed with working my way through a monumental number of manuscripts and papers tucked in libraries across the world.
But it’s not the only reason I was so gripped from the day the woman at the State Library Victoria pushed across the first box in that cold Heritage Reading Room, up the stairs, past the portrait gallery.
Dad was just a man. A regular, Australian man, born in 1920, who lived through the second world war like millions of other Australian men. He died in 1984, when I was six – which is i never knew him until recently.
What gripped me so much was this sense of familiarity in his writing – I liked this man. I didn’t just like him – I knew him, because by the time I found his diaries and manuscripts, I was 37. By then, I could see that I had lived so many of his unfinished experiences, or felt them, without any prior knowledge before I’d opened up those memoirs.
When I opened up the diaries he kept by hand, every day, just as I’ve kept a handwritten diary, every day since I was 16 – it was this sense that I’d inherited something that was beyond reason or learning or logic. I’m the only writer in my family – or at least, I was. Now I know, I’m not.
A friend shared a fascinating video on Facebook the other day which is all about the science of epigenetics – namely, how children can inherit memories from their parents and their grandparents, how the memory or the lesson imprints into our DNA, even if we have never had the experience.
I sensed this truth as I worked my way through dad’s giant collection of manuscripts and letters in 2016 and 2017. Seventy years after he’d written many of them.
There were things he’d written in his diaries that I’ve written in my diary.
There was a line from a poem that struck him, when he lost a parent. That same line, I’d penned in my own diary, when I thought about the loss of dad.
Names, dates, places…impressions. Feelings.
His first story for publication – The Passenger – was about a road trip with a man named Jim who “called no man his master”. My first memoir, Love & Other U-Turns, was about a road trip with a man named Jim who certainly called no man his master.
The level of detail in what I’ve discovered came from dad, still astounds me.
I had always wanted to live in a Hotel for a year – the grimier, the better, for some odd reason. As if it would be more fun! I wanted a crazy cast of characters, a quirky anonymity, something about living in a hotel always seemed so glamorous to me, even if it was a run-down Pub in Fremantle, Australia, in between my other travels. There was no lift, the men who shared the Hotel were toothless but kind, and i didn’t care.
I found, in dad’s diaries and memoirs, that he lived in the Hotel Floridor in Paris from 1948 to 1952 (as he travelled around), and for the entire year of 1951. The lift and the taps didn’t work, but he didn’t care. Some of the happiest (and craziest) times in his life were there.
One of those crazy times the Hotel Floridor, was when he was mistaken for defected M15 spy Donald Maclean and arrested in his underpants (see ludicrous newspaper story above). If he hadn’t befriended the Parisian police commissioner, Jacques De La Rue (who’d been a resistant), over a mutual love of poetry, he would have been shot by the secret police.
Instead, the patron opened champagne in dad’s honour – because he’d brought so much interest to his hilarious little (grimy) Hotel!
So much more went on at the Hotel Floridor in 1951 I could write a whole book based on just that year of dad’s life. But it certainly explains why that idea of living in a Hotel had always seemed so glamorous to me – even if it was a bit dirty and the kitchen only had one fork.
The science of epigenetics goes some way to explaining how we inherit feelings and instinct and impulse and motivations, even when we have no prior knowledge of a place or thing.
Paris has always felt to me like a home I had to return to. And I never used to know why.
When I did finally make it to the Hotel Floridor in Montparnasse last year, retracing dad’s footsteps and finding the room he described which overlooked the square, I couldn’t help but smile the entire time. It was a lucky place for dad. And it felt lucky for me, too.
I could have lived my life without knowing where all these urges and feelings had come from, but his memoirs have explained so much.
To know our ancestors and our heritage is very healing, particularly when it’s our direct parents. Perhaps this is why I’m so passionate about memoir.
Without dad’s memoirs of Paris in the 1940s and 1950s, I’d never have known why I was so obsessed with wacky hotels, writing, and France.
Keep writing, friends. Even if it is just a journal.