A successful writer, Pat O'Connelly, is contacted by a strange French archaeologist in Paris who has developed a theory relating to the site of the Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem using documents dating from the 19th century when the British Army surveyed Palestine. The archaeologist seeks O’Connelly’s assistance in the hope of finding a publisher for his work. O’Connelly discovers the arcane world of Biblical archaeology and the conflict between Jewish and Muslim authorities in the Holy Land.
This is a story of archaeology set in modern day Jerusalem and the search for the Temple, destroyed in 70AD by the Roman Emperor Titus, who sacked the city and razed the Temple to the ground. Today the Temple Mount is occupied by the Haram esh-Sharif under the control of the Muslim Waqf.
O’Connelly had been invited to what was announced as a ‘travel writer’s celebration’, organised by Shakespeare & Company, a Parisian bookshop, in reality a rag-tag monument to second-hand books and literature, situated on quai de Montebello opposite Notre Dame on the Left Bank of the Seine. It was run by an ancient Bostonian, George Whitman.
O’Connelly was present as member of a discussion panel entitled ‘Travel in Words’. To his regret he had not been invited to present a new book of his own – he had written nothing for over two years. His name was still a good draw for the reading public, a successful writer, whose books had regular remained in the best sellers’ lists for several weeks and could be found on the shelves of most bookshops and libraries.
He remembered having met George by chance one Sunday summer afternoon a good many years previously as he explored the shelves in the vague hope of finding Liddel Hart’s biography T.E.Lawrence published in 1934, for background to an article he was writing for another of the endless Middle East crises.
George Whitman, who was born in Salem, must have been in his early seventies at the time. At first glance O’Connelly had taken him for a rather strange scruffy old eccentric, which he was, even for the owner of a second-hand bookshop. Whitman after asking him if he was looking for something in particular, led him up a very steep rickety stairway lined higgledy-piggledy with old books to the first floor. In a small back room with an unmade bed, he quickly glanced over the shelves, stopped then pointed a wrinkled finger to a dusty red spine red on a low shelf deformed by the weight of books. O’Connelly slid the book out and flipped it open to the publisher’s information page. It was exactly what he was looking for, a June 1935 reprint, published by Jonathan Cape, complete with fold-out maps, in pristine, though yellowed, condition. On the inside cover was pencilled 20F, a bargain.
‘I’ll take it, excellent.’
‘Would you like to join us for tea?’
‘Tea!’ said O’Connelly a little surprised.
‘Yes, come with me.’
He followed him up several more flights of steep, creaking, stairs, past more books it seemed than the British Museum Library. On the top floor in a rather worn room, looking over the Seine towards Notre Dame, several people who seemed as bemused as O’Connelly were gathered around holding cups and saucers and drinking tea, trying to make conversation as a plate of home made cake cut into slices was being offered around.
George poured a tea and handed it to O’Connelly, then left in search of another impromptu guest.
Since that time O’Connelly became a regular visitor to the bookshop and its Sunday afternoon tea sessions and as the years passed little changed, George got older, though as sprightly as ever, but perhaps a little more abrupt.
Shakespeare & Company was now managed by a new generation, which seemed not only determined to maintain the tradition, but also to turn the monument into an institution with the ‘celebration’. For O’Connelly it was a welcome event in the literary wilderness of Paris, for English writers that is.
A large white marquee had been set up in the Réné Vivaldi Park just a few paces from the bookshop to serve as a conference hall for the four day event and twenty seven of the ‘best’ travel writers had been invited to speak.
Inside there was a pleasant looking crowd, bon chic bon genre, looking prosperously clean in their summer outfits, the only off key point was a drunk, whose bench had been usurped by the event, and who appeared from time to time to shout obscenities.
The round table question time was going well, the guest writers replying to the questions from a mainly Anglo-American crowd with a sprinkling of French Anglophiles, who spoke slightly accented but perfect English. It was a relief from the pompous French intellectual literary milieu, perched on the pedestals and always ready to be outré, for ever sliding back to their favourite phobias of racism, guilt and socialist politics.
Towards the end of question time Laura slipped in, taking the only vacant seat on the front row reserved for guest writers, critics and organisers, she caught O’Connelly’s eye and smiled. A few minutes later the session broke up and the audience ambled towards the bookshop where the writers were signing books for the public. It seemed a long time since O’Connelly had performed that obligation.