Milord, Half a Century on

We are approaching post-haste what might well be, to most people, the least interesting 50th anniversary in the world. But it’s a 50th anniversary with great interest in my world. Perhaps, therefore, I may be permitted to chaunter on – as Britain’s ex-House-of-Commons Speaker John Bercow used to put it – with the following autobiographical exegesis from what Pascal called ‘le moi haïssable.’

Fifty years ago this month, I discovered Édith Piaf. I have not recovered since.

It happened (members of the jury) by pure accident. There I was during 1974, in my first year at a Sydney high school, having recently made one of the few intelligent decisions of my life. My school had electives for French and Art; I had the good taste to choose French, which helped in this selection by my absolute inability to draw a recognisable human face even if offered a million dollars to do so.

One day the teacher for our French classes – a Miss Mason, whose given name I never learned– announced that she would introduce us to the recorded output of one Édith Piaf. I had only the vaguest notions of Piaf’s name (I must have seen it on a Sydney poster somewhere, perhaps in connection with a biographical musical about her) but, already the Little Sparrow was sharply dividing antipodean adolescents.

  • A boy in my class, at the news of an imminent Piaf recording, yelled out: ‘She’s terrific!’
  • A girl in my class yelled out ‘She makes me vomit.’

Undeterred by the latter adjudication, Miss Mason proceeded to place the class turntable’s tonearm on the vinyl. And from the speakers there insinuated forth the opening of Milord. Supposing I had possessed in 1974 that encyclopedic knowledge of profanities which marks the average 12-year-old in 2024, I might have responded to those strains with some such expostulation as ‘Paging Planet What The F**k?’ But I didn’t. I was just overwhelmed and – as we would now put it – gobsmacked.

Milord - Edith Piaf

To convey something of Piaf’s revelatory powers for my schoolboy self, I must emphasise the absolute lack of pleasure I had taken in most mainstream Anglo pop music of my boyhood. My attitude towards the average Beatles song had passed from mild pleasure to utter weariness.

From Bob Dylan’s truculent rasp, I immediately and lastingly recoiled, as an imam would recoil from a pork sausage. Had my father caught me with the Rolling Stones’ output, he would have kicked me across the living- room. Nor would the anti-war ditties of Joan Baez (‘Joaney Phoney’, as Li’l Abner’s creator called her) have elicited any kinder paternal response.

In any case, I seldom encountered anything by Baez or the Stones. The Motown classics were then an even more completely sealed book to me. My overall impression of what dominated the charts as I approached my teens was a kind of eternal Sonny and Cher duet, punctuated by even less welcome contributions from the Osmonds, the Monkees, and – pity help us – The Partridge Family.

And then. Utterly out of the blue. Piaf in Milord.

If you remember the scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake undergoes his ecclesiastical epiphany ( ‘I … have … seen … the … LIGHT!!!!’ ), you will grasp something of the emotional maelstrom that the sound of Milord induced in me. Although to my classmates and Miss Mason herself I doubtless looked stoic enough.

  • Part of me instinctively found myself wondering: Is this music even legal?
  • Part of me wondered: Where has Piaf been all my life?
  • And a third part of me wondered: How does she know all about me? (I had already somehow realised that by 1974 Piaf was dead.)

About a decade later I encountered Orwell’s description of first reading Henry Miller. ‘You feel,’ Orwell insisted, ‘the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood.

He knows all about me,’ you feel “he wrote this specially for me”.’That is the perfect description of how I responded to that Piaf recording. I felt that ‘she made it specially for me.’

An entire new planet swam into my ken when that song hit my eardrums.

It was a planet in which, thanks be to God, the American campus counterculture had no place. A planet populated by no one with unwashed long hair. No one with draft-dodging propensities. No one with penchants for whining about My Lai when they couldn’t find South Vietnam on a map. No one was perpetually encased in hippie clothes so ubiquitous and androgynous as to constitute a kind of enforced non-surgical hermaphroditism.

Thirty seconds of the Little Sparrow’s jackhammer vibrato, and I was hooked. I vowed then and there that I would defend if called on, to the last breath of my body, the land that produced Piaf.

Five decades later I still would.

Many years afterwards I learned that in 1963 Cardinal Feltin, then The Archbishop of Paris had forbidden a Catholic funeral to Piaf on account of her sexual licence. Was the good Cardinal equally solicitous about denying Catholic funerals to child-molesting clergy, which France (we now realise) was as liable as any other nation to nurture? Asking for a friend.

In any event, Piaf will be remembered for as long as French popular song is remembered. I don’t suppose that her episcopal tormentor will ever again be recollected by anyone except the more masochistically diligent among church historians.

‘All my life,’ De Gaulle famously observed, ‘I have had a certain idea of France.’ Well, all my adult life, my own ‘certain idea of France’ has been incomparably enriched by Piaf’s recorded oeuvre. Which not only delighted me in itself, but proved a gateway drug to Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Georges Moustaki, and many another Gallic star.

Miss Mason, I don’t even know whether you are still alive. If you are, you probably will never read this. But merci mille fois for introducing me to Piaf. How many of us secretly played in our minds, over and over again, Piaf’s best-known songs while we tried to stay sane amid the grief of France’s 2015-2016 terror attacks?

Never have I been able to visit Paris without adapting to the local environment and the celebrated lines of American poet Alice Duer Miller, regarding wartime England.

I am Australian-bred.
I have seen much to hate here, much to forgive.
But in a world where France is buried and dead,
I do not wish to live.

Are you in agreement with the author in terms of Edith Piaf and Milord? Please leave your comments below.


About the Contributor

Robert Stove

I am a Sydney-born, but since 2001 Melbourne-based, organist, historian, and Francophile. My book César Franck: His Life and Times (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press) appeared in 2012; five CDs of my organ-playing are available via streaming platforms and via the website

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