Paris: Memoir from the Past
Paris is always a good idea – Audrey Hepburn
You can’t really have a travel or culture blog and not feature Paris can you? And if I know anything about travel writing, it is this… I could blog about Cardiff and Shenzhen with all my heart – and as regular readers know I love those cities – but I also know Paris will easily eclipse them in terms of visitors numbers.
A-list cities are like rock stars. You can write about them until you’re (French) blue in the face and they will forever attract more folks. As always I’ll be doing this in my own style, so don’t expect to know how much it costs to get up the Eiffel Tower or such like (prices will always fluctuate anyway). How does a nostalgic retro blog help you?
Well, Paris is an evergreen city and I’m sure what I will mention still exists today (except the Virgin Megastore – which is long gone). Hepburn by the way made six films in Paris so she should know and aside from global pandemics, the above quote still rings true to this day (even if it is freezing in winter).
The first I knew of Paris most likely came from the very culture that serves as the city’s perennial appeal to artisans; books, film and definitely music!
LET’S MAKE MUSIC IN PARIS
Suddenly there was Paul McCartney and Wings 1978 song Cafe on the Left Bank, ironically from the album London Town, with its references to ‘continental breakfast in the bar’ and ‘watching Charles de Gaulle make a speech.’
Who the hell was CdG? My 8 year old self had no idea though the song aroused my imagination of what the left bank might actually look like and wanting to see it!
A year earlier German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk name check the Champs Elysées and the city in their song Trans Europe Express. Fast forward into the eighties and the Japanese icon Ryuichi Sakamoto teams up with Briton Robin Scott (Pop Muzik) to record The Left Bank.
A beguiling overview of Paris ‘I love your French ways, your streets and your steps on a warm summer’s night’ overlooking the Seine where ‘the poets are gathering.’ There is almost no nationality that isn’t besotted with Paris!
By the mid-eighties the French supercity was again in the limelight appearing in James Bond’s A View to a Kill (1985) and consequent Duran Duran video of the same name. It was perfect synergy, with frontman Simon Le Bon signing off with a pastiche of the James Bond catchphrase ‘the name’s Bond, James Bond’ which became ‘the name’s Bon, Simon Le Bon’ with a wry raised eyebrow.
The same year Duran’s offshoot project Arcadia based themselves at Plaza Athenée and recorded at Studio de la Grande Armée (the same studio where INXS would record KICK two years later).
Arcadia became a mini-adventure of sonic and visual experimentation aided by the ambience afforded by the city itself, Le Bon praising the city’s cultural institutes – namely its galleries and cinemas which in turn inspired the album.
The promotional imagery associated with this project perfectly marries the Paris chic of the 1920s with the avant-garde fashions of the eighties. Speaking on Duran duran’s website in 2015, Le Bon recalls the 30 year old recording: “It was an amazing experience making that album. Paris was a really happening town at that time; Sting, Herbie Hancock and Grace Jones were all on tour or visiting, and every one wanted to come to the Studio.”
MORE MUSIC IN THE CITY OF LIGHT
Over the years Paris has attracted a plethora of musicians to release live albums either bearing her name or staged in the city. In 1977 Genesis Seconds Out recorded at the cities Palais des Sports includes a version of I Know What I Like where Phil Collins ad-libs ‘I love Paris in the springtime’ from Cole Porter’s song I Love Paris.
A decade later, Scotland’s Simple Minds release Live in the City of Light (possibly taking a cue from Supertramp’s 1980 live double simply named after the city itself) recorded during August 1986 at Le Zenith, and in 1995 the Minds premier She’s a River on Top of the Pops from the summit of the Eiffel Tower.
English eccentrics The Cure follow suit in 1993 with their own live memoir – again named after the city – as do another Scots band Texas in 2001 (a reversal of the film Paris, Texas from which they took their name), and Collins himself issues A Hot Night in Paris with his big band in 1999.
Obviously I can’t mention Paris without referring to Cock Robin and Peter Kingsbery which would together with Japan and David Sylvian form a big part of my musical listening from the late eighties onwards.
The only reference I can think of in Sylvian’s case is the French line in Despair but it’s obvious from the photo’s of him shot by brother Steve Jansen and his leanings toward Erik Satie for the piano line in Nightporter that he too had a thing for Paris and the French.
Peter (and Anna) came to Paris as Sony Europe had their hub there and Pete speaks with fondness of his ‘hanging around’ in the city long after the applause had faded to learn with conviction the language of the country that took his work to their hearts. Pete has lived in Paris now for almost three decades raising a family there.
Some of this Parisienne chic feeds into the imagery and songs on his debut album A Different Man and again on 2002’s Mon Inconnue, almost entirely sung with conviction in French. When I hear the intro to What You Are I am transported to the cobbled streets of Montmartre after dark. Love in Motion brings to mind an August dusk in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Malcolm McLaren’s homage to the city also conjures up its fair share of imagery.
Pete was not alone in his admiration, the same year London’s Saint Etienne release So Tough in the green and gold associated with French football team Paris San Germain and again in ’95 continue the French linkage by featuring Etienne Daho on their He’s on the Phone single. 1998 and Savage Garden’s video for Truly Madly Deeply is shot in Paris (where else would have been appropriate?)
Sometimes the French pay tribute themselves, St Germain’s 2000 album Tourist gives a high five to the cities enduring status as a hub for both retro and future hipsters. And kudos to Mr Navarre for making Newport, Cardiff (Central) and even Port Talbot cool on the album cover.
The album’s Sure Thing conjures up images of a lazy stroll by the Seine on a hazy afternoon, likewise Sakamoto’s song Lulu does the same with a bit more of a swing to it (though he does not namecheck Paris it still, for me, has that kind of vibe).
Another decade elapses and the American singer Michael Franks gives his own nostalgic twist on France and Paris on his excellent 2011 recording Time Together, notably on Samba Blue ‘we kissed in the metro, in love, very retro!’ The list goes on. Paris Je T’Aime and Midnight in Paris to name but two other films that struck a chord with me. What writer doesn’t envisage Paris in the 1920s?
By the time I booked my ticket it was the early nineties and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was a cultural behemoth of the day which would unwittingly play its part in my Paris story. So beginning in 1992 and working my way to 2008 – my last visit to date, here’s some pointers about the one and only city of light.
Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman. – John Berger
When I first visited Paris as a fresh faced and naive 21 year old art student in January 1992 it shocked me when we were herded out of the Pompidou Centre due to a bomb threat. Surely this couldn’t happen here I thought – this was the West.
One of my tutors soon paid short shrift to that notion. ‘It does!’ She said and she was right. That day proved to be nothing more than a hoax, sadly the events of 2015 were anything but. Here’s my original notes from the time (with some modest embellishments)…
At the start of the second term, and as part of the ‘cultural’ side some of the foundation students and lecturers visited Paris. The beginning of my French affair – though I did not know this at the time.
Depart M4 roundabout 6.45am. Arrive in Dover about 11.36am. Dover to Calais wasn’t that bad, although you do tend to feel a bit light-headed and I was beginning to feel slightly ill by the time we got there. After that followed four hours drive to a service station, where I had a cup of tea. Quite an odd journey though, no towns or people, just vast expanses of country – very eerie.
About 1-2 hrs after the service station we finally hit the seeds of Paris. We drove along listening to the Twin Peaks soundtrack which was perfect to match the mood of dwindling daylight outside. Some time later, after Charles de Gaulle airport, some groovy underpasses, a few flash neons and no sign of the Eiffel Tower (it isn’t as omnipresent as the movies suggest), we got to the hotel. This was about 6.30pm.
Got into hotel – shared a room with one of the other guys. Having sorted things out, we (about 5 of us) gave the surrounding streets a whirl. Eventually, we decided on a pizza place to eat. If memory serves I had the Bambino.
Missed breakfast (a rarity). Still starving, we went for a coach ride around the sights of Paris: Moulin Rouge, Opera, Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe. Finally we were dropped outside a museum – Musee D’Orsay. It was beautiful inside.
After, the fog had lifted and some of us set off to see the whole of the Eiffel Tower and went up (but only to the 2nd floor, still that was quite high enough). From there we went to Arc de Triomphe – where I took a couple of photos.
Came back to (the) hotel, went up to one of the others penthouse suite – from there you can get onto the roof and then the Eiffel Tower becomes visible, but didn’t have my camera. Was in my usual state of limbo between sober and dizzy/drunk when we decided to go out to the red light district. Lost some of ‘le partie.’ Those of us left went to Sacre Couer (church). It looked great at night. Got back at 12.30am.
*it’s at the bottom of the Montmartre steps (a little like Rene Jacques photo with Sacre Couer on its mount above us) that two of us decided a karaoke version of Right Said Fred’s Don’t Talk Just Kiss might be a good idea – how British and the kind of behaviour I now frown upon. But we were young and at least we were not singing at the top of our voices or making a general nuisance of ourselves.
Was determined not to miss breakfast today, although it would’ve helped if the croissants had been warm! *2020 me jumping in here, just to say the tea was not quite to my liking either, but what was I thinking having tea in Paris! Cultural etiquette came slowly to me, back to ‘92. No-one else around so went out with the lecturers to a cemetery where Degas is buried.
From there back to Sacre Couer, went to cafe for tea and then, after lengthy walk across the city, arrived at the Pompidou Centre. After 5 mins everyone was told to clear out for security reasons (i.e. bomb scare), still we shall try again tomorrow. Came back to hotel on the Metro. Did some sketches before my roommate walked in and we started a discussion about architecture.
Got up early again, no sign of anyone so went out with the tutors again, only thing was the Pompidou doesn’t open ’til 12, so we split up. Ceri and Martin went off to see a French film and the remainder of us went to the Louvre.
The pyramid is the entrance, an escalator descends to a flash reception. Yes, I’ve seen it (the Mona Lisa) + the Venus de Milo. I was quite amazed at how the Japanese got away with using their cameras + video recorders in zones which they weren’t meant to.
Back at the Pompidou, saw some good stuff including Matisse, Dali, Kandinsky, Milo etc. (I wasn’t aware that some film props were collected and on show on another floor). After leaving, I tried to find the Virgin Megastore but couldn’t. I could’ve sworn it was on the Champs Elysees.
Later I found it was, only problem; I was on a moving bus, so ended up going to the Orangerie where the staff were weird as f**k! Nonetheless, the gallery was the winner and I saw Monet’s Waterlilies on curved walls. Went back to hotel exhausted and got ready for coach trip of Paris by night and a free meal.
On returning to the hotel, had a few drinks, after which everyone assembled on the street. We were going to this French guys flat (a punk in pink leopard skin bondage trousers), but his landlady was none too pleased to find 49 students converging on the place.
We were kicked out and decided on a park. I went some of the way before turning back, I’d forgotten my coat and was freezing. Saw one of the other guys in the lobby, went up to his room, played cards and had a few vodkas + coke. Got downstairs to my room at 4.30 in the morning. Somehow I still managed to wake up for breakfast.
More cold croissants. Met in the lobby with our bags. At about 10.20am we were on our way. I decided it would be wise to catch up on some sleep. A couple of hours later we arrived at Calais hypermarket. (It was there that I saw Peter’s A Different Man for the first time).
A rougher version of the ferry crossing followed, got into Dover relieved I didn’t vomit. All the way back to Wales in the dark. ‘No sweat’ according to the coach driver, funny. I swore that was it as far as Paris was concerned, but a few years’ later I was back for more.
The chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulant – T.S. Eliot
I booked a cheap coach from my hometown in south Wales, it was another nocturnal adventure that would see me slip across the English channel into France; it was November 1995 and the autumn night was alive with a floodlit flurry of snow. I tune my walkman radio in to a local station only to hear Michael Bolton’s Can I Touch You… There? – Very French!
The night drive down to Paris reminded me of Twin Peaks again as Badalamenti’s soundtrack swirled around my head. Two electric blue spherical streetlights pass amid nocturnal trees. In a blur of an unknown French village or town, houses with pointed roofs and I think of Seamus Heaney’s poem Night Drive Through France.
Once installed in the Hotel Ibis way out on the ‘Peripherie’ I began my quest (to find new music by Peter Kingsbery). If all else failed it would provide another brief look at a city that had in the intervening years cast its spell on me. The photography of Rene Jacques, Joni Mitchell’s Yvette in English and Malcolm McLaren’s album titled Paris had provided ample stimulus.
Posters for Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad line the Metro walls and Roland Orzabal’s Tears for Fears Raoul and the Kings of Spain has just been released. No one knows but it will be their nadir selling the quantities they are used to only in France. Meanwhile…
I tried to find the magnificent Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysées which I’d missed out on my previous visit. It still eluded me. I found myself on Boulevard de Magenta. Across the road was a small street travelling at an angle to the main thoroughfare. There was a small store with a pokey door which I had to sashay through to enter.
In clumsy French I enquired about the possibility of a new Peter Kingsbery CD. “Why yes, there is a new album this year” said the shop hand and most likely its owner in English, handing me the disc. I was ecstatic!! My trip had proven worthwhile. I wasn’t interested in seeing the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre or the Arc de Triomph, all I wanted was to get home and play my new found trophy.
Later on that hazy afternoon, I finally stumble across the Virgin store, an elegant building with marble staircase half way up the grand boulevard. It seemed insane to think this was a music store and not a plush five star hotel (which by now it may well be) and although there were other things I would have liked, I had pretty much what I came for in my bag. It’s also on this visit that I write several poems, Nouveau Charm and M (as in Metro) both of which end up in Notate.
An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris – Friedrich Nietzsche
Adapted from my book Voyage of Nomad…
Having voyaged through Prague, Vienna and Brussels it was time to catch up with her majesty (Paris). For the first time familiarity: Park Asterix, Charles de Gaulle airport and Bagnolet. It felt like returning home. The smiles kicked external and screamed internal as I rode the metro into Montmartre (and alighted at Anvers station).
Yes, this felt right. If only I could get a job to keep me here. Time would tell. Now I sat writing to the sound of light rain in a room watched over by Sacre Coeur like an old friend. One of my room-mates came in “You are writing.” – “Yes,” I replied, “it’s a travelogue and this is Paris.”
Tuesday’s breakfast ran like Prague’s, as much as you can eat of French bread, café and jus d’orange. To digress slightly, years before I’d heard of Shakespeare & Co., a bookstore with a difference. Between its book-lined walls lay beds, occupied by struggling writers. In short I became a ‘Tumbleweeder’ with the eccentric George Whitman at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie.
The bookshop closed at midnight so sleep was impossible beforehand as visitors and regulars came by at all hours. *The shop also had no toilet, bathroom or kitchen. In desperate times a run across the road to the café was needed or, a discreet visit to Marks & Spencer’s on the Rue de Rivoli.
Department store toilets are always on the top floor and the attendant always gave me a dirty look to which I stared back ‘Yes, I am only here to pee!’ And people wonder why I only stayed at Shakespeare for the week.
What brought my third, longest and best trip to Paris so far to an end was my inability or non-fluency of French. I tried everything to stay asking hostels, e-mailing jobs spotted in the free magazines and writing to the British Council, whom proved rude in their ‘negative’ response. In the event nothing, not even with the speed of e-mail, could prevent a sudden and sombre departure. Paris had beaten me again.
*Buy Voyage of Nomad here.
You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden. – Allen Ginsberg
And so it was, November 2008, became the last time (to date) I saw Paris. My reasoning this time was to shoot pictures for Lonely Planet which in the end amounted to nothing. It was a one day trip from London so it was very tiring but voided the need for a hotel or hostel. Arriving early morning at Bagnolet, familiar from previous encounters my first appointment is again Montmartre.
When I find Sacre Coeur, she is draped in the morning mist (just like the Eiffel Tower was in 1992). It occurs to me only now I have never seen its interior. That day, in the early morning there are few people around. Two girls sit outside a cafe with croissants and coffee looking up to the mighty white basilica.
I can’t even remember how I got there, I mean the metro but what ticket and how I asked for it in my minuscule French is anyone’s guess. But that’s the mystery of travel, you do what you have to do at the time. Information lost in the mist that so enshrouded Sacre Couer that morning.
Next I walked via Les Halles and at random chanced on the Cafe du Brasil for my own coffee. Quick hint here, with the benefit of hindsight, no one does cafe creme like the Parisiennes! After some more arty images I head back out into the light and to the left bank. My first port of call there is Jean Nouvel’s astonishing Institute du Monde Arabe.
A building which I thought had funky transfers in the windows but on closer inspection could see they were in fact intricately made up of separate metal pieces looking somewhat like the aperture lens of a camera which in turn operate to allow differing amounts of light.
As it’s the left bank I renew my vows with Shakespeare and Co, it’s a bit like catching up with a friend eight years later, they look the same yet different. (George) Whitman’s daughter Sylvia is running the place and she tells someone that he is upstairs. Now he is in the literal sense, Whitman passed in 2011. What I didn’t know is he, like myself, spent some time in China. In his case as a boy.
Not far from Shakespeare is a real cafe on the left bank. Plenty of latin quarter buzz but no-one watching anyone make a speech let alone Charles de Gaulle. I can’t recall what gets me to the night and departure, probably an aimless amble through those 5th arrondissement streets and lanes, nooks and crannies.
As night falls I land in a literary bar La Belle Hortense (I even leave some flyers for Beats Per Minute). But why do we not have such places in the UK? Wouldn’t that be better than having cafe’s close at 5pm or convert into a pub for the evening?
Or is Britain beyond such environments? Just to make sure I’ve got this right I conducted some internet research and sure enough the few there are in London close at 7pm. The one of most interest to me is, you’ve guessed it, French.
In Dirk Bogarde’s book From La Pigeonnier he mentions being an alien in his homeland (the UK) something I’ve identified with for a long time. Still longing for a longer look at life in France (although now with Brexit and a global depression looming, it might be as much of a pipe dream as it ever was).
I have never seen Paris in the summer but as we approach Bastille Day from a socially distant Covid-UK I will be thinking of her on July 14. Croissants and orange juice? Why not.
What is the value of a society unable to preserve and transmit its most precious asset?! – Jacques Attali (French Economist and Writer)
After the terror attack on 13th November 2015 many acts paid tribute to the city and those lost including U2 and Simple Minds who were playing the following evening.
On April 15th 2019 I saw Notre Dame’s blaze from afar and was grateful to have seen it/her in its/her original state during my brief tenure at George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Co bookstore back in the day. The view across to Notre Dame was pretty amazing even on a white skied day which as you can imagine were plentiful in the freezing Paris spring of 2000.
Here’s hoping for a carefully planned but speedy reconstruction – along with Glasgow School of Art. More words from Attali… The 400 firefighters who have found themselves in a situation to avoid the total destruction of Notre-Dame De Paris will be able to say: my life has been useful to humanity.
THE VIEW FROM WINTER 2022
Oh, it was so hard to leave Paris, just about my favorite city in the world – Tony Visconti
It has now been 30 years since I first saw Paris and unfortunately due to the pandemic there is no reunion planned. It is almost certain I will never live or work there – though I have friends who do. Time and age are against me. Even as a 29 year old in the spring of 2000 it was near impossible. But, if it happens it happens (c’est la vie).
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, check out the MEDIA page, and/or the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching ethos.
*as with London, songs about Paris or those which hold a strong personal connection to it.
Mon Die Sénié (from Paris) – Malcolm McLaren
Cafe on the Left Bank (from London Town) – Wings
Road River Rail (from Heaven or Las Vegas) – Cocteau Twins
Laura Palmer’s Theme (from Twin Peaks) – Angelo Badalamenti
Don’t Talk Just Kiss (from UP) – Right Said Fred
Can I Touch You… There? (from Greatest Hits) – Michael Bolton
Secrets (from Raoul and the Kings of Spain) – Tears for Fears
Peace on Earth (from Gold) – Cock Robin
For Dear Life (from Gold) – Cock Robin
Neal and Jack and Me (from Beat) – King Crimson
Yvette in English (from Turbulent Indigo) – Joni Mitchell
Walking With Satie/Jazz is Paris (from Paris) – Malcolm McLaren
Lulu (from Heartbeat) – Ryuichi Sakamoto
Samba Blue (from Time Together) – Michael Franks (no retro kissing in the metro for me sadly but I live in hope)
Anthem (from Paris) – Malcolm McLaren
Sure Thing (from Tourist) – St Germain
The Left Bank (from The Arrangement) – Ryuichi Sakamoto and Robin Scott
The Hand That Feeds Me (from A Different Man) – Peter Kingsbery
Mon Inconnue (from Mon Inconnue) – Peter Kingsbery
Paris Je’Taime (2006)
Midnight in Paris (2011)
The Paris I Love – Jean-Paul Clebert
Almost French: A New Life in Paris – Sarah Turnbull
Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs – Jeremy Mercer *also known as Time Was Soft There, Mercer’s book is not just about Shakespeare and Co but the exact time I was there! No mention of me in the book though.
Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
La Village (hostel) Rue d’Orsel
Shakespeare and Co 37 Rue de la Bûcherie
La Belle Hortense 31 Rue Vieille du Temple
Album covers from discogs, Arcadia press photos (unknown photographer), Japan in Paris (photo by Daily Mirror), Rene Jacques image, Paris Je’Taime and Midnight in Paris movie posters and museum tickets all from my personal archive. The Musee d’Orsay image is a replica made for this blog. Paris Tricolour photographed by Alain Jocard for AFP/Getty images. Notre Dame from Shakespeare and Co by Roger Tagholm (publishingperspectives.com). All other photos taken in Paris on my visits of 1992, 1995, 2000 and 2008.