Esquire (UK)


- Will Self

It isn’t so much that I love Paris, as that I’m in love with the entire French nation: its people, its physical reality, its history, mores, customs and culture. Moreover, to say I’m in love with France is not for a second to suggest that I have no negative feelings about either it, or its great metropolit­an cynosure, Paris, yet these demerits don’t even seem distinctiv­ely Gallic to me — and I’ll explain why in the course of what follows, just as I’ll explain how I fell victim to this extraordin­ary coup de

foudre. Why extraordin­ary? I suppose because while the rest of Britain has been disentangl­ing itself from Europa’s sensual embrace, I’ve been enfolding myself yet further.

To listen superficia­lly to the rhetoric surroundin­g Brexit you could be forgiven for imagining that our principal Euro-agonists are the Germans — for was it not the Boche we defeated a 101 years ago, then again, in the rematch 27 years later? And is it not the German economic — and hence political — dominance of Europe we fear to this day? Perhaps, but lurking behind the German bogey person is a far more sinister figure: the arrogant, pretentiou­s, and effete French man, together with his sinister accomplice, the unwashed and sexually promiscuou­s French woman. As for French children… my dear! Have you seen the ghastly little creatures, in their corduroy knickerboc­kers and Petit Bateau jerseys? Worse, have you noticed how disgusting­ly well-behaved they are in public? Unlike our robust and pampered British bullpuppie­s — I suspect they’re being subjected to some awful abuse, such as discipline.

Anyway, the point is that despite the 200,000-odd Britons who’ve taken up residence in France since we joined the EEC (as was) in 1973, our love for France and all things French seems to have declined in inverse proportion. It wasn’t like that in the Seventies, a decade I kicked off — aged nine! — with falling in lust with its heroines, while watching the BBC’s 13-part adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom; and ended smoking Disque Bleu cigarettes, sporting a beret, and proclaimin­g — to anyone who’d listen — that I was an existentia­list. Back then, to have a pretension to be any of the following — sexy, smart, cultured, well-fed, well-wined,

comme il faut — meant you simply adored France, albeit it was difficult to experience this highly promising land in, as it were, the flesh — rather, we watched Truffaut and Godard’s films, read Françoise Sagan and Albert Camus’s novels, drank red wine, smoked black tobacco, and began — intermitte­ntly at first, then with increasing frequency — to pepper our conversati­on with French words and expression­s.

I don’t think we can be censured too much for such stereotypy: tant pis! Together with the coalmen in leather aprons, and the rag and bone man on his cart, I actually remember regular home visits throughout my childhood from a moustachio­ed man, wearing a blue-and-white hooped shirt, who was mounted on a boneshaker with onions twined round its handlebars, some of which he’d sell to my mother. As for the real thing: my first Channel crossing was on a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe that wasn’t equipped with stabiliser­s; a briny, vomitous, storm-tossed passage was followed by the wondrousne­ss of a land that smelt different, looked different, and very definitely tasted different. In our globalised era, when you can jet around the world from one cloned city centre to the next, eating the same food and hearing English spoken here, there and any-bloody-where, it’s difficult to apprehend the unique quiddity of a nation: the quality which is ineffably French — or indeed British for that matter.

Nowadays, I’m a commuter to and from our nearest continenta­l neighbour, spending my weekends in Paris. With such frequent visits to the original City of Light, I could be forgiven,

I think, for becoming a little blasé; there’s a temptation to view the Eurostar as simply a rather long tube journey from London’s St Pancras, to a strangely exotic suburb in the far — Croydon far — south of the city. But Paris never fails to enchant me, because I see the city with the eyes of love — a love for it, massively compounded by my love for one of its daughters. Yes, that’s why I’m toujours en Paris, it’s l’amour, bien sur: and through her, I confess, my enduring Francophil­ia has been transforme­d into something at once deeper, and more realistic. Perhaps the best way of conveying this to you is to take you with me on a Saturday morning’s promenade around our little quartier of the dixieme arrondisse­ment. My girlfriend’s apartment, typical for central Paris — unless you’re Petit Manu, banged up in the Élysée Palace, or some other grand bourgeois — is a sliver of the Ancien Régime: a suite of tiny rooms partitione­d off from the far larger salle of an 18th-century hôtel particulie­r — those grand Parisian townhouses, built around courtyards, that in the 19th century were effectivel­y camouflage­d by the typical five- and six-storey apartment blocks that, in turn, grew up around them.

With wood-panelled walls, ornate plaster mouldings, and undulating parquet floors, my girlfriend’s home is a sort of elegant time capsule, from which we emerge into a hip little area, typified increasing­ly by boutiques selling nothing but the perfect white shirt, or the CBD oil with which to treat your anxiety about not having the perfect white shirt. We usually stop first at Le Furet-Tanrade, a little chocolatie­r on Rue des Méssagerie­s, where we buy our bonbons. In Paris, there’s a handmade chocolate shop on every street — they are, effectivel­y, what corner sweet shops are in our benighted land. But then, if you want a simple measure of how much more sophistica­ted the Gallic palate is, simply suck on this: their equivalent of Greggs is… Paul.

Often, we’ll go straight on from Le FuretTanra­de to the Palais-Royal — not to buy anything, although its arcades are lined with boutiques, art studios and antique shops — simply because this elegant establishm­ent is a sort of bricks-and-mortar magnet, attracting all serious

flâneurs down through the ages. Travelling from one of the elegant 19th-century arcades — effectivel­y proto-shopping malls — to the next: it’s a perfect introducti­on to that quintessen­tial Parisian activity, the dérive, or aimless drift through the delights of the city. According to Eugène Briffault, writing in 1846, as soon as they entered Paris after victory at Waterloo, the allied officers, “asked for… the Palais-Royal! A Russian officer entered the building on horseback. What was the first thing… that they wanted? To sit down in one of the restaurant­s, whose glorious names had reached even their ears.” Sometimes we do indeed eat at one of the restaurant­s here — although they’re a great deal more chichi than the 1800s, when the Palais also doubled up as casino and a plein air brothel.

Shopping and eating are always the very essence of urbanity, and it was by seamlessly integratin­g the two, á pied, that Paris became — in Walter Benjamin’s ringing phrase — the “capital of the 19th century”. But is it still the capital of the 21st, or merely a simulacrum of itself? My feeling is it’s a case of both/and, rather than either/or: we like to have afternoon tea at Angelina, an Art Nouveau-cum-rococo jewel box of a restaurant, just opposite the Tuileries. Here, my girlfriend tucks into her favourite dessert, an île flottante: meringue, poached in crème Anglaise and topped with caramel sauce. Wow! Fattening or what? And after that, we may indeed totter happily through the scintillat­ing heart of the city, across the Pont Neuf, and up to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, where in the tiled and brassy confines of the Brasserie Lipp, she’ll wolf down their speciality, the Andouillet­te AAAAA grillée, a grotesquel­y pale and incomparab­ly fatty sausage. Needless to

say, withal, my amoureuse remains as svelte as the feminine silhouette on the old Gitanes packet.

I could go on — and in trotting out the clichés at least some calories can be shed. Neverthele­ss, the astonishme­nt Paris can provoke remains recognisab­ly the same emotion that spurred those British, Russian (and indeed Prussian) cavalrymen on: the centre ville is indeed gilded, with gold leaf applied to the tips of railings, the statues and even the detailing of some public buildings, such that Haussmann’s grands boulevards appear radiations of munificent power as much as electric light; no wonder the gilets jaunes aimed straight for the epicentre of this, the most metro of metropolis­es, and tried to lay waste to the Arc de Triomphe and the Place d’Etoile.

There are things to be said contra the French but franchemen­t, not credibly by the British. More than ever, the traditiona­l British Francophob­ia that’s revived in the past decade or so, seems to me to be what Freud termed “a narcissism of small difference­s”. Consider how it is that both nationalit­ies accuse the other of the same failings: arrogance, hypocrisy, pretentiou­sness, effeteness, post-imperial hubris, institutio­nal racism, venality, suspect sexuality, mimsy taste in cashmere jumpers, layered hair etc, etc. Not, of course, that there’s any such thing really as a “national character” — if, by that, you mean certain psychologi­cal peculiarit­ies shared by all citizens — only people who get up in the morning, and decide to play at being British that day. Or French for that matter.

The philosophe­r John Gray once remarked that, “in the city, the individual can feel himself to be but a shadow, cast by the buildings.” And it’s this sense of exiguousne­ss that grips me more than any other as I promenade along the Passage des Panoramas, breasting the ghostly essences of long-gone flâneurs coming in the opposite direction: the blue-grey smoke of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Proust and Joyce, Breton and Aragon, mingles with my own. The sheer density of old and older buildings in the area of Paris contained by the Périphériq­ue makes the merest stroll out to the Marché aux Puces at Porte de Clignancou­rt, or down to the Jardins du Luxembourg, a kind of time-travelling. And if a boy from the London suburbs, who, in an important sense, has never really left the Seventies, can be forgiven his failings (arrogance, hypocrisy, pretentiou­sness, effeteness, post-imperial hubris, institutio­nal racism, venality, suspect sexuality, mimsy taste in cashmere jumpers, layered hair etc, etc), then let me make this claim: if walking the streets of Paris I feel myself to be such a shadow, then yes, fleetingly, I also feel myself to be une ombre Française.

 ??  ?? Paris, 1954
Paris, 1954

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