Friday, 29 July 2016

Capital of The Vanities

When I left London for Paris in 2000 I was in love with the City of Lights. Relationships with two Frenchmen, the arrival of other French friends in my life and a sudden discovery that I had a good singing voice, followed by a wave of song writing led me to take an all French show to the Edinburgh Fringe. I produced cocktail and dinner cabarets at London venues and my zest to take my shows to Paris, gradually became a serious plan. I moved, leaving my entire possessions, including hundreds of books, furniture and designer clothing, in storage. I took only my piano, a new laptop and a few essentials such as my big iron cooking pot--the one from which, for 15 years, I had served fish stew and aubergine compote to eager guests before the glowing fireplace at my Montagu Square apartment. I abandoned my celebrity as an author and my constant media appearances: I had had enough of vulgar distortions of my image. Back in England, I now have another fireplace; and the black pot is already in use once more. But Paris is still my hometown, more familiar and personal to me than the London I no longer recognise as 'my town'.
Paris satisfied my many yearnings: architectural beauty, chic bars and restaurants, well designed clothes, the language of song, and finally, the man of my dreams.
For many reasons, practical and political, I moved back to the uk after 13 years.  I am an alien in my own land even though I feel passionately about its true character and its democratic values, which I would defend to my last breath. As for Paris, I feel more at home there, certainly my stomach is happier there, as is my emotional heart. I have been visiting for longer or shorter stays, and I have advanced my production of a feature film laced with my songs, a story set mainly in central Paris where the winter light on the streets and bridges will bring alive the melancholy emotions of a complicated love story. (Already selling as a novel, 'Three Days In September." on Amazon Kindle.)
When I returned to Paris for a few days last week at my lover's invitation I entered an inferno of July heat. I was staying in the Rue Faubourg St Honoré, a few yards from the British Embassy--my lover mischievously pretended his choice of hotel was "in case I had trouble after Brexit,".
While I was there, on July 21st, a few hundred yards up the street the Elysée Palace was welcoming Theresa May on her first visit as PM. I had meetings myself that day, most of them on the roof terrace of my hotel room; but I saw and heard nothing of any diplomatic traffic up the street.
The heat beat down. But around me once I descended to the street, I found only elegance and high cost boutiques: a ghetto of designer shops--Hermès, Lanvin, St Laurent, Dior. The Rue Faubourg St Honoré was totally taken over by these great names, shoulder to shoulder along the street as if castelling (chess style) against reality. The shops lacked customers. Dark suited, dark skinned security guards hovered, yawning, near their doors; bored vendeuses sat inside. But in the last half of July most potential clients were surely sunning themselves somewhere less trying than a 33 degree Paris.
Yet, nearby Boulevard Haussmann, (Galleries Lafayette a prime destination) were jammed with wildly shopping Far Easterners. In my old home quartier of St Honoré, the cafés of the Place du Marché St Honoré, Parisians were chic despite the heat. Subtle jump suits with elegant sandals and costume jewellery were prevalent. Well cut black trousers with white shirts were another option favoured by working French women. Sometime an exceptional Japanese lady (there is a large Japanese population in the 2nd Arrondissement) in haute designer dress with perennial shady hat crossed one's path. Of American tourists in shorts, T's and flip-flops there were few examples. Paris was, as always, on show. Alas, behind the mask, all is not well and delusions of elegance and opulence indulged on a very hot day during a painful foot blistering stroll through superbly window dressed Haussmannian streets belie the horrors of a country in economic distress. Twelve per cent unemployed, falling GDP, mounting assaults from Islamic lunatics plus Presidential elections, with a rising nationalist threat, to come next year are worries to cloud the brow of the most deluded sybarite. I felt I was walking through the streets of Pompeii just before the catastrophe.
In case one forgot the violence, on the corner of rue Boissy d'Anglais, heavily armed gendarmes leaped alertly into the street where nearby bastions of power were easily identifiable. But where, one could not avoid asking, would calamity strike next?
Back on the breeze cooled roof terrace, sipping champagne with my amour, such grim thoughts faded. The hemi-circular view from the eighth floor stretching from L' Academy Francais's gold plated dome across the rooftops to the Sacre Coeur swept one into a lighter mood.
Yet we were living our pleasure on the edge of a nightmare. Throughout my three-day stay in this paradise of shopping and promenading, violent unrest was taking place in a North Eastern suburb where a young man had died during arrest.
Can one really rest easily in one's bed when the poverty and rage of suburban ghettoes threaten the delicious depravity of wealth and luxury, however cushioned by the forces of law and order?
This civilised quartier, eloquent with elegance where the designer boutiques attract the rich is still one where few people now live: signs of real commercial life such as supermarkets or pharmacies are absent. Indeed, this is not the true Paris but a fantasy of Parisian life combining the worlds of diplomacy and fashion.
A short step away, the newly opened, freshly refurbished Ritz Hotel in Place Vendome, a haven, as ever, stands as yet almost empty. One hardly dare sit on the freshly upholstered royal blue cut velvet chairs. Evidence of real life is in short supply. But vanity, glorious vanity, is everywhere.