It’s tempting to maintain a respectful silence on Paris.
Subjects like these are tough ‘content’ for the self publisher. No one is paying (or asking) for your comment, while you might be (or, let’s face it, almost certainly are in one form or another) using the same platform to sell yourself, or services, to the world.
And no one wants to be accused of bandwagoning (even if they are).
But we all have our stories of Paris.
Even if we’ve never been, it’s familiar – and, more than that, for many who have never been, they still dream of Paris.
Paris is the ultimate metonym. For art and culture. For intellectualism. The city of lights.
But, for all that, those things are eclipsed by love, and romance.
What other city on the planet has a greater claim to these than Paris?
A miraculous thing, when you think about it. A city, an industrial super-organism, being a permanent expression of something so ethereal, so ephemeral, as love and romance.
I have fallen in love with Paris many times, ever since my first visit, which I think must have been in the summer of 1999 (as Moby’s Play was the overwhelming soundtrack to every occasion). A group of us stayed in an American friend’s apartment (she had just relocated there), quite a ritzy apartment (high ceilings, glossy floors, big windows, lots of gilt) and quintessentially Parisian.
I had stepped into Olympia’s boudoir, quite expecting to see Manet lurking in the corner.
That first night we sat outside a bar on Montmartre, under a purple sky full of stars, our lives, this night, a living, breathing, twinkling Van Gogh.
I remember a taxi ride to a club, passing the Moulin Rouge as Laura Branigan’s Self Control played out on the radio – oh the night is my world, city lights, painted girls…it all felt epic, cinematic, intoxicating.
I was 24 – how had it taken me so long to get to Paris?
It was the first of many visits – and I’ve never not found the magic.
I’ve been in Paris with so many different people over the years, stayed in many different places (from a rather tired, but cheap, hotel near the Place de la République, to a gorgeous apartment in St Germain, to the splendour of the Paris Ritz) but, on every visit throughout my twenties and thirties, there has been one constant – a stream of nights sat inside and outside of bars and restaurants and cafes across this great city, eating, drinking, smoking, laughing, confessing, remembering, flirting, debating, deciding, declaring.
Joyous living. Living at its best. When the night and everything in it is young, whatever its age – all new and shining and possible in the golden light of Paris.
It brings the horror all the more closer, remembering all those nights with all those people I love (and loved); to think of that terror, ripping into any one of those spellbinding nights.
It’s easy to imagine (which is, of course, how terror works), and we don’t have to, we’ve seen so much of it for ourselves (though, thankfully, much of it obscured too).
Those things we’ve seen, the stories people have told, will haunt us. These things do.
But it’s as a friend I write to Paris, a city that has always been a great friend to me.
As I sat on a bus, static in traffic, just outside Liverpool Street station in London on a grey, flat, quite chilly early July morning, staring vaguely down from the top deck to the street, I saw people starting to run up the stairs and out onto the concourse in front of the station.
As this was happening the bus moved on, as if nothing were happening. As I and other passengers craned our heads and looked at each other, someone, by way of explanation, said there had been an electrical fault and maybe some kind of explosion on the underground.
By the time the bus had reached Bank (I was on my way to Chancery Lane), people were saying there had been another electrical explosion at King’s Cross and the system had gone down; people were trapped.
The rising sense of something seriously wrong, of a building undercurrent of panic (9/11 still seared in our minds and driving our suspicion that whatever was going on here might be the start of ours) was palpable.
By the time I arrived at Chancery Lane, the phone networks were all down and a swarm of helicopters filled the sky, their angry buzz competing with the continuous shrill of sirens.
That night I walked home from work, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Londoners in a unique, thunderous silence, forged from disbelief, grief, solidarity and respect.
It was an incredible moment. Humankind, in the midst of atrocity, at its most noble, at its best.
Just as we have seen in Paris.
Just as we always see in the face of terror.
And it’s this we have to hold onto, do hold onto. Some wounds never heal, of course not. You never forget. The pain is sometimes overwhelming. Some doors in the mind are harder to bolt shut than others.
But people do go on. Cities move at such pace.
London trembled in the aftershocks of 7/7 very visibly for a long time. There was a second attack, this time 100 yards from where I live, the bomb on the bus on 21st July in Shoreditch. I had to cross police tape to get into my home, where I then watched the news with people on it speculating as to whether there was a chemical bomb on the bus, as I speculated as to whether the police should have let me back home or not. It was a long night.
That summer we stared (or stole glances) at every ‘visible’ Muslim male on the tube, while every jolt or unscheduled stop made everyone look around at each other, trying to read each others’ faces for reasons to panic or for reassurance. Every bag without a visible owner was questioned by someone, with people appreciatively signalling to their questioning fellow passenger the wisdom of their vigilance.
These things subside. They do. For some they stay a constant, but for many, for most, the memories fog up in the face of their daily lives and our desire to live our lives in thriving, inspiring, dynamic, democratic cities where there are magical nights of joyous living to be had.
We know there is potential threat in every second – we learn that the hard way. We learn there are people who want to eradicate us for everything that we are and want to be.
We learn that we survive, and that we’ll always survive – because love is stronger than hate, joy greater than anger; because, as human beings, there is more that unites us than divides us.
Tyranny, terror, history tells us, always comes to an end in the end. People get tired of extremes. The pendulum might swing one way or the other, but we know in ourselves moderation is best for us, and know it is best for society too. A new form of tyranny always replaces the old, or tries to, but moderation always fights back and I think will always win as it is, bottom line, so central to the human condition and how we have managed to survive.
I know from personal experience that when you’re in shock what has happened to you plays out over and over again, like a record stuck in a groove. You feel like you’ll never be able to wipe any of it from your mind.
Telling people about it is a good form of therapy, as painful as it might be. You have to get it out of you somehow, exhaust it. Then it can start to release you.
So, for now, before we rush to solutions, before we rush to go ‘back to normal’ (or even know whether such a thing is even attainable), before we know what we really should do, we can just share our stories.
What better way could there be to show how we share people’s pain, values and humanity?