Paris. Neatly numbered by arrondissements and perfectly hemmed in by the Périphérique, it’s a gift for storytelling. While tales of other cities find their charm in a sense of sprawl, the impossibility of reducing a metropolis to the space of the page, it’s tempting to treat Paris like a gourmet box of chocolates: the big-bellied balconies of the 16ème call for a Belle Époque gianduja, a bobo hazelnut buchette will do for la butte Montmartre. Just don’t mention the banlieues.
From the musings of Proust to the deluge of psychogeography, attempts to chronicle the city tend to take advantage of its navigable segmentation. Meanwhile, the media provides us with a tale of two cities: there’s the Paris of romantic reunions, of mini-breaks and sun-drunk marsupials in the Jardin des Plantes. Then there’s the Paris of atrocities: of the rasp of the guillotine, the mutter of repression, the roar of Charlie Hebdo. The two cities are constantly played against one another, affording tourist boards a unique blend of sugar and spice.
My account of Paris offers no such diversity; not even enough to report on the back of a chocolate box, or scribble in the margins of a Paris Pratique. For me, the city is confined to a single room. Concrete walls, concrete floor. Iron worktops and dark stained wood. A cow skull propped upon a shelf, dusted regularly along with immaculate paperbacks by Henry Miller and Paul Celan. Dark enough for the retina to reproduce the world in black, white and grey – not that the decor would disagree. Once, I wore red. In the semi-darkness I became a perfectly chic, monochrome version of myself.
This was my experience of a Parisian high fashion-literary-arts-science-technology magazine (RRP: €150), produced quarterly, biannually, annually – then not at all. Run by a diabolic Romanian photographer, her Chinese lover and a horde of aspiring interns, we camped out in a concrete bunker near Père Lachaise. We could have been anywhere in the world. The bunker was freezing even in the height of summer, soundproofed even against the Marseillaise on Bastille Day. The only light was the glow of our iMac screens, the internet was our arrow-slit to the outside world.
Impractically high-spec and the size and weight of a tombstone, the book itself was an object of beauty: a vanity project with a fanatical belief in its own crusade. Countless back-issues were stocked in the stairwell, others spilled out of cupboards or were used to block draughts and prop open doors. Outside the confines of the bunker, copies were harder to come by. Feeling downcast on a stone-broke shopping trip, I went to flick through the latest issue at the super-chic boutique Colette on Rue Saint-Honoré, one of our most lauded stockists. The shop assistants had never heard of the magazine, chivvying me away like the rest of the misguided tourists.
The magazine’s business model amounted to a series of glorified advertorials: photography which transformed a luxury car into a spaceship, or the guts of a Power Mac G4 into a science fiction city. It was never clear whether these companies produced any hard cash for their injection of hipsterish idealism. The strategy tended more towards persuading the companies to allow their products to be photographed, then presenting the images with an invoice attached – maybe a complimentary copy of the issue if they were lucky. Targets ranged from Hong Kong hotels to a prosthetics lab located just within the Arctic circle.
These fundraising attempts appeared alongside interviews of up to 15,000 words: rambling, ill-spelt and barely concealing the boredom of the interviewee. The lightly edited transcriptions were printed as thick columns of white against black, the tiny, upper-case font rendering the text strategically unreadable. As part of the magazine’s commitment to exclusivity and a non-existent travel budget, all interviews were conducted from the secrecy of the bunker. Abortive Skype conversations and expensive international phonecalls would connect to fashionistas in Tokyo and to sneaker technologists in Silicon Valley; to physicists trapped in back rooms behind particle accelerators and actresses lounging on lilos in California. From time to time a flesh-and-bone interviewee would find their way into the office, like a duped subscriber to a dating site. This was exceptionally rare.
Looking back, it seems absurd that we stayed for as long as we did. There was the Singaporean economics graduate, imported as a business intern and later tasked with flogging the editor’s clothes to finance the company. Then there was the kindhearted male model, whose haunted eyes and emaciated frame were proof of a long-serving loyalty. Other interns were regularly farmed out by university career service websites. Oxbridge proved particularly accommodating. The clever ones smelt a rat at the Saturday hours and got out quick. Others diligently completed the homework tasks (‘Transcribe a four hour interview. Suggest a range of potential patrons’), and were duly invited over on the Eurostar. For some, the lack of travel expenses was the final test of their vocation.
In our defence, the project was enough of a self-parody to acquire a strangely convincing sincerity – an island of artistic aspiration in the mire of the graduate jobs market. But the real magnetism of the magazine was the cult of personality around the editor: a softly spoken polyglot with round, waxen features and a duck-tuft of hair like an inverted tonsure. She had none of the enigmatic qualities of your average designer-clad tyrant. Hers was a subtler system of apparent transparency. She’d entice you in with motivational tales of triumph over adversity and disarm you with candid confessions, ceding power to the listener before snatching it away like a rattle from a baby.
We weren’t the only ones who flocked to her like miserable sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome. The ‘contributors’ to the magazine (a phrase which fails to do justice to their passivity) also fell under her spell. She had the unique power of keeping interviewees on the phone for hours on end, applying a technique of flattery and forceful superiority to turn an hour-long slot into an all-night vigil. While her subjects indulged in unchecked egotism she would ease back in her chair, lifting her leather-clad legs spread-eagled around her laptop and gesturing for oolong tea spiked with guarana. The guarana then inspired a lengthy tirade about her early life in Romania (she was only two years older than me, but claimed the hardship of life behind the Iron Curtain). From across the sound waves, a distant flush or rustle of crisps would suggest the interviewee was making the most of the hiatus.
Those evenings were an exercise in iconoclasm: I listened in as a series of heroes revealed their innate idiocy. Less forgivable were the hours when we simply agreed to keep her company. Once we had lugged aside the iron sliding door she would follow us through the courtyard, suddenly talkative, lavishly tactile, promising undreamt of confidences if only we would stay. The timer lights would turn off as we struggled with the courtyard door, locked shut by the landlord as though in cahoots – she would stand defensively in front of the switch, daring us to reach out. Our Morlock eyes, efficient and pinkish, soon adapted to the darkness and the key would click in the lock. Finally she would lure us with the promise of supper. Whether through greed or weakness, one of us always gave in.
She was a consummate chef. Supper was ceviche served on a slab of flint, or a buckwheat noodle broth with matsutake mushrooms and homemade spring rolls on the side. To follow, expensive Lebanese pastries, served with goat’s yoghurt and honey from the Provençal beekeeper whose rare visits to Bastille market were underlined in the calendar. Under the dim kitchen spotlights she taught me the properties of herbs, how to gut a fish, how to dice an onion with demonic speed. Long past midnight we would eat perched at the counter, knees knocking against the wood, chopsticks poised. Then the secrets would flood in: affairs, jealousies, injustices, clichés floating on the surface of the soup and pearling over the fish. Exhausted, I listened in silence. After the washing up and a lengthy reading of Paul Celan she would accompany me out, hand on my shoulder as an acknowledgment of loyalty. You’re not like the others. The jaundiced lamplight would pour through the door as she gave me a kiss on each cheek. Her skin was as soft as an apricot.
The months stretched on, and the publication of the magazine seemed increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, her silent Chinese business partner and long-term lover had been planning his escape. Promising to come back with a van to collect his coffee machine, he thought it wise to stay with his parents in the 13ème while she considered her new role as sole CEO. As he walked out the door with a knapsack for the weekend and basketball under his arm, she brought out a pair of boxing pads and invited me to join her in the courtyard for a bit of light sparring.
The next morning, ripe with bruises, I arrived to find a guilty Lancôme mascara on my desk and a strange new silhouette draped across the chair. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made out a ruff of black feathers. On closer inspection it turned out to be a jacket, nipped at the waist and slits artfully ripped at the side, as though clawed from some hapless chimera. I’d become used to trying on her clothes: when bored, there was nothing she liked more than styling her interns in suits of solemn black, showing them how cool it would be if they could afford Comme des Garcons and Carol Christian Poell. But I’d never been awarded a real-life cast-off. Trying it for size, I finally realised I had to leave.
In Max Beerbohm’s short story Enoch Soames, the devil is described as wearing a red velvet waistcoat that ‘wouldn’t do, even on Christmas day’. Few descriptions of evil are quite so eerie. Today the feathered jacket sits slumped in my cupboard, fodder for moths. I’ve tried to sell it on eBay but no one will take it. I attempted again at Halloween, putting the starting price down to £0.99. Still no takers. I’m pretty sure it was dredged from backstage at some fashion show or sample sale — if I could only source the designer I’m sure it would sell better. Perhaps I should just put ‘Prada’ and have done with it.