April 5, 2013 6:07 pm

The Diary: John McDermott

‘Toulouse-Lautrec is not shaking his walking stick at a Montmartre hussy. It’s time to see Paris anew’
Illustration by Andrew Lyons of couples in Paris©Andrew Lyons

As we emerge from the metro, the sky’s brooding fug darkens, shading the vast mass of grey stone in the third arrondissement. Paris’s unremitting grandeur can weigh on a visitor. So too can the slabs of cliché. I find it hard to not want to smoke Gitanes, recite Arthur Rimbaud, slant a beret, and get as tight as Ernest Hemingway. I have a pathetic longing for a historic Paris. But the 1920s are over. La fin de siècle, c’est fini. F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are not mooching by the Seine. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is not shaking his walking stick at a Montmartre hussy. It is time to see the city anew.

Merci beaucoup!” purrs Björk. It is the final night of the mercurial Icelandic singer’s five-show residency at Le Zénith, an arena in the 19th arrondissement. The concert is based around Biophilia (2011), her concept album about the sublimity of nature. In an opal-coloured globular dress Björk weaves between her band and a dozen choirgirls. She is pixieish and lush. Her music, unlike much of electronica, is warm and opulent. My favourite song of the night is about an eponymous virus that loves a cell so much that it kills it. It features a bespoke percussion instrument called a gamaleste, a 3/4 time signature, a cooing Greenlandic choir and physiological lyrics (“As the protein transmutates … ). No such number has a right to be listenable, never mind wrenchingly beautiful.

But it is – and the Parisians seem to agree. The Zenith crowd is more respectful than those at most venues. There is no muttering during the performance. “C’est la dernière chanson à Paris”, Björk announces, all too soon. After she takes the applause, R and I join the collective amble to the exit. Outside, the cobbles are wet with moonlight. We pause to reflect and kiss. Around us, instant cover versions of odd love songs are sung in French accents. The moment feels unapologetically romantic.

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There may be some things that can be captured on an iPad camera but I doubt they include the façade of Notre Dame. As we pass the front of the cathedral on the day after Björk, we watch tourists point their tablets towards the gargoyles. It looks like a cumbersome way to capture this magnificent weirdo of a building. I wonder if they see the sculptures.

It is a similar scene in the small park in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. At least here people are putting themselves in the pictures. A young American asks if I will take a photograph of him and his fiancée. One should not take these requests lightly. The proliferation of portable cameras in the second half of the 20th century means that strangers are responsible for millions of memories on walls across the world. I think about how one day this giddy couple may show my picture to their children or grandchildren. I want to do them proud.

Unfortunately, digital cameras mean that my dissimilarity to a professional photographer can be quickly spotted. The fiancée looks at my work. “Will you take another one?” she asks. This effort also fails to meet her standard. R is a good photographer but she is busy taking pictures of a fat sausage dog. I make a final attempt. “It’s OK, don’t worry”, the fiancée says. I consider explaining the difference between a magician and a photographer. Instead, I return to our picnic for commiserations, macaroons and tales of chubby pooches.

. . .

Later that evening there are more camera woes, this time at Opéra Bastille. The venue is controversial: attendees bemoan its tinny acoustics and traditionalists dislike its modern architecture. The auditorium is certainly tall and the steps are steep. We are only slightly drunk but the journey to our seats in the heavens is a slog. Still, it is Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff so I reckon three hours of knockabout operetta will make the climb worth it.

Ten minutes in and it is apparent that we have made a terrible mistake. It is an awful production and I have lost the plot. The wine is coursing its somnolent route through our bloodstreams. We whisper about escape plans. In the blackness of the upper circle, it sounds like someone else has the same idea. They descend the stairs in what I guess are high heels.

Two sounds: “Aaaaaagggghhhh!”; then, three seconds later, a communal “Ooooohhhh”. Something terrible has happened. Falstaff is hiding in a laundry basket but the real action is up here. An ambulance crew arrives with what seems to be a neck brace. One man, who had he been there would have no doubt asked Mrs Lincoln about the play, shushes the paramedics. Behind us, a Chinese tourist takes a picture with her iPad.

As the interval mercifully arrives, another man – perhaps the same one – berates the Chinese lady: “If you take another picture, I will break you.” Now, English is not his first language but this is unacceptable, especially when someone might have died in row C. We decide it is time to leave.

. . .

We head to Le Coq to toast the health of the befallen. Cocktails are becoming more popular in the city of wine. Le Coq is one of a few speakeasy-style bars that have opened in recent months. It is also the sister joint to one of my favourite London dens. Nevertheless, Le Coq’s embrace of Byrrh, Suze and Chartreuse give its creations a bitter, distinctly French taste. The patrons are hip and gorgeous – there is none of the alcoholic gloom depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec and Edouard Manet.

Julien Green, the American novelist who lived in Paris for most of the 20th century, wrote that to know a city one must be bored by it. As a Londoner, I have always assumed the opposite. Samuel Johnson’s quip, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”, was not meant as a threat but it can easily be interpreted as such. It certainly makes boredom feel like a deficiency of character. Doing stuff becomes all important. In Paris, which has made a hero out of many a layabout, this seems not to be the case. The moment seems to matter more. But how can one ever be bored in this unknowable city?

John McDermott is the FT’s executive comment editor

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