AN EXTRACT FROM CITIES OF THE DEAD - PARIS

Photograph courtesy of my good friend Dirk Behlau

Photograph courtesy of my good friend Dirk Behlau

Until a few moments ago, I would have poured scorn upon any grown adult too timid to grab life by the horns and shake it upside down to see what fell out of its pockets, but as I perch here on a ‘seen better days bed' in a Parisian hotel that's barely one step up from somewhere George Orwell might have stayed, spreading cream cheese onto a bread roll using my finger as a knife, maybe I am the one who got it wrong.

I have taken an impromptu road trip to play in the Garden of the Reaper. There's something about the memorials the living set up for their dead that draws a bow across the soul-strings of our own mortality. 

I have little doubt that across the world, there are millions of people who think about running away from their current lives every single day of the week. There will be those who think about little else to the point of distraction but are powerless to act through a lack of either resources or imagination. 

There are likely to be just as many who don't act because the fear of the unknown holds them back. It is said that every man should know what he's running from and what he's running to - which is a simple enough equation as it stands, but believe it or not, most are too afraid to even look over the wall to see what shade of green the grass is. 

I digress. Let’s go back to the beginning:

I woke this morning with an overwhelming desire to make the day count. I needed to do something to announce that I was still alive and not simply a slave to technology, children and dogs - and the best way to confirm blood was still flowing through my veins was by moving this body of flesh and blood to a place in which such things had run out. For this, I needed the assistance of a cemetery and the bigger the better. I made a few calls and little more than an hour later, I was in the familiar company of a designer cup of styrofoam coffee at Ashford International waiting for the Eurostar.

Destination? Paris. 

To be more exact, Père Lachaise and the final resting place of a Mr James Douglas Morrison. If the name is unfamiliar to you, it's probably best that you walk away now. Having made that sweeping statement, we will also meet others along the way who may be also be interesting, so maybe it is worth sticking around.

Ashford International is satisfactory to say the least. Nothing more and nothing less than a place at which you show your ticket and then wait, clinically, for what ought to be one of the greatest trains on the planet to arrive.

The Eurostar is not a major event to tell your friends and family about in the way that say, the Orient Express is, but it's as good as it gets in the substance over style world we now live in. That it flies beneath the English Channel so fast that France is a reality in less time than it would take me to drive into London, is absolutely its biggest draw but it's not without its flaws. 

Today, there is a very large man sitting in my booked seat. When I challenge him, he produces an equally valid ticket for the exact same seat - which rained on my parade somewhat. There are dozens of other empty seats in the same carriage so I sit in one of those instead. This has worked out fine. I get to sit by myself and the other guy? He keeps glancing over at me far too often, seething that the long haired one doesn’t have to sit with three strangers, all of whom are reading broadsheets and taking up far more room than the Bill of Human Rights should allow. Moving out of his line of sight, I shuffle across to the window so that he can't look at me anymore. 

Today, I am travelling so light, I should be arrested. I packed no luggage - a suit will suffice. It has enough pockets to carry money, cigarettes, a passport and my phone. Does anybody really need any more than this for a two day trip? Any work that cannot be accomplished on a phone is not work that I want any part of. As for a change of clothes? I’m sure the suit can handle two days in Paris. Tomorrow, I will go shopping, buy a new set of underwear and a shirt and leave the old in the hotel - or maybe I will see if any of the homeless along the bank of the river would appreciate it. 

The homeless who live on the Seine could not be more different than those of London. It looks very community minded and there are men shaving in mirrors. Only in Paris could it be imperative that you shave for your homeless day ahead. If I had more time here, I would like to talk to some of them and see if life here is really as it appears from up on the bridge - or as I suspect it to be, merely a brutal rest-stop between life and death in the garden.

I’ve travelled enough to know that the best way to discover the heart of a city - particular one that wears it on its sleeve - is to get well and truly lost in a Thomas O’Malley kind of way.  The first thing you can’t help but notice is that certain companies have made it everywhere. Some, such as Starbucks are more than welcome for no other reason than I like their coffee. Others seem out of place. Why would Paris be accepting of a branch of Clare’s Accessories? If there was one thing Paris doesn’t need, it’s bringing down to that level but thinking about it, you would think the same if you were Parisian and found yourself in London. Which only really goes to prove that young girls across the whole of Europe like to be able to lay their hands on cheap garbage whenever possible. 

The decline of western civilisation has settled in for the long haul.

I take a random turn into a side street and discover an art shop selling beautiful original oils and watercolours by local artists who will not be famous when they are dead - but that’s not to say the talent isn’t there because it certainly is. It’s not the first art shop I’ve dropped into since I arrived. None of them are average. They are all un-routinely beautiful and wonderful in their own way. The bigger problem is choice. If you are seriously in the market for a painting anywhere in Paris, you will struggle to commit - with each subsequent visit throwing up further canvases that will make you windswept and interesting by association. By the time you get all the way to the other side of the city, you’ll be too lost and too tired to go back and pick up the one you really wanted. If you want my advice, buy the first picture you fall for and make plans to come back for more.

The same cannot be said for the standard of chocolate for sale in Paris. The city has more than its fair share of places more than willing to contribute to your waist. The saving grace in all of this being if you choose to take on Paris by foot, you can walk most of it off along the way. 

Jean-Paul Hévin is one store that I’d certainly recommend stepping into. I didn’t quite spend as much time in there as I would in, say, a bookstore, but walking in through one of his doors (there are several branches in the city) is a little like falling into a hot pool after walking the dog on a winter morning. Sampling is allowed and indeed totally encouraged by the staff which leaves you with a little guilt over not intending to buy anything. I don’t like to be thought of as a bad person - particularly in Paris as I have every intention of coming back here many times still - and I find myself leaving with a ‘barre aux épices' which I honestly have every intention of handing over to somebody as a gift when I return, but curiosity gets the better of me and this peculiar spicy bar finds itself non-existent very shortly. 

Surely, this must be the pinnacle of a chocolatiers career? I stand in the street trying to inconspicuously remove spice shrapnel from my teeth with my tongue and notice that above the stores on both sides of the Rue Saint Honore there are apartments, rising four maybe five levels up. I have no idea what renting an apartment in the centre of Paris costs. I would imagine it to be similar to that of London, but I don’t know what that costs either. In a population of something like two million people, I imagine the people who actually live up there to be ‘interesting’. It’s probably better to imagine that they are interesting than to know the truth - which is that they work so hard, when they get home, they turn on the television and flake out before doing it all again the next day.

Paris, as you can see, is full of distractions. I’d like to keep my appointment with the reaper before it gets dark and reorient myself. Weaving through the districts of the city known as the 3rd and 4th arrondissement, is time consuming but essential. All of life is here. I get properly lost more than once simply from not paying attention. One moment I am contemplating whether I would like to live and die in the Rue D’Orleans and the next I have become captivated by the number of Americans who are (still) flocking to the Louvre - not so much in the name of art but in the name of Dan Brown. They can be heard saying exactly that out loud. I love America and a lot of my great friends are American but I think the smart ones amongst them would be the first to admit that an appreciation of classical art is not the best export to come from there. 

I think Dan Brown may have achieved more for European tourism than the combined campaigns of all European nations since 1970. He has his distractors for sure, but I don’t see any of those people making Europe an exciting and fun place to be. That said, I can’t bring myself to go inside. I don’t have the time for it today. It’s certainly not a museum I would want to free-fall through in less than an hour, so I content myself with a few cigarettes and the fascinating street museum that is the human race itself.

The sound of a siren comes bearing down on me. The sirens in France sound like they mean business. They sound very important, like they have to be somewhere right now. Not shortly or as fast as they possibly can, but Right Now. I see the vehicle coming. I also see police hanging out of the side and the back of the van bearing arms. This is something I’ve never witnessed before. There isn’t even time to consider what they might be rushing to before the vehicle is long gone but it does allow me the luxury of being able to tell who the French people are in the vicinity. 

None of them look up - just the rest of us who don’t live here.

•••

The entrance to Père Lachaise - we’re now in the 20th arrondissement if you’re keeping track - is quite something. You certainly know that you’re about to enter a place of worth that’s for sure. Weighing in at around 110 acres, I raised an eyebrow to find that it’s not always been the biggest show in town. That honour belongs to the finely named Le Cimetière des Innocents - a fourth century creation and home to over six million Parisians. Most of these are in the form of mass graves courtesy of the plague. There’s a figure doing the rounds that says over a five week period in 1498, 50,000 bodies made it this far. When you buff it up against the celebrity clientele of Père Lachaise, that’s a lot of people who never got the chance to make something of their lives. This one was closed in 1780 (overpopulation) and in 1786 the bodies were exhumed and moved into the unused queries near Montparnasse - known much better to all of us as the Catacombs. 

If you think that’s pretty rough on the dead, whilst the exhumations were taking place, most of the bodies were almost wholly decomposed - meaning they had turned to magic acid (fat) which was carefully collected and promptly turned into candles and - hold your breath - soap. It also happens to be the cemetery where Armand hangs out in The Vampire Lestat, so all in all pretty harsh on the living as well.

Père Lachaise opened in 1804 on the site of a former Jesuit retreat and it’s estimated that over a million and a half people come to wander its 109 acres in an average year. I doubt that a very large percentage of those even visit the memorials of their own dead - a thought that made me feel a little guilty as I marvel at the magnitude of some of these memorials.

I know of more than a few people buried here and the shameful realisation that I have never been to Highgate muscles its way into my head. It has to be said that the memorial of Oscar Wilde is foul. He must be exhausted from rolling around in there. One of the first things you’ll notice here is that it appears to be standard practice to deface/scribble/graffiti - choose your own descriptor - the memorial of those you admire but this only applies to certain people. Chopin does not suffer this fate, so perhaps this says more about the living and how they choose to celebrate their icons than the dead themselves. 

Other members of this exclusive family include my favourite artist of all time, Gustave Dore (though I have never been able to track him down in here), Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf, Bizet, Marcel Proust, Camille Pissaro and Modigliani. Considering how many people are actually in here, I feel I should be more familiar with more names than this. 

Wandering without reason, I come across two Belgian sisters waving envelopes in their hands and looking as though they are about to do something wrong, or at the very least, foolish. When I asked what might be happening here, they tell me that to leave love letters in this crypt we’re all standing in front of, will bring them both true love in the future. They have no idea who this crypt belonged to and I had to figure it out when I got home. As of 1817, here lie the remains of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d'Argenteuil - a philosopher and nun respectively whose love for each other is apparently legendary, though not so legendary that two Belgian sisters or myself have ever heard of them. 

Fame, along with death, is apparently transient and all rather depends on the perspective of those observing. 

I continue on my quest and discover along the way, families with picnics, young children who deem this to be the best mausoleum themed adventure playground ever and extremely old people paying respects to plots because you can still be buried here if you have the inclination.

There is much to love about how this cemetery is seemingly left to fend for itself but I suspect behind the scenes an incredible amount of work goes on to make it appear so. A man and his creative mind can easily get distracted for days in here if he’s not paying attention.

One thing is for sure. If you’re ever stuck for a cigarette in here, you can likely pick one up any time of the day from around Jim Morrison’s grave. This is the third time I’ve paid my respects to the man that taught me through music how much freedom meant to me. 

What can I tell you, I felt the need to get together one more time.

On my first visit, it was a culture shock to find the grave of a man I thought to be larger than life itself squeezed into a plot that you certainly wouldn’t pick out for yourself if you had a choice. You wouldn’t even think it was a plot. If it was a garden, you would struggle to grow more than twelve broccolis here. That first trip, I was a teenager and it was also the period when there was a bust of Jim created by Mladen Mikulin sitting on top. The bust arrived sometime in the early eighties I think and at various times has had cigarettes wedged in its mouth, been spray-painted, pissed on, coloured in and had LSD rubbed on its face until finally, it mysteriously disappeared in 1988. 

Assuming whoever stole it was in their twenties - which rather begs the question of how you can walk off with a marble bust without anybody noticing in the middle of a Parisian cemetery - that would make them in their forties now. Maybe one day in another forty years, somebody will be cleaning out an apartment above a chocolate shop and discover it. I hope it makes it back there one day. The bust was quite beautiful when it arrived. I’m not big on sentiment these days, but I hope Mikulin himself took it.

On my second visit, the plot was fenced off from the public with metal traffic barriers and there was nobody else here, which is possibly what I expected the first time. Not that you couldn’t have climbed over the barriers if you had really wanted to, despite the ‘Do Not Jump Over The Fence’ warning notice stuck to it. Maybe the thrill had gone out of my pilgrimage, maybe it was the incessant rain, but it seemed different on this occasion - aside from the missing bust. Jim appeared to have left the building for good. On that trip, it was nothing but a dirty headstone with a bin emptied out on top of it - there was certainly nothing respectful or homage like about it. In hindsight, maybe the Oliver Stone movie had pushed people over the edge. I wish I hadn’t gone and it took a long time before I wanted to go back again.

This visit is an altogether different experience. It is coincidentally five to one in the afternoon which pleases me more than it should - there are flowers and poems encased in cling-film and, as there always have been, some pictures of Jim left on top. Photocopies of pictures out of books. Just in case somebody who had got so lost in here happened to find themselves in this three foot by five foot plot and had never heard of him. Why that should apply to Jim and not the one million plus people who are memorialised here, who can say.

Visiting here as a teenager, and then in my late twenties and now in my forties, at no point did I feel the need to do anything other than acknowledge a man who gave me so much pleasure over the years (and still does). A salute is enough for me. No need to destroy the damn thing in the name of rebellion but I guess that says a lot about what Morrison means to many different people - though to be honest here, Jim would probably punch you in the mouth if he caught you wasting your time over such things. If you were listening properly, you’d know this.

A fitting end to this trip would be to walk out of the gates and feel melancholy about the whole thing, but the gates are miles away, so you have to pass by many other dead people and along the way, all of your melancholy will dissipate because Père Lachaise is not a sad place. 

It’s too big to be sad but it is absolutely big enough to remind you to live your life while it’s still within your control to do so. 

This photograph also courtesy of my good friend Dirk Behlau

This photograph also courtesy of my good friend Dirk Behlau