Stephen Bayley: A battle for the soul of bohemian Paris


In 1996, the Latin Quarter's Drugstore, suffering a dégringolade after a bombing by Carlos the Jackal 22 years before, succumbed to irrestistible forces of lustrous global tat and became an Emporio Armani. So Boris Vian's dark, smoky and absurdist Paris was en route to becoming David Beckham's brightly lit first-class lounge. We all know about Becks, but what about Boris ?

He was the presiding spirit of Paris's Saint-Germain, the cluster of old streets gathered around the glorious abbey, separating Haussmann's boulevard from the river. By all accounts retaining a medieval character well into the mid-20th century, to my eye it retains it still, even if the harsh and increasing presence of charmless luxury shops mutes the ancient artistic and literary ghosts.

Never mind, the other Paris Saint-Germain, the football club that is Beckham's new employer, is a modern invention too. Like Armani, it dates only from the Seventies. Its bold new grounds are not in the folklorique Paris of Vian, Hemingway and Picasso, but just off the Périphérique, four clicks south-west of Eiffel's once despised column of bolted tin, while its origins lie in the amalgamation of two clubs, Stade Saint-Germain and Paris FC.

Vian mentored Sartre, although he was a much more rounded and amusing character than the grumbling old existentialist bore. He was only 39 when he died in a Paris cinema, enraged by the ham-fisted adaptation of his novel J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (I'm Going to Spit on your Graves), one of his many great titles. This he wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan, one of several identities he toyed with.

His own identity was interesting enough. An amateur of fine cars, Vian thundered around the cobbles of the 6th in a white Austin-Healey. His profligacy makes Beckham appear an idle wastrel: Vian translated Strindberg and General Omar Bradley while, along with a good deal of singing, drinking, inventing and fornication, finding time to write seven novels, seven plays, three operas, 28 film scripts and four hundred or so chansons.

Much of this output was condemned as pornographic, a remarkable accusation given the local culture, while the prissy Communists denounced his work as "shameful spittle". One of the defining moments of Vian's short life was when his friend and collaborator was killed falling off the façade of an apartment building he was climbing as a bet.

This mixture of high art and low life was the Saint-Germain I wanted to discover, and one I suspect Becks will never know (although, David, if you are reading this, I'll happily be your guide to what remains). In full conformity with bohemian traditions, I arrived in 1970 after a summer in Italy. I was 18 and pitifully innocent. The 4 francs (50p) charged per night for a Saint-Germain room was a stretch, but I had saved enough money to visit La Hune, the bookstore between Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots.

I still have the copies of Sartre and Kandinsky I bought, although they are faded and yellowed now. Like Boris Vian, I am no enemy of change, but I wonder if Emporio Armani will ever provide memories of Saint-Germain as strong as mine. (Meanwhile, La Hune has moved.)