Tales of the City: Give me Paris, without the Parisians

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The Independent Online

I went to Paris the other day, just for 24 hours, and fell in love with it all over again. Right outside the Gare du Nord, you're pitched into what seems the chicest district of Europe. A brace of spectacular models swan by, arm in arm, tall and lissom. Three enormous black guys on inline skates sail lazily past. The sun hammers down. The street sparkles. The lunch-bound masses push past you looking oddly pleased with life. (Is it the sun? The euro? The triumph of M Chirac? The simple prospect of le sandwich au jambon?) Stroll down the Rue de la Paix, past the green column in the Place Vendôme, over to the heart-stopping great Opéra, and you feel an echo of the passionate throb you felt for the French capital when you were 18 and dying to get laid in Montmartre and shack up there for months with someone called Zouzou. Ah, innocent times. You wander down the Boulevard des Italiens, where half the city's population is eating fries and mayonnaise, and on to the Haussmann, and your

I went to Paris the other day, just for 24 hours, and fell in love with it all over again. Right outside the Gare du Nord, you're pitched into what seems the chicest district of Europe. A brace of spectacular models swan by, arm in arm, tall and lissom. Three enormous black guys on inline skates sail lazily past. The sun hammers down. The street sparkles. The lunch-bound masses push past you looking oddly pleased with life. (Is it the sun? The euro? The triumph of M Chirac? The simple prospect of le sandwich au jambon?) Stroll down the Rue de la Paix, past the green column in the Place Vendôme, over to the heart-stopping great Opéra, and you feel an echo of the passionate throb you felt for the French capital when you were 18 and dying to get laid in Montmartre and shack up there for months with someone called Zouzou. Ah, innocent times. You wander down the Boulevard des Italiens, where half the city's population is eating fries and mayonnaise, and on to the Haussmann, and your head is full of Joyce's admiring description of the place in 1900 ("Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets") and of Gustave Caillebotte's wonderful painting of the boulevards in the rain, and you think: my God, why can't London be like this? So graceful, so beautiful, so airy and amplitudinous, so distant in every respect from the stagnant hell of immobilised traffic in Holborn, the bomb-crater roadworks on every major thoroughfare from Constitution Hill to St Martin's Lane, the listless, defeated air that hangs over the honking white vans wheezing forward in the Strand, the crowds being blown off the pavement in Shaftesbury Avenue...

And then you see the Galeries Lafayette, epicentre of le shopping, and a tear gathers at the corner of your eye because of what they've done to it. The whole way along its 200-yard, sea-blue fascia dance inflatable Lilos, giant rubber ducks, rubber rings and other blow-up impedimenta redolent of the seaside. They've turned the French Harvey Nichols into a gorgeous celebration of summer. If only London could...

You go inside and look for a birthday present for a friend. Here's a stall of costume jewellery, where you will surely find something. But the girl serving there is evidently bored. You say, "I'd like something like this, only less sparkly and more blue..." and she rolls her eyes sarcastically. "We 'ave many bracelets," she says, indicating the wall crammed with jumbled bijouterie, "When you decide what to 'ave, you tell me, OK?"

She goes back to flicking through the pages of French Vogue. Five minutes later, I lay two rival bracelets on the counter. "Which d'you think?" I ask, "the lady in question is 40 – is this one a little young, perhaps?"

The girl looks at me with frank distaste.

"J'sais pas," she mutters, which translates roughly as, "What are you asking me for? Why should I give a toss about your bloody friends?"

I'm back outside a minute later, thinking: How is it I keep forgetting? Paris would be the envy of every city-dweller in the world, if it weren't for the ghastliness of its citizens.

Wanted: keen, young wise guys for old family firm

Spare a thought, in these hard times, for the Mafia. Once an organisation whose very name spelled terror, they've been suffering from falling numbers, dying elder members, disaffected younger members and a shocking dearth of new talent. The old godfathers of the five big families are ill or dying (you'll probably have read the recent obituaries of Joseph Bonanno, known as Joey Bananas) while others are in the slammer, like Vincente "The Chin" Gigante and rather too many of the young generation of wise guys who fell foul of FBI crackdowns in the last couple of years. One can only sympathise with such a disastrous run of bad luck. It's hard enough running an organisation devoted to extortion, murder, gambling, prostitution and narcotics abuse without having your staff disappear all the time; you cannot maintain a workable management structure if your key people are being garrotted with piano wire in Alcatraz and your marketing director is squealing to the Feds in his lunch hour.

Now some of the Mafia families – the DeCavalcantes in New Jersey, the Genoveses in New York – are taking on new recruits to make up the numbers. The goodfellas are actively signing up new gangsters from outside the family. Some are not even of Sicilian extraction. Some, for God's sake, aren't even Italian-American. This is getting serious. Pretty soon there'll be recruitment ads in the New York Post: "TORPEDO REQUIRED. $50,000 pa + free fettucine polpette at Mamma Mia's, Little Italy. Do you like meeting new people, wearing pin-striped suits and mirror sunglasses, travelling to far-off destinations at short notice, hanging about in people's offices with your hands folded at the crotch, looking menacing? You could be the guy we're looking for. Luciano ("The Hairdresser") Grossimo needs a little help with some business associates who have got out of line. They think he's a funny guy. Funny? You mean like I'm a comedian? You fock. The successful applicant will have a picturesque nickname, an interest in thoroughbred racehorses, and some experience of hiding guns in lavatory cisterns. Write to Box No 329, or leave note in phone booth on corner of Lexington and 23rd. Time-wasters will be whacked."

He ain't heavy

The TV renaissance of Ozzy Osbourne as a kind of three-dimensional Homer Simpson is excellent news for those who believe that revolutionary excess and youthful radicalism will always evolve into mild, pipe-and-slippers conservatism in the fullness of time. This rather misses the point about the Ozzman, which is that he was always more of a 24-carat English eccentric than a rock star.

He was taken to court in the mid-Eighties by West Coast parents who were convinced that one of his songs, when played backwards, yielded subliminal messages urging teenage listeners to kill themselves. "In the end," he told me when we met in 1997, "I got so fed up, I did put a stupid message on a track backwards. It said, 'Your mother sells whelks in Hull.' I had someone come up to me once and say, 'Hey, man, what's a fuckin' whelk?' "

For the photograph that accompanied our interview, he insisted on being snapped in bed, naked from the waist up apart from his blue-tinted shades, enjoying a breakfast of boiled egg and toast soldiers. A former fan of Aleister Crowley, the living embodiment of the Great Beast of Revelations, Ozzy now referred devoutly to "the Man Upstairs", namely God. He liked to spend large amounts of money on art – especially on large, chalk drawings of Victorian nudes – despite never knowing the names of any of the artists.

Although he started his career singing about paranoia, he ironically ended up suffering from it. He confided that the odd thing about his nightmares was that "whatever I'm being chased by – wild animals, Red Indians, WWIII, whatever – I'll open the door and I'll be back in the house I was born in."

He was also tearfully sentimental about pets: he once paid for his favourite bulldog, Baldrick, to have his facial wrinkles removed by plastic surgery. And when I was leaving, he confided something to me in a brilliant passing malapropism. He said he really objected to having his music classed as "heavy metal" even though his band, Black Sabbath, were pretty well the first players in the genre. "I hate that phrase," he said crossly. "It's a stigmatism to be called 'heavy metal'." Bless him.

Bushwhacker

Speaking of nicknames, President Bush has, it seems, a habit of referring to fellow world leaders by whimsical abbreviations. When he needs to speak to the cadaverous Russian premier and former KGB head Vladimir Putin, he tells his staff, "Get me Pootie-Poot on the phone". He also likes to give colleagues, employees and total strangers amusing nicknames – if he meets a chap from the Forestry Service Commission, he will call him "Tree Man". You may find this endearing, or you may think that a man suspected by many of having the IQ of a fence-post should be wary of showing any further signs of infantilism. But what does he call his kitchen cabinet? Can Condoleezza Rice be "Conda-Wanda"? Is Donald Rumsfeld "Rumpy-Pumpy" in the Oval Office? And into what does "Tony Blair" transmogrify? "Scary Blairy"? "Tony Phoney"?

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