Ghosts, Terrorists and Paris the Beautiful

Writers’ retreats are as wanky as they come, but necessary when you’re writing a book. They furnish inspiration at the beginning and filter out everyday distractions when you’re trying to finish.  There are the formal ones that take you to the countryside haunts of Writers Of The Past for quite a fee. It is always the countryside, because the retreat-goers want some level of escapism, and a bucolic manor does this better for most people than a post-industrial wasteland. I’ve only gotten to the ‘scanning the brochure’ stage of these retreats, so really can’t comment on what goes on there…

Not the official writers’ retreat brochure, but equally picturesque, no?

Here are some nice alternative retreats I’ve heard of. No.1: THE CHILDHOOD FAMILY HOME. A friend who lives somewhere so remote and picturesque that I’m surprised that she hasn’t figured out that she can set up her own Writers’ Retreat and charge £700+ per week, goes back to stay with her family in a slightly less picturesque place when she wants to make serious progress with her book, because they are the funniest human beings alive. They feed directly into the book’s dialogue and amp up its mood.  I imagine that another perk of this retreat, is that it provides free food and shelter…

No.2: THE EXOTIC. Another friend has quit her job and is moving to Bali for three months to finish the novel she’s had on her heart for six years. Bali! There will be chilled sunbathing, yoga and cafes by day, and furious writing by night. She’s been there before and says the energy is supportive for writing. Board and food are not free, but they are  a lot cheaper than London. So, if you can get enough money for the plane ticket…

And mine? Let’s call it MY MOVEABLE FEAST. Yes,  like so many other writers I went to Paris. I went there because it was easy to get to and I have somewhere free to stay, but also because I wanted to feel like I was writing the width of my book as well as the length of its plot. The clichés are right, Paris is one of the best places to observe life and jump into it. Apart from its beauty, the city’s social dynamic catches my eye straight away. People notice each other. They look, feel and register each others’ presence far more openly than in London. I remember this man’s shudder in the Metro when two women strode past him in clippety cloppety heels.  It was as though he felt them walk right through him. Then there is how the waiter just knows to duplicate someone’s order when their companion arrives; the huddling of fur coats in the sudden giboulées de mars (a kind of snow-sleet, which returns to Paris every March)

paris inconspicuous
How could something not happen here?

I also went to do some location research for my novel. Some places left me dry, but in others I experienced this strange kind of synchronicity, where I felt like the novel was unfolding around me.  Before coming to Paris, I had envisaged a scene where a character gets the fright of her life in a graveyard. This idea was on probation- I could discard it at any moment for being too predictable and unconvincing. Anyway, I figured out that I had had half an hour before meeting a friend for brunch, so I would go and visit the nearby  Montmartre cemetery to test the water.

Passing by the tawdry wide front of the Moulin Rouge, the black and red sex shops and the funerary outfitters selling wax flowers, grecian urns and statues, I approached the cemetery casually, like it was another thing to look at. And then I saw that some of the graves had been moved beyond the cemetery gates, underneath an overpass, where vehicles thunder past constantly and there is a thick smell of gasoline. In case you’re interested, the graves were moved to this damned spot to fulfil Haussman’s stringent city plan in the late nineteenth century. These people’s families had built them elaborate marble fortresses to give them protection and standing in death, and now here they were,  like vagrants under a bridge. I didn’t know what was worse, that these bodies had been moved, or that the families had put so much energy into trying to immortalise their dead, as though to deny the inevitable.

beneath the bridge
Imagine crossing a cemetery and a grand bourgeois street under a bridge…

Inside the cemetery,  I felt even more unnerved, seeing that the headstones faced in all directions, and some of the death fortresses’ glass vitrines had fist-shaped cracks in them. A crow in a tree behind me made a choking sound; a wasp buzzed right past my ear, causing it to ring for a good five minutes, and giant cobblestones threatened to trip me up at any time. The place had so unhinged me that when a young girl in spectacles whizzed down the middle bannister of the stairs separating the higher and lower parts of the cemetery, I briefly entertained the idea that I  had seen a witch of the storybook variety.  I had gone into this place to pull the cheap parlour trick of a character who gets the fright of her life, and in a rare post-modern moment, I  had gotten the fright of mine.

It may be expected that after this experience I wasn’t able to eat a bite at brunch- but no, I was starving and went at it like a Brit who’s paid and is getting her money’s worth. That night in bed though, I couldn’t get the cemetery out of my mind. Images from the day kept flashing back. I panicked about the unhappy ghosts wreaking their revenge because I was exploiting them for creative profit; pondered upon a friend’s comment that girls like me were the most susceptible to being spirited away in graveyards, and feared that I would develop post-traumatic stress disorder and never be able to erase the images from my mind.

cemetary back view.jpg
Imagine this, circled by crows, grown fat with God Knows What, and you have it…

When trying to force myself calm didn’t work, I tried a counter-scare tactic. I should be more frightened of terrorists than ghosts, I told myself. A Londoner who hasn’t had a major terrorist attack in her city in the past two years, might think that terrorists are more of a real threat in Paris. Terrorists can’t walk through walls though, my subconscious answered back.  They can’t just linger, like ghosts can.

This wasn’t to say that I wasn’t conscious of the possibility of an attack. It was unlikely, but you just had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have to admit, I did try to second-guess the terrorists a little: judging by their previous record BD (comic-book) shops and anywhere hipster could be more risky, while the exhibition of gowns worn by Proust’s muse at the Musée Galliera in the chi-chi 16th district, was probably too obscurely girly to be on their radar.

I also instinctively searched for signs of terror in people’s faces and in the streets. Place de la République near where the attacks had happened was alive with breakdancers,  lion statues daubed in bright graffiti and colourful poems, candles and bouquets for the terror victims; but Canal Saint Martin seemed a little deserted and sad for a Saturday. This may have been  have been more due to the ferocity of the  giboulées than the terrorists, though. A Parisian friend told me that the first weeks after the attacks, everyone was looking at each other suspiciously on the metro. By now, things were getting back to normal. Life goes on.

I realise that I’ve become distracted from the retreat theme in the process of writing. But maybe that’s what retreats are meant to be; a place where ideas can magically sweep together like pins to a magnet, but also somewhere where new yarns begin. Another  labyrinth for Ariadne…

A Montmartre cinema disappearing into a cloudy sky…

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s