#34 The Grounded Flâneur
I wrote a joke. Now I realise of course that a large percentage of my job is to do exactly that, to write jokes, but you’d be surprised. Even non-character comedians create some kind of character, a stage persona, so that after a while you’re really just supplying the words to that character. The hope being that eventually the persona and the real you are the same being – it makes material easier to come by – in my case a curmudgeonly mixture of ill-thought out philosophy, out of my depth bafflement and impeccable tailoring.
I kept looking at the joke, moving bits around, changing a word here and there, trimming the fat off it as the phrase goes, and now I look at it again, it’s not even really a joke, it’s an observation. It has the rhythm of a joke, which is not always a good thing, you don’t want material so rhythmically obvious that a lively audience member can nip in with an undermining ’b’dum tish!’, but it’s not a joke, not yet. In the olden days, pre-lockdown, I wouldn’t have spent so long over what may amount to 30 seconds of stage time, I would have worked the thing out onstage, let it find its own flow, even change it slightly for different audiences. But now it’s getting full scrutiny, and I’m not sure it’s strong enough to withstand that. It needs airing, not deconstructing and overthinking.
I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t missing being onstage, stand up comedy is so inevitably wrapped up with the increasingly physical and mental challenge of travelling, just getting to work, that I wasn’t merely well-prepared for lockdown, I was actively looking forward to the rest. That’s before the enormity of the situation properly hits of course, the weight of concern for your family, the financial implications, the sheer scale of the crisis and the terrifying lack of talent leading modern governments. I do miss stand up, being at home all the time means I get the heckles without the laughs, but like a lot of people what I really miss is the freedom, I miss the choice. I may be in lockdown and what I really hanker for is the right to self-isolate on my own terms, crucially what I really miss is my own bubble, my own carefully crafted, over many years, ability to hide in a crowd, go unnoticed, to remain anonymous. Mental social distancing if you like, keeping the throng at arm’s length, while making a note of every little detail for later use.
The realisation came to me late, but I am an old-school flâneur and I really need to get back out there and flan. Flânerie is the act of strolling, but at a gentle pace. It is the art of loafing and observing, the poet Charles Baudelaire said, ‘For the perfect stroller, for the passionate observer, it is an immense pleasure to take up residence in number, in undulation, in movement, in fugitive and infinity. Being away from home, and yet feeling everywhere at home; see the world, be at the centre of the world and stay hidden from the world… the spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.’ It is literally my calling.
I was spending the week in Paris in mid February, with Maurice, my 14 year-old, while he was on work experience. They take work experience seriously in France and every pupil in their final collège year has to spend a week ‘working’ somewhere. The vast majority work at places they would desperately hate to work at, so really the work experience would be more useful earlier in the education process to act as a spur, and not a couple of months before their brevet (GCSE) when they’re already doomed. But Maurice wants to be a sports broadcaster and thanks to the immense generosity of two friends I’d lined up a week for him at BeIn Sports (the French BT Sports equivalent) and got a three bedroomed apartment for us for the week, free of charge. My previous stint at minding through work experience had been a few years ago with Maurice’s older brother, Samuel. At the time he wanted to be an actor and I persuaded the school to let me take him on the road with me for a week, show him the gritty underbelly of show-business and, hopefully, put him off. It worked too. It was a gruelling week of travel, some brief glimpses of glamour and topped off with a gig where I died so horribly badly on stage that I received a death threat from the IRA. Now that’s work experience.
The week with Maurice promised to be very different. He would be at work all day and I would have Paris to myself and if the flâneur has a natural home it’s Paris, and I intended to flannel it right up.
The only way to see cities is to walk them. Undergrounds and so on are functional and necessary for some, but you don’t really get a sense of a place, its real mood, its geography, its people, you don’t see anything. Besides, the underground is all about destinations and the flâneur has no destination in mind, nowhere they have to be. I realise now that I’ve been flâneuring or playing the boulevardier since I was Maurice’s age, when I first started going to London on my own and walked everywhere from Camden market to Kensington market, from King’s Road to Long Acre in Covent Garden, anywhere there was a vintage clothing shop in fact. That’s when I learnt to watch people. As a 14 year-old wandering about London, and even at that age ‘peacocking’, you had to be aware of everything that was around you, even if only so that you knew what to avoid and where not to go. Since then I’ve refined the art of quiet observation and bubble living, and all over the world too, and I don’t think I’m more consistently happy, or feel safer, or carry less burden than when I’m wandering the streets at my own pace, living spontaneously; on the one hand being conscious of absolutely everything around me while having no investment in any outcome.
I came out of the San Francisco Book Company in the 6th arrondissement, my bag full of surprise purchases, though I’d also stumbled on the shop itself by accident. I walked down the hill, past the ubiquitous Starbucks and decided to head along the Boulevard Saint-Germain towards the Bastille. My pace was slow, my head in the clouds but about 10 metres further on an old woman was arranging some bags in a doorway, the back door to the Musée de Cluny I think. She was chattering to herself and making sure her bags didn’t fall over. Without any kind of preamble she rolled down her knickers, squatted and pissed right where she was, one of the most chic, choicest avenues in the world…
I didn’t break stride. Yep, it was going to be quite the week for a professional flâneur.
Monsieur So British is a weekly blog and carries on from my two best-selling books ‘À la Mod…’ and ‘C’est Modnifique…’, both are available here. It is also a fortnightly podcast, sometimes with extra bits thrown in and all the major podcast platforms.
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