Almost a week on from the faintly incomprehensible events in Paris, I've been reflecting upon how the city itself has featured in my own life; it seems a strange by-product of how modern media covers grave news matters that it beings into focus one's own relationship to such catastrophic occurrences and the places in which they occur. This is, of course, inherently selfish, yet an entirely human response to situate one's own experience alongside the infinitely more direct suffering inflicted upon the victims. It's impossible to measure how far the tendrils of such atrocities reach; in the way that everyone will have some story to tell of how cancer destroys tissue and lives and families, we are all on some level affected by these huge, unfathomable world events. And yet, how do we shape our response? Some will change their profile image on various social media; others will use these platforms to reinforce prejudice or apportion blame. Some will light candles or leave flowers or solemnly sing their national anthem in the face of what seems a direct attack on all they hold dear. Those who hold elected positions of power will see justification in intensifying the amount of ordnance they drop on places they deem to have been the breeding grounds for this kind of naked, unfettered hate; others will try to unpick the reasoning behind these affronts to liberty, calling for calm, for a far more difficult-to-bear understanding. And yet all of these groups must filter what they see on the news through their own personal belief system; we're trying to comprehend what it means to us, and how we process this information.
On September 11th 2001 I was working at a web design company in Edinburgh; my brother-in-law still works there, and whilst they still occupy the same building, no doubt their computers are drastically more advanced and their internet connections speedier than 14 years ago. An inconsequential detail, it may seem, but it formed the basis of how we consume rolling news coverage in today's social-media driven society. Then, as the first reports of planes and buildings started to come in, only one person in the office could get access to updates on the BBC website. For the next few hours, in that pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter age we relied upon scant snippets of information, new horrors pinged around the office whenever the connection was up. I seem to remember coming home and watching television into the wee small hours, a ghoulish sense of fascination clouding the events. And now, we are unashamed news junkies, seeking in ever more graphic, first person accounts some kind of all-encompassing experience. Even if we cannot bear the images of prone bodies leaking blood onto the pavements and dancefloors, the videos of people fleeing in terror, we seek them out and peer through our fingers at the wounded and the dead. It's a sense of voyeurism that I confess informs some of my own photographic practice; in witnessing things through a screen or a viewfinder we are simultaneously within and without other people's lives. Of course, for some this merely feeds some part of them that makes them feel alive; not in the "gambolling-through-a-meadow, whistling-a-tune" alive, but perhaps that they are themselves not dead.
Then, when the London attacks occurred, I sat with my folks up North, a sunburn tickling my shoulders after a walk to Lossiemouth that morning, watching the same rolling news, just in a different city and with different methods of killing. Fast forward to the next atrocity and that oft-quoted line: "Where were you when it happened?" Last Friday night should have been spent on the couch with my wife, digesting a home-cooked meal and looking forward to working in my friend's skateshop, yet we watched television news of the massacres, the horror deepening and thoughts of the dead pulsing through our own bodies. I slept badly.
Why, then, Souvenirs de Paris? In the same way that I could say I had traversed the same New York boulevards as millions of others, as a young man skated at Battery Park underneath the looming shadows of the Twin Towers, seeing Friday's events made me pause to reflect - in that inherently selfish but human way - on how Paris had, at various stages of my life, been a place of mystery and escape.
A number of things mark this image as being recognisably mid-90s. I am 17 years old; I have the regulation long hair that most of my Nirvana-loving friends sported, horrendous glasses, DMs, some love-beads. The long-sleeve t-shirt I am wearing is a Teenage Fanclub one, purchased from the Virgin Megastore in Aberdeen, the jeans a second-hand pair of Levi's 501s from Flip. Within a few months of this image being taken, a number of life-changing events will have happened, some more impactful than others. The glasses will be replaced by contact lenses, the DMs by a pair of Vans Old Skools when I take up skateboarding again after a couple of years off the board. Later in the summer two of my classmates and one of their friends will, upon returning from the beach, be killed in a car crash on the road into Elgin. At the funeral, the first time I wear contact lenses, I will start to cry and the contact lenses will flop out of my eyes, one onto the tie I am wearing, a Scottish Rugby Union one that I wore to remember Euan Brown, who we were burying that day and who had a bright future as a rugby player. I hug his father outside and he notices the tie. I had spent many muddy, wintry days playing alongside Euan, but quit the team just as girls and drums and smoking fags became more important to me. Later in the summer, I will go to the Reading Festival and see my favourite band Pavement perform a ramshackle set. But before that, in July of 1994, the weirdest summer of my teenage life sees me spend my 18th birthday in Paris.
Backtracking 5 years, I had, of course, an advantage over my fellow classmates in S1 at Elgin Academy when it came to French. We had moved from Gloucester to Elgin in 1989, and my protestations at having to drop down a year from second to first (I had just turned 11 when I went to grammar school in England - too young to go straight into second in Scotland) were tempered by my having studied one more year of French than my contemporaries. So, and perhaps thanks to a predilection for languages that my sister and I shared, I managed to coast through a few years into Highers without really trying too hard. Since I was one of only two studying for French Higher, along with my best friend Dave, I was offered an exchange with a Parisian family, to take place in July, smack-bang in the middle of the month. This meant I wouldn't be able to join my friends in the traditional "turning 18" piss-up at the Thunderton House, but it meant I would be spending both Bastille Day and - the day after - my 18th birthday in Paris, a place that had often occupied my thoughts as I became more adept at French. I liked speaking French; unlike playing the drums or skateboarding, I was good at it, and I enjoyed being good at it. So, travel wallet stuffed with francs, a 200 pack of Camel Lights and my dad's enormous Debenhams suitcase in tow, c'est parti.
My penpal Jean-Philippe was, to put it bluntly, a nutter. Wiry and dark, he was, I suppose, like any other teenager; he was an absolute pain in the arse. In a rather unfortunate reversal of fortune, the return leg of the exchange was 10 days in Elgin, something of a backwater to a hip, young, dans-le-vent Parisian chap. During his tenure in Elgin, he managed to offend most he met. He turned his nose up at my mum's attempts to make him feel at home, flopping down at a breakfast table groaning with warm pastries and remarking, with a barely-concealed grimace, holding between thumb and forefinger a French buttered ASDA croissant like it had crawled out of a sewer, "Zees. Zees is NOT croissant." He smugly explained to my best pal (the aforementioned Dave, nicknamed "Sleepy" at high school) during a heated game on the Sega MegaDrive, "I seenk you eet very slowly, you talk very slowly and you have a veeerry small brain." He almost got us beaten up in the pool hall at the Lido by throwing a tantrum, complaining "zee balls" were "too fuckeeng small" and causing the glowering patrons at the bar to swivel on their stools and stare menacingly at us. He was completely oblivious to it all, of course. Mum took us on a day trip to Aberdeen and we split up so that she could go to Markies and we could hover around a park, J-P scowling and smoking, only becoming more animated when he found a tiny, damp joint on a bench and proclaimed that he was going to "smoke zees sheet."
I, on the other hand, was an 18 year old young buck in Paris. Yes, I still had shit hair, but the glasses were gone and I was ready to practise my French, on the French. At the Virgin Megastore on les Champs Elysées I bought Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain on vinyl and Boys and Girls (for Dave) on CD, a stylish skirt for my girlfriend at the time from a boutique whose name I forget. I was handed a black Zippo lighter on the day of my birthday to help light my fags stylishly and we went out for a meal where I had the finest steak I have probably eaten. In that moment the notion of "well-done" was, excuse the clumsy pun, "well-done" in the sense that a bloody steak is the only correct way to have it, some 21 years on.
Most of the time I spent with Jean-Philippe was waiting around while he finished sucking the face off his bored-looking girlfriend at various points along the Seine, or rapping, or doing karate demonstrations or visiting his brother Franck who was a low-level hash dealer and whose girlfriend was a former Miss Paris. He lived in the same apartment block as his folks and brother, some 7 or 8 floors beneath, and he was about as French 20-something as you could get. On a television that would have been considered at the very least enorme in 1994 but smaller than most desktop computer screens in 2015, he watched hour upon interminable hour of ZZ Top videos, performing synchronized guitar moves with his youngest brother whilst Miss Paris touched up her makeup or rolled joints. We went to see Full Metal Jacket at le Gaumont on Place d'Italie, with sub-titles, so I was pretty much the only person howling at the drill instructor humour in the first half. Throughout all this, Paris was seeping into my teenage bones, and as soon as I had learnt a few swear-words - principally through attempting to cross any road in Paris - I had formed the idea that this is where I would live.
Plans change, as they do when you are young and stupid, and my desire to become a translator living la vie belle in Paris was swiftly nixed when I changed from studying English Language & Literature & French to just the first two parts, left bewildered by my first week of French lectures. I wouldn't visit Paris for another 6 years as I entered another phase of my life, but its influence always lingered. Becoming a photographer, I got to work closely with l'Institut français and I enjoyed speaking French again, albeit in a far less convincing fashion than I had at school. For the Budding Chefs programme I got to spend a whistle-stop 24 hours in Paris last November, a project featuring talented young chefs and 12+ hour days shooting interspersed with eating delicious French food. I put on half a stone during the week. Arriving late into the city, we stayed at a rudimentary youth hostel in the 13th arrondissement; remembering some of the area from my previous visits, I realised we would be a stone's throw away from the very first place I stayed at, on Place d'Italie some 20 years ago. Sure enough, from my window I could see the apartment block in which I stayed, which features in the above image. Now, it would be providence to assume that one of the rooms illuminated was the exact one, but the romantic in me likes to believe this was Paris welcoming me back.
In Paris, we ate like kings, and queens, and I shot photos of it all. A seven-course horse tasting menu, that was all delicious bar the sweetbreads; not brave enough. Being gently rocked into a soporific post-prandial fog by the Metro, the rails screaming beneath our feet, eating wherever we went, Paris worked its way into the soul once more. Tired bodies piled into a van to Brittany, where the culinary adventures continued. Back to Paris, then a few hours on le Periphique, then back to Scotland.
Then, Friday the 13th (and I hope it won't retain that moniker like all the other infamous dates) rolls around and suddenly the world's eye - and lens - is on Paris once again.
Glued to the television, hopping from channel to channel, always with one eye on Twitter, we watched the ever-deepening crisis develop, the body count rise, opinion and counter-opinion fly back and forth. What became the incident with the highest number of casualties happened at the Bataclan, an austere music venue hosting a band my friends and I had seen two days previously, in Glasgow. Again, the selfish impulse kicks in and you think, "Why this venue? Why this band?" We're told the world is getting smaller; it's true that we can achieve a more rapid focus on world events through a camera's lens or those on social media, but there's also an accompanying frantic grasping towards information, any information, bereft of fact. Initially, some news outlets reported a death metal band had been playing at the Bataclan. I've seen the Eagles of Death Metal a few times now, and they are easily one of the most entertaining bands out there, full of humour and showmanship, the polar opposite of a serious, doom-laden troupe. During the Glasgow gig, lead singer Jesse Hughes declared that "This is one of the best fucking nights of my life" and many in the crowd might have shared that emotion. To think that two days later this band, this tribe of outcasts and devil-may-carers, would forever be associated with one of the grossest acts of violence ever witnessed, anywhere in the world, is a sickening thing to comprehend. To entertain the selfish yet very real notion that the same fate could have befallen my friends and the sold-out crowd around us seemed completely alien, but never closer. Finally, it's beyond one's comprehension to imagine going out to see a rock and roll show and being shot, or maimed, or having to drape yourself over your loved one's body to prevent them being killed. One of the many tiny horrors that stood out from one journalist's video of people escaping the Bataclan was a father yelling "Oscar! Oscar!" desperately searching for his son amongst the chaos. At first, I thought it was a heavily-accented "Au secours!" but then read more on the story and the horrifying, first-person truth emerged. The brutal end to a sold-out gig at which 85 people did not survive. It would seem that things would never really be the same again.
I'm not going to offer any meaningful commentary on how we process this kind of thing, and opinion swings wildly from Western interference in the Middle East to far-flung wars to the more horrific acts perpetuated in the name of religion. I just wanted to write a few words about Paris, and to share some images, showing what it has meant to me over the years. It's strengthened my resolve to return, in happier times, and to share its beauty with my wife.