I found out yesterday morning, courtesy of my favourite Portuguese national radio station Antena 3, that Daft Punk’s “Homework” album has just turned 20 years old. The station was celebrating the fact by featuring stand-out tracks from the record; the one I caught on the way into work was “Around the World”, which brought me happy memories of a mini-break to Paris, itself an unexpected treat and bringing with it a few surprises; and a bunch of reflections, less happy, about how the world was then, and how it is now. Stick this in your speakers and take a trip down memory lane with me.
In 1999, I was working in a bookshop in Windsor called Methvens where, among other duties, I was responsible for the window displays. I have to say, I look back with immense gratitude that my bosses would give an 18 year old art student practically free rein to come up with all kinds of funky nonsense to decorate the windows and shop. I loved it; I remember spray-painting stars onto rich purple taffeta for Christmas displays, and one summer constructing a sort of Bedouin tent over the travel section, taking white sheet cotton home to dye shades of ochre, terracotta and turquoise in my bathtub, which I hoped once pinned to the ceiling of the shop would evoke the warmth of Morocco and Egypt.
In the spring of 1999, it was brought to my attention that the Victoria and Albert Museum were launching a new exhibition, “100 Years of Fashion”, and had invited bookshops to promote their publications on the theme by running a competition for the “Best-Dressed Window Display”. I had something of a field day with this; I had recently finished A-levels in Art and Design, Textiles and Photography, and came up with what seemed a perfect way to combine these disciplines: create through-the-ages fashions for Barbie dolls, photograph the dolls in fashion poses, and blow up the shots to make posters to frame the display. The dressed dolls were present too, hanging out (literally) among the books in the finished window.
L-R, top to bottom: Edwardian Barbie, 20s Barbie, 50s Barbie, Disco Barbies, Clubber Barbie (all constumes handmade by yours truly except Clubber Barbie, who sports her own top and sunglasses); views of the window display
I took photos of the whole shebang and sent them off to the V&A, not thinking any more about it until I stumbled upon the original invitation some months later and noticed the deadline for judging and awards had recently elapsed. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I called the number on the letter to see who had won, fully expecting a big London store to have easily walked it. I was put through to the relevant person at the V&A, explained who I was and why I was calling and to my utter surprise, when I asked who the winner was, the lady on the other end of the phone said, “Oh… well, actually, it was you!”
And so it was that I found myself the delighted recipient of a day trip to Paris on the Eurostar, with a friend, lunch included. We booked the earliest train out and the latest one back, to take full advantage of all we could cram into one day in the city, and (incredibly) managed to hit the Sacré Coeur, Notre Dame, Pompidou Centre, Tuileries, and Les Halles, where we had the most fabulous lunch at a most fabulous restaurant called Au Chien qui Fume. We even got a bit of shopping in, paying homage to the fashion theme that had garnered the prize.
After a last, lingering bit of pavement café flaneurage, we made our way back to Gare du Nord for the 9.30 train home. Arriving at 9.05, well within the 20-minute deadline, we were unexpectedly refused. “You’re late”, said the guard. “You can’t come on. The train leaves in less than 10 minutes”. I spent a few moments spitting feathers and demanding to know how they could change the time of the train at the last minute and what were we, two poor English girls with no accommodation, to do now, when the guard calmly said, “Look at your ticket.” I looked. The ticket had been booked and the timings agreed by telephone. I had heard 9.30, so when the ticket arrived and I read 9.31, I presumed my friend at the V&A had simply given the approximate time for ease of understanding. Reading the numbers again, more carefully, I discovered she had in fact been saying NINE THIRTEEN, but having heard 9.30, when the ticket arrived I had unwittingly swapped the one and the nine, and we were indeed late for the train.
The guard told us not to worry, that we could catch the first morning train at no extra cost, but we were left with the problem of what to do in the meantime. Park benches didn’t sound appealing for all kinds of reasons, but hotels were also out of the question for two teenagers with student budgets. This was the pre-Smartphone era and even internet cafés were a rarity, not to mention the fact there was no Booking.com to look up in them, and being somewhat inexperienced travellers, we had no idea where to start looking for accommodation. The guard kindly suggested a nearby youth hostel and we trundled over glumly to see what we could arrange.
They turned out to be full (this was August after all), but had a sister hostel a few blocks away. The receptionist, taking pity on us, offered to drive us there in his car, and with his good humour and the strains of Daft Punk’s “Around the World” bouncing out from the car speakers, we started to cheer up. People are ok after all; we get into scrapes but there’s always a solution; in the world of travellers we’re all friends together and we’ve got each other’s backs. By the time we checked into the second hostel, at just about manageable nightly rates, we had realised there were far worse places to be stranded for a night than Paris in late summer.
We found a local bar and enjoyed a couple of Cokes with the last of our money (saving the taxi fare to get to the station on time in the morning) and reflected on silver linings. Then we settled in for one of those nights where you wake up every half hour in a cold sweat, wondering what time it is, because you have no alarm clock. Of course, I finally entered into sound sleep sometime before 7am, just as I should have been thinking about getting up (we’d agreed a 7.30 wake-up to get out of the hostel by 7.50 and to the station by 8.10). I was awoken by my friend bursting into my room – shout-screaming so as not to wake the other guests – “IT’S FIVE TO EIGHT!!!”
We scrambled our stuff together, called a taxi and ran for it. The driver needed no encouragement to treat us to a Luc Besson-worthy drive through the early Sunday morning streets, screeching to a halt in front of the Gare du Nord just before 8.10. We paid and delivered as many “Merci!”s as we could in the time it took us to grab our bags and exit the cab.
With seconds to spare, we caught our Eurostar back to Waterloo, and I can’t remember much after that, which I take as evidence of no further mishaps (and probably a bit more much-needed sleep).
* * *
Musing on this adventure now, I can’t help but compare the world as I saw it then to the one I see today. How much of it was my perspective and how much reality I can’t tell, but things certainly felt a lot more positive back then. Blair in the UK (of whom I am VERY far from a fan, but at the time he was still marketing a shiny and promising New Labour, to the strains of D-Ream’s “Things can Only Get Better”, no less); Clinton in the States; pre-9/11. A sense of progress, at the very least, putting aside precise political leanings. Culture felt inclusive and increasingly so. The music I was listening to – and the people I listened to it with – actively welcomed influences from all corners of the globe. To me, “Around the World” epitomises this – people of Earth, united in music regardless of colour, creed, origin or orientation. Equal rights for everyone seemed to be a possible near reality.
I was young, which helped, and spending a lot of time in and around London, which is something of a bubble to be sure, but my sense looking back is that there was really something different in the air. Optimism. Contrast that with recent events, particularly those of May last year and those leading to the inauguration yesterday. Scapegoating the poorest in society – immigrants and those who rely on benefits – as responsible for all ills in the economy, while the evils of banks and corporations, orders of magnitude more damaging, go unpunished. Turning countrymen against one another; the age-old tactic of divide and rule. Wholesale denial of vast tracts of science; total lack of interest in preserving the health of the natural environment.
My fervent hope is that this is just a low point in that corrugated thing that is the reality of progress, but I can’t help feeling that the Trump administration is in danger of plumbing depths of inequality, xenophobia and environmental unfriendliness not seen for a long time, taking (possibly irreversibly) damaging retrograde steps along the way. I’m hanging on to what glimmers of positivity I can see in the vocal and widespread backlash, actions like the women’s marches, and murmurs about possible grounds for impeachment. Let’s do what we can to ensure the positive upstroke of progress gains the upper hand sooner rather than later.