Thank goodness that the new series of Call My Agent is finally being aired outside France – where it’s known as Dix pour cent. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of Parisian talent agency ASK and every episode includes stars of French cinema and television playing extreme versions of themselves; the first episode of the new series has Charlotte Gainsbourg mistakenly signed up to do a terrible sci-fi film. It’s touching, funny and satirical. Another star playing itself is Paris. You are in bars, on scooters, walking the streets, going to parties and dinners. The sun bounces off of blonde-stone Haussmann buildings. Commuters swirl out of the metro. Cocktails are drunk. Paris is a beating, complex city that knows how to hold itself for a close-up, even on the small screen.
Of course, at this moment, that Paris is almost a historical drama. This time last year Monocle was working on a guide to the city with our friends at Les Echos newspaper and we would take the Eurostar in the morning to see the team, sometimes heading back that evening, other times staying the night for drinks. Now? Eurostar is in trouble, with passenger numbers down 95 per cent.
I had the same heady jolt of city desire – tinged with a splash of melancholy – while watching Sofia Coppola’s film On the Rocks, starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. This time it’s Manhattan that steals your heart. It’s a comedy of ambition, affluence and broken relationships that holds you tight from the start – but you are also lured in by a summer-tanned city of perfect homes and beautiful bars. It’s a movie-perfect version of Manhattan but then New York always is, even when the cameras aren’t rolling.
TV and cinema might offer some escape and distraction at this time but glimpsing thronged scenes in places that you know so well, in cities that have been parts of your life, aches a little too. After a year of this, they also begin to feel far away. And, yes, just as life magically reappears when rain hits parched ground, deep down you know that all our cities can burst back into life. But sometimes waiting for that kind of magic is hard.
Back in November, with gyms closed, I started running and now several times a week, at the end of the day, I head off into the dark. Usually I run towards the river, cross south at, say, Tower Bridge and then choose a route back across another bridge and home again. Sometimes I find it hard to stop. I begin thinking that I will be out for 30 minutes but by the time I get back a couple of hours have passed. I am definitely slow but has age let me learn something about pacing yourself? About holding back some energy for the last stretch? Ignoring the people who seem to glide along with greater ease?
I don’t even know why I like it. Yes, your mind clears. And, yes, the running app definitely lures you out to compete against yourself. But I wouldn’t do this without London as a running partner. I head down dark streets in the City of London where the only life you see is security guards in vast lobbies – and the homeless. I glimpse worshippers in a Catholic church in Mayfair. Two men smoking cigarettes as one caresses a string of prayer beads outside an embassy. The riverside paths are busier with many more runners, lovers perched on walls and dog walkers but, even here, with every bar, restaurant and theatre shuttered, the quietness jars.
So while it’s great to feel such ownership of the stalled city as you run – and although you are still able to make out its stern, solid beauty as drizzle mists the blackness – London (and Paris, and New York) should not look like a set waiting for the actors to take their places and the action to begin. We all have more stories to live out on these stages and we all need our cities back soon, please.