I’m the Irish guy who writes for ‘Charlie Hebdo’
Robert McLiam Wilson joined ‘Charlie Hebdo’ after the January attack. Now he has discovered a new love for Paris, changed his understanding of heroism and learned that the French can be funny
Charlie Hebdo: writing for the satirical magazine can make you feel like a stand-up in an abattoir, says Robert McLiam Wilson. Photograph: Emmanuel Fradin
Charlie Hebdo: Patrick Pelloux, columnist and doctor (right, with the cartoonist Renald Lucier, aka Luz), treated his dying and wounded friends. For days afterwards he was on every television screen, dazed and weeping uncontrollably. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty
Charlie Hebdo: a makeshift memorial for the victims of the terror attack in Paris. Photograph: Capucine Granier-Deferre/New York Times
I’m the Irish guy who writes for Charlie Hebdo. It’s really quite the thing. I have a little column that I try to keep funny. But the way this year has played out in Paris, doing this can make you feel like a stand-up in an abattoir, feebly convinced that he can make everything better with the perky ra-ra of his prose.
I learned of the January attack at the Charlie offices minutes after it had happened. The toll started to mount quickly, but, right from that first moment, I knew how pitiless it had been. I knew it was not an “attack” but a sequence of crisp executions. I knew, too, that the proportion of dead to injured would be grimly skewed.
It’s the odd thing that growing up in Belfast teaches you. For the absolute avoidance of waste, for the more-dead-than-injured maximum, guns beat bombs every time. Guns are the finisher, the fullest of stops. And guns are the choice of the sincere. You really have to mean it with guns. To get that full effect you have to step up close and do your stuff. And then again. And again.
The brutality was matchless because it was so inordinate, so surprising. It’s surprising how important surprise can be. The Charlie offices had been firebombed before. There had been a litany of death threats. Certain members of the team had police protection.
But no one in Paris was prepared for the magnitude of that moment. Two genius-level losers had murdered a bunch of cartoonists and satirists and a couple of cops. They had walked into the ruder, more childish (and more serious) French version of Private Eye and they had slaughtered everyone they could.
To say that Paris reeled from the shock of it is to gravely understate the case. Paris was like a lost child, fearful and strangely ashamed. There was none of the grim, experienced fortitude with which I had grown up. The city was immobile with pain and grief; strangely silent, like that moment between a child falling and the dreaded, piercing wails of dismay.
I had always liked Paris. But I fell in love with her that week. There was no measure to the passion I felt. And no measure to the sorrow.
What follows is widely known. Somehow (by what wounded, miraculous effort?) the people at Charlie Hebdo produced an issue the next week. It sold seven million copies, an expression of the world’s stupefied and promiscuous goodwill – along with those millions-strong marches and the thousands of pointless, touching candles.
It was a remarkable issue with a superbly rueful and sweet-natured cover cartoon. I can’t imagine what it took to do that. And I’ve never wanted to ask.
Then, inevitably, there was a silence of some weeks. Many wondered if it would be possible to continue. So many had died. The threat would now be so great. Charlie had been a much-loved part of many French people’s earliest years. The marker of a transition from childhood to adulthood, from Tintin to something naughtier and more corrosive.
It seemed for a time that it might have been killed off. Who could bear to continue it? Who was left to write and draw it?
It was at this point that I got involved with Charlie Hebdo. Among the writers and artists who came to the magazine’s aid was the novelist Marie Darrieussecq. Mobilised by rage and dismay, she gathered some French writers and brought a posse with her. She kept a horse for me, and I will never stop being grateful to her.
Without hesitation I accepted her offer that I write for them. Without hesitation? I nearly bit her hand off.
Not everyone accepted. I can understand someone not doing it out of safety concerns, for themselves or their families. There were also those who refused for other reasons: to wait to see how the wind of opinion blew or to gauge the level of public support. I understand them, too, but I don’t much love them.
I got on board in late January and my first article appeared on February 20th. I share a column with Marie Darrieussecq and Yannick Haenel, and my work appears every two or three weeks.
What do I write about in Charlie? Typically and terrifyingly, they don’t really care. They’ll spike bullshit, and they’re total bastards about length, but apart from that it’s very much, “Go on. Knock yourself out. Take it out for a spin and see what it can do.”
Now, perhaps, the world’s most famous weekly, and the current global symbol of freedom of expression, it has an editorial policy the like of which I have never seen. A bunch of students who dream up a slacker blogazine one stoned and drunken evening would be more demanding and controlling (and more aware of appearances).
It helps if you make Gérard Biard, the editor, laugh – and being right-wing isn’t going to get you many Christmas cards – but apart from that anything goes.
I’ve written about bullfights being exclusively for men with tiny penises. I wrote about how I’d stopped reading biographies of Hitler, Mao and Stalin because they reminded me of myself. I’ve done fear and phobia. I’ve done how annoying the French are. I’m seriously thinking of doing something about cricket – just to annoy them. During the summer I had some medical unpleasantness and had to endure the discomfort and indignity of tubes being inserted into my manly parts. I got a whole column out of that. They loved my awed and tearful description of the oil-pipe width of French medical accessories. Charlie Hebdo is really weird.
I’m endlessly proud to write for them. As glazed and gleeful as a toddler in an avalanche of sticky buns, I find it difficult to speak rationally about what it means to me. Yet, weirdly, I spend most of my time avoiding them. I don’t turn up at meetings, and I miss rendezvous in cafes. I also write for Libération, where Charlie have worked since the attack.
I’ve pretty much avoided the building ever since. I’m not doing it through security concerns. (Has anyone from Belfast ever done anything for that reason?) I’m doing it out of star-struck fanboy awe. I’m worried I’ll disgrace myself by asking for autographs or saying something stupid, like, “Is it really you?”
I’d met some of them before. One of the wounded from that day, Philippe Lançon, had interviewed me for Libé (and how strange it was to hear that he had been maimed so savagely, a grotesque clash of worlds). I’d done stuff with a couple of the writers. But everything was different now.
Some of these already well-known figures had become symbolically crucial to many French people’s idea of themselves and their republic. Patrick Pelloux, columnist and ER doctor, had been one of the first on the scene; he treated his dying and wounded friends.
For days afterwards he was on every television screen, dazed and weeping uncontrollably. A man lost in the kind of pain and incomprehension you do not often see televised. Pelloux resumed his column brilliantly, but he had become a curious mix of sex symbol and teddy bear for a generation of French women of a certain age. He fought it. And lost.
The temptation to canonise them is giant. Charb, Wolinski and Cabu were near-legendary figures already. Legendary in ways I could not fully fathom because I had not been brought up in France. After the attack the glow of their fame and significance could only increase, not just in magnitude but also in a ghastly kind of sanctity.
The Charlie people are aware of this danger and mock it relentlessly. They make for very uncomfortable saints, with their inexhaustible bent for drawing willies and making fart jokes.
Lançon, the most gravely injured of those still writing, is well aware of it, too. But he’s not given to toilet humour. His reaction has been to write a series of columns of power and grace. With a kind of detached, chilled compassion he has detailed the long, agonising rebuilding of a face and a life: the sequence of operations; his first confident speech; the first time he recognised himself in the mirror; his first shave.
Lançon writes brilliantly about the nurses, the doctors and the policemen who now protect him. It is astonishing writing. Bleak yet warm and triumphantly human.
This is some of the stuff that kept me away. Their light was bright enough to see from my study window. I was very happy to blink at it from there.
Weirdly, it was a street cat that brought me into the bosom of Charlie Hebdo. In Arles for several months, I’d seen a crippled black-and-white tomcat knocking about the town. He was in bad shape and weighed much on my conscience. Finally, when I saw he had lost the use of yet another paw, I nabbed him. It took me a month, but I just couldn’t live with that two-paws-only thing. I didn’t know what to do with him, though (and this guy hated me with commendable vigour). I wasn’t going to leave him to the tender mercies of French euthanasia policy.
So I phoned Lucy Rabbit – real name Luce Lapin – who writes the animal-rights section of Charlie Hebdo and is also fill-in editor. A day later the loopy cat had a new home, a vet, a whole new life. Lucy Rabbit had snapped her magic fingers, and everything happened in seconds.
Lapin is a passionate advocate of animal rights and has a remarkable network of like-minded souls. Whatever general scruple or shyness I felt, I just had to meet the woman who had removed that cat-shaped burden from my conscience.
I went to a Charlie gathering to mark the launch of a new book by Charb. It was their first semisocial gathering after the January horror. I had real stage fright, but I butched it out. It was a remarkable evening, deeply moving but strictly impious.
I don’t know quite what I had expected from the mass of those I had not met, but I had not at all prepared myself for the shock of what remarkable people they were. I was slain by their simplicity and their good nature. They were funny and humble, bewildered by all the attention when they weren’t outright ignoring it.
They were lefty shit-stirrers, advocates and campaigners. They had not trained for global significance. They found it hilarious. But it was the backroom staff who completely broke my heart. They shone very brightly. Unassuming, enthusiastic, welcoming. I’ve rarely met nicer people. To be honest, they were a touch geeky. There was a definite vibe of likeable nerd.
Yet all the while squat, slab-muscled plain-clothes police with automatic weapons wound in and out and around the amiable throng, wires trailing from their ears, eyes like ice, never still. Like psyched-up superdogs protecting a herd of geeky sheep from the uberwolves.
Naturally, I fell stupidly in love with Lapin. She was a tiny Brigitte Bardot who saved actual goldfish. You would have fallen for her, too.
I think of her when monoglot idiots in the English-speaking world tell everyone confidently that Charlie Hebdo is racist while being incapable of reading a single line in French. Lucy Rabbit’s a Nazi? Really? Every one of those cretinous writers who boycotted the Pen award for Charlie Hebdo in New York can kiss my royal Irish arse. (Is vulgarity acceptable in The Irish Times if it’s a Joyce quotation?)
A lot of this piffle was based on a New Yorker article by Teju Cole. Mere days after the attack he called Charlie out as racist because of a cartoon of the French minister for justice, Christiane Taubira, in which she was portrayed as a monkey with a National Front slogan above her.
Sounds pretty racist, doesn’t it? Certainly if you know nothing of the filthy stuff it was lampooning, published by the far-right yellow press and slyly endorsed by Marine Le Pen’s party. And perhaps worthy of a debate. It’s certainly worth asking Taubira how insulted she felt. Perhaps Cole could have asked her after she had finished her eloquent, moving speech at the funeral of Tignous, one of the murdered cartoonists.
It’s an ignorant and repellent slander of the blamelessly dead. Believing it is like wearing a T-shirt that says “I am Stupid”. And it always makes me think of tiny, soft-hearted Lapin and the tooled-up supercops surrounding her.
Even before I came to Charlie, and definitely afterwards, I dreaded the six-month mark. Most people in Northern Ireland over the age of 30 know about the six-month mark.
It’s the moment when the blameless suffering of an egregiously brutal event really happens. The moment it hits home. The absorption point. It’s something beyond reliving or a cleaned-up movie flashback. It is a sad and painful inevitabilty, a destroyer of minds and lives. We know it well in the North.
And, true enough, as that moment approached, more and more people dropped away from Charlie Hebdo. Vital figures, foundational people.
There was dirty talk in the press about money. Charlie was rich now from titanic sales and various donations. There was talk of personal disputes and bitter disagreements. When Luz, a famous long-time Charlie cartoonist, announced his departure, the media wrote uninformed nonsense.
But, more importantly to me, my beloved backroom staff started to fall away. Never quite fully away – and no one ever wrote about it – but their ebbing made this Belfast man inconsolably sad. No one beats the six months.
Then, on November 13th, the newest moronic “heroes” of this cut-price nonwar did their thing at a football match, some cafes and a concert. Wiping out cartoonists, some cops and a handful of random jewish people in a supermarket had not got them to where they wanted to be. So they summoned their resolve and rubbed all our faces in unforgettable filth.
In January the unfunny people had killed the funny people. In November the ugly ones killed the pretty ones. The message was clear and bloody. You have no qualities for us. Only demerits.
Did I worry about the Charlie people at that moment? No. I was too busy dripping with tenderness and sentiment for every young, lost-looking Parisian I saw on the streets that week.
Paris was again very, very surprised. That surprise could not be borne. The city had gone mute with shock and pain; the streets were muffled as though under some terrible snowfall during some apocalyptic Christmas.
Nor need I have worried about Charlie. In the media reaction to the attacks there was much that was stupid, much that was disgraceful and a decent amount of whataboutery (a proud Northern Irish invention).
In the midst of this migrainous babble of platitude, semi-racism and semi-apologetics, Charlie Hebdo spat out its chewing gum, lumbered up to the plate like a baseball cowboy and knocked it right out of the ballpark.
It produced searing polemics and arse-kicking satire, editorials full of dignity and well-informed empathy. There were life-celebrating cartoons and a concerted raising of the middle finger to those on the far right who would hope to gain. I wasn’t in that issue. But I was prouder to be a part of the magazine than I had ever been.
Working for Charlie Hebdo has taught me several things: it has taught me that political violence is a minority sport played only by those who have failed at all the others; it has taught me how to say your say in a text that could fit on a postage stamp; it has taught me that the French are funny. (I’d been under the impression they had a law against it.)
But it taught me about heroism, too. I’ve always been interested in heroism. It’s a word we abuse stupidly. We stress its martial and bellicose offshoots, all Churchill and Schwarzenegger. I’d always known that heroism was really about endurance, about those who endured poverty or marginalisation, those who were ill or dying (or those who love them). I knew well that a mother who skipped a meal to feed her children was more heroic than anyone who has ever worn any kind of medal (and knew that those medal-wearers would mostly agree).
But I wasn’t so familiar with how much heroism is about continuing. The Charlie Hebdo people continue. They continued in January. They continued gloriously in November. They will continue continuing. But, maybe most of all, Charlie has taught me that the opposite of funny is not serious. The opposite of funny is not funny.