Thursday, 13 June 2013

A Tale of Many Cities

A couple of weeks ago, when one of my friends moved house, I took home a pile of books from her "clearing out" heap. First out of the bag and on to my coffee table was Andrew Hussey's Paris: the Secret History, which tells the story of the city from its beginnings as Gallo-Roman Lutetia right up to the present day. Since then it has often beaten my phone and my laptop as entertainment of choice, whether I'm lounging on the sofa or squashed into a crowded carriage on the RER at rush hour. While I love reading, sometimes the immediate attractions of online news, the blogosphere and facebook (often at the same time) do tend to take over, so for good old fashioned print to take over, it has to be something good.

I'm no history buff, so what is it about this book that has captured my interest and imagination so much? It's very readable, but it's not dumbed down to the level of, say Bill Bryson, so I'm certainly not reading for the humour. Firstly, of course, there's the local interest. I found it fun to learn that one of my favourite high-street shopping places, the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was once a hotbed of political unrest and the cradle of the French revolution, or to know that Colonel Fabien metro stop is named after a Communist resistant who shot a Nazi official on the platform there.

Secondly, although I have a preference for more recent history, the chronology of Paris' development is beautifully explained, and while my French general knowledge isn't bad for a foreigner, it's really helped me to understand things like why there were three Napoleons, and, crucially, how they fit into the bigger picture of the past.

Mostly, however, I love the fact that the book explains history from the perspective of ordinary people. The author is evidently a bit of lefty (he also emphasises endlessly the number of prostituates in Paris, which was about the only thing that annoyed me about the book), and while there is plenty of information about kings, emperors and generals, the story is mainly that of les petits gens, and the impact that the decisions of the great and not-so-good had on their lives.

For me this is important because the Paris I have always experienced, from the first time I stepped of the regional train from my first French home in Picardie and experienced the shifting human seas of the Gare du Nord before I caught any glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. So many travel books, articles and blogs focus on City of Lights Paris, all glamour, sophistication and fancy places to eat, but there are other cities too: that of the homeless men who sleep in the tunnels of the metro, far below the gilded facade of the opera house, or of the millions of commuters who traipse past them every day in another round of metro-boulot-dodo. It's the Paris of the parents who use the tramway, because it's easier to put a buggy on to than the trains, and the millions of people who shop in Simply market and not the Bon Marche.

This is not to say that there's anything wrong with the other Paris, of course. I like beautiful architecture, pretty clothes and fine dining as much as the next person. It's just that a city which rebels, revolts riots and goes on strike becomes a lot easier to understand when you take notice of the fact that ordinary people live there too.


  1. French don't know French history that well actually. Modern and contemporary history, yes, including WWI and WWII. But earlier than that... we are taught at school but we forget it pretty quickly!

  2. Sadly, that's probably what will happen to me too!