Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Book Review : Paris - The Secret History by Andrew Hussey (Viking 2006)

History is, of course, written by the victors, and it also tends to be written by the moderately well-off and educated. Which means that as one goes back in time, there is an imbalance as historical record focuses on the educated and wealthy at the expense of the poor and the marginalised.

Andrew Hussey seeks to overcome this handicap in his excellent book about the Parisian underclasses - he doesn't always succeed, and there are probably more Kings in his medieval chapters than he would like, but that doesn't detract in any way from a book which is a pleasure from start to finish.

For those who like their history eclectic, his introduction is a joy. In it, he ranges from Walter Benjamin's Arcades through Baudelaire's flaneur to the poems of Villon, actresses Arletty and Frehel, Edith Piaf and Princess Diana. This gives a flavour of the book, and whilst he never manages to maintain this level of diversity, he certainly maintains the the same level of interest throughout.

Paris of old strikes one as being a thoroughly dangerous, unpleasant, smelly place. It wasn't sufficiently far up the Seine to protect it from Viking raids - or from Celts, Romans, English, Germans, bands of criminals and students, all of whom have caused upset at various times in the Parisian history.

Hussey seems to revel in the underclasses more than the working classes - one perhaps gets the impression that he has lived on the edge a bit himself - and he takes great pleasure in relating the tales of the sorcery of Jacques de Molay, last head of the Knights Templar, or of the poems of Francois Villon, poet and murderer, in all their obscene and scatological glory.

And finally, he puts the case for modern Paris. Yes, it has changed compared with the past, it has lost some of its edge, some of its sense of danger. But it is still a city where people riot in the streets, where the whores can be found behind its poshest shops, where dangerous ideas flourish, and where, as recently as the 1960s, hundreds of Algerian protesters can be murdered by the Security Forces. And yet it is the most beautiful, most loved city in the world. This is a revealing glimpse behind the Hausmann facades.

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