The Best of Friends, the Worst of Friends? Tales of Two Cities: book review

Review of Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City by Jonathan Conlin (Atlantic Books)

Tales of Two CitiesParis and London.  London and Paris.  The very names of these two world cities conjure remarkably separate and distinct impressions in the mind of the reader.  Debonair Paris mixes a worldliness and elegance with a somewhat contradictory joie de vivre which can, at times, verge on the seedy.  London, on the other hand, fosters an equally inconsistent image of a battle-hardened and shabby metropolis which prides itself on its stoicism in the face of adversity, while continuing to bask in the rapidly dimming reflection of past glories.  Indeed, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, the only real connection between these two vastly divergent cities is their long-standing and deeply-entrenched rivalry.

Disdain

And, on the face of it, this appears to hold true.  Despite sharing similar early histories (both cities were founded by the Romans within a decade of year other), Paris and London have long defined themselves by their differences.  It cannot be argued that, from time immemorial, denizens of both cities have not held the other in unconcealed disdain.  And it is equally irrefutable that each city derived their sense of identity, at least in part, by holding themselves above and apart from the other.

But this widely-accepted (and one might say, hackneyed) belief in the separateness of the two cities is exactly what Jonathan Conlin sets out to controvert in his excellent examination of the cross-Channel relationship, Tales of Two Cities.  Far from developing interdependently from each other, Conlin argues, both metropolises have been engaged in a constant dialogue which has informed their evolution.  Borrowing extensively from each other, London and Paris have each exerted considerable influence over the other, and in doing so laid the foundations of the modern cities that have emerged in their wake.

To illustrate his point, the author takes six urban areas – the apartment, the street, the restaurant, the music hall, the criminal underworld, and the cemetery – and scrutinizes their history from 1750 to 1914.  In doing so, he reveals a great many ‘points of crossing’ between the two cities, many of which will come as a surprise to even the most well-informed reader.  While the author is at pains to point out that his history “is not interested in point scoring, [or] in identifying this or that trait as constitutive of Paris or London in isolation”, it is nonetheless fascinating to discover that many things universally accepted as quintessentially English are in fact French in origin, and vice versa.

The sincerest form of flattery

Did you know, for example, that the classic Baudelairean flanêur would have wandered London streets much earlier than he appeared on French boulevards? Or that Sherlock Holmes was based on earlier French literary detectives? Or that London’s exclusive gentlemen’s clubs helped establish the reputations of France’s first celebrity chefs? Or that the can-can – that most famous of French dances – was based on the English quadrille, and was first danced, in its current lace petticoated form, by an Englishwoman?  Or even that the purpose-built garden cemeteries of Paris drew inspiration from London’s emergent garden suburbs?

This hugely informative and well-written book, which draws on an impressive cast of characters from the worlds of literature, art, architecture and performance, distils many such examples of cross-Channel pollination into a highly readable and entertaining narrative.  By the end of Tales of Two Cities, the reader is left in no doubt that, behind the veneer of hostility and mutual suspicion, the great metropolises of London and Paris have always been on friendlier terms than one would have previously thought.

After all, to use a phrase attributed to Charles Caleb Colton, an Englishman who lived in Paris, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City by Jonathan Conlin is published by Atlantic Books, 1 June 2013.