Tales of Two Cities

Leo Hollis praises a perceptive take on the relationship between London and Paris, and how it shaped the modern global city

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Reviewed by: Leo Hollis
Author: Jonathan Conlin
Publisher: Atlantic
Price (RRP): £25

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In 1780 the French playwright Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote, in his Parallele de Paris et de Londres, that while the British and the French might never get along, the citizens of London and Paris could – and should – liberate themselves from parochial jingoism and see what they had in common. Conlin’s subtle and perceptive history of the relationship between the two capitals is not an account of the clash of a political tug-of-war between national champions; it is a more interesting cultural history than that.

Rather, Conlin looks at the more elliptical flows and translations between twinned cities: the two metropolises as the forcing grounds of a particular kind of modern urbanity in the century before and after the French Revolution.

As a result we do not hear about how a Plantagenet king was crowned in Paris, or why Charles II coveted Louis XIV’s modern capital. Instead, Conlin selects six quintessentially modern spaces: the apartment, the street, the restaurant, the theatre, the ‘underworld’ and the cemetery, in order to complicate their received genesis myths: in particular showing that they had their origins somewhere between London and Paris.

We find that the restaurant was conceived in Thames-side eating houses as much as by the Seine: the earliest French examples advertised themselves as serving food à la anglaise. The French Cancan was as much the high-kicking daughter of the music hall skirt dance as the Folies Bergère. In one memorable description of the early English star, Kate Vaughan, Conlin wryly notes that “audiences were hooked not because she was lifting up her skirt, but because she seemed to be struggling unsuccessfully to keep her skirt down”.

In the chapter on the underworld, Conlin skilfully glides from subject to subject as he chases his elusive theme. Starting from the English translations of early French detective novels, he moves onto the differing cultures of surveillance in each city, the innovation and planning of citywide gas lamps and its impact on the nocturnal city. After lighting, Conlin moves to the rise of the police, and, in parallel, the work of Baron Cuvier, the esteemed anatomist who dug for palaeological specimens in the chalky quarries at the edge of the city. His new practice of excavation informed the methodologies of the first sleuths such as Vidocq and Sherlock Holmes.

This does not quite prove – as the blurb claims – that Sherlock was French, but he was undeniably urban. This is perhaps one of the weaknesses of the book: it is a history of modernity, but somewhat arbitrarily chooses these two cities as its stage. What if Conlin were able to include 17th‑century Amsterdam or 19th‑century Berlin? He is also clearly more interested in Paris’s influence on London rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, he does a valuable service in persuading us that we should forget what makes Paris and London so different and explore what they have in common. As the two cities grow together into a new European ‘mega-region’ – a network of economically linked urban centres – it is the things we have in common that will define our future.

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Leo Hollis is the author of Cities Are Good For You: The Genius of The Metropolis (Bloomsbury, 2013)