I have it on Dr Johnson’s authority that I’m not yet tired of life. For, after 32 years’ living in London, I still haven’t grown tired of it, and nor am I ever likely to.
Yet, truth be told, Paris has never really grown on me, even though I’ve always made a concerted effort to love it as much as I love the rest of France. That has never quite worked, other than with some of the Left Bank.
So what does London have that Paris doesn’t? Many writers have tried to compare the two cities, either in the form of a novel (Dickens), memoir (Orwell) or essay (Chesterton).
Chesterton singled out the street names in central Paris as compared with those around the Strand in London.
Many Paris streets are named after key historical dates, revolutionary events or Napoleon’s victories, which too were revolutionary events in some ways. On the other hand, the streets around the Strand are mostly named after aristocrats, such as the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Southampton or Lord Burleigh.
Some noblemen rate two such names: Norfolk Street and Arundel Street both honour the same man. And London is even more generous to the favourite of James I and Charles I.
George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street and Buckingham Street all pay tribute to his Christian name, surname and title. And the latter two used to be linked by the prepositional Of Alley, until it was renamed York Place after another patrician.
That’s five street names for one nobleman, which shows where British priorities are. Nothing like those Parisian thoroughfares called 18 June, 11 November, 25 August, 8 February or whatever.
Then again, London’s – and England’s – history was never diverted by a revolutionary upheaval, not permanently at any rate. The city and the country developed organically, which makes it impossible to signpost their history by a compendium of dates.
When did the English state begin? We don’t really know. It just is. Yet any schoolboy will know that Israel started in 1948, united Germany in 1871, the USA in 1776 – and France, in its republican incarnation, in 1789. And a road that has a definite starting point demands numerous landmarks along the way.
However, whatever aristocratic character London had in Chesterton’s time, now, 100 years later, it has lost it to modern – which is to say aggressively plebeian – architectural vandalism, ably assisted by city councils and the Luftwaffe. Paris’s eyesore quotient is much lower, although its present socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is doing her best to catch up.
This isn’t to say that central Paris was spared modern vandalism. It wasn’t. But in its case the vandals came earlier, starting in 1789 and continuing throughout the 19th century. The revolutionaries got the ball rolling, and Baron Haussmann used it for wrecking purposes, reshaping the right bank of the Seine to agree with the Zeitgeist.
But even discounting London’s modern monstrosities, and in spite of Haussmann, Paris is still the more beautiful city, one blessed with more aesthetic highlights. And even comparable sights, such as Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey, both Gothic, are incomparably more beautiful in Paris.
However, cities aren’t exhibitions. They are living organisms and as such can’t be judged on aesthetics alone.
Thus a Greek statue of Aphrodite is more beautiful than most women I’ve ever met. Yet, however much people admire statues, they, Pygmalion apart, don’t fall in love with them. Love slides off the cold marble and reaches out for warm flesh.
Chesterton also wrote that an alien falling into Paris from the moon would instantly know it was the capital of a great nation, something that wouldn’t be as immediately apparent in London.
I agree. That’s why I admire Paris, but love London.
Whenever art reminds me that it’s a cognate of artifice, it leaves me cold; and cities are partly works of art too. As such, they should have an emotional impact, leaving no room for rational decortication. Afterwards, having caught one’s breath, one can ponder the masterpiece and try to figure out how it was made.
Paris doesn’t do that. The first thing one sees are the workings of the human mind, informed by a rational idea of how cities should look, how people should live, and how they could be prevented from obstructing rational ideas.
One can almost see Haussmann and his underlings looking at the city plan and saying: “Bien, let’s have a small roundabout here, with five straight streets running into it in such a way that, standing in the geometrical centre one could see all the way to the bottom of each street.
“No, Monsieur, five would work much better than either four or six. I wouldn’t want to pisser on a roundabout with anything other than five streets. And l’Etoile? Now there nothing less than 12 streets will do.”
Statist modernity strives for perfection, which, it was assured by one of its midwives, Rousseau, is achievable. That is reflected in the design of Paris, with its wide, straight avenues, ideal for marching troops and mostly treeless, not to provide a hide for those wishing to snipe at the troops.
Modernity also strives for uniformity, which is why all those avenues look identical, each lined with massive apartment houses built in the same style of the same stone. The ground floors are mostly commercial, with many Parisians (as opposed to few Londoners) living above shops, banks or cafés.
Unlike Paris, London is flawed because it reflects human nature which, contrary to Rousseau’s musings, is never flawless. And London thinks small.
While Paris architects were at their best operating on a large scale, especially with institutional buildings, their London colleagues were at their most expressive with small-scale, mostly residential construction.
When circumstances forced them to act out of character, they often fell flat. Sir Christopher Wren is a prime example. I can never understand how the same man who built the sublime, yet smallish, Royal Hospital Chelsea could also design the hideous St Paul’s Cathedral, which must have inspired the equally awful Panthéon in Paris.
That’s why, whenever I offer tips to visitors, I always suggest they go first to London’s residential areas, which in my view display the English genius at its most poignant.
The architecture there is eclectic, with at least half a dozen different styles forming a visual potpourri in stone, brick, terracotta and stucco: the Regency of Belgravia, the Georgian of Chelsea, the Victorian of Knightsbridge, the neoclassical of Covent Garden and so on.
Little there screams “this is architecture to admire”. Everything whispers “this is the city to love.” Oh well, vive la différence.