My grandfather was an amazing storyteller, his tales were captivating, compelling and seemingly never ending. He was a refugee and when I was young he would tell me the history of his old country; always from memory, usually over maps and often in two languages – only one of which I understood, and yet I was still transfixed
I didn’t really correlate this time with him as a history lesson, to me it was just granddad telling his stories, albeit with precision and passion. But this experience means that now, as an adult, the two aspects are fundamentally intertwined. I no longer accept my history in bite sized facts and figures, I want plot, character development and above all I want a knowledgeable and passionate narrator. I tell you all of this by means of an explanation as to why I was so extraordinary pleased to have discovered ‘Seven Ages of Paris, Portrait of a City’ by Alistair Horne.
I bought it in Shakespeare & Company on the left bank in Paris, which has its own fascinating history. It is probably the most famous independent book shop in the world so for many people will need no introduction but to briefly summorise for nearly 70 years it has been a place of ideas and creativity as well as being a supportive community to so many writers and readers. Today many of its guests (because you are never made to feel like a mere customer) seem to be on a pilgrimage – people want to sit where William Burroughs may have sat, potentially climb the same steps as Anaïs Nin or even be a tumbleweed like Alan Sillitoe.
When I was there I sat in the library on the top floor for some time whilst another guest was playing the piano and I was simultaneously captivated by the music, transported to other eras by the history seeping from the pages of the books around me and in love – with the moment, with the bookshop and ultimately, with Paris. Bookshops and libraries can be amazing places and this one is particularly special.
As to the book I brought there (‘The Seven Ages of Paris’ with its title page stamped by Shakespeare & Co to authenticate its origin) I can’t recommend it enough. One of my favourite things about it is that in it, Paris is almost a person. Not just a person, a woman, Horne is very clear about the city’s gender in his preface. It is as if Paris becomes a protagonist and like all good protagonists she challenged me and my ideas, elicited a variety of emotions from me and kept my interest throughout her story. If the history of Paris is simply a story then Horne’s role is in the telling – the plot is already broadly established but the pacing, the emphasis and the style are all superbly controlled by our narrator. He is truly an excellent story teller.
The book became part of my Paris experience. I took it out with me every day and would sit with my friend in a café or on a bench by some famous building and look it up in the index at the back and read aloud the relevant sections. Thankfully my travelling friend was also interested history or it could have been a tough few weeks together.
This book helped me see the city through a historical perceptive, old eyes as it were and it was fascinating. Even though this was not in a romanticised way, as Horne does not sentimentalise his story, I fell more in love with Paris than I thought was possible. Grandad left us before I was fully able to comprehend my love of storytelling and history but I am eternally grateful that he sowed the seeds all those years ago. I like to think that he and Mr Horne would have got on very well and I wish I could have introduced him to my love, Paris.