Page 11, 25th October 2002

25th October 2002
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Page 11, 25th October 2002 — Dead white males (and beautiful white women)

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Dead white males (and beautiful white women)

Alistair Horne's history of Paris takes Claus von Billow back to a day in August 1944 Seven Ages of Paris: Portrait of a City by Alistair Horne, Macmillan £25 Graduates from schools where the state-ordained pensum excludes any history about our neighbouring tribes in Continental Europe should find Alistair Home's latest book a revelation and a joy. They may even decide to visit Paris for other reasons than the next World Cup. It may also help them to decide whether they want to adopt the euro and then be governed by French Enarchs.

For all old lovers of Paris this book will, after its first reading, find a special place on that shelf we reserve for books we keep coming back to. Horne's method will help us. He has divided his history of ' Paris into seven ages, and he has selected leading historical figures to symbolise each age. This method would have been anathema to the fashionable historians of economics and social sciences of Alistair Horne's youth. It is a relief now to find chapters which focus on Dead White Males, and, since this is Paris, some beautiful white women too. Abelard, (the founder of the Sorbonne University) and his Eloise are given sympathetic treatment.

Horne starts with Philippe Auguste, whose victory against the ineffectual English King John at Bouvine enabled him to unite the separate geographical units, which we think of as France, and rule them from the centre, from Pans. Bouvine is a name as resonant in French history in moments of adversity as Trafalgar is in England.

The savage intolerance that we associate with the French Wars of Religion really started with the systematic extermination of the Albigensians, France's version of the Final Solution. Yet not everyone showed such inflexibility. The ecumenically tolerant readers of The Catholic Herald will approve of Horne's selection of Henri IV as France's greatest king. That monarch's words, "Paris is worth a Mass", should, in its humane pragmatism, be inculcated into every stubborn fundamentalist from Belfast to Kabul.

On the other hand, Horne does not care for Louis XIV. He revoked the Edict of Nantes, he moved the government from Paris to Versailles and his 70 years of wars sowed the seeds for the Revolution, which was to become a French political speciality: 1789, 1830, 1848, the Commune of 1871, and the near-miss of 1968. As in most countries, revolutions are followed by dictators, and Horne has already, in How Far From Austerlitz?, given us his views of Napoleon I's ultimate inevitable defeat. Home's research of both primary and secondary sources is always professional, and the reader will recognise his expertise in the fields he has already written about in earlier books: the 1871 Commune, Verdun 1916, the Battle of France 1940, the French Army, and the Algerian War 1954-62.

Fortunately the author's slant is refreshingly idiosyncratic. How else could he, in a mere 480 pages, cope With a thousand years of French history, the politics, the wars, the great men, and, since this is the history of a city, some great architecture? Bernini and Haussman, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Josephine Baker. Victor Hugo (what other nation would have staged a state funeral attended by 600,000 people for a poet?) and, as a coda, "Le Grand Charles" de Gaulle. The author gives us of some of his own memories, so why should this reviewer not also do so? In late August 1944, as I walked in the Great Courtyard of Trinity College in Cambridge, I suddenly heard, through an open window, the strident notes of the Marseillaise. I have never forgotten it. Paris had been liberated that day, and we then knew that the rest of Europe would also soon be free.

France was, at that moment the symbol of European civilisation. At a more mundane level, in matters culinary and sexual, French civilisation is also pragmatically flexible. They may, in their day, have sent a few toffs to the guillotine, but the French knew that they would never get their wise king's promise of a chicken in every peasant's pot if they didn't prefer poultry to foxes. No French tabloid has wasted any space on Edwina Currie:s morals, but her comments about salmonella enraged a nation which invented the omelette baveuse and the poule de luxe.

I have one small criticism. The Israeli government has built a memorial to those gentiles who heroically helped the Jews during World War II. The Parisians might have done as much to honour General von Choltitz, who refused to blow up Paris in 1944. Home gives no credit to Choltitz, since he says the French resistance had already cut the fuses. So be it: but Choltitz did not know that, and he still disobeyed the Fiihrer's orders.

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