Paris Revealed Stephen Clarke

Bantam, pp.278, 10.99

It’s nice to know that the trees lining the roads in Paris have microchips embedded in their trunks, that the city council is controlling the pigeon population by shaking the eggs to make them infertile and that the Café Voisin served elephant consommé during the 1870 siege.

It’s nice to know that the trees lining the roads in Paris have microchips embedded in their trunks, that the city council is controlling the pigeon population by shaking the eggs to make them infertile and that the Café Voisin served elephant consommé during the 1870 siege. But the pleasure of this learning comes at great personal cost.

Where an innuendo can be inserted, Stephen Clarke will insert it. If he were writing this review, he would have put ‘no pun intended’ after the word ‘insert’. Open any page at random and you will likely find two or three pairs of brackets. These are for the knowing asides, where the reader is supposed to roll his eyes in fond condescension and think about how very Parisian it all is.

The food section begins with a quotation from Émile Zola’s description of a market at daybreak: ‘The sun set the vegetables on fire … Now the swollen hearts of the lettuces were burning, the carrots began to bleed red, the turnips became incandescent.’ Next, Clarke explains what’s good about it: ‘No one, not even the poutiest celebrity chef, ever wrote about turnips like that. Here is a writer who wants to have sex with a vegetable. And in Paris that’s probably legal.’

This formula — a patronising modern reference, a gratuitous allusion to sex, a slightly offensive stereotype and a bit of emphatic punctuation to make it extra funny — is repeated on nearly every page.

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The book is designed, according to Clarke, to make Paris become ‘a real, fully-rounded personality’, but it’s hard to see what he’s adding. He begins by dividing the city up into stereotypes; in the romance chapter, he recommends going for a walk by the river and looking at the Eiffel Tower; the sex chapter is everything you might fear.

There are useful details. He tells you where to stay and provides a couple of restaurant and museum recommendations. There are also quickfire history lessons, but on the whole the details are scant and already widely published.

The book runs into trouble because it falls between two categories; it doesn’t know whether to be reportage or a guidebook. Where John Lichfield (Our Man in Paris) and Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon) describe episodes that create, obliquely, a sense of a place, Clarke tends to make generalisations and has to resort to assuring the reader that it is extremely Parisian to, for example, know the history of street urinals. The more straightforward, informative parts are better, but there’s not enough information. For history, it’s much better to read Graham Robb (An Adventure History of Paris). Paris Revealed just feels like a rush job.

For his last book, 1000 Years of Annoying the French, the wacky schoolmaster had something to teach, which made the tone bearable. In it, Clarke debunked various myths: the French didn’t invent champagne, William the Conqueror wasn’t French, Voltaire preferred Britain to France, and so on. Paris Revealed reads more like a painful end-of-term speech; the jokes feel like a decoy to distract from a lack of substance.

Romance is a matter of personal taste, he informs us, adding that ‘couples who met during a blizzard probably find it highly romantic to spend the occasional evening sitting with their feet in buckets of ice-cream’. You have to hope this is part of the decoy, and not included for its own sake.

Here he is on the baguette:

The most sensual, and most publicly fondled, Parisian food. An obvious phallic symbol, surely it can be no coincidence that the word is just one letter away from braguette, the flies on a pair of trousers.

Couldn’t be.

The similes are another problem. Describing the pitfalls of making a goat’s cheese salad, he cautions against pre- prepared slices of toast, which ‘will come out as floppy as — well, we all know what shouldn’t be floppy’.

Aside from questions of style, nothing in Paris Revealed is surprising, but then again Clarke is not in the business of being surprising. He has made a successful career out of affirming British suspicions about the French — and, oddly, the French love him. He’s constantly on the radio giving the British perspective. Perhaps he gains in translation.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, France, Non-fiction, Paris, Travel