Impossible City by Simon Kuper review: The City of Light still has much to teach London

 (Profile Books)
(Profile Books)

It is a given that any decent book about Paris will inevitably tell you just as much about London. Even those for whom the rivalry between the cities is a myth will admit that.

The thing I learned from Simon Kuper’s enjoyable memoir about living in Paris for 20 years is the reason its Metro system is so effective. I’m sure that any connoisseur of London Underground will already know this (so apologies), but even though the Parisian Metro was built nearly 40 years after ours, it mushroomed quickly.

Because rival private companies ran different lines, each had an incentive to build lots of stations. And as Kuper says, that’s why today some Metro stations are just a couple of hundred metres apart, and your train has hardly started up before it stops again. The success of the Elizabeth Line just throws into sharp contrast how antiquated the rest of London’s Tube infrastructure is, but don’t expect any radical intervention from central government; Starmer’s party have about as much interest in London as Sunak’s.

Kuper’s book is an affectionate take on Paris, by turns amusing and quaint. There are some things about Paris he doesn’t seem to understand (the etiquette of dinner parties, for instance, which are the same all over the world), but then he appears to construct problems simply so he can explain them. It’s got some great vignettes, though.

He describes regularly drinking affordable wine that was so good it was, in the French phrase, “like Jesus pissing in your mouth”; he writes at length about the “bobos”, those bourgeois bohos with bohemian tastes; and reminds us all that a French person never needs to apologise if they are less than 15 minutes late.

I learned that dressing dowdy is acceptable as long as you’re sporting a well-chosen scarf, and had my suspicions about Parisian waiters confirmed. Next time you travel to the former City of Light, take this book. You’ll enjoy it.

Impossible City: Paris in the Twenty-First Century by Simon Kuper (Profile £18.99)

Dylan Jones is the Evening Standard’s editor-in-chief