The lovely thing about time off work (in this case for the Christmas holidays) is that I get plenty of reading time – fairly essential when you think of the number of books I’ve amassed recently, and so maybe it’s a good thing this is another gift book (birthday this time).

beautifulwalk
It’s a little while since I’ve read any non-fiction and I was unsure what I wanted to read, so I picked up TMBWITW – and I wasn’t disappointed! John Baxter has written a number of books, but this is the first time I’ve come across his work. He hails originally from Australia but washed up in Paris via England and LA when he married a Frenchwoman and moved there. The book is the story of his walking experiences in the city, and an awful lot more!

Baxter begins by relating a driving experience gone wrong, when he was supposed to be travelling to in-laws for Christmas Day outside of Paris. He soon diverges into his history as a walker (you didn’t in Australia because of wild creatures, you did in UK to get to the pub, and if you walked in LA *you* were regarded as a wild creature!) However, he doesn’t stay directly on topic for long, and his book wanders off, in psychogeographical fashion, to cover the artistic past of Paris, his adventures taking walking guided tours round the city, food and drink, the building of modern Paris, visiting the catacombs, opium, cafes, clubs and much, much more! The US ex-pat community of Stein, Fitzgerald and very much of Hemingway are a regular current throughout the book, but it touches on indigenous French such as Colette and Cocteau; and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co is much in evidence.

“You can blame Hemingway for what happened next. Well, not personally. He had after all been dead since 1961. But his celebrations of hunting, shooting, fishing, bullfighting and war popularized the conviction that a writer should be a person of action as well as ideas. Numerous authors, inspired by his stories of safaris, boxing matches and battle, had been gored, shot, knocked insensible, or (not least) left with horrific hangovers trying to prove they were his equal.”

This is a pure gem of a book; Baxter obviously knows his stuff, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his erudition. The book is incredibly well-written and readable, a beguiling mixture of fact and personal anecdote and also very, very funny. It actually tells you an awful lot about Paris, but in a fun, entertaining way and I just couldn’t put it down.

Baxter isn’t afraid to debunk myths along the way, and there are some nice little photos to illustrate the text. The book is surprisingly wide-ranging, and in a weird case of synchronicity, the place Baxter lived in England was East Bergholt (a village not that far from me) where he knew the guy who illustrated the covers for “Dance to the Music of Time”! How strange is that!

“On the way back [from the village shop] with a bag of groceries, I’d pause at one of its many pubs for a beer or cut across the fields to visit illustrator and novelist James Broom-Lynne, who never needed much excuse to be distracted. He’d designed all the covers for the twelve-volume series of novels by Anthony Powell called A Dance to the Music of Time and some of Powell’s amused weariness seemed to have rubbed off.”

rue maubert part - george hann

The book is categorised on the rear cover as “Travel/Memoir”, which in some way doesn’t do it justice. But it highlights one of the important factors of a volume such as this, and that’s the personal angle. Baxter is a funny and engaging companion on the journey through the physical and historical aspects of Paris, and lets into the book enough of the personal to make us involved, but not so much that it feels like an intrusion. Walking round the city of Paris, steeped in its history, is something of a dream for many readers (me, for one!) and this book comes as close as you can get in book form. Highly recommended!

“A walk is not a parade or a race. It’s a succession of instants, any of which can illuminate a lifetime. What about the glance, the scent, the glimpse, the way the light just falls… the ‘beautiful’ part? No tour guide or guidebook tells you that. Prepared itineraries remind me of those PHOTO POINT signs at Disneyland. Yes, that angle gives you an attractive picture. But why not just buy the postcard?”

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