Metropolitain: An Ode to the Paris Metro by Andrew Martin - review by Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen

Where Gainsbourg Meets Garibaldi

Metropolitain: An Ode to the Paris Metro


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Living for a year in Paris grudgingly led me to appreciate the virtues of the dirty and confusing Metro. It runs frequently and tickets are cheap, but it also has character and soul, embodied in the strapontin flip-up seats, the pathetic accordionist buskers, the notices indicating places réservés aux mutilés de guerre and the five notes played on a Spanish guitar heralding the inaudible announcements. And by the time I had learned to dread the sixteen exits at Châtelet-Les Halles and avoid the perils of the elevated interchange at Barbès Rochechouart, appreciation had matured into something like love.

But Andrew Martin’s relationship with the network is far more intense than mine: as someone possessed by the romance of the railway to the point of writing a succession of books on the subject, he seems to have trawled every inch of the Metro. And the result is this delightful and diverting book, embracing everything from engineering to geology, electrics to statistics.

The comparisons with London’s counterpart are fascinating. The Tube is older than the Metro, dating back to 1863; the French didn’t get going for another thirty-seven years. Inner London’s tunnels also lie much deeper than Paris’s, even though a lot of the Tube’s outlying track runs overground. The Tube (not including the Elizabeth Line) covers some 250 miles. The Metro currently extends only 140 miles, but has far more stations than the Tube does (few are more than half a kilometre apart) and it is constantly expanding – the orbital Grand Paris Express, a grand projet due for completion in 2030, will run round the clock, serve sixty-eight new stations and make up for the present shortfall in services to the suburbs (which is where the Tube scores highly). The Metro likes circles: rather than stopping at a dead end, several lines loop round to make the return journey. Martin rates the Metro as more efficient than the Tube, at least as far as halting in tunnels is concerned, but it’s considerably slower and generally more spartan in its comforts.

Aesthetically, the networks are also very different. The Tube boasts Frank Pick’s crisp graphics, the utilitarian stations designed by Charles Holden in the 1920s and some magnificent architecture on the Jubilee Line extension; the Metro makes little impression at ground level (like New York’s subway, its stations are largely a matter of holes in the pavement), but it does have the engagingly whimsical Art Nouveau signage dreamed up by Hector Guimard, as well as spectacular crossings of the Seine at the Viaduc d’Austerlitz and the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, which the Tube can’t match.

The names of Metro stations commemorate celebrity as much as location. The lovelorn chanteuse Barbara has a station named after her, an honour that will also shortly be accorded to Serge Gainsbourg. Josephine Baker’s name was recently added to that of Gaîté station. (Can one imagine a Tube station called Dusty Springfield?) Despite writing a tribute song, ‘Le Métro de Paris’, Edith Piaf has surprisingly gone uncommemorated. Ten stations are named after Napoleonic victories or commanders, but Bonaparte himself doesn’t have a station named in his memory. Heroes of the Resistance and stalwarts of the Left do better than figures on the Right: Garibaldi lends his name to a station on Line 13; Louise Michel, a firebrand of the Paris Commune, has a station named after her on Line 3; the assassinated socialist leader Jean Jaurès is honoured in the names of two different stations.

Martin is intrigued by literary and cinematic treatments of the Metro. Proust, we learn, was never well enough to enter the Metro, and it’s disappointing that novelists such as George Orwell and Jean Rhys were so uninterested in its dramatic potential, preferring to travel by bus or foot. But it does get its due in Raymond Queneau’s freewheeling Zazie dans le Métro, adapted for cinema by Louis Malle, and in Jean-Pierre Melville’s chilling masterpiece Le Samouraï.

Did you know that Couronnes on Line 2 was the scene of the Metro’s worst disaster? I didn’t, but Martin informs us that in 1903, eighty-four people died there from carbon monoxide poisoning; he also notes the shameful absence of any memorial plaque. And have you ever considered that Montparnasse-Bienvenüe has nothing to do with welcoming? What that second word, with its unexpected diaeresis, refers to is the splendidly christened civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe, one of the Metro’s greatest visionaries. Through all this and much more, Martin is the most unpretentious and companionable of guides; the book is great fun. It’s a pity the publisher didn’t grace it with a few illustrations and a map.

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