Footprints in Paris, By Gillian Tindall

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The Independent Culture

Footprints in Paris is and is not of the moment. The book has immediate relevance to issues of identity and belonging, while turning its back on celebrity culture. Few publishers, in the current climate, would encourage investigation of the anonymous terrain suggested by the subtitle: "a few streets, a few lives".

But Gillian Tindall has carved her own niche. Ever since The Fields Beneath in 1977, her history of "one London village" (Kentish Town), she has become known for her ability to unveil the layering of history and memory in relation to place.

She is adept at searching out facts. But she goes beyond them, tracking down statistics in order to grasp the habits of ordinary people. Often she works with ghost-like traces, salvaging forgotten lives from oblivion.

Tindall has given us glimpses of herself in previous books. Here we discover that "Julia" is a distancing pseudonym for the author, and that many of the characters encountered, in the course of this meditation on a great city, are her forbears.

She begins with her great-great grandfather, Arthur Jacob who, having trained as a physician, walks from Edinburgh to Paris. He takes lodgings in the Latin Quarter in the summer of 1814, a few months before the Battle of Waterloo. Anyone familiar with this area, its landmarks slightly eclipsed by today's spotlight on St Germain-des-Prés, will recognise its rich sense of history.

But Tindall's casual meandering is revelatory. She touches on many things, from medieval monastic communities and educational institutions to the way water was transported and the slow development of sanitation. She evokes the full drama of Haussmann's great boulevards, as he wrenched the city out of its medieval past and created a visibly grander and wealthier Paris. "Old Paris is no more; a town alas,/ Changes more swiftly than does the human heart," sighed Baudelaire.

Arthur Jacob later became a distinguished figure in Irish medical history. But while in Paris he contacted a publisher of medical and scientific works, Jean-Baptiste Baillière, whose younger brother brought out a collection of Jacob's writings. Baillière's descendants and relations spread his business around the world. But by the early 20th century the entreprenurial role had passed to a dynamic young man, called Tindall who, by coincidence, had married into the Jacob family.

This man – always known as Bertie Tindall – is the grandfather whom the author never knew well. But a letter from him once reached her in Paris. It congratulated her for choosing to stay on the Left Bank, and informed her that he had once lived for a year in the same street. Excited by this unsuspected link, she never forgot this letter.

In this book she sets out to find the young man her grandfather once was. Later she does the same with her parents, both of whom enjoyed a brief association with Paris.

As Tindall's narrative moves towards her own experiences of this city, the resonances deepen. There is almost no observation of street life that does not accrue an obscure poignancy. The constant shift between family history and the impersonal metropolis is sometimes a little strained. But Tindall's alertness to detail and brimming intelligence are consistently engaging, with the result that, like WG Sebald, she creates her own genre and with it, a particular melancholy.

The plangent mood takes on a darker tone with the mother's depression. Tindall analyses this women's character with merciless lucidity. She readily admits the anger she felt when, not long before she was due to go to Oxford, her mother commits suicide. In this painful interval, her father, anxious to make up for time lost in an unhappy marriage, sends her to Paris. The circumstances could not have been more botched, but during this visit she is touched, and her future shaped, by the richness of the populated past.

Frances Spalding's 'Gwen Raverat: family, friends, affections' is published by Pimlico