Sunday, January 30, 2005


Hit the Road

The Guardian reports that London novelists have been clobbered by a road atlas:

The London A-Z street atlas, first published in 1936, yesterday beat volumes by Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Joseph Conrad, Zadie Smith and Peter Ackroyd to come in at number five in a poll of the 30 best-loved London books.

The poll of the readers of Time Out magazine attracted hundreds of nominations. Books editor John O'Connell said that while the A-Z was undoubtedly a London book, his readers may have taken the instructions too literally.

Or: perhaps the books editor has taken his instructions too narrowly. The A-Z might get top marks in the future, too. I find that some of the most interesting insights into the past are to be found in maps and humble traveler's guides; while researching my finished-any-day-now book about the missing bones of Thomas Paine, I trudged around London and Paris equipped with an 1887 Dickens Guide to London, and an 1890s Baedeker guide to Paris. If you want to know exactly what a person would see when they walked down a street -- what businesses they would patronize, what things cost, what cons and arcane laws they had to watch out for -- then old Baedekers and the like are just extraordinary. The curious thing -- particularly with the Baedeker guide -- was to realize how these were the last generation of guides to show the dynamic of city life before automobiles overran everything.

And even they have produced their own curious literature. Along with Iain Sinclair's London Orbital, I've already beaten the drum in The Believer for Tim Moore's Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road To Mayfair and Edward Platt's Leadville: A Biography of the A40; both are terribly undderrated (and not picked up by a US publisher) glimpses into the life of a pedestrian amidst our car culture. And last week The Guardian also ran this intriguing review for Around the M60: Manchester's Orbital Motorway by Matthew Hyde, Peter Portland, and Aidan O'Rourke:

The authors love the unfamiliar and stop off at Abney Hall near junction 2. They don't seem to know that the Guardian Weekly was published in this former cotton magnate's mansion for several years but they know a lot about Agatha Christie. The creator of Poirot and Miss Marple spent many of her childhood winters at Abney and returned to recuperate after she lost her memory and disappeared in 1926. "Whatever the truth of her amnesia, the opulence of Abney ... had early slid into Agatha Christie's unconscious, to reappear in the foreword to Adventures of the Christmas Pudding, published 1960 and dedicated to Abney Hall," writes Portland. The hall became Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and Gorston Hall in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938). Two characters in They Do It With Mirrors (1952) drown in Abney's fish pond.

Samples from the M60 book can be seen at Aidan's web site.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?