Some Good Books, 1: Shire Library

I was originally intending to write a book review blog post before Christmas, but a publisher’s deadline (December 31st) intervened; so my plans had to change. And then I thought about it further. What was it that irritated me about Christmas? Half a second’s reflection gave me the answer: recommendations of things that would make good Christmas presents. That’s fine so far as it goes, but books are more long-lived, more important than a mere festival. So this post will be about books you should buy for yourself, to enjoy over the long evenings of the early New Year. I decided to postpone writing it till the New Year – and I’m currently tapping away on my computer in front of a roaring fire while outside the rain is pouring down. It’s the early evening of New Year’s Eve, on a warm, wet El Niño winter.

Book reviews can be deadly dull. And academic ones are the worst: not only are they boring, but all too often they are intended to show readers that the reviewer is far better qualified to write the book than its actual author. So I tend to avoid the review pages of most learned journals. I’ve also long had a penchant for books that are far less pretentious than the sort reviewed in the major journals. These are the kind of books that are read by people who ‘have always had a bit on an interest in’ – whatever it might be: garden gnomes, seaside piers or shell-work grottoes. All of these have tickled my fancy over the years – and some still do. ‘And what’s so wrong with that?’ I hear a strangled cry from behind the sofa, as Maisie searches through a pile of books that’s been waiting for a place on our over-crowded bookshelves for at least five years. Quite.

So this post, if I can ever get round to starting it, will be the first of two about unpretentious books that convey information in an interesting but comprehensible fashion. And I shall concentrate on two publishers. The first will be Shire Books, the second the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, north-east London.

Shire Books have long had an interest in archaeology. Indeed, I’ve even written a book for them, on my excavations at Fengate, Peterborough, but long since out-of-print. But it’s not their archaeology titles that I want to consider now. The four books I’m interested in are in the Shire Library Series and are, I suspect (having thumbed through others while browsing in Toppings Bookshop, Ely), fairly typical of others in the Series. I chose just four (a) because their titles interested me, (b) because I couldn’t afford any more and (c) because our shelves are already over-full.

I’ve always been a fan of Shire books. They were founded in 1962 by John Rotheroe, who was a charming man and had a very clear idea of what his customers were looking for: good, clear English, many illustrations and a compact, slim format. Initially Shire books were motivated by a widespread feeling of nostalgia that accompanied some of the disillusion of the post-war decades. Quite rapidly they established their own identity, which stresses accurate, up-to-date information and jargon-free writing. The Shire Library lives up to these ideals. The books are big enough (210×150 mm) to slip in your pocket when travelling. They are printed on high quality paper and feature colour illustrations throughout; each book also has an excellent Index. As you will discover, they are very reasonably priced.

The English Seaside in Victorian and Edwardian TimesI read my first choice in just two sessions as soon as we had returned from Toppings. The English Seaside in Victorian and Edwardian Times, by John Hannavy was published in 2003, and with 128 pages is slightly longer than most in the Series (£9.99). It makes a special feature of using contemporary photographs, many of which were machine-tinted or hand-coloured in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Some of these images look disturbingly modern, with crowds of visitors and children playing on the beach. Only the absence of cars, and the fact that ships have sails and ladies billowing skirts, betrays their true age. You can almost smell the salt on the air. The book begins with a very clear Introduction and overview of the subject, which features a useful discussion of early photography and colour tinting processes. The resorts are then considered one-by-one in alphabetical order, starting with Bexhill on Sea and ending with Worthing. The photographs of Clacton-on-Sea pier in 1896 were frankly jaw-dropping, as was the view up a narrow cobbled street in Clovelly, complete with men and boys accompanying donkeys with side-panniers, taken in the same year. It’s great overview of something we English have always done very well and it does the subject justice. I only wish I had come across it when I was researching The Making of the British Landscape.

It will not have escaped assiduous followers of this blog that I have a slight penchant for garden gnomes. I can’t say it’s something I’m particularly proud of, but it’s there: it’s a part of my make-up; it’s who I am, as an individual. Not pretentious, no, Heaven forefend, but a caring, sensitive person who is not ashamed of confessing his minor weaknesses. The matter is made more difficult by my wife who openly encourages this tendency and has been gnown to slip the occasional gnome into our trolley of groceries at Aldi. There! Our shameful little secret is out. We will never be taken seriously as gardeners again. Gone are the days when we could hold our heads up at the annual Chelsea Flower Show – where so much as a sitting gnome’s bum-print in your potting compost would forfeit your hard-earned Silver-Gilt medal.

Garden Gnomes: a HistorySo it must have taken the most extreme courage, not to mention bare-faced cheek for the eminent garden historian Twigs Way to write the second of our Shire books, Garden Gnomes: a History (2009, £6.99). This book is a straight, but not too straight-faced, history of garden gnomes in British gardens. It starts with their first appearance as porcelain copies of German originals that were allowed out of the house in the 18th Century, to the first robust garden versions, which appeared in the new rockery of Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire in the mid-19th Century. Lamport’s rock garden was purged of gnomes by its builder’s two, presumably rather prim, Victorian daughters so that only one survives to this day. He is known as Lampy and is insured for £1,000,000. But even Victorian propriety could not eradicate gnomes, which began to feature heavily in many larger Northants gardens in the latter half of the century. However their real explosion in popularity happened in the 1920s when mass-produced gnomes invaded suburbia. Today their victory is near-complete, except in gardens of Good Taste where a sense of humour is as unwelcome as it was in the closely similar rarefied and snobbish Aesthetic households of the 1880s and 1890s. Gnomes and Good Taste make uncomfortable and inappropriate bed-fellows. Happily gnomes are currently enjoying something of a renaissance and caricatures of Tony Blair are proving particularly popular (a fine one is shown on p. 5). Doubtless they are enjoying a big export trade to the Middle East.

The English Rococo GardenMy final two books are devoted to garden history and to periods I have never really understood. I have always regarded Rococo as an architectural movement/style that was mostly confined to the continent and never really took hold in Britain. But in gardens it did. The English Rococo Garden, by the noted garden historian Michael Symes (2011, £7.99) is a clear and concise introduction to the subject that avoids all the obscure terminology of art history. It takes you through stage-by-stage and covers topics such as Chinoiserie, garden sculpture and shell houses, before turning to individual garden designers and major Rococo gardens. The book includes a bibliography with a separate listing of books on specific garden designers and architects. Finally there is a list of gardens to visit, complete with phone numbers and websites. The book would be worth getting just for the Bibliography and list of gardens.

Having spent my childhood and teens years in a small Hertfordshire village a few miles outside the first Garden City at Letchworth, I had acquired a rather jaundiced view of the Arts and Crafts scene. Letchworth was notorious locally for having no pubs (Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the Garden City movement, didn’t approve of public drinking) and consequently the Closing Time buses and trains from nearby Baldock (home of Pryor’s Brewery, later bought up by Simpsons and Greene King, then demolished by a Philistine local authority) would be very rowdy. Unfortunately for those who were to live there subsequently, Letchworth was built a few decades before the introduction of cars, so none of the houses had garages – which also made locals a bit irritated, not that the well-intentioned Mr. Howard could have seen into the future. But I’m starting to digress.

The Arts and Crafts GardenThe Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th Century was undoubtedly a major British contribution to European culture and I personally would rate the Movement’s gardens even higher than the architecture, the furniture or the art. I also suspect they may last rather longer. It’s the variety of British Arts and Crafts gardens that is so remarkable and my final recommended book covers them all – and not in too much detail, either. The Arts and Crafts Garden by Sarah Rutherford (2013, £7.99) is something of a triumph, if only because the author manages to cover the entire field, without any obvious omissions. You could think of it as a delightful taster menu. There are many new photographs, but illustrations from old books are also used quite extensively. In fact the short lists of the Rococo book are here replaced by three substantial appendices. The first (in actual fact it’s the final chapter) is an illustrated survey of the main books produced by the various designers. This is followed by a full Bibliography and then a summary of the principal designers and their gardens. The indispensable list of places to visit is very full and covers Britain, region-by-region (I know I shouldn’t admit it, but I’ve already photocopied that list and put it in the car glove box).

I’m fully aware that bookshops are full of expensive and lavishly illustrated books on garden history. And good luck to them. But if, like me, you are the sort of person who would rather visit a garden than look at photos (which can never do the real thing justice, if only because they lack movement, sound and scent), then I would suggest you invest in a few of the modest volumes in the Shire Library. Then next summer you can spend the money you’ve saved on a slap-up cream tea in an English country garden. Could anything be more pleasant?

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