Paths to the Past: Post-Publication Reflections


There’s always a great feeling when you open the padded envelope from your publisher and you hold your new book in your hands for the first time. Then you part the covers and invariably it falls open at a random page, and there, mid-way through paragraph two, you’ve written ‘it’s’ for ‘its’, or spelled arpeggio with one ‘g’. It’s at that stage that you spot the colour plate where captions have been reversed, or worse, duplicated: so that a fine Georgian terrace in Bath is described as ‘A limestone cliff in the Vale of Pewsey’. The inevitable result is depression, which I normally anticipate by opening a bottle of Rioja just before I take scissors to the envelope. And there’s nothing like a shared bottle of wine and few gentle words from the wife to put such problems into proportion.

But in the case of Paths to the Past I haven’t spotted any typos or cock-ups. I suppose I should add a precautionary ‘yet’ at this point, but I have re-read the book a couple of times to prepare for the various talks I’ve got to do and so far there have been no problems (touch wood…). I also find that after publication I tend to lose all interest in a new book, usually because I have to concentrate on the next project. But this time, things are a bit different and my re-reading has made me reflect more and more about landscapes and why we mustn’t lose control of them. Yes, of course we need Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in rural landscapes and Conservation Areas in the centres of our historic towns, and again, Ancient Monuments have to be Scheduled and Historic Buildings have to be Listed. All of this is excellent and is generally very well administered. BUT is does have the result that people consider these itemised views, towns, sites and monuments as the only places of any historical importance – which, of course, they aren’t.

I remember when my big book, The Making of the British Landscape came out, I was at a signing when somebody came up to me and said words to the effect: ‘I love to read about landscape history in books like yours, because we don’t have any around us. I come from south London.’ Which of course is complete and utter rubbish, especially with regard to London south of the Thames. Everywhere has history and very often it is most clearly revealed in buildings, street layouts and even railway tracks, not to mention woods, hedges and rivers. We live in an age when scholarship and expertise are increasingly held in low regard, and we run the risk of disparaging our past while some of us denigrate ‘experts’ and spout false news. I feel passionately that we must cherish our surroundings and try to regain possession of them. Too often, Planners and Developers are seen to inhabit separate universes from the rest of us. But it’s OUR past, just as much as theirs – and we must strive to acquire more democratic control over it. We can only do that if we get our facts straight. And that means acquiring the greatest gift that civilisation can bestow on anyone: knowledge – which is why I think books like Paths to the Past are needed so badly.

Phew! Glad I’ve got that off my chest..

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