In the preface author Michael McNay describes his London as ‘dirty, noisy, generally tiresome and good to get away from in the evenings’. As arts editor of the Guardian, the paper he worked on for 37 years, his fascination with London and the minutia which has grabbed his attention must have been gained by osmosis. This huge tome covers in detail an eclectic collection that have attracted him for closer inspection.
[U]nusually nowadays its nearly 600 pages have been printed on high quality stock presumably to do justice to Stephanie Wolff’s fine photographs which illustrate McNay’s observations. Written in plain English, the author doesn’t presume his reader has knowledge of the subject which makes for an easily digestible read.
His attention to detail goes from questioning why Lubetkin’s modernist Highgate flats are called Highpoint while the architect, whose attention to detail was legendary, has the two words High Point positioned above the caryatids on the entrance canopy. To pointing out to the reader that the caryatids on St. Pancras New Church facing the unending traffic jam on the Euston Road have four sisters unnoticed on the south flank wall.
He does not restrict himself to making observations about historical buildings and artefacts. Writing with detail of the Leban Dance Centre built a mere 10 years ago and covered with ’lucent polycarbonate panels’ opaque plastic to you and me, he then enthuses about Sekhmet daughter of the sun god Ra whose 3,300 year old effigy can be found, of all places, above the entrance to Sotheby’s
McNay damns with faint praise a cabbie colleague (www.londoncabbie.net) for his assertion that the statue in Trinity Church Square might not, as asserted, be the oldest in London. He has found that it might not even be King Alfred pointing out that Coade Stone from the 19th century has been employed in touching up the statue’s imperfections and much of the regal regalia are missing.
And talking of cabbies, one omission, from this otherwise comprehensive guide is the frankly anachronistic green cab shelters, but as this is a personal view of London he also omits treasures from the British Museum, the National Gallery and, mercifully Madam Tussauds.
So if you are looking for a guide to London’s most famous artefacts that every tourist just has to see, this book isn’t for you. If as Johnson was reputed to remark “Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists”, then Michael McNay certainly has done just that.
Hidden Treasures of London is split geographically with each section having a useful map giving the location for each of his observations or anecdotes. While on the subject of the off-quoted Samuel Johnson who would have known his black manservant Francis Barber has a cul-de-sac named after him in Brixton?
I think the publishers, Random House, could have missed a trick with this huge tome. Too big to carry around London its comprehensive detail should be put on an app for ease of reference when traversing the capital.
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