Monthly Archives: February 2016

Hubert Pragnell, Architectural Britain

This chronological study of British architecture from Saxon times on is produced by the National Trust and its dimensions (it’s about 15 cm square) mean it can be slipped into a handbag or large coat pocket when visiting a notable building. I haven’t read it all through and I think that is not the best way to use it; it can be dipped into either for information on a particular building or place (as long as it isn’t Manchester, which seems only to have one building worth mentioning), or for a summary of a particular aspect of British architectural history.

The 320 pages contain generous amounts of densely printed text, copious detailed line drawings by the author, as well as photographs (many of them naturally enough of National Trust properties). The quality of photography is generally good, though the photograph of Great Pulteney Street on p. 205 is too under-exposed to be much use. The focus is on large-scale buildings rather than ordinary vernacular architecture, and architecture is regarded as applying only to structures with a roof and walls (apart from the Forth Bridge). Thus open-sided market halls, whether ancient stone ones or later iron-framed Northern examples, don’t get covered. The first few chapters are largely about churches, the rest mostly about secular buildings. Inevitably there are things that the reviewer would have liked to have read more about: post-mediaeval churches, or Art Nouveau (while there may not be many buildings in this style in Britain, it had a definite influence on architectural detail at the turn of the 20th century).

I am not well placed to find inaccuracies, but I noticed one: the Bathwick church referred to (pp. 207-8) is St. Mary’s not St. John’s. The author may not have realised that the asymmetry of Camden Crescent in Bath was not originally intended, but came about because during construction it became clear that the planned east end would be likely to subside down the hill. The indexing, though detailed, is not well laid out because a lack of indentation makes it hard to tell when entries for one place end and those for the next begin. An index of architectural terms would have been useful.

An online search for this book finds the 2007 imprint described as a revised edition, although my copy says it was first published in the UK in 2007. Was an earlier edition published elsewhere? The insidious influence of television can be seen on the cover, where the name of Ptolemy Dean (who contributed a single-page foreward) appears in larger type than that of the actual author.

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Rob Temple, Very British Problems

This is the book of the Twitter hashtag – a selection of examples of behaviour which is perceived as characteristically British, with some more related discussion about matters such as British weather. I recognised a lot of it – especially the chapter about driving, and other traits such as the recent tendency to whisper at people when asking them to move aside, rather than speak out loud. But much of it seems to reinforce a stereotype which doesn’t reflect reality, or at least only partially.

Throughout there is an assumption that people will do anything rather than speak to someone they don’t know. I think this is a south of England thing. Alongside it is an assumption that people will do anything rather than speak to a work colleague outside work – for example by hiding from them on a bus or train. Really? Perhaps I have been lucky in my workplaces, but when a colleague and I have spotted one another on the way to or from work, we have acknowledged one another, and more often than not sat down together (or walked alongside one another) and chatted about work or other matters for at least part of the journey.

Maybe I am just not very British by temperament. For example, I refuse point blank to drink instant coffee and am not terrified by the prospect of speaking in public. The two things I find most baffling about my fellow citizens are their tolerance for poor quality salted butter, and their love of picnicking in car parks (although I gather the latter characteristic is to be found also among Iranians).

This kind of book of observations about behaviour sometimes becomes a classic (we have an entertaining set of them by Paul Jennings), but I think this one will not age well. There are too many references to current personalities, TV shows and so on which will have been forgotten in a decade’s time. And technology and such matters as the layout of supermarkets are changing so fast that references to them will soon be baffling. So if you’re going to read this, do it while it is still topical!

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