The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Castles on the Ground

I some respects this is a rather ugly little book. I don't know if it ever had a dust cover but the dingy brown boards are matched by the pea-souper gloom inside. I love John Piper's work, and the period of art and illustration to which he belongs, but his illustrations here, taken from lithographic prints I think, all have a post-war late 'forties air of grime and coal dust, bonfire smoke and twilight. It really doesn't make one want to live in England.

One can still admire the way he carves images out of tone, and elaborates them with dynamic, eccentric line work. There is no shortage of atmosphere. Yet they seem ill-matched to a text - by J.M. Richards - that "celebrates" (or at least discusses) suburban living.

Chapter One: The Englishman's Home, provides the title of the book, in the sense that the reserved English psychology is in search of a castle to hide inside, and other chapters explore the "Anatomy of Suburbia", "Compactness above all" and "This desirable residence". Taste, and "vulgar pretentiousness" are explored, as is the thorny issue of class... from a middle class perspective.

Richards captures the intimacy of what was then (and still in some ways is) Modern Living: "In the hall, in addition to the faint smell of furniature polish we would have noted an even fainter scent of Pear's soap coming from the downstairs cloakroom".

Writing in 1946, Richards is inevitably rather dated in many of his views. But not always. As someone who is currently living in Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire, I was especially interested to read: ""how the Garden City was invented by Ebenezer Howard as an inspiring social theory but declined, through repeated emphasis on inessentials, into a retreat for cranks and a subject for the misplaced enthusiasm of the well intentioned". Now that could have been written yesterday, and is particularly pertinent with a "town centre redevelopment" currently under way.

Other things are ridiculous statements: "A legitimate complaint against suburbia is that it spreads itself too widely. As the motorist drives out of town along his concreted highway, his hopes of green fields are frustrated mile after mile".

There seems to be no understanding of the changes modern living - and motor cars - was bringing. Of course roads were quieter then, and it must have been hard to anticipate the congested roads we have today. But the very concept of fast individual travel is what has created an ever increasing need for suburban living. Roads - concreted highways - are the ultimate enemy of green fields. Not to mention pollution. I wonder what Richards would make of modern housing estates, Wimpey homes, high rise flats and all the other blots on the landscape which for some people is the nearest they get to having a castle of their own.

Letchworth Garden City may have lost it's way, but at least it had a vision, a dream, at it's core, however diluted it has become. Today there is little integrity when it comes to developing houses - pack 'em in, seems to be the philosophy.

A really odd little book, just 80 pages long. I suppose this is an interesting glimpse of social and architectural history (the book was published by The Architectural Press). I shall keep it... if only for the gloomy and brooding illustrations.

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