This weekend I had three books to read on my to do list. Jodi Picoult’s ‘Nineteen Minutes’, which the less said about the better, and why I didn’t listen to myself the first time I read one of her books I really don’t know; Will Gompertz’s ‘What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art,’ and Richard Guard’s ‘Lost London’.
I really wanted to like the Gompertz book. Really, I did. I am interested in modern art, and I know a fair bit. I was kind of hoping for an entertaining romp through the bits I already knew, possibly with some salacious tid bits thrown in, and then a brisk dash through the bits I didn’t know that would make me seem wise in a stroky beardy way should I ever get stuck in a lift with an art critic.
Sadly, the book really didn’t do it for me. It was rather uneven, and in my opinion, not terribly entertaining. It kind of billed itself as a bit shock and awe, a bit fun, a bit irreverent, but it was mostly fairly plodding and a bit dry, which is a shame, given that the art world is notorious for weird behaviour and weirder paintings, particularly modern art.
The illustrations that came with the text were also really poor, which is one of the things that always presses my ‘outraged of Broughton Astley’ buttons. Art books are about art, which is mostly coloured in, so having artworks reproduced in grainy black and white is insane making, as is talking in depth about art works that aren’t actually pictured in the book.
Lost London, on the other hand is all I wanted and more.
It’s a wonderful little book full of snippets of information that you just want to bore everyone with, and I did. Jason, at one point had to show me his ‘Talk to the Hand’ face, and demand that I not share any more random facts with him for fear his head might actually explode.
As well as cataloguing buildings that are sadly no longer with us, the book also talks about events, like Bartholomew Fair in which you could see; ‘Toby, a ‘real learned pig’ who, with twenty handkerchiefs covering his eyes, could tell the time to the minute and pick out cards from a pack. Meanwhile, Thomas Horne recorded seeing ‘four lively little crocodiles hatched from eggs at Peckham by steam.’
It also tells you about jobs that no longer exist any more, like ‘Pure Collectors’, whose job was to go around collecting dog pooh for the tanners to use when they were curing leather. He quotes Henry Mayhew, saying collectors ‘have their right hand covered with a black leather glove; many of them however dispense with the glove, as they say it is much easier to wash their hands than to keep the glove fit for use.’
If you love London, or if you just enjoy random, odd and unsavoury facts to share with people as they are eating their dinner, or you cannot hold yourself back from finding out whose bright idea it was to race Kenyan cheetahs at the greyhound track in Haringay, then this book is an absolute must.