Books: A vain search for jokes along the meridian
Greenwich: The Place Where Days Begin and End by Charles Jennings Little, Brown pounds 10 Sorry Meniscus: Excursions to the Millennium Dome by Iain Sinclair Profile Books pounds 3.99
Sunday 07 November 1999
Charles Jennings' book on Greenwich takes the latter approach. It is not a guidebook, exactly, but an ideal souvenir for any visitor wanting a straightforward account of the place's development from fishing village to backdrop to the Dome. He covers the main historical and physical landmarks: Henry VIII's jousting and mock battles; the creation and eventual failure of the Royal Naval Hospital; the Naval College, the Observatory and the Meridian.
By arranging his material by theme, Jennings mixes history with architectural description. Good pictures might have made more sense; the 16 grey photographs included rarely relate directly to Jennings' observations. More damagingly, his version of history lacks good stories. There must be interesting anecdotes from the Naval College years, but he contents himself with the bland statement that officers sent to Greenwich "frequently went mad with drink and depravity". The best tale here is about Sir Kenelm Digby and his Powder of Sympathy: this mysterious potion was supposed to transmit pain across vast distances. By arranging for a supply of shipborne dogs who would howl with pain at noon every day, Digby proposed to allow ship captains to synchronise their watches with Greenwich, thus solving the longitude problem. Fascinating; but by the brevity with which Jennings dispatches it, you feel it must already be well known to those interested in the subject.
The real disappointment is that Jennings says almost nothing about the present-day life of Greenwich. He points out, astutely, that the tiny centre has a British seaside atmosphere, mixing pretension and tawdriness. But there is no detailed observation. Reviews of Jennings' earlier books insist that he is a "funny", "wicked", "evocative", "spry", "effervescent" and "insightful" reporter. Even the name of Bill Bryson is invoked. But if there is a joke in this book, it is well-hidden. Witty phrases are hard to come by. It is worthy, painstaking, soundly researched and dull.
None of those adjectives applies to Iain Sinclair's Sorry Meniscus, an expanded version of an essay on Greenwich and the Dome. A rant, in other words, a more pretentious version of the so-called "NRN" - No Research Necessary - feature beloved of the struggling freelancer.
That's not to say Sinclair did no research: he visited the Dome at least twice to ensure that his prejudices were confirmed. He name-checks both Greenwich's local history library and something called the London Psychogeographical Association Newsletter. To this he adds stories; for instance, that the body of Jack "The Hat" McVitie lies beneath the Dome in a rolled-up carpet. And he observes things, too: Russian graffiti downstream of the Naval College, rows of politicians' photographs in the dining room of the Trafalgar Tavern.
Mainly, though, he piles up outlandish adjectives, stinging epithets and extravagant metaphors, and fires them across the water at his target: the Dome and everything it represents. The passages in which he explores the repellent trades that once thrived on the site - Bugsby's Marsh - are particularly ripe.
He even manages to make a stroll along the river path and a chat with a Dome security guard sound like a forced march into the reactor at Chernobyl. It's not, quite; but you get his drift.
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