BOOK REVIEW / Fish, chips and guardsman's buttons: Big Ben, cricket and the Grand Canal: Sue Gaisford explores city life by browsing through the latest guide books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
King George V's consort was not famous for her sense of humour. She was once seen to giggle when a visiting ambassador dutifully ate some little biscuits she had graciously offered him to feed to her dogs, but otherwise she was pretty grim. Yet her husband knew what amused her. 'Come over here, Mary,' he said when they were visiting the Tate and he had spotted some French Impressionists. 'This will make you laugh.'

It is not the kind of thing you might expect from a guide book but it is typical of the Everyman Guide to London. This is a guide book not for the whistle-stop tourist with 24 hours to do the sights, but for the serious reader. It is stuffed full of answers to quiz questions. It will provide the words which go with the chimes of Big Ben; the site of the first-ever ladies' smoking room; the name of the church with the widest nave in England; the significance of a guardsman's buttons; the importance of Wynkyn de Worde.

It balks at some things. Of cricket it warns: 'The game itself is simple, but the densely complicated rules require many months of careful study.' Though true, this is a sentiment that reflects the partly French origins of the book. David Campbell, the genius behind the immensely successful relaunch of Everyman, has gone into partnership with his friend Pierre Marchand of the equally impressive French publisher Gallimard to produce a series of travellers' guides as comprehensive and fascinating as the famous Baedekers of the last century. There are six ready so far and many more planned. They are magnificent.

The style of the books is new. Their shape is like an oversized diary, complete with silk bookmark: the covers are made of that heavy rubbery stuff used by car manufacturers to bind owners' manuals - bendy and strong and probably weatherproof. The illustrations are various and often beautiful: some are clever three-dimensional sections showing, for example, the complex structure of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul; some are scale maps of selected landmarks - all the parks in London, say, or the palaces along the Bosphorus: some are step-by-step picture-recipes for Christmas pudding, Tuscan ribollita, Turkish chicken with apricots and almonds. (It is almost worth buying the books for these alone.)

Local features provoke specific responses. In Venice, as Robert Benchley discovered to his dismay, the streets are full of water, so the Venice guide has a 30-page section on the Grand Canal. The water bisects the page and the lower half is printed upside down. As the water-bus chugs along, the curious traveller may identify each sumptuous building on the shore. On the way back, he simply turns the book round and plays the same game with the opposite bank. In Istanbul, he will be quite unafraid to see anybody going into an elaborate ritual of pinching his right ear, then whistling, then tapping the table three times: that's how you keep bad luck away in Turkey.

The series is strongly, and pleasingly, literary. Apart from little snippety quotes in the margins throughout, from characters as different as Suleyman the Magnificent and Arthur Scargill, each book has a section devoted to longer extracts from the work of famous writers, giving their impressions of the city. To give just one example, in Istanbul there is a wonderful bit of Thackeray's travel diary, in which he finds himself in a 'soft boiling simmer, which, no doubt, potatoes feel when they are steaming' before he is belaboured violently with a horse-brush and lathered with something exactly like 'old Miss Mcwhirter's flaxen wig that she is so proud of, and that we have all laughed at . . . you little knew what saponacity was till you entered a Turkish bath'.

It is also very strong on aesthetics. Each guide contains really excellent reproductions of some of the finest paintings and works of art to be found in these cities, together with brief and illuminating commentaries. The Rokeby Venus, for instance, which hangs in the National Gallery, is the only known example of a Velasquez nude: Titian's last, anguished Pieta in Venice includes a portrait of his son, who had died that year in the epidemic of bubonic plague.

Though very beautiful, the books are not particularly practical. It takes a lot of hunting to find out what to do in an emergency, and even then the only suggestion is to dial 999. Everyman's readers are resilient, experienced and resourceful travellers. When they visit London, their heads will not ache, their new shoes will not rub and their wallets will not be stolen. They will stride through King's Cross, into Shepherd Market, round Piccadilly Circus or across Hampstead Heath at dead of night quite untroubled by any signs of unpleasantness. Their health will be perfect and their teeth sound.

Lesser travellers, tourists even, who might feel the need of an all-night chemist or an emergency dentist and who are - relatively - indifferent to Thackeray and Titian, would do well to equip themselves with the Eyewitness travel guide to London, which is very slightly cheaper, shorter, broader and heavier than its rival. It does not just tell you about fish and chips, it gives you a photograph of them, so you can be sure of getting the real thing. Like other Dorling Kindersley books, it has a bright, clean appearance, clearly laid out and easy to follow. It would stand you in good stead for a busy few days, but when the trip was nothing more than a memory of summer, you might prefer to spend your winter evenings with Everyman, reliving previous and planning future adventures. And making sure to restock the first-aid box.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments