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4.0 out of 5 stars A Polished Bauble, 16 Jan 2012
Nicholas Casley (Plymouth, Devon, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Story of Greenwich (Hardcover)
This book was published in 1999, just in time for the Millennium celebrations that put Greenwich centre-stage. It comprises a prologue and twelve imaginatively-titled chapters. His history brings us right up to the close of the twentieth century and the construction of the Millennium Dome and a bright future ahead (sic).

Clive Aslet is someone with a knack to write history in an accessible and evocative way. Take, for example, his description of "the killed-pig squeal of saws", or his account of Greenwich, having fallen out of the grasp of the church authorities, falling into the hands of the crown: "Being more than a bauble, it was picked up, put in the royal pocket, treasured and polished until it sparkled as one of the most splendid palaces and royal building sites in the land."

In his prologue, Aslet uses Nelson's funeral as a symbol of the relationship between Greenwich and events of national importance. He goes on to write, "Echoes of national history resonate through every corner of Greenwich. This book sets out to trace them." As well as the royal occasions associated with Greenwich through the centuries, Aslet introduces us to some of its other well-known personalities: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Inigo Jones, Samuel Pepys, John Flamsteed, John Evelyn, and John Vanbrugh among them. Halfway house in the book sees the completion of the Royal Observatory and the beginnings of the Naval Hospital; Aslet has, therefore, given some generous and welcome time to the earlier history of Greenwich. (I spotted only one error: the University of Greenwich was not formerly the Polytechnic of East London, but Thames Polytechnic: I should know, I studied there when it was based further down the river in Woolwich.)

A case can be made that Aslet, in his marshalling of national events into a local context, ignores the actual nuts and bolts of the creation and development of the town itself; these only receive a cursory narrative. The same can be said about Greenwich's relationship with the county of Kent of which it formed a part for most of its life. Of course, surrounding areas also play their part in Greenwich's story - Deptford, Lewisham, Lee, and Charlton - and these duly make their appearance, but it is events on Blackheath that seem, more than elsewhere, to have the major role in this book. Here, Aslet again demonstrates his mastery of the metaphor, remarking on the break up of the estates at the start of the nineteenth century in order "to butcher the land that went with the big houses around Greenwich into manageable joints, to be cooked by developers and served up, with appropriate garnishes, in slices to the superior middle classes."

But, despite the history of Greenwich and its surrounding lands, it is the river - "always the river" - that is centre-stage. And here too Aslet has an eye for detail. For instance, on the retaining of the Queen's House whilst all around was being demolished, the author informs us that, "As a result, the focal point of the grandest parade of baroque architecture in Britain is a small, chastely rectangular house, designed as a garden caprice." I had not taken notice of this fact before, my senses being otherwise bullied into noticing the more attention-seeking and outrageous edifices that arrest the eyes in the view from the river.

The book is splendidly illustrated. In particular, there are some wonderful reproductions over double-pages of various paintings, including ones by Canaletto and Turner. In addition, the volume includes a reproduction of Antony van Wyngaerde's 1558 depiction and Sir Jonas Moore's map and description of 1662, but it is a shame that these are not shown in details. The book could have done with some modern interpretative maps, showing the town's growth through time, and especially illustrating its origins within the natural landscape. But full marks to the publisher for putting an 1886 map of Greenwich on the endpapers.

A list for further reading, remarks on principal sources, and an index bring this well-written popular history to an end.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Greenwich, 12 Oct 2013
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This review is from: The Story of Greenwich (Hardcover)
I loved this chatty and informative book which was a pleasure to read and made me like Greenwich even more
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The Story of Greenwich
The Story of Greenwich by C Aslet (Hardcover - 17 Dec 1999)
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