on 8 October 2013
I ordered this book in advance after seeing some of the pre-publicity material. I have to admit when it dropped though the letterbox I was initially a bit disappointed. I had been led to believe - or perhaps presumed - that this would be a large-format colour glossy coffee table style book. It was not, It was a smaller but substantially thicker (than I thought) book. So was I ultimately disappointed? No, not at all.
Rather than a simple book with a picture of a view with an extended caption (as this book so easily might have been) you get a more detailed narrative, supported by, not dominated by, the imagery. We get to learn more about the context and history of each location, and a very circumspect review. I had also expected, with the National Trust connection that this book might have laboured on rural landscapes and the 'Lost' England but no, Simon Jenkins selection of 100 views includes both the expected rustic scenes and the imposing urban. In particular he highlights one of my favourite views, that from the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park where the elegance of the Royal Naval College and Queens House are juxtaposed with the developments of Canary Wharf and produce a view that is more than the sum of its parts.
So it's a book you can read, rather than merely look at. Do I have any complaints? Only that some of the views are shown not as they are now but in paintings. No problem with that - and some of those paintings are very appropriate - but it would have great to see the contemporary view for all the locations. A small point though, that should not detract from this book overall. Recommended.
After well-received books on England’s 1000 best churches and 1000 best houses, Simon Jenkins now gives us his 100 best views, chosen (he writes in his introduction) by “an ever-changing blend of geology and climate, seasons of the year, time of day, even my own mood at the time.” He asserts a measure of objectivity in his choice. But one man’s beauty is another’s ugliness or indifference, isn’t it? Surely the moors and mountains that were seen as forbidding and barren to the eyes of the sixteenth-century, but which now feature as sites of scenic glory, proves this.
But not according to Jenkins who defends “the concept of best, contesting the idea that beauty of any sort, especially of landscape is subjective.” He supports this statement by the equally strange assertion that, “If visual beauty were purely subjective, conversation about art would cease.” How odd!
He later contradicts himself by appreciating that, “I am acutely aware that what we find beautiful today, those in the past found terrifying, ugly or boring.” Indeed contradictions abound, so that one wonders what Jenkins thinks. One minute he quotes Constable, who, “when criticised for including workaday scenes in his pictures, … declared loftily: ‘I never saw an ugly thing in my life.’” Yet Jenkins rails against the modern workaday – “prairie fields, silos, power stations and … wind turbines.”
At last he can be honest with us, and confess to bias (for which, read ‘subjectivity’): “In gazing on a view I cannot rejoice at grim spruce plantations, intrusive warehouses, waving turbines or random city towers … I delight in natural materials and the patina of age. I apologise to those who disagree and find these biases irritating. They will have theirs.” For instance, of Ribblehead, “I am often asked why, if old viaducts and bridges can be said to add to a landscape, later intruders such as wind turbines and power stations should detract from it. The answer lies partly in materials.”
He concedes that his criteria means that his choice is “skewed towards the west and north” where contours abound (East Anglia, for instance, has only six of the hundred), and that his bias is against the urban – “Future generations may come to see today’s Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield as beautiful. I can only doubt it.” Shame. He does not deny a chocolate-box approach, “because chocolate-box makers know what is popular, and popular for a reason.” What a crass argument!
Looking at the geography of Jenkins’s choice, top is the West Country (seventeen views, but actually sixteen because one of the Exmoor views is in Devon, not Somerset). Then comes the West Midlands (fourteen views, but actually fifteen because the Roaches are in Staffordshire, as Jenkins’s own text makes clear). The South has thirteen, followed by the North West with twelve, nine of which are in the Lake District. Devon and Cornwall have eleven (but actually twelve), and Yorkshire ten. East Anglia, the North East, and London each have six, whilst bottom of the pile is the East Midlands with five (actually four, all of which are in the Peak District). The following counties have no entries: Bedfordshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Surrey, and Warwickshire.
The errors in geography bring me on to errors in the text. In the very first entry (Botallack in Cornwall) we are told of words written by John Norden in 1539, but Norden was not yet born at this date. No monks of Glastonbury fled to Strata Florida. It was not a Somerset accent that voiced the Hovis advert. Is it the Earl of March or the Duke of Richmond at Goodwood? Britain was not made an island 400,000 years ago. The Cuckmere is not “the last undeveloped river mouth on England’s south coast” (there’s the Erme, amongst others). The Cavendishes of Chatsworth were not “a local family that married Bess of Hardwick” (what, all of them?!), but came originally from Suffolk. Scarborough is not in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Scandinavia was pagan in 664, not Christian. And Jenkins has problems with his compass points at the top of Dunkery Beacon and on the Roaches. And these are just a selection of those that I spotted.
So is there nothing to praise? Yes, there are two: the illustrations and Jenkins’s way with words. As for the former, they are not all wonderful contemporary photographs: I counted fourteen paintings (new and old), two engravings, an archive photo, a GWR poster, and a Hovis advert.
As for the latter, take your choice! Here are a few marvels from just the very first entry: “The landscape of St Just [in Cornwall] is … as if County Durham had come south to die”; “an impenetrable nomenclature of metapelite hornfels and pegmatite dykes”; whilst alluding to the view’s geology, “The writer Wilkie Collins admitted to being petrified.” Was it Jenkins or Collins who suggested that apt final word? Other ingenious metaphors in this part of the world include the sea’s violence at Hartland making it “an X-certificate coast”, but the soothing surf at Kynance is “perpetually posing for a photograph.”
I could go on with other examples of Jenkins’s felicity with language, but I finish my review by reminding myself of the words he also uses to claim a false objectivity. With this in mind, this book comprises only Simon Jenkins’s 100 best views of England. They are not my 100 best views. And they will not – should not – be yours.