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Bath (Innercities Cultural Guides) Paperback – 13 Jan 2012
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About the Author
John Payne is the author of books on Catalonia and the English West Country. Born in Bath, he lives at Frome in Somerset.
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Payne is a Bath native and an accomplished historian - advantages, but also potential hazards in a book such as this. He avoids the pitfalls admirably, managing an impressive lightness of touch throughout. Knowledgeable but never didactic, expressing opinions but never opinionated, for me the book felt like a slow, companionable walk around the city in the presence of an easygoing friend. Familiar sights and figures are given their due - the Royal Crescent, the Roman Baths, Beau Nash - but Payne also uncovers a less familiar, less salubrious but perhaps more interesting Bath in its industrial heritage, political and religious dissent and connections with the slave trade. With the same light touch, the book is salted throughout with the author's personal reminiscences and titbits of fascinating information. For example, I never knew that Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie spent his exile in Bath...and apparently enjoyed the contrast with Addis Ababa.
The book's chapter divisions are constructed artfully - `Landmarks', `Bath People', `Faith in the City' and so on - enabling the casual reader to pick and choose according to their interests, while also working as a linear narrative, encompassing the city's history from ancient origins to the present day. It's a short book. Payne wears his knowledge lightly and never gets bogged down in excessive detail, leaving the reader wanting to know a little more, which is just as it should be (there's a handy 'Further Reading' section at the back).
The one small part of the book with which I felt inclined to disagree was Payne's rather faint praise for Jane Austen, Bath's best known writer. Whereas the continuing popularity of "Austen's cramped little world" bemuses him, I think her timelessness stems precisely from the fact that all of us always live in cramped little worlds of one kind or another, and have to figure out how to inhabit them as best we can. Still, just as Austen's books succeed in dramatising for a wider stage the choices available in her own little world so Payne's book - in transcending the tour guide's Bath of Austen, spa and Georgian architecture - succeeds in showing how the particular little world of Bath is less cramped than many, myself included, had imagined.
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imagine the destiny of the city of Bath if, in earlier times, it had
emerged with a - shall one say - less bathroom oriented name. Already
so aptly labeled the `Queen of the West', one wonders of its potential
position amongst the world's most beautiful tourist spots if clad with
the more romantic alias of Avonbury, or Beechen Springs or Sulian
Waters. This becomes all the more evident in John Payne's gorgeous new
cultural guide of the city. His superbly written book guides one
through this gold mine of a city, laying out broad veins of history
and culture, sprinkling them liberally with nuggets of brilliance.
Whether strolling through churchyards or parks, admiring its
geographical setting from one of its green and protective hills, or
idling in the tall shadow of majestic Georgian buildings, the author illustrates
the journey with a tidbit of interest. Be it from the Roman or
Victorian era, from Jane Austen or Ken Loach, from Pavarotti or Peter Gabriel,
from members of the oldest profession or the newest (rugby stars), each setting
is brought to life, often in another time. The reader feels the centuries concertina
into a beautiful and seamless collage of an ageless location.
Whereas Bathonians, past and present, will thrill in the detail of
every stone overturned, the casual visitor will also find much to
savor in this colloquial yet scholarly review of why the Queen of the
West should, in all rights, lay claim to a title and kingdom well
beyond the ten square miles of physical enchantment it currently