Friday, March 25, 2011

Batsford's Heritage Guides: Shakespeare's London by Malcolm Day.

When I visited London a couple of years ago, one of my escapades was to visit the two churches that were important to Shakespeare, Southwark Cathedral and St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe (which is a slightly remodelled Wren church now but is sited on the same footprint as the building that was decimated during the Great Fire of London).

Sadly, my forward planning had only led me to print some maps from Google and I’d somehow managed to do this in such a way as to make them incomprehensible – something to do with the scale – and armed with a rubbish sense of direction it took me far longer to find at least the latter than it probably needed to. I flagged a taxi, in the end, which is probably what I should have done in the first place.

All of which is a lead in to suggesting that perhaps I should have invested in a guide book and although this Batsford’s Heritage Guides publication isn’t eclectic enough to include St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe (presumably because the map would be a bit unwieldy if it recorded everywhere Shakespeare may have stood), I’m confident it would have been just the thing to at least point me in the right direction.

In this densely written but accessible survey of the Elizabethan and Jacobean versions of the capital, author Malcolm Day threads elements of Shakespeare’s biography through explanations of the places he would have worked and entertained himself, taking in the local culture and historical business, linking the plays throughout. A discussion of commerce is accompanied by Sherlock’s “I am a Jew …” for example.

My favourite passage is about St Paul’s Cathedral, which both manages to present the requisite awe about its construction and tragedy about the lost spire and also evoke the seething humanity of London at that time by describing how nefarious activities continued in its massive innards and markets selling books including printings of Shakespeare’s plays were held in the yard. As Days says “Nowhere was sacred.”

I also never tire of hearing about the the original London Bridge, a city in and of itself, with its town houses backing directly onto the river supported by nineteen piers, an architectural and engineering marvel too far ahead of its time to survive. The accompanying drawing looks like a concept design for a Terry Gilliam film, tall buildings huddled together on portions of bridge that don't look like they should be supporting the weight they're holding.

A romanticised atmosphere is generated, but Day's research is also bang up to date in communicating currently critical understanding, describing Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well as ‘dark’ comedies rather than problem plays and that in 1599 he completed “the first draft of Hamlet”. It’s rare that such guides even bother with the textual confusion. It’s very impressive and quite rare in this kind of tourist book.

Also impressive are the illustrations, which comprise copious shots of the Globe reconstruction. As someone who loves the place but lives on the other end of the country such things are gold dust and its quite exciting to see shots from their recent production of Henry VIII not to mention The Merchant of Venice with such clarity. There are also detailed picture credits albeit in microdot on the final page.

The 'sites to see' section takes up three pages at the back, one of which the map. I’ve no argument with the choices and indeed I wish I’d known about the Elizabethan street reconstructions at the Museum of London. Understandably there’s a heavy reliance on inns and churches, though its nice to see Middle Temple Hall mentioned, the site of the first production for Twelfth Night in front of the Queen.

But where are the tube stations? If I’d bought this in London and didn’t have access to Google (it’s possible, we don’t all have iPhones), I think I’d be quite disappointed about that. Only Liverpool St. mainline appears on the map as a landmark/triangulation point. Although I suppose asking for directions does open up a welcome avenue of communication, which can be quite welcome if you’re travelling alone.  Otherwise, Day's book is an absolute bargain.

Batsford's Heritage Guides: Shakespeare's London by Malcolm Day is published by Anova Books.  £3.99.  ISBN: 9-781-9063-8893-5.  Review copy supplied.

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