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Matchless guide to city explorations

BOOKS

I have been waiting 15 years for this volume of The Buildings of England. It covers Camden, Islington, Barnet, Hackney, Haringey and Enfield, the part of London I know best, and it replaces some of the earliest writing in the whole series, Middlesex (1951) and London except the City and Westminster (1952). It is odd to wait most urgently to have your own territory described. People do not usually need maps of the places they know best, and like other guidebooks the Pevsners are, in a sense, wonderfully annotated maps. There is nonetheless a special interest in seeing your random experience codified and obscure crannies picked out which you have never stopped to examine.

Publication was said to be imminent in 1984. Bridget Cherry has done other things in the meantime, such as a huge volume covering all of Devon (1989), but maybe the task has also been reconceived at least once. A sign of this is the way projected volumes keep splitting in two. The current one was originally meant to include Tower Hamlets, Docklands and the bits of Essex now in Greater London; while the old City and Westminster volume is now projected as two.

Pevsner covered Greater London in three slim volumes and around 1300 Penguin-sized pages. The new edition in six volumes will have almost four times as many pages and will cost close to £200. For those following the series the growth is fun to watch, but for anyone just starting out it must be a little daunting. Maybe it always was. The Buildings of England has always been for fanatics and so it remains.

By comparison with the new volume, Pevsner himself was sketchy and also outspoken. He called the Carreras factory plopped down in the garden at Mornington Crescent 'abominable'. Hampstead Town Hall he reckoned 'a disgrace' in such a rich, artistic borough. Now the Egyptoid factory is being restored and the name of its long-vanished first occupant renewed. And the Town Hall is appealing for donations to refurbish itself as an arts centre. The Buildings of England is necessarily more involved in the fate of its subject than it was 40 years ago. Incautious words are practically unthinkable on its pages now.

So Pevsner at his strongest may be deleted or placed within quotation marks, 'what Sir Nikolaus thought in 1952'. In this way his view is safely historicised. Much of the time, however, current and original texts are seamlessly interwoven. Comparing the two, one marvels at the ease with which newly discovered details of early use or building history are inserted. And yet, one can feel that the integrated text represents a historical conflation which gets more problematic the further the original recedes from us. But Pevsner himself initiated and strongly favoured the process of revision. And, practically speaking, what else can one do?

If we take complex institutions like the British Museum or Hampstead Garden Suburb, we usually find Pevsner interesting on possible sources but very bare on building history and analytical description. In the revision these deficiencies are well supplied, often from books which have appeared since Pevsner's version was written. Such complicated stories are extremely well told and open many vistas for anyone who knows the institutions. I have been to the British Museum countless times, but the eight pages devoted to it here have opened my eyes to key phases in its growth - both those which did and those which did not happen - while the coverage of the new British Library, seen to be a spin-off from the museum, is a model of clarity and sanity.

Buildings which barely appear in the early edition become interesting in the second because we find they contain an astounding Walter Crane window (which Pevsner doubtless never saw) or because they host an improbable meeting of Hawksmoor and Teulon, two architects as different as can be, but both overpowering in their own way. This occurs in St George, Queen Square, a building Pevsner describes without mentioning either architect.

After my 15-year wait I find my own street dispatched too quickly, but once or twice I feel the level of detail threatens to swamp almost anyone's interest in the building in question. Sutton House in Hackney, important for where it is and for how close it recently came to being savaged, is given five dense pages in which one keeps looking for some sign that this is an exceptional structure. It has certainly experienced vicissitudes and vicissitudes are always interesting up to a point. But I could not escape the feeling that I was being told all this simply because it was known.

Perhaps I should confess that I find Pevsner's cathedral descriptions heavy going and am not sure I have ever succeeded in reading one through. But who is to say what the right level of detail is? When we find there is too much, we can skip. Just two deletions which I noticed and regretted: Pevsner quotes Pater on Henry Wilson's church in Exmouth Market. Has this disappeared because Pater is less interesting to today's readers, or because his comment is fruity and impressionistic? Pevsner also mentions Sickert's painted views of a music hall in Camden Town, now deleted. Because it offers no hard information about the building? But, like Pater, it adds colour, and makes a drab building come briefly alive.

In the end I am simply staggered by the amount of new material in this volume, of strange artefacts disentangled from the teeming mass and waiting to be visited. Exploring London, that enormous game of hide-and-seek, has got easier but more complicated, which is exactly what the enthusiast of cities wants.

Robert Harbison is professor at the University of North London

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