Sunday, 9 May 2010

Icons of England (various authors; edited by Bill Bryson)

--The blurb--
"This celebration of the English countryside does not only focus on the rolling green landscapes and magnificent monuments that set England apart from the rest of the world. Many of the contributors bring their own special touch, presenting a refreshingly eclectic variety of personal icons, from pub signs to seaside piers, from cattle grids to canal boats, and from village cricket to nimbies. First published as a lavish colour coffeetable book, this new expanded paperback edition has double the original number of contributions from many celebrities including Bill Bryson, Michael Palin, Eric Clapton, Bryan Ferry, Sebastian Faulks, Kate Adie, Kevin Spacey, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Richard Mabey, Simon Jenkins, John Sergeant, Benjamin Zephaniah, Joan Bakewell, Antony Beevor, Libby Purves, Jonathan Dimbleby, and many more, and a new preface by HRH Prince Charles."

--The review--
While a light read, this is of a far higher quality than many other light reads, and this is owed in part to its format (of very short chapters, making it very easy to pick the book up and put it down as you choose), but also to the range of contributors, many of whom are used to having to reach a wide audience in an accessible manner.

The concept is unusual, focusing entirely on the English countryside rather than on a wider range of English icons (such as fish and chips), and this narrower view actually benefits rather than restricts the potential to enjoy the collection. The Devon countryside arguably takes the lion's share of the attention, but on the whole, England seems evenly represented, and the different professions and walks of life from which the contributors come adds further depth, perspective and richness to the descriptions. The authors are a well-chosen and high-quality bunch, meaning that you are only likely to be put off by a topic that doesn't interest you (in my case, cattle grids), rather than by the quality of the writing.

Certainly not everybody's interests can be covered in such a book (for my part, I would have given Windsor's Long Walk and the White Cliffs of Dover their share of the spotlight), but the capacity for inspiration that the compilation holds is astounding. As well as informing the reader of England's hidden nooks and crannies, and evoking memories of places we already know, in reading this you are also likely to be reminded of other places that are known to you - and while the book is very readable and the chapters are short enough to go straight on to the next instalment, chances are you will feel too mired in memory and thought to immediately proceed. This is a testament not only to the writers' ability to move their readers but also to Bill Bryson's editing skills, making this a book to be wandered and meandered through - much like the English countryside itself.

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