Paul Tempest’s timely book covers the past, present and future of an area rich in history that is a key to the City’s safety and success. The River Thames is the lifeblood of London, and on its southern shore lies the jewel that is Greenwich – a World Heritage Site, man’s agreed base-point of time and space, home of the Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark and so much more. Paul Tempest has lived in Greenwich for more than 50 years, and has researched it in loving detail.
This book is enhanced by the maps and drawings of Peter Kent (another longstanding Greenwich resident and a well-known artist) and the photographs of Stephen Tempest, the author’s son. Together they capture the essence of the place and the spirit of the people who live and work in the Borough. This, says the author, is ‘not so much a formal guidebook as a drawing together of disparate threads, an expression of affection and love’.
Along with the illuminating narrative and rich visual portrait of Royal Greenwich, the author also offers his assessment of how the River has changed over the last 50 years, and what might lie in store in the coming decades.
Drawings by Peter Kent
Photographs by Stephen Tempest
The Greenwich Phantom –
Hard to believe now, with the veritable tsunami of volumes that have been released in the past couple of years, that I started this blog, coming up for six years ago, largely because of the paucity of books about Greenwich, and in particular books like this, covering not just the pomp and history of the town but its people and day-to-day life.
Any book written by Paul Tempest, whose knowledge I trust, photographed by Stephen Tempest, whose images of the old St Andrews church on the peninsula still haunt me and, more than anything, illustrated by Peter Kent, a personal hero of mine, whose work I can stand in front of for hours, is going to get a general thumbs up from me – hell they could write about the sewage problem and I’d be interested (oh, hang on, they do…)
And this is a book you can pick up, read through, put down, then pick up again and find a whole lot new to fascinate and enjoy. It’s just about the most up to date it can be, with photographs and information that can only have been added a few scant weeks ago and it covers huge amounts, with clear lists, good bullet points and excellent articles. I love that the events photographed I was often at, that the people in the photos are people I actually see around town, for some reason it feels all the closer to know that these people walk the same streets I do, and love the same things.
The information is clear, concise enough to be digested quickly, but with enough detail to give a feeling of depth and, well, the illustrations are by Peter Kent. Did I say that already?
I’m a little less enthusiastic about the book’s production values. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic-looking volume and the content is so engrossing it’s not a big deal, but for me the layout process isn’t as invisible as it could have been. One or two of the pages feel a bit like a local authority brochure and I found myself a little frustrated at the double-page spreads where the bit I was most interested in was positioned in the binding.
Of course this is unavoidable with the style of book this is, and I appreciate the choice the publishers have made – the book has been properly bound with saddle-stitch so I CAN open the book completely to see the drawings without the whole thing falling to pieces.
Furthermore I realise that the price you pay for digital printing and full colour throughout is a slightly ‘muddy’ feel to the photos (somehow drawings tend to have an easier ride) and I’m totally cool with that. On balance I’d far rather have very slightly darker, marginally fuzzier colour photos throughout than a couple of plates in the middle of a book. But there are points here where instead of enjoying a photo for its own sake, I found myself thinking ‘they’ve photoshopped that’ – perhaps a picture has been stretched to fit the space for it and all the people are long and thin, or an old photograph has an odd, cross-hatched effect across it – something that occasionally happens to me when I scan things for the blog; I think it’s when I try to scan it at too low a resolution.
Overall, though, that’s carping about tiny stuff that the vast majority of readers won’t even notice. This book is the sort of thing I wish I’d written. It’s wide-ranging, doesn’t concentrate on the Royal history, glitter and pomp at the expense of the people that make Greenwich so vibrant today, takes wonderful little digressions about small but important issues, photos that make me smile, make me remember and make me proud and illustrations by Peter Kent, I don’t think I mentioned that earlier.
I think this will sell beautifully to tourists, but I don’t think it’s actually aimed at them. This isn’t a guide book for a day trip. This is a guidebook for locals – or for someone who is thinking of becoming one. Probably because it’s written by long-term residents and lovers of Greenwich (not always a given, there is at least one ‘definitive’ book out there that I am convinced was written by someone who doesn’t actually like the place) I think the book sums the town up perfectly (and makes forays into other places along the river, though I still don’t think that justifies Boris Johnson’s typically-random, unconnected-with-Greenwich-in-any-way introduction – has the guy ever actually been here?) and if you’re starting a Greenwich bookshelf, I’d suggest this as an early buy.