A richly illustrated book has taken on the challenge of trying to tell the history of London’s South Bank region, which is more difficult than might seem at first glance.
Unlike say the City, the Southbank is not a single area under single control, and was until the 18th century very much still a lot of fields and not a lot of buildings. Knitting this disparate patch of small villages into a single volume of history is going to be a challenge.
What Mireille Galinou has done to create a book of the history of the South Bank is to tell the story as it would have been seen by the people who lived through it — as a cluster of islands of events.
The book is not a narrative that tells a story as the South Bank is too heterogeneous an area for that to be possible, but an encyclopedia of facts chosen for their ability to leave you with a broad understanding of what the area was like for the people who lived and worked there.
She’s taken each zone of the South Bank, and look at them over periods of time, so you start to understand how the area slowly developed from clusters of villages linked by roads that acted as filaments along which developments could take place and slowly filling in the gaps between the villages.
London is often described as a city made up of villages that merged over time, but that’s often lost in the earlier development of the north side of the Thames, but as the South Bank is a more recent development, it still shows up more clearly in the wide differences in architecture and road layouts as you walk around Vauxhall and Lambeth; Waterloo; Borough and Bankside; and Southwark.
Although the book looks back into the past, choosing 1600, 1770, and 1845 as the points of study, it also gives over just as much effort to the modern South Bank — the one we recognise today, which is less an industrial strip along the Thames than its cultural strip backed by residential homes closer to the Thames on the south than they could ever hope to be on the north.
As a book it’s not one to read as a narrative, as while there’s a lot of discussion about what defines the South Bank as an area and the people who live here, it’s very much a collection of facts about the history of the area.
That makes it a very good reference guide to the area and one that as you work your way through will give you insights into long lost industries and a fresh understanding of how areas or streets gained the names they have today. Anyone who delights in understanding the layers that underly the modern city will be delighted with it.
However, there’s something that lifts this beyond a simple book of facts, and that’s the illustrations. It’s remarkably well presented with enough pictures to shame a decent sized art gallery.
In her foreword, the author thanks the very many institutions that allowed reproduction of the paintings and drawings without the onerous royalty fees often charged for use by stock photo agencies, which has allowed the book to become a feast for the eyes as well as the text for the mind.
The only caveat is that it’s a BIG book, and certainly not an easy one to take to the coffee shop for a casual read. It’s much more of a heavy tome to read at home, and regularly pull off the shelf to check why some bit of the South Bank is called what it is today.
And gaze at the pictures.