Towns in Britain by Adrian Jones & Chris Matthews, 2014, Five Leaves Publications, B6, 324pp, illus, index, ISBN: 978 1907869822, £16.99, from Five Leaves Bookshop, 14A Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH, www.fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk.
This wonderful book, full of delights, is the work of two Nottingham residents (if you include West Bridgford in the city’s orbit), Adrian Jones, a former city planner (has a very good website called Jones the Planner), and Chris Matthews, a Nottingham local historian and graphic designer (see his excellent website, local history and art), offer readers their take on over twenty British towns and cities, from both contemporary and historical perspectives, including Nottingham (‘neither Northern nor Midland’) and much maligned Newport (‘home of the Mole Wrench’) in Wales. I would have liked chapters on Basingstoke and Milton Keynes, if only to help with my own education, but I am pleased to say they write fondly about Coventry (‘an underrated masterpiece') and sing the praises of garden cities and some new towns.
Their chapter on Leicester (‘a totally uninteresting Midland city?') begins ‘Leicester has a bit of a problem with its image — it hasn’t really got one… it does its best to hide the fact that it is one of England’s most historic cities’. The authors then provide any would-be visitor with the most perfect of guides and all this before Richard III became the city’s crowning historical glory.
What I love about this critique cum guide is the fact that it is full of literary references. On the first page of the Nottingham chapter we get not only the obvious, D H Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe, but the blessed Ian Nairn and J B Priestley as well, all with something pertinent to say about the city in the 21st century. Somehow Jones and Matthews manage to throw in a good few references to housing, especially public, all too often forgotten. They do not shy away from the obvious: a truth that, in polite society, dare not speak its name. In Nottingham ‘like most cities, there is a lot of poverty alongside conspicuous wealth… (the) relentless alienation of the dispossessed is painfully captured in Shane Meadows’s films, so much so I can hardly bear to watch’.
Towns in Britain is up there with the best and will not disappoint. Ross Bradshaw hopes to eventually publish as an e-book. In the meantime buy the paperback and read at leisure. Once read you will want to keep it handy — it’s that kind of book.
By way of footnote. This year I have bought a couple of other history/planning/architecture books from Five Leaves Bookshop: Concretopia by John Grindrod and Ian Nairn: Words in Place, a collection of essays relating to books and articles (which is also now available as an e-book). Be warned(!) Ross Bradshaw's bookshop is very difficult to leave without spending money. Also a book about mapping, which this has prompted me to write something about, so coming soon...