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Brief book reviews

London's Lost Rivers: A Walker's Guide
Tom Bolton, with photography by S F Said and a foreward by
Christopher Fowler (Strange Attractor, 2011)
Softcover, 14.99
270pp, including black and white maps and photographs, with 8 colour photographs 978-1907222030

For those who have enjoyed Nicholas Barton's classic work "The Lost Rivers of London" (Historical Publications), this excellent book of walks is a handy companion, sized to fit a coat pocket and including an elegant page layout and clear maps. In separate chapters, the original courses, now mostly subterranean, of the Westbourne, Tyburn, Fleet, Walbrook, Peck, Neckinger, Effra and Wandle are shown, and the walker is led from the sources of each of these rivers toward the Thames along the nearest route currently available, with descriptions of the localities along the way. Wherever possible, the author identifies the imprints and traces left by these lost rivers upon the current road layout and property boundaries. It is also very worthwhile to have not just nostalgic tales and legends of old London Town relating to each river, but also references to very recent history and to new buildings and roads.

The guide is enlivened by the eerie photographs of S F Said, better known as a writer. They were taken on expired Polaroid stock, whose decaying emulsion has created odd runny-egg blobs, flares and crackles in the photographs included in the book the better to emphasize the other-worldly nature of the investigation. The several hundred photographs taken for this project but not included in the book are on Said's Flickr stream under the name "The Gentleman Amateur".

Yuri Gagarin in London and Manchester: A Smile that Changed the World?
Gurbir Singh (Astrotalk UK, 2011) Softcover, 10
175 + x pp., black and white illustrations

This fascinating and well-researched book recounts the legendary Soviet cosmonaut's visit to the UK in the summer of 1961 at the height of the Cold War, setting it within the context of scientific advance, the political climate in the UK, and Gagarin's relationship with his political masters in Russia. A timeline is included, as well as much new information from personal interviews with those who met Gagarin, by all accounts a personally charming man who found himself in a difficult and charged political situation.

Abstract Graffiti
Cedar Lewisohn (Merrell, 2011)
Hardcover, 19.95
176pp, full colour throughout 978-1-8589-4526-2

This copiously-illustrated book of essays and interviews is worldwide in scope, featuring examples of graffiti from the streets of major cities (London being well-represented), discussing the eco-system of gangs, aerosol spray-paint manufacturers, and the fine art community that has taken what one might consider a voyeuristic interest in transgressive acts for several years now.

The reverent tone in which the interviews with "taggers", skateboarders and performance artists are conducted, and the critical parallels drawn here with pop-art and avant-garde graphic design (at which some graffitists show an untrained but genuine talent, while others have a fine-art training), sometimes bemuse the reader into forgetting the great truth at the heart of graffiti: it is an "artform" based on criminal damage to other people's property or to public property. Therein lies the thrill. Some of the graffitists interviewed speak of their addiction to tagging up the public space, under the eyes of the police. In the interests of balance, there is an interview with a judge who patiently explains that criminal damage to private property is a serious matter, even if it is non-violent, because "it gives an impression of social deprivation and probably crime as well" (p. 88).

You can bet that most of the graffiti connoisseurs and critics who enjoy this book would not like to find that their own garden wall had been tagged up. while they were asleep. But it is worth noting, as Ruth Miller points out in her article about London's murals in this issue, that many wall paintings that were executed properly with the owner's consent are much-loved and familar features of their area many years later.

Walk the Lines
Mark Mason (Random House, 2011)
Hardcover, 12.99
376pp 978-1-847-94653-9

Mark Mason walked along (roughly) the routes of the Underground lines, several hundred miles in all, recording historical trivia and personal reflections and experiences along the way. This is not a book aimed at London Transport enthusiasts, by the way, it is light on trainspotting detail.

If you enjoy walking, you could use it as a walking guide to introduce you to parts of London you have never visited, through you may need to supplement the author's whistlestop tour with additional research.

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