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“It’s a coffee table book”

That’s how I usually explain away a purchase when it first arrives. As if anyone other than me is going to delve into a copy of a 19th century London street guide or a pamphlet on City of London churches.

The thing is that over the last few weeks it’s becoming increasingly hard to actually see the coffee table, let alone put your cuppa safely upon it. A combination of some spare time, the sofa and eBay have left me with a backlog of reading material and if day to day harmony is to be continued at Miscellany Mansions I’d better look as if I’m utilising them fully.

I’m a big fan of the poet John Betjeman and so anything that concerns him and his love of London is a must have, cost permitting. Recently I came across two publications that piqued my interest and so found me entering into an online bidding war. Both were secured, one less than my financial ceiling, the other just above (From the school of swings and roundabouts financial accounting).

City of London Churches is a lovely little soft cover book which only runs to 29 pages. In it JB wanders through the existing churches and gives a brief description of each one in terms of history and architectural merit. I’ve visit a few but never seen them through his eyes, so there’s a couple of days that need to be put in the diary.

Betjeman’s London is a collection of his poems, articles and memories from his early childhood in Hampstead to his battles in the late 1950s and early 60s to save many of London’s architectural gems that were due for demolition. His descriptions of late Edwardian London and especially Hampstead which was more rural than it is today are a delight to read. It’s one of those book that I’ll be sorry to finish.

Smoothly from Harrow is a quirky compendium of stories, poems, facts, figures and myths. It’s designed for that most tragic hero of the 20th and 21st century, the London Commuter. Long suffering of delays, cancellations and of course “The wrong type of leaves on the line” the book offers the benighted traveller an alternative to the free copy of the Metro in order to try and make their daily journey just that little bit better. Circumstances have probably overtaken this book in recent times, but I’m sure it could still be read while taking a break from the Dining Room table home office. The title of the book comes from a line in one of my favourite Betjeman poems, concerning an area in which I grew up then known as Metroland, so I think I’ll finish with the poem and get back to my reading before the next tranche of publications drops through the letterbox.

The Metropolitan Railway, by John Betjeman

(Baker Street station buffet)

Early Electric! With what radiant hope Men formed this many-branched electrolier, Twisted the flex around the iron rope And let the dazzling vacuum globes hang clear, And then with hearts the rich contrivance fill’d Of copper, beaten by the Bromsgrove Guild.

Early Electric! Sit you down and see, ’Mid this fine woodwork and a smell of dinner, A stained-glass windmill and a pot of tea, And sepia views of leafy lanes in Pinner – Then visualize, far down the shining lines, Your parents’ homestead set in murmuring pines.

Smoothly from Harrow, passing Preston Road, They saw the last green fields and misty sky, At Neasden watched a workmen’s train unload, And, with the morning villas sliding by, They felt so sure on their electric trip That Youth and Progress were in partnership.

And all that day in murky London Wall The thought of Ruislip kept him warm inside; At Farringdon that lunch hour at a stall He bought a dozen plants of London Pride; While she, in arc-lit Oxford Street adrift, Soared through the sales by safe hydraulic lift.

Early Electric! Maybe even here They met that evening at six-fifteen Beneath the hearts of this electrolier And caught the first non-stop to Willesden Green, Then out and on, through rural Rayner’s Lane To autumn-scented Middlesex again.

Cancer has killed him. Heart is killing her. The trees are down. An Odeon flashes fire Where stood their villa by the murmuring fir When ” they would for their children’s good conspire. ” Of their loves and hopes on hurrying feet Thou art the worn memorial, Baker Street.

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