A Year In The Life Of Greenwich Park

Anthony Quiney, (Frances Lincoln, £16.99)

I have been waiting for this book to come out. I first noticed it slated for publishing something like 18 months ago – and eventually got so sick waiting I called round some likely bookshops, and got one of them to call the publisher. I believed it had been cancelled. I am delighted to see I was wrong.

Firstly, a couple of things this book is not. It is not the much-needed serious history and exploration of the park that would be the natural child of A. D. Webster’s seminal 1902 Greenwich Park, shamefully long out of print before a successor has come into place. The text in A Year In The Life of Greenwich Park is interesting enough, but not the primary function of the book (a shame since Quiney is an architectural historian who has been both Professor of Architectural History and President of the Royal Archaeological Institute – I would have placed him in pole-position to write the Park version of John Bold’s definitive Greenwich.) It gives the barest overview of the park’s history – nicely written and entertaining, but not deep enough to present any real analysis.

The other thing this book is not, is a year ‘behind the scenes’ at Greenwich Park. Again, I am mildly surprised that with a commission like this, Quiney didn’t collaborate with Royal Parks to give us a keepers-eye view of what has to be a rarified world, part-way between royal straitjacket and real life; to show us what needs to be done to keep a place like that going, and to give us a glimpse into the ‘secret’ world of Greenwich Park. I can’t sneak around the deer enclosure, behind the potting sheds, on top of the reservoir, inside Hawksmoor’s Standard Reservoir or even poke around in the bowels of the Royal Observatory, but I sure as hell would have liked Quiney to have done so for me – to have given me a vicarious tour of the bits of Greenwich Park I don’t get to see.

So. If that’s what A Year in the Life of Greenwich Park isn’t, then what actually is it?

It’s the book you turn to when the skies are black with rainclouds, the temperature’s below zero and the winds are howling louder than the dog.

It’s the book you carry with you, (despite its size and shape) wherever you go in the world, to remind you why Greenwich is fantastic and its Park is the most beautiful you’ll find anywhere.

It’s the book that gives you confidence that Spring’s low sun will bring the flowers again, that Summer will fill your heart with heady, sunshiny days, that crisp Autumn mornings will remind you you’re alive and that Winter has a crystalline beauty of its own. Oh – and that there are parrots in them thar trees…

Anthony Quiney’s photographs are staggeringly lovely. Now – I know that Greenwich Park is hardly a difficult place to make look stunning, but to make it look different – to surprise a seasoned park-goer into reassessing much-loved areas, to force a casual reader to stop flicking-through and to take a long look at each picture – that’s a skill.

I keep going back to it, looking again, pausing, thinking. What I particularly like about the collection is that it is bang-up-to-date modern. The photographs themselves are of timeless subjects, but the way they are taken (and treated – there appears to have been some fun had with the Hue/Saturation button in places, an effect of which I heartily approve) is pure 21st Century.

My favourites currently include the ‘spider’ tree, the petal-strewn grass, the post-downpour tennis courts and Princess Caroline’s Bath (the last because it made me stop and really think why it had been cropped the way it had. I think I get it now.) But I change my mind every time I look at it. It’s lovely.

As I started out, this is not a substitute for a proper, in-depth study of the park – both its history and what it is now. That is a book long overdue. But as a companion volume to such a work, it is outstanding.

Oh, and don’t miss the parrots.

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