I bought this book because I like views, I like Simon Jenkins’s writing, I admire and respect him as an intellect and I disagree with him quite a lot about some things (although I agree with him a lot about others). If this book had been written by another I would have been less interested in it.
It’s a good book, really a very good book. It’s attractive – how could it not be, it’s about views! It’s well-written – how could it not be, it’s by Simon Jenkins. It’s thought-provoking – how could it not be, it’s by Simon Jenkins.
And the author set himself a ridiculously difficult task to pick 100 views from our beautiful England. He sets himself up for quibbles and arguments by restricting himself so much. And he’s almost spoiling for a fight when he selects just five views out of the 100 from the East Midlands of Northants, Rutland, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Notts and Derbyshire, and where all five come from the Peak District!
On the other hand, or perhaps on the same hand, he is pandering to my tastes when he selects 28 of the 100 from the five counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire (although why, we might ask, bring Wiltshire into it?). Maybe that’s one reason the roads to Cornwall are jammed at holiday times whereas the A1 and M1 carry people, through Northants as quickly as possible (to the relief of the car passengers and the residents of Northants alike).
There are cityscapes (and townscapes) and countryscapes in this book – in a ratio of around 1:3. Room for more quibbles, I guess. And the book is a bit low on seascapes and coastscapes, to my mind – but this is all the stuff of interesting and entirely fruitless dispute. Simon Jenkins has chosen 100 lovely and interesting views, and written about them well. What matters it if there are another 900 equally interesting that he could have chosen?
Jenkins does show an extreme upland bias – perhaps shown by most – the northwest is basically the Lake District and Liverpool when it comes to views – mostly the Lake District. It’s interesting that in all those uplands, across northern England, not one of them is a close-up of the burned patches of a grouse moor. Indeed, it’s as if the cameraman had to work around all that burned heather to find some real views.
Beauty is in the eye, or more likely the brain and culture, of the beholder. My eye, and brain, looks at some of Jenkins’s landscapes and sees totally knackered landscapes – ecological deserts, which include some of those much-loved Lake District views. How much more attractive they would be to the naturalist, and the ecologically-cultured eye, if they weren’t grazed to smithereens and represent the worst type of green concrete.
When I look at Snape Maltings I almost hear the Redshanks calling. When I see Lulworth Cove I remember looking for Lulworth Skippers there – successfully! When I see Cape Cornwall I hear a Chough call. But Jenkins does not have an eye, or a brain, for wildlife in these views. There’s a bit of a discussion about how nowhere is completely ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ in this country of ours but it goes not much further than that. The Swift in the index is not Apus apus, nor even Jonathan, but Graham. There are precious few, hardly any, mentions of the life that exists in these views despite the fact that many of us, but not it is clear, Jenkins, would not feel the same about the views if they did not encompass the wildlife that lives within them.
I recognise, viscerally and emotionally, a good half of these views and for me, each conjures up memories of smells, sounds and sights, and of wildlife, friends and days to remember. I can’t look at the views without reliving the experiences. Not much of that comes through to me in this book’s writing – but thankfully there are photographs that bring it all flooding back into my mind.
There aren’t quite enough photographs. Those that there are, are wonderful (almost without exception). But some views get a mere old painting, which works far less well for me. The Clifton Suspension Bridge, almost within sight of which I was born, is undersold by the lack of a great image, as is Chatsworth, Richmond Hill and Dartmouth (how interesting it tends to be the cityscapes, apparently).
But the photographs will take your brain back to these places to relive whatever you lived there. That’s what these stunning views can do. And Jenkins’s writing will make you think about them. But it seems to me that he misses quite a lot of what makes these places truly beautiful and special. If you can’t hear a Redshank when you see a photograph of Snape Maltings then you don’t really know the place, understand the place or get the place.
The trouble is, we have taken the wildlife out of many of these views and you can’t tell that from the photographs. On the page, and on a big scale, they still look pretty – but many have lost much of their natural living beauty. It surprises many to hear that the Lake District is ecologically knackered but much of it is – but it still look s pretty on the page even if there is less birdsong, and fewer buzzing insects and less smell of wildflowers when you arrive on the spot.
It’s a good book to look at, and a very good book to read – but the author has a blindspot for the natural world that makes these landscapes truly live for many of us.
England’s 100 best views by Simon Jenkins is published by Profile Books.
Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha: the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its relevance today is published by Bloomsbury.