It seems I’ve spent at least half of my life trudging alone through the backstreets of London, lugging shopping or books through squalls of rain and bursts of blue sky so sudden they almost make you jump, and through it all they stand as an almost invisible backdrop, the marshalled houses of London, their mean front gardens, net curtains, little windows, row upon row of Victorian cottages, Edwardian terraces, mansion blocks, cream pillars, checkered steps, slate roofs, wrought iron, all taken for granted. Real Londoners hardly ever get in a car they are driving themselves, and this is their view from the pavement – a view that’s clearer now than it was a few years ago, when the city was choked with cars.
Why, of all the books that have been about London, is there not one about the part we see the most? Only Harry Mount’s enchanting ‘A Lust For Windowsills’ examines the phenomenon, from Thomas Cubitt’s terraced house factory to advice on how to date your ceiling roses. His other book, ‘How England Made The English’ is equally rich in detail about the oddity of simply walking about, from the hodge-podge styles you see everywhere, the result of wars and the byzantine complexities of land ownership, to the barely noticed petrichor* in the post-storm suburban lanes.
The most astonishing backstreets I’ve stepped into apart from some of those in London lie in the suburbs of Brussels, entire neighbourhoods built to a single elegant plan – but even these are not so different from the ones in Chiswick that stem from a single architect. Over-familiarity breeds invisibility, of course, and it is quite hard to even register what you’re seeing, which is why Mount’s books are so goo – but if you think of buying them, get hard copies for the illustrations, not downloads, and ignore the Amazon reader comments written by people who were expecting some kind of history lesson rather than freeform essays.
Meanwhile, I await a book on the subject by a photographer with a keener eye than mine.
*Go on, I know you’re dying to know. It’s the smell you get from wet leaves caused by rain which releases their oils.