The Shell Guide to the History of London might be more accurately described as the shell of a historical guide to selected architecture and works of art in London. The terms involved in such titles have long been subject to a process of inflation, as have the volumes themselves. For nearly three centuries there have been innumerable combinations of the words 'guide', 'history' and 'London' together with a great variety of adjectives, each product being claimed by publisher and author alike as the indispensable vade-mecum, mentor or companion for visitors to the metropolis or students of its history. If the appearance of such works is not new, neither is the non-acceptance of their exaggerated claims. In 1851, the Athenaeum complained that 'books of this kind are often got up in haste and from old materials thrown hurriedly together without a due attempt to ascertain what they may have lost of their value from age.' The Shell Guide is not altogether in that category, although it is not much of a recommendation for the author to claim that he has relied in part on 'books written by two magnificent Victorians, Edward Walford and Walter Thornbury': their works, first published in 1875 and 1879 respectively, contain much doubtful anecdotage and often come close to deserving the Athenaeum's strictures. Exaggeration and egregious self-praise are, alas, also still with us in the genre. The dustjacket of the Shell Guide claims that 'none of the great many books' on the city 'delves as deeply into London's historical and social background'.
LRB 4 February 1982 | PDF Download