Friday, March 20, 2009

Book Review: A Weird and Wonderful Guide to London

A Weird and Wonderful Guide to London, edited by Mat Osman
Le Cool Publishing, 2008
Hardcover, 252 pages

When I travel to a city I always bring a guidebook. In London over the Millennium New Year, for example, I had a pub guide and an architecture guide. Those definitely came in handy for finding bitters and buildings, but of course those were less than sufficient for experiencing the gamut that is London. If Le Cool's Weird and Wonderful Guides were around back then I definitely would have taken their London guide with me. Geared more to residents that tourists, the book uncovers places seldom seen or heard, picked by locals for locals but nevertheless appropriate for adventurous travelers.

The difference between this guide book and others is evident first in the maps, or deficiency in the case of Le Cool. One map is found at the beginning of the book, though it is more table of contents than navigating device, with the neighborhoods and page numbers floating in a white space otherwise inhabited only by the Thames and some dotted lines and arrows, the last following the book's pagination, but hardly anything more. This says to me that there is no set path in the city, a sentiment corroborated by one flip through the book: abundant illustrations, various fonts, numerous layouts and a saturation of color capture the sense of moving through London. Even the start of each neighborhood's section is barely comprehensible, indicated usually by a sign of sorts embedded in the noise of the page.

But aside from the book's design -- a multitude of voices finding expression page after page -- the most obvious difference between Le Cool and anything else is the content. The index paints the picture clearly, and legibly, in black and white. Alongside the long list of pubs, restaurants and stores are "cafes with fetish shops in their basements" and "hairdressers cum art galleries that turn into clubs in the evening." Granted, these last two are short lists, but they make clear the focus on alternative and hybrid, the appeal of places that arise from the types of personalities that infuse the book with its visual charm and varied appeal. It's certainly an artistic and youthful take on the city (if I could take this book back in time with me to the Millennium I would have had a more interesting and inebriated experience then), but one that isn't ignorant of the cultural and historical layers of London.