Sunday, 6 July 2014

Books About Town by the National Literacy Trust

London's streets have seen their fair share of pop-up art series in the past few years. We've had elephants (more than once), Easter eggs, and now we have books. Dotted around the city currently are fifty illustrated benches, shaped like open books. This is the Books About Town campaign, launched by the National Literacy Trust earlier this week. It aims to promote reading for fun, as well as learning about London's literary history. Like the elephants and Easter eggs, the benches will be auctioned off to raise funds for the National Literacy Trust, at the end of the summer.

The book benches are arranged around London in a set of four trails; running through Bloomsbury, The City, Greenwich and along the South Bank. Earlier this week, I explored the Bloomsbury trail, which was handily just down the road from my house, and also the pub at which I'd agreed to rendezvous with a friend to watch Andy Murray crash spectacularly out of Wimbledon (freelancing is the best!). In the space of a (slightly sweaty) hour, I made it to 8 of the 12 benches along the trail. 
Bloomsbury has been home to endless writers and publishers over the years, so the trail here features books by former residents as well as books which have some kind of link to buildings and spaces within the area. In Gordon Square - home to the famous Bloomsbury Set - sits a pale duck-egg blue bench, in homage to Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway'. On the opposite side of the road, in the smaller Woburn Square Garden, sits the 'Sherlock Holmes Stories'; not in Baker Street as one might expect.

The benches have appeared mostly across Bloomsbury's green spaces and public squares, beside cafes and playgrounds. And despite being only a day or two old, many of them were already in use. I couldn't even get a photo of 'The Importance of Being Earnest', as it was completely covered in laughing, lunching students. Peter Pan - appropriately - was providing a peaceful spot for small children to climb and eat ice creams, down on Red Lion Square, near the old Central Saint Martins building. Interestingly there seem to be two benches commemorating this ever-young boy - this one, and another one down near St. Paul's on the trail through The City. 

The books have been designed by a mixture of famous artists and local talent. Some weave together multiple icons from the books, in a jigsaw of colours and images, whilst others focus on a single, simple representation from the plot. Many have made clever use of the hidden folds of the spine, adding their signatures or secret creatures inside the ends of the books.

'Pride and Prejudice' sits on the leafy Queen Square Park and Garden, with a vaguely Jennifer Ehle-looking Lizzie staring out from the front of the bench on the lunch-eaters and mid-afternoon coffee-breakers. From there, I ventured further eastwards to find 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', in St. George's Gardens, just up above Coram Fields. Every inch of this bench was covered in paintings of Lucy and Mr Tumnus, hidden polar bears lurking in the folds, and a huge Aslan across the back spine. 
Near my old university buildings on Torrington Place I discovered a further clutch of books. Outside Senate House - the monolith so architecturally beloved by Hitler - was a monochrome bench in honour of John Wyndham's sci-fi classic, 'The Day of The Triffids'. I say it was monochrome, as the majority  of the blitzed landscapes and tall, stalking plants were portrayed in black and white, but tucked in one end I spotted a tiny gold bird - a symbol of hope for a bleak, plague and plant-ravaged world?
And of course Senate House also inspired George Orwell's description of the Ministry of Truth in '1984'. A '1984' bench sits within sight of the building, right next to a tent currently being used to host recent graduation and end of term parties for the universities and colleges around the campus. As I walked past it, someone was making a phone call on the bench, sat right on top of the frenetic multi-coloured dystopia.

It was lovely to see the benches already in use (even if it made my mission to photograph as many as possible a challenge!), and I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for more around the city this summer. You can find maps of all the trails and locations of the benches here, if you fancy spotting a title or two yourself in London this summer. (And the campaign's Instagram is worth a look as well, for a look behind the scenes at the bench designing.) Happy hunting, and happy summer reading!

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  1. What a lovely idea! I haven't seen the books yet, I totally need to check them out. The thing is, when the elephants were everywhere in London, I fell in love with one and tried to buy it. My husband wasn't too pleased about it and someone put a higher bid anyway. It is still a sore subject.

    1. Oh wow, I didn't know you'd bid on one of the elephants, Muriel. Which one? Too bad you missed out. Maybe you guys could get a book bench instead...?!

  2. Love your elaborate descriptions! I did Bloomsbury Trail too, had a fabulous afternoon. Blogged about it too but I have more pictures than comprehensive text like you:

    1. Thanks! Shall go and check out your photos...thanks for sharing the link!


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