Back to the Future

In Military History
Last night I found it. My First Shire Book. On a shelf in my childhood bedroom, behind some miniature farm equipment, and nestling between an illustrated \'Treasure Island\' and a photo book of British Ships, was \'Discovering London for Children\'. I pulled it off the shelf and gazed at its cover - a wonderfully \'period\' illustration showing a turtle-necked, sideburned father and his excited son pointing at an itinerant dinosaur. To their left is a girl: the boy\'s mother? His sister? His father\'s secretary? No, not then. And to her left is a stern beefeater, raven on head. This cover took me right back to my primary school years and weekend trips to London on the train. The noisy HST, with its yellow vestibules, blue plaid seats and the little clip on the table that read \'tariff\', and which I never understood. The salad lunch packed in tupperwares carried in a yellow duffle bag advertising Olympus cameras. The flies wittingly consumed along with that salad lunch, on a bench in Hyde Park. Vivid, warm memories. Inside the book is written, in a young hand, N.M. and M.C. Wright - I still remember the occasion that I went through writing my name in all my books. And I remember many occasions later on, book fetishism having set in, that I wished I hadn\'t.

Anyway, this was my introduction to Shire, and little did I wonder that thirty years later I would be working on this extraordinary list. The book is now a potent reminder of a time past: the days before computer games and cynicism. It is out of date, and it is a world away from the books and internet sites that would now be its competition. But there is something wonderful about it. It talks to children as children, but it doesn\'t treat them as idiots. It presents the intricacies of London and its history without recourse to crude or silly humour, and the places that it recommends then had several years of welcoming eager junior visitors before they would feel the need to become \'accessible\', with the introduction of fun activities, video screens and the banishing of most of the exhibits to warehouses and old aircraft hangars. The London tourist organisations will no doubt tell you that London is a better place for children to visit than it ever has been, but I think we have lost something. I am now the proud father of a very little girl, and I think that I will press \'Discovering London for Children\' back into service for her. The trains aren\'t as comfortable as they were, and some of London\'s attractions have changed beyond recognition, but this little old-fashioned book will still work, I am sure. People always accuse me of living in the past, but I like it there; I just hope Sophie does too...


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