Little, Brown £30
Church Times Bookshop £27
OF MAKING many books about cathedrals there is no end. Scarcely a month seems to pass without another appearing within these pages: some are good, some bad, many are merely indifferent. But Simon Jenkins’s England’s Cathedrals is a noteworthy event, following, as it does, the runaway success of his bestselling England’s Thousand Best Churches, and its sequel, England’s Thousand Best Houses. It will be given as a gift and read by scores of people who otherwise might not own a book on the subject.
Relying, in the main, on guide books, Pevsner’s Buildings of England series, and a few old — sometimes very old — standard studies, Jenkins does not promise any earth-shattering new revelations; nor is he always scrupulously accurate when it comes to details. Moreover, his approach is largely conventional. Covering all 42 Anglican cathedrals, Westminster Abbey, and “a selection of Roman Catholic cathedrals”, he uncontroversially focuses more on Wells than Brentwood, Lincoln than Chelmsford, Westminster Abbey than Arundel.
The real strengths of the book are threefold. In the first place, there are the illustrations. The full-colour, not infrequently full-page, photographs are sublime. Some are so good that it would be worth buying the book just to obtain them.
The prose, too, is predictably assured. The accounts of each building are brisk and businesslike. Some last little longer than a few paragraphs. Yet, even in these shorter portraits, Jenkins proves a marvellous advocate for cathedrals. The whole book brims over with enthusiasm. And Jenkins is especially successful in making these massive, often overwhelming, edifices approachable.
In this book, Westminster Abbey is “a batty old woman cackling over her mementos in the nation’s attic”; Truro is “a French tourist lost in Cornwall”; and Chelmsford “a cheery old lady carrying rather too much baggage for her years”.
As this suggests, the third great achievement of this book will doubtless be its capacity to spark debate. Just as he did in his previous guides, Jenkins grades the buildings he describes, allotting five stars to places such as Canterbury, and one star to cathedrals such as Birmingham, Leicester, and Wakefield.
Preferring the full-blooded Gothic to anything else, he is bizarrely indifferent to the classical grace of Derby, and tepid about the modernist appeal of Coventry.
Everyone will have an opinion about his rankings. Some will want to respond with their own. This one could run and run.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.