London has always loved its animals. James I kept elephants in St James’s Park (allowed a gallon of wine per day each to get through the English winter), while as recently as Live Aid an urban myth arose that the revolving stage was pulled by horses. The capital’s no different from the rest of the country; if the British showed as much concern for their fellow humans as they do for their dogs, life would be easier. The latest book tapping this market is Animal London (Square Peg, £9.99).
Not that the photographer Ianthe Ruthven has gone for fluffy or cute. Her animals are inanimate, either because they’re statues, monuments, carvings, bits of graffiti or dead (pet cemetery, Hyde Park). The brief bits of accompanying text reveal, among other things, that the word ‘gargoyle’ comes from the French for ‘throat’; that Samuel Johnson bought his cat’s oysters himself to avoid turning his servants against Hodge; that people used to mistake the pelican’s posture for it stabbing itself in the chest to feed its young with its own blood; and that a 19th-century circus performer stood on a horse to portray a different Shakespearean character with each lap of the ring. Inevitably he finished with Richard III’s speech about what he’d swap his kingdom for.
Ruthven’s pictures are good, and if the book feels a little slim that won’t matter too much on Christmas Day, when any animal (or indeed London) fans in your life can consume it in less time than it takes to cook the turkey.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 17, 2011Tags: Animals, Book review, Bookends