12 July 2010

Bridges in Britain: 3. "Bridges" (National Benzole Books)

National Benzole was a British company best known for their petrol stations, and a line in spin-off literature intended to encourage motorists to make more use of their cars. The spin-offs included road maps, but also a range of pocket-sized guidebooks.

"Bridges" [amazon.co.uk], published in 1963, was written by Paul Sharp and E.M. Hatt, with a foreword by the artist Sir Hugh Casson. It was part of a series which included "Follies", "Monuments" and "Sailing tours".

The short introduction brims with hyperbole - bridges are "exciting", "daring", "imaginatively conceived", "stimulating and admirable":

"The glory of all such works, whether aesthetically pleasing or magnificently workmanlike without actual beauty, the panache, the breadth of vision enthral us, there is everywhere evidence of humility, the knowledgeable humility of all first-rate architects and engineers, for whom the laws of statics and physics, even in the infancy of such lore, were and are inviolable."
Far be it from me to deny the attraction of all-things-bridge-related, but this is the spiel of an orator or salesman as much as of an enthusiast.

Casson notes that the book is "devised for the entertainment and instruction of motorists". Elsewhere, the book tells us:

"Perhaps the best advice one could give to a would-be student of bridges ... is this: enjoy every single one you meet for the present, and perhaps you will find that connoisseurship develops ... You might make your newly awakened interest ... the excuse for many a happy week or weekend of easy motoring".
The putative happy pontists that this guidebook was aimed at were being offered the romance of the open road, spirits uplifted by engineering and architectural marvels along the way. All, presumably, to sell more petrol. It was a world unconcerned with pollution, energy crises, or climate change, and accordingly blithe of spirit, at least in the ad-man's presentation.

"Bridges" is structured chronologically, with a sequence of two-page spreads devoted to types of bridge (clapper, Roman, chapel bridges, fortified bridges etc, through to motorway bridges and modern footbridges). These are illustrated with drawings and paintings by the author, Paul Sharp, all of which are effective and attractive.

A typical spread presents two bridges (e.g. for early suspension bridges, Union Bridge and Winch Bridge). The text here is less hyperbolic, and indeed offers a range of straightforward facts unlikely to intimidate the lay reader. The book also includes an extensive gazetteer, arranged by county, with short details on a wider range of spans than are featured in the main text. Every bridge in the book is accompanied by National Benzole map references, so the suggestion that this is a guidebook for bridge tourists is at least taken seriously.

The range of bridges is conspicuously more conservative than in de Maré's book from the previous decade. There are few motorway structures, which may seem odd in a book aimed at the motorist, and modernist icons like Arup's Kingsgate footbridge are absent. This reinforces the sense that de Maré was something of a pioneer. The broader culture was presumably still ambivalent towards the modern ribbons of concrete which had made a motoring guidebook like this at all conceivable.

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