Book review: The Pleasures of Observing the City by Ana Kinsella

Book review: The Pleasures of Observing the City by Ana Kinsella

Ana Kinsella takes the reader on a stroll across London observing its buildings, people and seasons as the walks frame moments in time, revisit memories and form new ones.

With some of the book set amongst the Covid-19 pandemic, it also captures the very strange time when central London was empty; when it felt like someone had pressed pause, yet only a couple of miles either side some neighbourhoods thrived and parks became the centre of outdoor life.

The book connects the reader to London and even for those who don’t know it that well there will be mentions of a view, a building or a journey that will likely stir a memory.

Not content with offering her own memories and observations on her London walks the author also intersperses her thoughts with individuals, tube station staff, musicians, fashion designers and others, some of whom remain anonymous, reinforcing that it’s the capital which is the focus here.

From Chinatown to Smithfield, Hampstead to Mayfair she criss-crosses London and its neighbourhoods from the globally famous Oxford Circus, Tate Modern and Trafalgar Square to the neighbourhood squares at a more local level where she notices the trees and benches near her home and how the people who use the space interact with each other, Along the way there are field notes to mark the seasons and how areas change.

A quote by American urban planner Kevin Lynch puts the book in context as he suggested that “We use the built environment – streets, walls, districts, monuments – to form a mental map of the place where we live”. This is very much what Kinsella does in taking us with her on a walk around London and in reminding us that there are many aspects of cities that shape how we experience them.

Perhaps the key takeaway is how it’s impossible to be an objective onlooker – anywhere – but more so in cities as there is so much to observe. Kinsella suggests that we always bring our own identities and biases and experience with us during our observations and also that there are barriers to movement that relate to class, race and money if we choose to look.

Whether you know London really well or just pass through, this book in an enjoyable read. It comes back to you when you’re walking around some of the more well known places featured and makes you pause a little longer now as a reminder to see what’s around you.

Look Here – On the Pleasures of Observing the City by Ana Kinsell (Daunt Books) is out now.

Reviewed for The London Society where Diane Cunningham, our director, is a trustee

This is one of many tours which The London Society offers each to get behind the scenes in key buildings or locations across the capital. Diane is a trustee of the society.