25th August 2000 at 01:00
CITIES THROUGH TIME SERIES. Mexico City. By Steve Cory. Timbuktu. By Larry Brook. Rome. By Joan Barghusen. Lerner Publications pound;9.99. Distributed by Turnaround, Unit 3, Olympia Trading Estate, Coburg Road, Wood Green, London N22 6TZ.

WORLD CITIES SERIES. London. Sydney. Moscow. Berlin. Beijing. Paris. By Christine Hatt. Belitha Press pound;10.99.

Cities have always earned the attention of poets and preachers as haunts of pride, nests of wickedness or mirages of unattainable happiness. The stories told by historians are more sober, but no less fascinating. In Cities through Time, a new series from the US, there are enough truthful accounts of building and rebuilding, of treacherous invasion and the accommodation of greed and of cultural triumphs and economic disasters, to supply a shelf-full of legends.

The language used is demanding. It requires an understanding of words like nomadic, stability or portico, which are not explained. The illustrations include few photographs, but make use of many paintings. Some of those in the Roman volume are tinged with Victorian sentimentality. None the less, the books make a strong impact and communicate the authors' expert enthusiasm.

They include much about the role of women, the existence of slavery and the impact of class conflict. The tale of Rome has often been told, but Mexico City and Timbuktu are less often celebrated. The former is commemorated right from its pre-Aztec mystery to its current status as polluted megalopolis. Te history of the latter is traced from its Tuareg origins through colonial times to its contemporary problems of drought and negligent tourism.

The names of Belitha's World Cities are perhaps more predictable, and the books themselves follow a more conventional pattern, with three or four standard colour photographs distributed about each two-page spread. They are also rather less scholarly and more immediately accessible, and consequently feel more perfunctory. History is quickly covered in a brisk survey, and most of the space is devoted to themes such as parks and zoos, beaches, transport, schools, shops and entertainment.

Some of this information is more appropriate for tourists than for readers. Not many key stage 2 children will need to know the names of department stores in Sydney specialising in cosmetics or of the most desirable haute cuisine restaurants in Paris. But the books are briskly up-to-date. The Millennium Dome and Ken Livingstone make appearances, as do more immediately disturbing features of city life, such as the Moscow mafia and the neo-Nazi skinheads of Berlin.

The tone is broad and inclusive, with a commendable emphasis on the benefits brought by immigration and the appearance of mosques and Buddhist temples in municipalities that were once nominally Christian. Both these series, in their modest way, mark the timeless, unregulated, even anarchic human impulse that led the Greeks to honour Eros, the builder of cities.

Tom Deveson

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