This New Year’s, I, Jo, was in London for the first time in my life. I joined Thura and her husband, who went there with a choir to sing and play organ in three evensongs in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral. I’m insanely proud of them and so happy to have been with them and heard them! Still, the evensongs were only on three days of the nine or so we spent in the city. That left plenty of time to peruse the many bookshops of London and oh my, England does bookshops so well. There were nooks and stairs and the highest bookcases, with whole divisions dedicated to History or Biographies or Christmas Murder Mysteries or Young Adult for all ages. In addition, books are wonderfully cheap in England. It’s just as well that Thura had instructed her husband to bring an extra suitcase on his train. Our backpacks would never have held our glorious London book haul.
I, Thura, had the glorious pleasure of showing Jo around London over new years, so I dragged her around, showing her all the places that meant something to me, beautiful places, nostalgic places and, of course, bookshops. When I used to visit England with my parents, we’d often bring a spare suitcase or empty bag for all the books we’d buy in England, because they’re so dangerously cheap over there. We did the same. I’m a Dutch girl, who is forever homesick for England, and after spending so much time in England as a child especially, I feel at times more British than Dutch. Writing this post may cure some of the ache I feel these last couple of weeks, for missing London already.
In this post, we’ll mostly go into the bookshops we’ve visited and the books we’ve bought there. If you’re looking for good reasons to visit London, there are many, but the bookshops should be one of them.
Lockwood: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
One of my favourite trilogies of all time is the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. His style of writing is hilarious, his plots ingenious and he has really thought every element of the story through properly. So, when I came across a new series (well, new to me) by him at the Waterstones on Trafalgar Square, I wasn’t going to just walk by it, now was I?! I actually can’t wait to start this one.
The Poetry of Punk: the Meaning Behind Punk Rock and Hardcore Lyrics by Gerfried Ambrosch, All Ages Records Camden
One of the things I really wanted to do while we were in London, was to show Jo and Vincent a few places that are very special to me. One of those places is ‘All Ages Records’, and independent Punk record shop where I learned to love punk as just a little kid. Punk has been such a big part of my life for so long now and I often have difficulty explaining this to the people I love. But while we were there, Vincent bought me this book, as a way of showing me that it matters to him because it matters to his wife (me). This really was a lovely gift!
What to draw and how to draw it by E.G. Lutz, St. Martin-in-the Fields giftshop
I’m always doodling and this book simply caught my eye, because it gave me more ideas on things to draw, as is the title! Apparently, this book from 1913 inspired Walt Disney even, so it must be a good buy. It contains loads of cartoons and how to draw them in five simple steps. There’s how to draw faces, animals and even small landscapes, and it’s just one of those gorgeous old-fashioned books.
The big book of Christmas mysteries edited by Otto Penzler, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
In our last Christmas post, we compiled a list of books with the themes of death and Christmas, and you can find it here. Now, you probably don’t know that the three of us had a bit of discussion beforehand on if this really is such a common combination or not: I was convinced it was. As it turns out, this is where my British side had taken over, because the English bookstores are absolutely packed with books on murder at Christmas or something of the like. This volume contains over twenty stories by different authors, all murder. This ought to keep me happy for at least another ten Christmases to come!
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Gay’s the Word bookshop
The bookshop closest to out hotel was ‘Gay’s the word’ and it couldn’t have turned out more perfect. I’ve often mourned the fact that there are very little bisexual characters in books, which hurt me a lot when I was a little bisexual girl myself, still unsure whether that was okay or not. But ‘Gay’s the word’ had all I needed and I found this lovely novel there. Little & Lion not only deals with a young girl’s sexual identity, but also with mental illness: two subject that deserve a lot more attention in my opinion.
Faith in the public square by Rowan Williams, Waterstones Bloomsbury
Apart from being an awkward little punk bisexual girl, I am also a theologian. Jo gifted me this book in London and it’s actually perfect. Rowan Williams is the former archbishop of the Anglican Church and he is theologian I admire very much. In this book he specifically focuses on what theology means or should mean to our culture today and how it can help: a field that interests me greatly. So, thanks Jo!
George’s Marvellous Experiments by Roald Dahl, Natural History Museum giftshop
Yet another random book I picked up! We were visiting the ‘Natural History Museum’ in London and when I came across this beauty in the gift shop I couldn’t resist. Roald Dahl is always a treat, but in this book George is actually trying to do some crazy experiments on his ever grumpy and grizzly grandma. And now you can do them yourselves, which recipes and all. Be very afraid.
Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney C. Stevens, Gay’s the Word bookshop
Another book I have high hopes for and one that I found at ‘Gay’s the Word’. The back of the book says that it’s a story about the tomboy daughter of a small town’s preacher, who has difficulty fitting the mould of what people believe she should be and now she might be in love with another girl as well. In short, this is exactly me as a teenager. This seems a very refreshing book and I’m curious to see if there’s more of me I will recognise in it.
Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco, Foyles
A book about a young woman, who becomes obsessed with Jack the Ripper and has a secret life she leads, which includes learning all she can about corpses. To be fair, this sounds like a horrible and cheap romance-horror novel, but it sounds like fun to me. And not all books we read have to be high literature! This sounds perfect for livening up those boring Sunday afternoons.
The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, Foyles
Here’s a confession: I do judge a book by its cover and it’s the reason I bought this book specifically at Foyles. It just intrigued me and it’s the only book from this list I’ve read since returning from London. My review of this book you can find here, but just to give you an idea: it’s about a young orphan who lives with his uncle, who is actually a warlock. It’s a children’s book but actually quite scary at times, so it certainly did not disappoint.
Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie, Hatchards bookshop
Agatha Christie: the queen of murder an mayhem. Oh, how I love her! Of course I already have a few shelves of her books, but one can never have enough. This book spoke to me on a personal level, because on the cover is a lovely skull with some kind of cocktail. Even better, the murder takes place in some dodgy London nightclub. How can anyone say no to that?
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, Waterstones Bloomsbury
After singing an evensong with my choir at St Paul’s, the actual reason for coming to London in the first place, I was very hyped up, but exhausted. However, we really wanted to visit a Waterstones we’d seen in Bloomsbury and this bookshop was simply magic. Floors and floors of old books, fiction and non-fiction: you could spend weeks in there. But I was also exhausted, so after walking around in awe for a little while, I sat myself down in a window seat (!!!) and read a few pages of this book. I had no intention of buying it, but it was unbelievably scary and I just need to know what happens next!
Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill, Gay’s the Word bookshop
This gorgeous gem of a book is yet another find at ‘Gay’s the word’, and I love it already. It’s a graphic novel about a princess who saves another princess from a tower, an overweight pet dragon and their quest to rid their world of an evil sorceress. I absolutely love the fact that this is a classic fairy-tale, but with two princesses and I couldn’t be happier with the happy ending in the form of a royal wedding.
The Glass of Lead & Gold by Cornelia Funke, Foyles
I bought this book because it was tiny and beautiful. Again, judging a book by its cover. Also, I was in Foyles, on of the most magical and wonderful places of London and this book is about London. Well, I say London, but it’s about Londra, which is a sort of parallel-universe London. The main character is Tabetha, who collects scraps from the river Themse to sell. All in all, the book simply spoke to me.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, Hatchards bookshop
My library contains many, many books by Dickens, but this one was still missing. London is a filthy place, with lots of homelessness, but it can also be magical at the same time, so it really is the stuff of Dickens. Where better to buy my missing Dickens than here? The mystery of Edwin Drood is one of those rare novels that was never finished, but still managed to turn into a classic somehow. I’ve always enjoyed this novel and I’m proud for it to be part of my personal library now.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
This is a wonderful adventure book that I only ever read in Dutch and would like to read in its original language. I bought this copy because it is so beautiful, honestly. I gave it to my youngest brother as a present for looking after my pet rats while I was away (so it’s not in the picture).
Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates by Kerry Greenwood, Waterstones Bloomsbury
I didn’t know there was a book series before there was the television series, although in most cases there is. Imagine my delight when I hit upon this book in the crime section of the enormous Waterstones in Bloomsbury. I love British murder mysteries, so I’m very curious to see if Australian ones compare well. Miss Phryne Fisher herself is a streetwise flapper, so I’m already inclined to love the story.
Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
I owned book 1 through 5 in the Harry Potter series, but not the last ones. In the past years I have collected them one by one and now I finally have the whole series! Also, the last book is a birthday present from Bella, who couldn’t give it to me herself because she’s still in Kenya (she gave me a Muggle Tour of London as well, on which we met Hagrid!).
Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie, Hatchards bookshop
Hatchards has two bookcases devoted entirely to Agatha Christie. I looked particularly for a book starring Tommy and Tuppence, a married couple who were spies in the War and now occasionally fight crime together. I loved these characters in By the Pricking of My Thumbs, my review you can find here, because they are clever, witty and very kind to each other. A collection of short stories about this witty couple sounds perfect for Sunday afternoons.
Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
Every time I read a biography I wonder why I don’t read biographies more often, because I enjoy them so much as a genre. I have resolved to buy and read more of them and who could be more worthy a subject of my first step in the right direction than the wonderful Agatha Christie?
Just Kids by Patti Smith, Gay’s the Word bookshop
And autobiography this time, by the punk poet Patti Smith. I know her music is phenomenal and that she looks absolutely fantastically (the ties, the waterfall of grey hair…), but I don’t know anything about her life. Soon, I will.
The Signalman by Charles Dickens, Waterstones Trafalgar Square
A horror story by Charles Dickens must be worth reading and the cover is so pretty. This is a short story with bonus short story (The Boy at Mugby) put in. Apparently, it’s about a railway worker who receives warnings from ghosts whenever a terrible accident is about to happen. I had never heard of it, philistine that I am, but I look forward to reading it.
The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett, St Martin-in-the-Fields giftshop
I watched the excellent film adaption of this story with Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings, a few years ago and wanted to read Alan Bennett’s book ever since. It is about an old homeless woman who camps her van in Bennett’s driveway and stays there for fifteen years, and it is mostly based on real events. I came upon this book in the gift shop of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a church in the middle of London well-known for its programmes to help and welcome homeless people.
Warning: When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple by Jenny Joseph, St Martin-in-the-Fields giftshop
Another find in the church gift shop: an illustrated booklet of a poem that I knew and adored. It’s a bit of an anthem to Bella, Thura and me. We have great plans for the future. The illustrations are by Pythia Ashton-Jewell.
Minority Monsters! by Tab Kimpton, Gay’s the Word bookshop
I try to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, but I’m always getting lost in terminology. This is a helpful, colourful and funny guide to sexuality, gender and the semantics of different terms that are floating around. These are all explained with the help of mythical creatures like Sir Fabulous the Bisexual Unicorn and Madame Lucie Decline the Asexual Succubus. It’s a very approachable, clear and sweet little comic book, actually.
The Trouble with Women by Jacky Fleming, Gay’s the Word bookshop
Why are there almost no brilliant women? The history books are full of male heroes, geniuses and tyrants but women are apparently not worth mentioning. This comic book helpfully and satirically explains why women aren’t important historical figures, ever.
The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby, Foyles
I made a New Year’s resolution to make better food for myself and what I meant was that I really have to learn how to cook better. In a fit of optimism and ambition I bought this cookbook, that is full of recipes of Shakespearean meals. Only afterwards did I realise that I don’t even recognise most of the meals’ names. No matter, because it has a lot of interesting information about Shakespeare and culinary history as well.
In conclusion, our favourite bookshops were ‘Gay’s the Word’, for their vast array of LGBTQ+ books and a general atmosphere of welcoming and cosiness and the ‘Waterstones’ in Bloomsbury, for its sheer amount of books, both fiction as well as non-fiction. These really might be what heaven looks like. Another fun thing to mention might be the Dickens Museum that we stayed quite close to as well. They sell lots of books by Dickens and it gives you a great insight into the life of this wonderful author. All in all, this post could go on for ages, but I think you get the message: London is a lovely, lovely, bookish place, because of all the bookshops, but also because of its Dickensian filth. I can’t wait to go back.