Book Mooching In London


It’s my all-time favourite pastime, ingrained in me since I was about 5 years old. Book mooching involves wandering the London streets looking for secondhand bookshops, chatting to the people who sell books and spending too much money on them.

My childhood bedroom was filled with books salvaged from dustbins and borrowed from friends, books with missing pages, books found in the street, abandoned, unreadable, torn, scribbled on, unloved, unwanted and dismissed. It was the Battersea Dogs Home of books. Today I’m more discerning. I don’t want to learn about dentistry, rope-making, the Museum of Bricks or the Shropshire Evangelical Guild. At least one no longer finds the Condensed (ie. censored) books of the Reader’s Digest.

The habit of book mooching became more refined as I learned to pass by the turgid, unreadable and boring ones and concentrated on my own peculiarly esoteric interests.

Yesterday a prolonged rainstorm hit London, making it the perfect time for a book mooch. Setting off in Bloomsbury, then Farringdon, Holborn and the West End, then back up past the British Museum, I hit bookshops high-end and low, including a pop-up, a flagship and a market stall.

There are nowhere near as many secondhand bookshops as there once were, but Skoob in Bloomsbury now has two shops in the same neighbourhood, and the end-point always has to be Charing Cross Road, for the remnants of the book trade that still survive there, and the wondrous Foyles, which on its upper decks still resembles the mad old rambly Foyles of decades past.

It was a good haul; I came away with Caryl Brahms’ reimagining of Georges Feydeau, a cookery book about breakfasts of the world, a chronological play history of Alan Ayckbourn, the complete Jorge Luis Borges, a strangely annoying French novel, ‘The Madman’s Library’ – a guide to the world’s strangest manuscripts, and Victoria Wood’s biography. To these I could have added a first edition of Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’ for £4 – but would I have read it? I always felt that Bloch was a pedestrian talent who got lucky with Hitchcock.

Moving on to the kind of bookstores that still have high shelves and library steps I realised that I could not physically carry any more. I still get waves of weakness from having been ill, so decided not to push it. Mooching around London often calls to mind film sets. In elegant Fitzroy Square I was reminded of ‘Oliver!’ Although instead of booksellers owning houses here now you’re more likely to find a deposed dictator who has set aside his years of tying people to chairs and working on them with blowlamps to expand his property portfolio.

So this week I failed to win the CWA’s Best Short Story Dagger, and compensated by buying other people’s words.I popped into the British Museum’s exhibition on the Arctic and had cakes in the rain. It’s only possible to digest London one neighbourhood at a time – I’d love to do the same in New York when I have a few weeks to spare (hah!) but until then it’s the booklover’s London for me. And as much as I hate to quote myself, this bit from my memoir ‘Paperboy’ springs to mind. 

‘I discovered a chain of fantastically seedy South London second-hand book stores called the Popular Book Centres. They stamped their smudged triangular logo inside all their books, and made enough money from thrusting, pointy-breasted top-shelf smut to keep racks of yellowing, soon-to-be-lost, dirt-cheap paperbacks going for real readers. In this way, they were every bit as useful as public libraries.

The Popular Book Centre in Greenwich was presided over by a gimlet-eyed man with black fingernails and the complexion of an old haddock. He looked as though he had been cast to play a lecherous plumber in a porn movie. I could always find something rare and wonderful lurking in the racks, and as everything was 1/6d I could afford to take a chance on the dodgiest-looking books.’

Sellers are more aware now, and in the current crisis we’ve lost paperback fairs, but there will always be book mooching.


62 comments on “Book Mooching In London”

  1. Jan says:

    Wayne will follow up your input about the “4” that’s an interesting tidbit .

    I wonder IF them old Arab lads ever did much carving featuring their own number system ?0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9.

    Everything bar 1 and 7 featuring a curve. These weren’t symbols that would seem to have emerged from simple easy to be scratched on stone markings were they?

    These seem to be guys who from pretty early on were using some form of pencils or pens, of inks and writing “paper” of some sort. It’s weird I cannot and wouldn’t be claiming to be the most educated person (clearly I’m not) but it seems to me that we acknowledge how much was achieved by the Romans and the Greeks and how much the way we think and our values owes to them but we never think on how much we really owe to the Arabic tradition Or maybe the Oriental or Indian. It’s funny isn’t it ? The debts we acknowledge and those we don’t.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    That’s an important point, Jan, about acknowledging debts – or not. I’m reading The Story of Art (as recommended above somewhere) and am at his chapter on Islam and China – very short. Numbers are not even mentioned in the index. When learning a new hand the form taken by the numbers (Arabic in all cases) is the last element to learn and the most briefly covered in classes. A local teacher has complained often at the lack of willingness on the part of students to pay attention to the appropriate forms for the numerals. I plead guilty here. Numbers are the smallest percentage of the work we do and we fudge it saying, “How many will notice the difference between Carolingian and Uncial? Just bung it in.” Of course, we spend a lot more time thinking about forms than early calligraphers did because they were more concerned about getting content on surface while we are more about form. I wonder if the masons were a little that way, too.
    Winter, when masons are lurking in their lodges and watching the effect of cold and wet on their summer’s work, would sort of encourage a crafts person to take on a minor job in the shelter of a church tower as a favour to someone or a piece of devotional work. Of course, that piece of carving was pure boasting and scarcely devotional. (Opinion subject to correction, of course.) I’m pretty sure the master mason on a job was the one who quoted on a job and was responsible for hiring and firing the workers. I don’t know how an extra piece, doable when masons are in the area, fits in to that.

  3. Jan says:

    Wow Helen I never twigged how complex Calligraphy actually was!

    I’ll put my hands up to never having thought of it as much more than the fancy writing you got on a certificate from work but there’s obviously that much more to it.

    Sorry i don’t really get WHY modern calligraphers are more into “forms” that their forerunners? What did calligraphy actually kick off as then? A form of “official” script that sufficed as an official record before the printing press then the typewriter came along? Or is it a sort of offshoot of the beautiful stuff the monks used to write like the Lindisfarne gospels? Which I suppose in itself is a sort of specialised pre printing press working form that sort of became – would it have been an art form perhaps? Is it just for recording names now or more. Like Wayne said some calligraphy script looks sort of angled in a sort of sharp way (a runic way ?)

    Yes it’s an interesting point you make about what the masons winter jobs were again there will be loads of idunnoing from me. Would the light have been good enough for them to crack on with lots of carving even? There’s this thing I’ve seen in one of Dorsets churches at a right out of the way village called Alton St Pancras which is not a million miles from Piddletrentide as it goes and theres this thing is called a “Cresset” it looks a bit like a medieval egg box or a holder for tea lights. Wot it actually is is the forerunner to the candle! Back in the day – the early and mid Medieval day – they hadn’t actually perfected the art of candle making so these guys made like this stone block with deep tea light shapes carved into it and then poured animal fat into these holes and floated a wick on top! The one @ Alton St Pancras has 9 hollowed out spaces for proto candles a sort of 9 “watt ” light there’s a couple of others in Dorset one over @ Wool a 4hollow 4 watt light and one over at Wareham (where the earthen walls of Saxon defence still stand fantastic place is Wareham) which is a 5 hollow 5 watt light. Now the point I am trying to make here is you wouldn’t exactly being doing loads of carvings if this was your best light source would you? Incidentally I think over @Hereford cathedral in the Welsh Marches there’s a much higher wattage cresset quite a famous one but then again that’s a cathedral.

    I visit quite a few ancient churches as I have a bit of an interest in Holy Wells and foliate heads you know the green men carvings that feature in the roof bosses of many medieval churches there’s lots of variety of the symbolism that you see in this work some of it which seems to me to be localised. Carvings “interpreted”- which is probably not the right word – in slightly different ways in different parts of the country. I’d never really thought of it in these terms before but what I’ve probably been seeing was the works of different outfits of Masons different Guildwork.

    I tell you what are proper interesting up in N Cumbria there are a small number of Hogsback graves. These are basically Viking burials marked by gravestones in Christian churchyards.
    Fantastic things nothing like the gravestones of the same period the locals carve a different style completely but so intricate and beautiful. They are called “Hogsback” cos they look like a pig standing shape. Really strange.

    I ‘ve decided quite the best way to settle the debate ‘re ease of carving Roman as opposed to Arabic numerals which is perfectly bloody obvious and I should have twigged it earlier is going to talk to one of them blokes who carves dates on gravestones for a living. A Monumental Mason is it they call them? Wot a numpty I should have seen that right off.

    Unfortunately Boris has decided to lock England down again for a month from Thursday of this week and I’m working early on in the week so how much time there will be for chatting up monumental masons I’m not at all sure. ( I’ve obviously made a monumental error not figuring this out earlier!)

    I hope everything is going your way and life’s treating you well despite these corona virus problems. It’s proper autumn here now and really wet and horrible. Mind it’s supposed to be improving next week. Might even get some walking done Thurs or Fri if I don’t have 2 work.
    Take it steady Helen.

  4. Jan says:

    Should have read Like Wayne said ABOUT CARVING (numerals) some calligraphy script

  5. Jan says:

    Figuring it out! Geddit? Cooking on gas or what? I’m getting far too carried away with myself now best I sweep some leaves up and plod off to the the village.

    Stay safe Helen

  6. Helen Martin says:

    It’s a beautiful crisp sunny day and we’re going down to Steveston for a walk and visit to our favourite book store so this is brief and I’ll think about it while out.
    You’re not a numpty, either that or we both are together, because I didn’t think of the memorial carvers, either. Remind me to tell you about Eaian Rees (can’t remember how to spell his first name, but he’s Welsh) and his “by hand …. or by machine” story.
    All of what we call calligraphic hands developed in particular places, often specific scriptoria because whoever was in charge set the model and everyone copied the style to create a uniform appearance in the product. Western styles derive basically from Roman basics (documents sent from Rome to governors, etc. during the Republic and early Empire and then to churches post Constantine. By that time there was work being done everywhere and variants were developing (Rustic, etc.) and then the major ones Chancellery (which came out of Rome) Uncial in several forms from Ireland, Scotland (?) and Northern England. Then there was Alcuin’s workshop in Aix la Chapelle or Aachen at Charlemagne’s court. That was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire so that style spread. By the Renaissance a new style was coming out of Italy – Italic (duh!) It was the way Queen Elizabeth was taught to write by her tutor. What happens, and you have to remember we’re using trimmed bird flight feathers (with the plumie part trimmed away, thank you) is people trying to fnd ways of holding the pen, tilting the angle of writing, starting the letter at a different spot, reducing the number of strokes in a letter, etc. to make the work go quicker, more smoothly or even more pleasantly to the eye. There is also appropriateness to the material. You don’t want swirly work on a certificate of death and if it’s a government document it must be readily legible. Devotional material must be beautiful, especially if a client is paying big bucks, hence the beautiful painting and gold work (done by different workers) which would impress even those who couldn’t read (which probably included some of the patrons). The scribes didn’t put names to the styles they wrote, just noticed anything different they saw.
    When the printing press came in (in Europe) the first fonts (in printing they’re fonts) were copied from the lettering styles, which in the HRE were chiefly what we call Black Letter or (non-calligraphers) Olde Englishe. It’s black letter because so much of the page is covered with ink. Just look at anything printed in Germany before 1930.
    Oops – he’s ready to go. If you aren’t bored, confused , or totally disinterested I’ll finish when I get back.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    (We’re back and the shop keeper was glad to see us. There were line-ups everywhere so no coffee or refreshments and everyone wearing masks.)
    Hand written work is expensive due to the time needed and each piece is unique so people balanced cost vs benefit and usually opted for machine printing. (How much would Admin have to pay if his books were all copied by hand? And that’s without any decoration.) Wedding invitations and honorary certificates were often still done by hand but even there people could have “standard forms” with the blanks filled in by someone with “nice hand writing”. We still do a lot of those.
    Now, form vs function. Before printing you’re after legibility chiefly with a preference for uniformity of style. After printing hand work was asked for to add class and status (Ooh, Mabel, just look at the fancy invites. Bet they paid through the nose for those) As a result lettering artists spent a great deal of time learning the most popular hands and mastering the techniques that made them identifiable. Their concern was not so much making the text legible as making the whole piece “pretty”. Abstract art got into it too, if you look at any collection of “modern” art lettering you may require an interpretation to discover what it says.
    Along with style we discovered new writing materials and new surfaces – take a look at pilot pens, automatic pens (nothing automatic about them, believe me) and make your own pen from a pop can. Make your own ink, cover your paper with wallpaper paste coloured with paint then letter on the result. There is no end to it. We’re putting shapes on something with a tool and a medium.
    Hoo, hah! I will now shut up for a long time. (two days at least)

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Tod Slaughter’s ‘The Face At The Window’ is great. My late father put me on to him years ago. Mr Slaughter doesn’t so much chew the scenery, but gobbles it up in huge bits. The first movie of his I saw, was ‘Maria Marten: or The Murders In The Red Barn’ (1936), which was of interest to me, as it was a notorious crime committed not that many miles from where I live. The real murderer, William Corder, was tried and hanged at Bury St.Edmunds. Such was the revulsion felt by the public with his crime, after death, he was treated harshly. His skull vanished shortly afterwards, (taken by a known collector of skulls), and, more gruesomely, a book was bound in his skin. It’s still on show in the Moyses Hall museum in Bury St. Edmunds.

  9. Jan says:

    Helen thanks for this it was proper interesting + had a good think on ” Italics” so obvious but never got my head round it before.

    Then moved onto red letter days from black letter days . Tucked up today and tomorrow but if poss come Thursday – 2nd English lockdown start (Black, Red or sort of grey letter day ?) I will
    ask a few ?s Jan

  10. Jan says:

    Just been told I’m working Thursday will get back b4 or @ weekend Helen

  11. James Devlin says:

    I can see I will have to come back and read all the replies as well as the original article, but every trip I have ever made to London has always included at least a day to wander the secondhand shops. I was so sad, the first time I visited, to see that 84 Charing Cross Road was no longer a bookstore. Hay-on-Wye was fun, too; I spent the night there, and so had parts of *two* days to shop. I also brought crafts home from there, not just books…

  12. snowy says:

    Jan, I think you may enjoy this link:

    Top of the page is a video, labelled ‘Podcast’.

    Main text is a very good extract from a book [too long to post the entire thing].

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