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. Barbara Boucke says:

    Many thanks for this entry. One of my very favorite things to do on trips to England – especially in London – was to visit every bookshop I came across – especially the used book ones. It was like a call from the sirens – I couldn’t not go in.
    Sometimes things got mailed home. Other times I lugged them around in my suitcase. Now, I keep the online used book sellers busy.
    This gives me a chance to say thank you for Oranges and Lemons. I started reading Bryant and May long ago and then got detoured from some reason. So now I have a lot of catching up to do – which means the used book sellers!! I like how you mention books from Bryant’s library and was disappointed to find that there probably was never an encyclopedia about Victorian sewage lines (or some such title). It would have made an interesting read. On a very minor side note – I assume that someone eventually pointed out that it wasn’t the Captain of the Pinafore who never went to sea – it was Sir Joseph Porter, KCB – the First Lord of the Admiralty.
    I look forward to the return of Bryant and May.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    I haven’t been there for a few years (is it still going?) but my favourite of all time is Southeran’s bookshop. It was always a bit “high church” and a tad intimidating, but the staff left you alone to mooch. If you showed an interest in anything particular they always seemed to have a few “You might also be interested in this then sir…” items. I always had the feeling that the chaps behind the counter had read all of the books on the shelves.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I could smell those shelves while I read the above. We had a major fire the other day at Broadway and Main (how iconic are those names?) The classic bank that is now a boot store (on the corner, of corse. You have corner pubs, we have corner banks) may have escaped but the pizza place and the hair dressing salon appear to be total losses. My question, however, is the state of the new and used bookstore next along the block. No one has mentioned them yet. A good place with lots of choice. I’ve been given the name of a good one in Penticton, though and a good nearby restaurant to examine one’s purchases in comfort. We won’t be headed up there any time soon, though. We are being warned about snow “at higher elevations” already and the Coquihalla was closed this morning for a few hours while they got a semi out. “Siomeone too lazy to put his chains on,” my husband said. If so, someone will be working solely for the boss to pay off the towing charges.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I love ‘Book Mooching’. There is a shop in Felixstowe, which has a TARDIS like interior. The very end of it is suspiciously close to the local library…
    I don’t go there often, as it’s dangerous for my bank account. I visited once, to pick up a £5 book that I’d ordered from them, and whilst waiting for my friend, who was deep in the bowels of the shop, I found a Japanese ‘Mook’ (magazine/book), which for many years, had been on the top of my ‘Holy Grail’ list. It was a pictorial album of all the TV shows made by Gerry Anderson. Hundreds of photos, beautifully reproduced, shiny gravure paper, blueprints, the lot. Had to have it. Probably never see another (I haven’t). No price sticker. I took it to the desk, and asked, tentatively, how much. The man looked through his leger. “Hmm.’, he said, which, in secondhand bookselling, is the equivalent of the builder’s sharp intake of breath, and the bearer of bad tidings. ”Not cheap” he said, almost daring me to buy it. “How Much?” I said “Fifty” he said. I’d seen it listed for upwards of seventy five. He only took cash, so I ran out and found the nearest cash point. I still have it, and it’s the only book I own that I refuse to lend out.

    What I’m reading now, is the lovely ‘A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles’, by Ned Palmer;
    ‘Wrappers Delight’ by Jonny Trunk;
    ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’, by Uwe Schütte.

  5. Jan says:

    Tell you what is interesting I followed the route of your book mooch which I do know pretty well
    Sicilian Avenue and over towards the Brit Museum and toddling across to Farringdon towards the City. Say though Chris if London’s development had gone slightly differently…

    The Aldwych at one time pretty much rivalled Soho and Charing X Road as a centre of bookselling. (I see you stayed away from this area today staying pretty much E of Charing X road). A small part of this Aldwych book market dealt in the type of books for which Soho would become much famed.

    Mainstream books and map shops were also clustered here in the Aldwych as well but in the early part of the 20C (the 1900 noughties in fact) an American guy called Bush and a consortium of his buddies built what was back then described as the most expensive building in the world to act as a trading centre. He ran into a few funding problems -and was o/s the City any road so in the end the BBC buys the building off of them. The beeb stick with the original name and Bush house becomes the base of the World Service one of the most revered radio news sources in the world but at the same time the insertion of this original building into the location and the plans for Kingsway which the LCC saw as becoming a sort of Ramblas of London (!) really change the area. The old ramshackle bookshops go the more scurrilous side of the trade moves off and Soho becomes the ultimate focus for Bohemian London. Soho becomes the geographical centre for social change and socialising and for the world of theatre. Interestingly at least two popular theatres were demolished to build Bush House. Now this didn’t necessarily have to work out this way but it did. Strange how different factors and forces turn parts of a City into one direction and not another….

    Just a quick second point. The area in the City laying close to Paternoster Square. (I know you ain’t a fan ) was prior to WW2 the centre for British book publishing and additionally had a thriving book trade direct to public. The book repositories were massive and there were many smaller scale book dealers. All went up in flames as the Luftwaffe did their best to destroy
    St Paul’s which would have been a.massive propaganda victory for Hitler’s Germany.

    What does happen in fact is the Book trade is eliminated from the City to reappear in a more diffuse fashion elsewhere in London after WW2. Paternoster Square is now funnily enough a privately owned public space. Rebuilt – to get on the right side of Prince Chazza probably – to a Medieval street plan but essentially part of the finance “industry” and owned by some subsidiary of Mitsubishi! Funny how stuff works through. Probably one of the reasons this area becomes such a centre for books in the first off is the cloth industry. The cloth industry the “Cloth Fair” has it’s marketing base in the City and the waste products from woollen cloth are used in early forms of binding and book covering. The Cloth Fair was well established by the 14C – it’s where Dick Whitington made his dosh!

    Strange how underneath our London is alternative City almost. The place that didn’t develop – could have done but the tides of finance, the presence of water, and a a thousand other different reasons come together to create the place we recognise.

  6. admin says:

    Barbara, I’m mortified about Sir Joseph Porter. How can I ever live that down? I’ll change it for the paperback if I can.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    There is a very good second-hand shop in Sydenham, Sarf London, conveniently next to the station.

    Call me dim, but it was years after going into “Skoobs” books before I realised it was books spelt backwards. Dooh!

    Don’t forget charity shops are sometimes good for second hand bookshops. There used to be one in Southport run by a cat’s charity (my fave charity-I much prefer animals to people these days) now sadly gone, where I found d a lot of playscripts for my play library, and also lots of theatre programmes.

    Although not cheap, when the world was different, I often went on the 2nd Sun of the month to the book fair held in the hotel foyers in Bloomsbury.

    Now Mr F, when things, and you get better, I am setting you the challenge of venturing out of London, and I mean further than the Edgware and Uxbridge Underground stations, and discover there is a whole world that exists out of Town. Make a holiday of it. There is, for eg, a brilliant shop in Rochester. Alnwick, in Northumberland, (yes, Admin, I can see you shaking in your boots as it is well north of the Watford Gap) has the best bookshop I have ever been in and it is in the old railway station. Brilliant-so good that you have to queue at the checkout to pay. As for Carnforth-that is a triple whammy for me. A huge 3 floored bookshop, tea in the “Brief Encounter” museum in Carnforth railway station and finally a trip to the model railway shop in said station. Now, I am generous to a fault (if indeed I have one) but I will let you forego the model shop. Perhaps other readers on here can suggest other book shops around the country.

  8. Allan Lloyd says:

    Another trip into the wilds for Mr F. How can you mention book shops without Hay-on-Wye? Shops come and go, but the four main ones are still open and thriving. Booth’s has been taken over by an American and been fully renovated, and has many treasures at a reasonable price in the cellar. The Cinema is a huge maze of books (much better than Alnwick station shop in my opinion) and Hay-on-Wye Booksellers has many very cheap bargains. Addymans is extensive but a bit more expensive. There are still many smaller shops, some of which have opened fairly recently.
    The main problem now is that because of the shut-down in Wales, I can’t go there until November 9th. A shame because there is hardly any Covid in Powys and the town has been thriving.

  9. Liz Thompson says:

    York was my favourite venue for second hand (and remaindered) books. There used to be loads, but less so now I guess. Amnesty have a shop which gets good books in, my son both supplies and buys from them. The best one was an ancient 4 storey plus basement opposite the Minster. It may well still be there, it certainly seemed timeless last time I went, both stock and staff. The stairs were narrow, the floors uneven. The entrance was adorned by a bookcase with cheaper books to lure you in, whilst the ground floor was, gasp, full of first editions, ancient and extremely valuable tomes, and a gimlet-eyed proprietor. Permission to inspect a volume was subject to his assessment of your worth, honest intention to buy, and being a genuine book lover. You only needed two out of three to pass the test, which explains why my son was allowed to examine them. He certainly didn’t (was totally unable to) satisfy the intention to buy bit. I bought many remaindered books from the cold and crowded basement, his discounts on listed price were generous. You could certainly discover the odd, the strange, the how-did-they-find-a-publisher, there.
    Then there was a bookshop that specialised in religion and theology, from evangelical exhortation to orthodox catholicism, Salvation Army and Moody and Sankey to the Pope’s latest ex cathedra pronouncement. But they too did remainders and general second hand, chaotically shelved, but all embracing. Well almost – no LGBTQ.
    The Portal Bookshop, LGBTQ and sci fi/fantasy specialist, carries some second hand in both categories, and Lali is an amazing salesperson. They look at your selection and instantly recommend others you would like. A visit is expensive, but amazingly satisfying and friendly. Portal are doing online orders during York’s tier 2 miseries, and are very good at ordering in obscure titles Amazon and Waterstones claim never to have heard of or disdain to stock.
    This reminiscence is causing me grief, since I’m tier 2 confined to Leeds, but come better times……(if ever).

  10. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Another bookshop worth a visit is Barter Books in what used to be Alnwick station.
    Everything from cheap paperbacks to antiquarian volumes, a model railway, cake, lots of armchairs, and open fires in winter.

  11. Barbara Boucke says:

    Good heavens!!! I didn’t mean for you to be mortified about the Pinafore reference – the analogy was perfect – just the wrong character. My parents had an album of 78 speed records of Pinafore which I was allowed to play once it was impressed upon me to not drop the record or it would break. I listened to them over and over again, memorizing the lyrics and singing along. I think I figured out the point of “When I was a lad” fairly early. I love all the ways you use films, books, poem, etc. as analogies. I suspect that unless the person reading Oranges and Lemons knows Pinafore, they won’t have a clue about who never went to sea!

  12. Barbara Boucke says:

    I forgot – thank you to Ian Luck for listing current reads. I have noted the Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles which sounds like a good read.

  13. Brooke says:

    The complete Borges! Not in one volume?# That’s at least 15 works. Admire your ambition.

  14. admin says:

    Sorry Brooke – Complete Short Fiction, that’s quite enough to be going on with, although Labyrinths, the shorter volume, was one of those books we always carried around like Steppenwolf and The Trial.

  15. roxanne reynolds says:

    though i completely understand your reasons, i miss your daily postings terribly…

  16. roxanne reynolds says:

    liz – the minster gate bookshop in york. such a lovely place. they also have a nice selection of old prints and engravings, reasonably priced. one of my dearest friends now lives in york, just a short walk to the city centre. whenever i make it over the pond for a visit, i have to poke my nose in the bookshop. i would have been over this fall but for the trump virus. on a totally different note, york also has a truly fab button shop, for those interested in haberdashery.

  17. Roger says:

    I can still remember my first encounter with Borges’s Labyrinths, Admin. Meeting something I could not imagne before but could never forget now…
    There used to be a very good second-hand bookshop in Edgware (Three Jays?), Brian Evans – another that has gone…

  18. Brooke says:

    whew…I imagined poor Mr. Fowler, like Santa, lugging a huge sack of books around London, staggering under the weight.
    Der Steppenwolf… I hitchhiked from the small southern town I lived in to a larger southern town to buy the book; sat on curb reading it while trying to hitchhike back. Fortunately,The Trial was easier to obtain. I didn’t carry either around..

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Wanted a library book to request so got the Story of Art, mentioned previously. Was just going to dip in and out but have been puuled in by the writing style and we’ll see how much I read before the month is out. They don’t have any Dickenson but I have the Rusian’s Winter Queen coming from another branch. If it’s good they have a number of his. I am grateful for the recommendations. If you can put up with Canadian sentimentalism (I’m not denying its existence) try Aklone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay. The Saskatchewan part was like hearing my Mother talk about her school days. (The book is part murder mystery, part disconnected memoir. Sounds weird but I enjoyed it, especially the characters. It deals with the Ottawa Valley in much of the book.)

  20. Jay says:

    Good on you Chris for buying Victoria Wood’s new biography. As a huge fan of her’s for 35 years, I bought this last week and am half way through it. I’m reading it on the back of her brother’s shorter biog/celebration of her life and work.
    I know you’re a big fan too Chris so I’d be interested to hear any comments you might have after reading it

  21. Peter T says:

    I’ve toured Bloomsbury’s secondhand bookshops a couple of times in recent years and found some gems. The most obscure has a title something like ‘Wind generated ripples in sand.’ I must read it sometime.

    Apart from Foyles, Charing Cross Road, by comparison, has always disappointed me. There was one shop run by a fellow who wore breeches and never failed to make a condescending comment on whatever his customers bought.

    Thankfully, all the bookshops here in Oxford have friendly and knowledgeable assistants. I shall continue to do my utmost to support them all.

  22. Dawn Andrews says:

    I miss mooching, so loved reading this. Ireland isn’t well stocked with bookshops outside of Dublin and Belfast. Hairdressers, yes, I spotted five in one small townlet the other day. (You don’t use the word ‘village’ here, it’s always a town, even if just made up of hairdressers and presumably some clients.)

  23. admin says:

    Re: Longer twice-weekly posts VS daily short posts – this gives us all a chance to go into more depth on individual subjects, and gives me a breather between posts!

  24. Barbara Boucke says:

    This is all new to me having been born in a time with no personal computers let alone writings daily/weekly/or otherwise that one could read AND respond to beyond the newspaper’s letters to the editor. I am really enjoying reading your thoughts on different subjects as well as all the responses to them. Twice-weekly is fine with me since I have enough trouble keeping up with the daily New York Times Spelling Bee puzzle and texting (never thought I’d be doing that growing up!) my sister as we compare notes on words for that day. Looking forward to the next post!

  25. Dawn Andrews says:

    Borges Labyrinths is a favorite, also Steppenwolf. The Journey to the East by Hesse is an odd little volume that I always have to hand. I’m reading The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov again, Brooke jogged my memory in a previous post on the Russian mods. this site is thought provoking and also entertaining at a time when both are much needed. Keep it coming at your own pace admin and stay well.

  26. Barbara Boucke says:

    I apoligize for not saying this earlier. I noticed that several others included “staying well” to you in their comment, so I back-tracked to an earlier post in which you wrote about being very ill for a period of time but were slowly recovering. So I would like to add stay well here also. That’s the important thing – not how often you post an entry.

  27. Wayne Mook says:

    Hello, I’ve been lurking but for one reason or another I’ve not been able to post. I won’t post here from my phone as anything longer than this becomes impossible, I do FB though from the phone. Sorry.

    Thanks for the African history books, I have a fair knowledge of African history, especially North Africa, Punic wars and the Arabic mathematics of the medieval times. I had a book on ancient Egypt as a kid so have always been intrigued by this and by Greek myths. I picked up a reasonably priced Bruce Davidson.

    Snowy I finished Northanger Abbey (could be named after my niece when she has a teenage episode.) the longer Bath section was a struggle(really Barfed me off as people south of the Mersey pronounce the city, it just wasn’t my bag, man.) , once at the abbey things greatly picked up. Audio books, Martin Jarvis was fun with Oliver Twist by Dickens and I listened to a couple of Anton Lesser readings, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Did I mention the Greek myth thing, it’s surprising how many times the gods went off to Ethiopia for a beano.

    Robert Bloch, Psycho was a disappointment, quite perfunctory at times; American Gothic is better and also based on an American Serial killer, and he’s closer to the facts. I much prefer his short stories (he was responsible for a number of Amicus portmanteaus.) he has a twisted sense of humor. He bumped of HP Lovecraft in an early tale and Lovecraft returned the favor; Enoch was about a type of possession set in a prison cell was good, the sense of paranoia worked well, I also liked Lefty Feep his less than serious superhero take.

    For reading it either has to entertain or inform, preferably both. I still like Dr. Seuss, Doyle’s Holmes and many more. Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep was a better later book (there was a feeling of menace and peril.), and Gwendy’s Button Box was fun. Dreamcatcher needed an editor, really. Not read too much of his later stuff.

    I’m currently reading a non fiction book about cities and one about horror radio, fiction Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. Nothing on audio but I do have Don Quixote on order.

    Sharston Books (Manchester way) is an oddity, it’s on an industrial park and is a warehouse cum workshop turned into a book shop with added shipping containers. It’s cramped and over filled and needs a great deal of searching.

    Ian you can’t beat a good Mook.


  28. snowy says:

    Wayne, NA is a bit of a mixed bag and there is a fundamental problem.

    It’s the gap between what JA knew about goings on at/in Bath and what she could get away with revealing she knew.

    If she had written all she knew or had heard from other people, there was a real possibility that her father would have faced very uncomfortable conversations with his flock.

    “‘ere Vicar, when’s your Jane going to write another one of them mucky books then?”, “My missus loved it, and it perked her up no end, if you get my meaning”, “She reckons your Jane could do another one ’bout that John character ‘n call it ‘Two Score an’ Ten Shades of Thorpe’ or summat’; mind you she ‘ad been 4 hours on the cider when she said it”.

  29. Jan says:

    Hiya Wayne. Never knew you were interested in Arabic Medieval maths you’ve kept that one to yourself. (Understandably!) Don’t know owt much about the subject meself. Hardly a surprise.
    Except -and someone here will probably successfully challenge this – it’s only info from a church display. Here in Dorset there’s a little village not far from Puddletown which is again not that far from Dorchester. This place is called Piddletrentide so named cos it’s on the river Piddle which doesn’t run that fast as you’ve probably guessed!

    The church here has a claim to fame in that there’s a notice over a doorway in the W. Tower which reads – here goes me trying to decipher Latin off of a photo “Est pydeltrenth illa in dorsedie comitau Nascitur in illa quam rexit Vicariatu 1487” and that’s it a Latin sentence with Arabic numbers at the end! The First known use of the Arabic numerals in the UK. Bit of alright that isn’t it?

    The trouble you get with Latin v Spellchecker is a nightmare by the way. If the translations awful blame my reduced sight and this ruddy spelling checking annoying computer device.

    I reckon this probably happened cos the old stone carver wanted about another medieval fortune (about 15d) to carve the Roman numerals and probably also said “We’ll need a considerably bigger doorway, Tower and possibly church.” So him and his fellow Masons thought ” F* **it we’ll give this Arabic a try”

    The above Latin is apparently translated as “It is in Piddletrentide a town in Dorset (where ) he was born (and) where he is vicar,1487″ But I dunno really it could be ” Piddletrentide runners up in the Weymouth Football challenge Cup 1487″ for all I know.

    It’s a great thing though that isn’t it the first (alleged) usage of Arabic numerals here in the UK ?

    Them Crusading lads got about.
    Brought back some fantastic things RACEHORSES mainly but also probably Turkish Delight, dates, and the numerals that enabled the Muslim nations to begin the maths that would further enable the science that changed the world.

    Apparently everywhere else in the UK stuck with Roman numerals for about another century. (Them stone carvers must have had a mighty powerful union….well of course they did because it birthed a mighty powerful offshoot. )

    Hope all’s good with you Wayne. Let’s hope the imposed Tier 3 turns the covid numbers round smartly up your way on. Best wishes.

  30. snowy says:

    Arabic notation is a bit of a puzzle, the Church knew all about it from around the end of the 1stC, due to Pope Sylvester II, [quite how ‘real’ he ‘felt’ is a matter of conjecture], it is so useful for reckoning tithes, if you are going to screw 10% out of everybody why make the maths difficult. The continuing hold over of Roman notation is more probably a stylistic or status affectation. [Carried on for centuries, the first victim of a railway accident in England is commemorated in the garb of a Roman senator.]

    “Est pydeltrenth villa in dorsedie comitatu Nascitur in illa quam rexit Vicariatu 1487”.

    Has been given a translation as: “It is in Piddletrenthide, a town in Dorset [where] he was born [and] is Vicar, 1487.”

    It is thought to refer to a Nicolas Locke, a stamp of both his presence and authority on the tower, [“I’m the Vicar now, look at my massive erection” sort of thing].

  31. Paul C says:

    Barter Books in Alnwick (30 miles North of Newcastle) is not as inaccessible as it may seem : some of the London to Edinburgh trains stop at Alnmouth and then a short taxi ride (£10) takes you there. Fabulous and gigantic bookshop with a café and roaring coal fires. Alnwick Castle nearby was a location for the Harry Potter films and they have lots of events for the kids.

    Nearer Newcastle is Keel Row Books in North Shields and Oliver’s Bookshop in Whitley Bay. Both would welcome
    new customers if you’re in the area. I don’t know how they survive………..

    Robert Bloch – I was a huge fan in my teens and owned many of his short story collections. Now I find him almost unreadable. A lot of his tales seem to be excuses for a joke in the final line such as ‘Cat got your tongue ?’ He is a
    long way behind his friend Ray Bradbury. I like his sense of humour tho’ – his ashes reside a book-shaped urn with
    the title ‘The Collected Robert Bloch’………..

    Currently reading ‘The Complete Schlock Homes’ by Robert L Fish (who wrote Bullitt) – generally hilarious parodies
    of the immortal detective. Anyone aware of this series ?

  32. Brooke says:

    @snowy and Wayne: Themes in NA are picked up again in Mansfield Park which I prefer. And sexual “adventures” of the class of people who frequent Bath are more overt.

  33. Peter Dixon says:

    Paul C – I live in North Shields and fully endorse your support for Keel Row Books (and not just because he usually takes my books when they are published).
    North Tyneside and South Tyneside don’t have a proper bookshop between them. Newcastle only has 2 bookshops and a reasonable visual art bookshop at the Baltic gallery, although that’s over the Tyne in Gateshead. Mostly you can only mooch around charity shops, although Hexham has a decent Oxfam bookshop and one or two other reasonably large charity bookshops.
    Back in the 1800’s Newcastle was a prolific producer of children’s books with people like Thomas Bewick providing illustrations. Sadly all gone.

  34. Jan says:

    I think there’s maybe a bit of confusion here Snowy between your ideas of a “continuing use of Roman notation(numerals) as a stylistic or status affectation” truly equating with the commemorative statues of university professors, and prominent politicans being outfitted in what is being interpreted by yourself here as being purely Roman garb. (Togas)

    There was a reasonably long standing tradition to dress prominent gents in the outfits of both Greek scholars/philosophers and as members of the Roman Senate but this largely kicked off when the privileged began going on the Grand Cultural tours of southern Europe. Trips enjoyed by generations of the great, the good and the wealthy for about a couple of centuries. Having seen the wonders of Southern Europe the wealthy decide they will have a bit of that.

    Maybe to educate themselves or at least to justify these jaunts young artist and sculptors mainly men of some wealth of their own adopt the Grand Tour themselves even if it takes place in a somewhat limited fashion. Along the way there becomes an established style or fashion to dress the statues of deceased important blokes in ancient outfits in order to add a certain gravitas to their commemorative figures!

    Now the only reason I picked up on this was because (I reckon I have written about this here on Chris blog before) me dad, + his mate Jimmy took the R.C. Priest up Chat moss to the Liverpool Manchester railway line where Huskisson had his very unfortunate run in with Stephenson ‘s Rocket. (I wouldn’t want anyone thinking I ‘d gone trawling through the internet to turn myself into some instant expert cos I’ve not! )

    Again cos I am a right London Explorer it’s was only natural for me in time to visit Huskissons statue in Pimlico Gardens. That statue is bloody BIG old thing I’m telling you! Huskisson’s Mrs commissioned it one of 3 identical statues I think and true to form the sculptor had relatively recently done his bit of grand tourismoing and got carving.

    Which brings us back to the curious appearance of the Arabic numbers in some Piddly (-unable to resist apologies -) church in Dorset over a century before they start being used commonly in the UK. Again I would not seek to pass myself off as authority on Pope Sylvester or Medieval maths at all. Although it is pretty much believed that tithes are thought of as being inspired by contacts with countries where the concept of decimals tenths was in current use. Arab countries in other words. But I dunno much about that at all. Its just a bit of a difference between the church’s knowledge and some bloke doing some carving.

    Testament to the power of the Medieval Stone Masons perhaps?

  35. snowy says:

    I don’t really know, though that Huskisson’s monument in Chichester has its dates in Roman notation, despite the rest of the text being in written in English, does support my conjecture that their use remained a stylistic convention for a long time.

    The Grand Tour certainly had much effect on English sculpture, though the degree would be best answered by an Art Historian. But where I depart is in the matter of politicians giving themselves ‘airs and graces’. If you are commemorated in a statue by a grateful nation, that’s one thing. But where an MP or their kin decide to foist a new pigeon lavatory on the world, it’s a bit much. And dressing up as a Roman senator puts the ‘tin-lid’ it as far as I’m concerned.

    It speaks of a singular lack of imagination, if you go down the classical route, you have four choices: General, Senator, Thinker, Hero. The first is a man in a dress holding a laurel wreath, but that is reserved for people that were actually Generals.
    Senator, man in a dress with a scroll, Thinker is much the same except you might get a slightly anachronistic book.

    Hero is a bit tricky, sculptors want to do ‘dynamic’ and ‘tackle out’. Given the British view of politicians, remarks are bound to be made about the ‘adequacy’ of the depiction. And when that has worn off, painting them pink, hanging things off the end or chiselling them off completely can only follow. [There was much fuss about the Wellington monument, Park lane when it first went up.]

    [I’ll have to have a think about masons, medieval architecture has some quite surprising influences].

  36. Ed DesCamp says:

    Paul C – somewhere under the northwestern slope of the avalanche of books in my den is a copy of Fish’s Schlock Holmes book…but I’d have to reach the Jurassic level to find it. Haven’t read it in years but kept it around as a possible re-read. Thanks for the reminder. Now where is my Indiana Jones hat?

  37. Dawn Andrews says:

    Lovely bit in a Pratchett novel where the Patrician talks about going on ‘The Grand Sneer.’ sir Terry certainly had a way with words.

  38. Jan says:

    Are you still not basically confusing some stuff here Snows?

    In your original comment you write about the “continuing hold over of Roman notation” which you seemingly think in this post to be intrinsically linked to the device of dressing certain wealthy, notable and powerful gents of society in what you interpret as Roman garb on their commemorative monuments. As explained previously there was no continuing tradition. If there had been then the Anglo Saxon Kings who visited Rome (As Alfred the Great did) would have been pictured in such fashions on their funerary monuments as would the Norman and Platagenet kings. This is clearly not the case.

    There’s nothing continuing here.

    Now let’s return and look at the usage of Roman numerals which you seem to feel continued to be adhered to as some type of “stylish affectation”. I am probably just not understanding your point here (being thick) but I must admit to struggling to understand what your basic point is.
    There seems to be a change in your second post from the position in the first one. Your emphasis is a bit different.

    It is generally accepted amongst Medieval historians that from the 14C onwards the Roman numerals system is superseded by the Arabic. As you say Pope Sylvestor the second (no Roman numerals here – not that I can find on the Kindle!) is credited with introducing this system. Pope Sylvestor 2 was in fact born in the tenth century and not the first (pay closer attention whilst scrolling Snowy). So the 11th century is the accepted rough kick off date.

    Now Roman numerals still continue to be used in certain ways. They continue to crop up on sundials and therefore later on clockfaces (which tickles me a bit.) I think this usage on sundials is more to honour the inventors of the system and an understandable reluctance to fit the new Arabic system in as much as owt else and that also holds true for the clock argument. The 24 your day is adhered to sod decimalisation! Kings and Queens are still numbered the Roman Way.

    We still see Roman numerals on the chapter numbering of posh books and in film and book titles. Funnily enough the pharmaceutical industry uses Roman numerals in a very specialised fashion. Me sister told me that. Yes and Roman numerals do sometimes appear on the odd funeral slab maybe for some stylistic reasons but I reckon this notion of yours about the continuing use of Roman notation as some sort of stylistic or status holdover is a bit daft. Very exaggerated.
    I think it’s misconceived.

    If you want though I might be able to see on the photograph of Huskissons statue in Pimlico gardens whether there’s any writing or numerals visible on the scroll he’s carrying in his right hand. You’ll be able to translate if there is….I’d be ever so impressed with that.

  39. snowy says:

    Oddly enough I’m not disagreeing with you, but our frames of reference seem to be different, my start date is post Commonwealth.

    Hands up, Sylvester 1st Millennia not 1st Century, guilty as charged. I plead for mitigation on the grounds it was too cold to take my socks off and count it properly.

    Grand Tour started a trend for Classical poses, not disagreeing, look at what they did to James II in Traf. Sq. inscribed ‘JACOBUS SECUNDUS/ DEI GRATIA/ ANGLIÆ SCOTIÆ/ FRANCIÆ ET/ HIBERNIÆ/ REX/ FIDEI DEFENSOR/ ANNO M.D.C.LXXXVI’

    His father had commissioned the translation of the Bible into English, and as we agree, [I think], Roman numbers are obsolete by this point. So an inscription in Latin with Roman numerals is functionally outdated. But because he is depicted as a Roman Emperor it fits stylistically.

    [I’m slightly confused quite as to what we are disagreeing about, we seem to be in accord on the what, but wrestling over the when? Or have I got that wrong as well?]

  40. Wayne Mook says:

    I don’t profess to be an expert, I’ve always been interested in the history and the Mediterranean was also of interest, plus my wife’s parents were from Iraq so I’ve had an added interest. Trade was always a major transfer of knowledge, the Arabic mathematicians had knowledge on Indian maths, the spice routes, silk road & so on. Plus Spain becomes a main point of knowledge as both Christian and Islamic rulers are there (from time in the 700s until Issy & Ferdie finished the reconquering.). The Ottoman Empire in the Baltics and eastern Europe in general (With Vlad being involved, there is a horror link.) and the Crusades into Europe, North Africa and the Middle East will have passed knowledge as well.

    There were quite a few seekers of knowledge too, talking of Bath I think I may have mentioned Adelard of Bath who did a wander around Italy, Spain and Antioch etc. and came back & was one of those who spread knowledge.

    The BBC still use them. Also it’s easier to carve Roman numerals, just saying. Oddly enough my 8 year old has been learning them and spent great delight in telling me how to count in numerals.

    The problem I had with the Bath bits of N’ Abbey was it was a bit Hollyoaks, so even spicing it up wouldn’t work, it was a bit soap opera-ish and I’m not a fan of soaps.

    On Sherlock Holmes rip offs, Sexton Blake and Solar Pons by August Derleth & later Basil Copper. I enjoyed the Pons I’ve read but it was a long time ago, never read any Sexton Blake (Are they any good?), but I have seen the film with Tod Slaughter in, a barnstormer of an actor and first UK horror star, others had go to Hollywood to do this, the likes of Atwill and Karloff.


  41. snowy says:

    Nor I, I’ve been noodling around with the idea that masons or Masons may have had knowledge of Arabic numbers hundreds of years before the Church and kept it as one of their secrets. Hard to prove, but the transmission route would be exactly as you describe, South into the Arabian Peninsula, emerging in Moorish Spain and then spreading North.

    Up to a certain point Northern European architecture is comparatively ‘crude’, though this may have been through lack of suitable material rather than any lack of skill?

  42. Jan says:

    I have been giving this some thought and I reckon Roman Numerals would be much easier to hand carve than Arabic numbers.

    They are almost like Runes in that respect and probably much easier to create than Arabic numbers! I get they are easy to do. Now would that keep Masons sticking with them for ages longer than was strictly necessary? If you are doing a job at least part of you wants to keep it easy and manageable. Specially if in the long run it saves you lots of dosh in the form of replastering and stone work. Geddit?

    I hadn’t factored that in initially.

    Perhaps rather than regarding the continued usage of Roman numerals as a style or status statement it was pretty obvious that if space wasn’t a particular factor as far as carving went Roman numerals would probably be the masons favourite! Cos it’s easier to do see?

    Think with this conundrum as is the case with most problems + puzzles it will be the most simple explanation that provides the real answer. Google can and often does make “pseudo experts” of us all (Don’t you agree Snowy?) and can send you off @ all sorts of tangents but the answers to most puzzles aren’t so much about complex things like conspiracies or secret knowledge as they are about what works on the ground for the people doing the job.

    Now bearing that in mind what motivates me laddo down in Piddletrentride church to carve in Arabic numbers that century early? Wonder if it is lack of space which I said in jest but could have been part of the reason. Was he a 3rd year apprentice who misread /misheard his masters instructions and transferred the hand written Arabic numerals from a rough paper sketch plan onto the wall of the tower?

    It”s fairly obvious without considering realms of secret Masonic knowledge and the diffusion of maths across the continent of Europe that by the 15C the masons would be quite legitimately with the full knowledge of the RC be doing their sums in Arabic. I wonder if the geezer doing this carving had a extra bevy at lunch time and simply made a mistake? Or maybe this go ahead young vicar Locke who the statement was about sanctioned it in some way? He could have decided to ok this fancy new number carving, maybe to impress his boss the bish. Even though the grumpy old mason lumbered with the carving job moaned like f**k.

    Interesting isn’t it? ….Or maybe not – maybe it’s just me.

    Trust me though the answers to most of the puzzles I ever came across were almost invariably SIMPLE. (like meself)

  43. snowy says:

    Jan, you will probably want to slap me, but please take this and the foregoing for what they are, me ‘thinking out loud’ into a keyboard, just for fun. And perhaps it might even lead us back in a roundabout way to the ‘Vicar of Piddley’.

    [Tangent about it being dangerous or even fatal to be found writing anything Arabic on a Christian building when there is a Crusade going on].

    I did flirt with the practical and financial aspects of A vs R, but it didn’t get me anywhere really. [My knowledge comes courtesy of multiply bruised thumbnails; you really shouldn’t leave a hammer and a cold chisel within the reach of a very bored child stuck in a garden with nothing to do, but easy and unobserved access to a concrete coal store].

    If you want to cut assembly marks onto a block where no one will see it, then R wins, whack, whack, whack – job done. [Complicated tangent about how bits of buildings were made on the floor, gleaned from an illustrated manuscript].

    But fine work for display, there isn’t really much to choose between the two, trace the central line of the letter/number and then work out and down to get nice crisp edges and a flat bevel. A numbers are more curvy, but so is Latin script. It left me thinking that to a skilled mason A or R numbers would make no difference, once you had carved ‘SEPTIMUS SIXTUS SHAGGER OF SHEEP’ you’d be nicely warmed up and a few curly numbers wouldn’t be a problem.

    The financial, in the affairs of man always follow the money. Dress it up how you will, this is still the Building trade with all the dodges and wheezes to wring a bit more cash from the customer. If a mason charged by the ‘letter’, then it’s R every time, 1 = I, 2 = II 3 = III, it just gets better and better. [hang on – maths: 1-9 written in R is 20 characters in total, divide that to get an average.] So if you could convince your customer that date should always be in R, cos tradition like… your average mark up on the job is over twice what it would of been in A, [2.2 to be exact].

    Perhaps the Vic was a bit tight, “Master Mason, your price is to high! Keep all the bit about me being great, but we have to save money on the date.”

    [Sources are not abundant, don’t start me on Google, that will result in a great big long windy wibble about the need to get a close as possible to primary sources, and then you will all be sorry [smile].

    Mostly I used: An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 3 – not great, mainly wiffling on about: “trefoil-headed lights below vertical tracery”, tracking down the translation took bloody ages, I’ve no idea where I finally found that, probably an archive copy of a long dead website and then the rest came from various things I’ve bookmarked.]

  44. Paul C says:

    Wayne – some of the Sexton Blakes were written by a youthful Michael Moorcock, an experience he recalls in a dazzling book-length interview entitled ‘Death is No Obstacle’ if you’re into him. His mainstream novel ‘Mother London’ and ‘The Brothel on Rossenstrasse’ are great but he also wrote an awful lot of trashy pulp including entire novels written in 2 or 3 days. You can tell.

    Tod Slaughter was born in Newcastle (our only film star !) and there was a campaign by local horror fans years ago to have a blue plaque but the council pompously refused. Philistines. The local man who invented windscreen wipers has a plaque. I like his portrayal of Sweeney Todd best – the term barnstormer is an understatement. Overacting at its best…….

  45. Jan says:

    Snowy sorry its just not washing give it up. Mind you – you could possibly be in line for Emeritus Professor of Googling (other search engines are availiable)

  46. Jan says:

    Most people probably didn’t recognise Roman or Arabic numerals or grasp the concepts behind either system. Would not be relevant to most folk Snows.

    Therefore would they really have been in anyway put out or offended by seeing Arabic numerals? I don’t know that they would essentially. Think that could be another bit of your woolly thinking there. You are back projecting the level of communication and education we have now into a past where it simply doesn’t apply in the same way. The Crusades were just as much motivated by the same human values that caused the folk who went to America to go West and make money many of these old Medieval lads were after the same things but headed off east. The Crusades although they were about religions clashing over territories weren’t the clash of ideologies that the present conflicts are.

    I can see that the relatively small percentage of folk who DID recognise the Roman system and could actually read the date on a tombstone or document struggling a bit when the new squiggly Arabic numerals appeared. Like when decimal coinage came in – it would be like a bigger version that scenario. But after they’d struggled to come to terms with the concept of zero and it’s written expression (Bet that’s why it’s always been an “0” cos they all stood there slacked jawed going ” 0′!). They’d come to terms with it.

    Old Pope SyIvestor (you know your 10 centuries out fella of whom you wrote “how real he felt is a matter of conjecture” whatever that meant I never understood that but that’ll just be my tiny brain!) well this same Sylv reintroduced the usage of the abacus. At 1st to the Medieval monks who were working out the tithes. They used them and the usage spread to the more numerate ordinary members of the population. Not so much the guys in the university medieval maths departments or the fellas working for the Norman feudal Lords but the people who worked in trade who needed the equivalent of a hand held calculator to get them through their working days.

  47. Helen Martin says:

    My reaction to that, Jan, is that you’re right on it. Remembering how many people were doing mental calculations because they were innumerate and that you don’t have to understand either system to use an abacus, just understand grouping by tens, and with ten fingers what is difficult about that? (Do I have to finish that wandering, multiclause sentence?) Oh, and I don’t know what feeling real means, either.

  48. Wayne Mook says:

    With any decoration and writing sometimes it’s down to the individual, maybe they just liked or wanted to be different. some of the earlier script is quite angular,S’s like lightning bolts. On big jobs on stuff I’ve read and on documentaries they masons had a freer hand, the guilds also had a strong hand it what was done. I guess it’s a combination of fashion, personal taste, politics and religion. The 4 on roman numeral clocks is because someone was sucking upto to a Louie and it carried on being the norm. I always think Victorian Gothic suits roman numerals.

    Paul – For horror star we have Sean Pertwee now. Tod was something else. Later we had Lee and Cushing but he is really the 1st homegrown horror star, the people in the early Fu Manchus don’t really count . He died in Derby at a theatre just after a performance of Maria Marthen, a friend from Derby, Darrell, showed us the place. His ‘”I’ll polish them off.” from Sweeney Todd is splendid. As has been said, if the Victorians had made films they would be like his.


  49. snowy says:

    Bit too pressed for time for a complete reply, apologies, will later.

    But since it’s Friday, let’s have a tune.

    [It might even answer one of your questions!]

  50. Jan says:

    Yes very interesting point Snowy put forward about payments and on what basis reward was given.

    Now would the masons really have been paid by the letter/ figure? I really dunno quite on what basis payment was made. Was it on the total work or individual elements I dunno. Think as the craftsmen elite of the day it would be more likely be by total job. It really does need to be factored in here that creating a cathedral took generations even an average village church was likely to be closer to thirty years or more rather than a decade in the making. Think Snowy in his usual fashion became a bit carried away with his modern building comparisons. These men are the elite craftsmen of their day you need to keep that in mind. They are fed and housed for years building is in itself seasonal and can’t go on through winter or wet autumn.

    Did teams of Medieval Masons even go in for subcontracting? Did they stick in estimates to the local clergy? I think not really! But the exact nature and timing of payment it’s a big I dunno from me.

    Seems likely that carving a straight stick like numeral will just be an easier job than the Arabic system. There’s something similar to the simply shaped Roman numbers that’s reminiscent of Runes.

    Runes are pretty interesting Chris wrote in his early novel “Rune” one of the best summations I’ve ever read about how and why the Runic system survived and a good part of its survival was dependent on how simple it was just to be able to form the figures and scratch them in to various surfaces.

    I think there’s something about this simplicity that probably helped to keep Roman numerals in use and made them attractive to the creator perhaps and it’s cos they are attractive to the creator that’s what essentially keeps them attractive to the client!

    Rather than being primarily a “stylistic and status affectation” purely led by client demand there could be rather more to it than that. The Medieval Masons were such a powerful profession they themselves can dictate style they are the only game in town when it comes to creating these monuments they can dictate the pace with far more power than almost any other group of peop!e outside the aristocracy or military back in the day. Don’t underestimate that power.

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