Recently I spent a few days in London. I climbed countless stairs at countless museums, scrutinized Angela Carter’s manuscript of The Bloody Chamber, and rested in a pew in a small lovely 18th-century church.
London is a literary city. We anglophiles can’t stop thinking about books. When we pass the British Museum, we think of Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels, in which the practical, astute Catherine Oliphant, a writer of women’s magazine stories who lives near the British Museum, takes a break to watch the eccentric anthropologists across the street swarming to their new anthropological research centre. (Catherine’s boyfriend is an anthropologist.)
Naturally, we bookish types aren’t always thinking about books, but we visit as many bookstores as possible.
I bought fewer books than last time and was relatively frugal.
At Any Amount of Books, a used bookstore on Charing Cross Road, I was thrilled to find Angus Wilson’s weirdly absorbing 1961 novel, The Old Men at the Zoo, which takes us from bickering zoo administrators to an apocalypse in Europe. The narrator, Simon Carter, the new secretary of the London Zoo, tries to mitigate the quarrels behind the scenes as chaos descends. The zoologists’ scuffles parallel the politicians’ clumsy maneuvers as the world moves closer to a war. Can the animals survive when every zoologist has a different scheme or theory (open park or nostalgic Victorian?)? And can humans survive the politicians’ inability to communicate or negotiate?
Wilson writes this brief note in the beginning:
The events described here in 1970-3 are utterly improbable. Our future is probably brighter, probably much more gloomy. All references to the London Zoo and to its staff are entirely imaginary.
I also visited The London Review Bookstore, an attractive shop in Bloomsbury which is owned by The London Review of Books. (The LRB also has a cake shop next door.)
I browsed in the poetry section and, since poetry books make good gifts, I purchased Gyles Brandreth’s Dancing by the Light of the Moon, an anthology of more than 250 of Brandreth’s favorite poems which he urges us “to read, to enjoy, and to learn by heart.” Although you may have read many of the poems, I loved rereading Edward Lear, Donne, and some of Shakespeare’s famous speeches. And I enjoy Brandreth’s tips for memorizing poems–not that I intend to do so. Still, just two lines a day, he says. We can do it! It will improve our memory and concentrations.
I also bought The Poems of Dorothy Molloy, an Irish poet unknown to me. I admire her wit and disturbing take on domesticity and love.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PACK THE EXTRA BOOKS? Although packing books is challenging, you will be surprised what a determined person can fit in a suitcase. (Hardcovers on the bottom, paperbacks in the pouches.) And wheeling the heavy suitcase develops upper-arm strength. If we worked in bookstores, we wouldn’t need to work out at the gym.
What are your favorite London bookstores? And do you visit bookstores in other cities?