Tag Archives: London

Books, shops and genteel black holes

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

“A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.” 
Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! 

The above quotes are by two of my favourite authors and they very much encapsulate how I feel about bookshops. I have recently been extremely busy with work and, returning from a long business trip, I got to thinking about the importance of books and bookshops in my life and, more importantly, my sanity!

Books have always figured largely in my world. I fought against them as a child, mainly because the repeated phrases drove me insane. I can still quote one particular book with intense savagery today (for those of you who grew up as I did with the Sali Mali books, you’ll understand what I mean). In self-defence, my infants teacher started me off on a series aimed at 7-10 year olds. I was five at the time and it was my first introduction to an entire new world of wonder and enchantment. I was hooked. I devoured those books, desperate to know what adventures the Griffin, the Pirate and the Mermaid would fall into next. By the time I hit secondary school, my reading age was that of a sixteen year old and I was insatiable. I had also discovered the joy and lure of a good bookshop and nearly all of what money I had at the time was spent within the portals of the local bookshops.

Bookshops still intoxicate me. I have several that I patronise, some here, some there, some online. I prefer independents, though there are some good chains out there. This is  the first in an occasional series of my favourite bookshops – and of a few tea shops too. I will include web address, where they exist, in case you’d like to look them up too.

Watkins Books, 19-21 Cecil Court, London ( http://www.watkinsbooks.com/ )

450px-Watkins_books_in_Cecil_Court_2013-04-25_13-00

Taken from Wikipedia

Hidden away between St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross Road, London, Cecil’s Court is full of little gems, but I go there because of Watkins. Trading since 1983, it specialises in books on the esoteric. Just as you never know what sort of book you may come across in Watkins, you also never know who you may meet. Spaced across two floors, as soon as you walk in the warmth of the place surrounds you. The staff here are genuinely knowledgable about their subject and are invariably welcoming and friendly. As well as books on religions of all kinds, magic, self-development, earth mysteries and Celtica, they also stock books on health, astrology, nutrition… The list goes on and on. They also stock divination cards, crystal jewellery and CDs, which range from New Age to Early Music. A very wide breadth. They arrange regular free evening events with some of the authors whose books they stock – no need to book. If you happen to be in the area, just drop in. You can also get a Tarot or palm reading here every day of the week. Their loyalty scheme gives a really good discount once you have collected enough stamps (unfortunately only available on books brought in the shop at present).

I try to make a point of visiting here every time I am in London. It’s a little haven of comfort and happiness in a manic world. A place to while away a magic couple of hours away from the pressures of the everyday.

Why not let me know what and where your favourite bookshops are?

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Cameras, joy and staying awake

Some days, I just stumble along in a half-awake daze, not really engaging or interacting with anything. Later on, I will try to remember that day only to come up with a blank. I can remember nothing about those 24 hours I lived through beyond a few vague impressions, because for every second of that period I was on auto-pilot, not waking up enough to order my brain to remember.

Yet, when I go someplace new, do something important, or visit a place that inspires me, I can look back and remember so many images. This is because I was awake to my surroundings and engaging and ordering my brain to notice and see.

Then I realised – I can engender this sense of sharpness, of aliveness, simply by carrying a camera. Obviously, I don’t wander around the house or supermarket – or into business meetings –  with a camera clutched in my sweaty hand, but when I am doing something or visiting somewhere I want to remember, where carrying a camera is not only permissible but a must, then the eye of the lens really does come into its own.

Simply staying awake to picture opportunities makes it more likely I will spot something interesting I would otherwise have missed. Such as the sign for Milkmaids Passage in Green Park, London.

Milkmaids Passage, off Green Park, London

I was looking at the Georgian houses lining Queen’s Walk when I spotted this sign – a sign that the friend I was with hadn’t registered. In fact, he hadn’t noticed that a passage existed, let alone the fact that it had such a romantic and rural name.

All too often we trundle along, never looking up or around, never seeing the glories that surround us, inhabiting our own little inner world and wondering why nothing interesting ever seems to happen to us? Why we never seem to meet the interesting people mentioned by others? Why life only seems to happen to those others?

It is because we do not engage. We do not seek outwards beyond our own skins. We do not live dangerously by letting the mask slip, just a little, so that others can see the jewels hidden underneath. It is because we are sterile creatures of wary habit, unwilling to risk all so that we may truly live. Harsh? Perhaps so: but consider now the most alive person you know and then think on how they are always ready to interact, to share, to exchange, to learn, to grow. They retain a childlike curiosity and wonder the rest of us suppress. They treasure the child within, let it show them the way.

Stained glass windows,  High Kirk of Edinburgh

Stained glass windows, High Kirk of Edinburgh

Had I not been gazing at the glorious stained glass windows of the Thistle Chapel in St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh (more properly known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh) with my mouth open in wonder, my awe momentarily open to all who saw me, I would never have got chatting to an inspirational young man fighting cancer with dignity and humility. I never learned his name, but he inspired me to not take life for granted and, indirectly, I owe this blog to him. To his courage in looking at what could be a very short rest-of-his-life with fierce joy and a determination to fully live it around a demanding therapy timetable. The picture above will forever be tinged for me with a faint sadness and with everlasting joy and gratitude.

“There”, I thought, in imitation of John Bradford, “there but for the grace of God go I…” *

Notice, witness, be present, live.

Carrying and using a camera – being aware of the potential for a jaw-droppingly, earth-shatteringly beautiful image that will speak to everyone, or a picture that will be meaningless to most but that will whisper a thousand images into your mind every time you see it – sharpens your attention and heightens your awareness of your surroundings. Helps you to stay alive to the moment, the emotions, the beauty, the pain. The image in the lens becomes a microcosm of life, a stepping stone that marks the path to being truly alive.

“But what about the Milkmaids Passage?” I hear you cry.

No one knows for sure exactly why this passage has been given this name – or at least, I could not find a reason in any of the sources I consulted. My own particular theory, however, is as follows. Green Park used to have a herd of milk cows – a rural fancy for the urban Londoner. For a small fee, the maids attending the cows would milk them and provide their customer with a glass of warm, fresh milk, direct from the teat. I rather like the idea that this custom was immortalised in an obscure little alleyway off the park. I am, in all probability, completely wrong, but until somebody can point out, quite definitively, the true derivation of the name, I will hug my little romance to myself, a signpost to a day’s compass where I remained awake to every grace.

What signposts do you treasure?

* John Bradford was a Protestant who, whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London for crimes against the Catholic Mary I (Mary Tudor), saw criminals being led to their deaths and spoke his famous line, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” He was burnt at the stake on 1 July 1555.

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