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Fully Booked

Right, chums, I think I’ve finally got the last of my Christmas shopping done. Hmm, that’s odd, I seem to recall having more money than that. Oh well.

I realise that many people here are not so fortunate – indeed, I myself have only got mine complete now as a result of a short-term change in my working hours. I feel I ought to do something to help. Here, therefore, are six of my favourite specialist bookshops for those obscure volumes that you can’t find anywhere else that make awesome presents if you know people of a literary bent and that.

I’m going to steer clear of second-hand and bargain bookshops, and also chains. So much as I’d love to, I can’t talk about Forbidden Planet or The Lamb, although both are excellent in their own way. I am also steering clear of those bookshops attached to museums, though these too are fine places for that specialist tome (The Cartoon Museum and the London Transport Museum both have excellent selections on their respective subjects) for the simple reason that they’d likely end up dominating the list. But do bear them in mind.

Anyway, without further ado…

1. Gosh! Comics

Specialises in: Graphic novels

Where is it? 39 Great Russell Street, WC1B

Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Road or Holborn

There’s no shortage of comics shops in London, but to my mind Gosh! is the best. Comic shops have a tendency to be slightly grotty and a little intimidating to the novice. Gosh! is far more user-friendly, with less emphasis on mouldering racks of old Marvels and more on indie graphic novels, the kind of hip things that get reviewed in The Guardian. There’s also a superb selection of classic illustrated children’s books if you want something for the kids. An occasional treat for comic geeks like me is the signings they had – Hurricane Jack and I were once privileged to attend a signing by the great and hirstute Alan Moore. He’s really very friendly in real life.

http://www.goshlondon.com/

2. Motor Books

Specialises in: Car and other transport books

Where is it? 13-15 Cecil Court, WC2N

Nearest Tube: Leicester Square

Motor Books describes itself as “the world’s oldest motoring bookshop,” and it’s situated on the eminently bumble-able street of Cecil Court. It has a fantastic selection of books on all transport subjects, but as the name suggests, particularly specialises in those related to automobilia, arranged by category and marque. I’m no petrol-head, but even I was able to almost instantly find one of the books I was searching for. The staff are marvellous, and were able to pinpoint the second book right away. Given that both titles were fairly obscure, I must say I was most impressed.

http://www.motorbooks.co.uk/

3. Persephone

Specialises in: Obscure 20th century books by female novelists

Where is it? 59 Lambs Conduit Street

Nearest Tube: Russell Square or Holborn

Persephone is both bookshop and small-press publisher, publishing mainly female-authored books of the twentieth century that have been allowed to go out of print. Famed authors in their day now unjustly forgotten, lesser-known works by well-known writers and even cookbooks and diaries from bygone eras, all are liable to appear in the distinctive grey covers of Persephone. The bookshop has a real intimacy about it, and not just because it’s small. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and ready to provide advice (Yr. Humble Chronicler being less than familiar with between-the-wars women’s fiction). There’s a regular newsletter, too, and you get the feeling that Persephone is the sort of place that likes to nurture a regular customer base. Which is super.

http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/index.asp

4. Housman’s

Specialises in: Radical literature

Where is it? 5 Caledonian Road, King’s Cross

Nearest Tube: King’s Cross St Pancras

I suspect this is a shop whose time has definitely come, what with the Coalition working hard to piss everyone off simultaneously. Therefore, you may find this place just the ticket if you’re looking for an alternative. Opened in 1945 as an offshoot of the pacifist movement, it offers a massive selection of political literature, including books, pamphlets and zines. However, if you’re not a very political person, but you are a regular on this blog, you may also wish to examine their massive wall of London-based books. Up the workers, and so forth.

http://www.housmans.com/index.php

5. Gay’s The Word

Specialises in: LGBT books

Where is it? 66 Marchmont Street

Nearest Tube: Russell Square

Gay’s The Word proudly advertises itself as the only specialist gay and lesbian bookshop in London, and its selection is very impressive indeed – they cover the whole spectrum from light-hearted fiction to in-depth political tomes, not to mention a fine range of cards and magazines on queer topics. I was rather taken by Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, as well as a couple of books on the history of gay London. Recommended to anyone with an interest in gender politics, regardless of orientation.

http://freespace.virgin.net/gays.theword/

6. The School of Life

Specialising in: Philosophy, life improvement, self-help… I’ll get back to you on that one.

Where is it? 70 Marchmont Street

Nearest Tube: Russell Square

The School of Life was founded by Alain de Botton. Not strictly a bookshop, it nevertheless does sell an excellent range of books on topics that are related to improving your life. How to enjoy work, how to be ethical, how to take advantage of the simple pleasures of life, how to make relationships work, how to be happy – anything relating to life that’s not easily categorised. The chances are that you’ll find three or four different books you’ll want yourself, along with a bunch for your friends. Bring money, is what I’m saying.

http://www.theschooloflife.com/

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She just won’t die

How do you define a London film, exactly? I’m not talking about things like Robinson in Space (which isn’t as exciting as the title makes it sound), I’m talking about mainstream cinema.

For instance, many people tend to think of 28 Days Later as a London film, but much of it takes place on the outskirts of Manchester. The Harry Potter films have a lot of scenes set in London, but nobody thinks of them as London films. It’s clear that the definition is unclear.

For me, I suppose, what separates a “London film” from “a film set in London” is something atmospheric, a film reliant on London, that couldn’t be set anywhere else. Alfie, for instance, has a few scenes set in the countryside (though the sanitarium scenes, at least, were filmed in Twickenham) but otherwise relies entirely on the city for its setting. Where else could you set it but in Swinging London in the 1960s? I heard rumours of a remake with Jude Law set in the present, but as we all know, that could never happen. Never happen.

Never happen

There are others – many of the Ealing comedies, for instance, are set in whole or in part in London. The one often cited is Passport to Pimlico, though technically most of that was set in Burgundy. Ah, but how about The Ladykillers?

Now you’re talking. This is indisputably a London film. Indeed, it never even moves beyond the bounds of King’s Cross. Released in 1955, it’s basically the story of a robbery that goes horribly wrong, resulting in the gruesome deaths of the perpetrators. But with laughs.

The movie stars Alec Guinness (wearing Alistair Sim’s dentures, movie fans) as the mastermind of a heist at King’s Cross Station. His fellow-robbers are played by Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green and Cecil Parker. His fifth accomplice, though unwitting, is vital to the plan – an old lady named Mrs Wilberforce, played by Katie Johnson.

As you can see, St Pancras has been cleaned up a lot since this was filmed.

The idea is simple – use the sweet old dear’s house as a base for the job. Convince her they’re a respectable string quintet, and in turn the police will never even consider asking the innocent, slightly dotty Mrs Wilberforce if she knows anything.

The plan, despite the various idiosyncracies of the gang and the well-meaning bumbling of Mrs Wilberforce, goes almost without a hitch. The money van is robbed and, using the instrument cases, the money is lugged back to the house.

Alas, the human factor lets them down – following a blunder, Mrs Wilberforce accidentally discovers the truth and demands that they do the right thing.

So of course they do. The money is returned and everyone learns a valuable lesson. Of course they don’t! Didn’t you see the title of the film? Having been discovered, they decide to silence Mrs Wilberforce for good. I mean, it can’t be that difficult to kill a defenceless old woman, can it?

The Ealing comedies are basically uptight ’50s Britain viewed through a cracked window. Aristocrats, vicars, bank clerks, even little old ladies get subverted in these anti-authoritarian flicks. In The Ladykillers, classical musicians are bank robbers, policemen are incompetent and meddling elders are surprisingly robust. It’s dark, it’s funny and, for a film that’s fifty-five years old, it’s really rather edgy.

For me, as someone who works but fifteen minutes’ brisk walk from King’s Cross, there’s the additional pleasure of seeing my local area (sort of) rendered unrecognisable by history. The King’s Cross of The Ladykillers is a very different place, a place of sooty brickwork and few cars, where a blue police box doesn’t immediately mean aliens are about. Steam trains and bomb damage play important roles in the plot, as do kindly policemen and the notion that maybe not everyone is a criminal suspect. Indeed, perhaps it’s this latter point that dates it more than any location scene (satire).

Even if you’re not into mid-twentieth century London, it’s definitely a film worth checking out to see an excellent cast perform a superbly-written crime caper. Though perhaps it is outwardly dated, at heart it’s got a cynicism that’s very modern. We shall not see its like again, I feel.

Never happen.

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Canal Penetration

I do not appear to understand the concept of a short walk. This fact was brought home to me on Sunday. Having attended a wedding on Wednesday, I was feeling somewhat guilty at the Elvis-level calorie intake I had managed that day, and therefore had resolved to behave myself with a little more restraint. Sunday, I thought, would be an ideal day to get a little exercise. I thought it might be nice to do some more of the Regent’s Canal.

The Regent’s Canal, if you’re not familiar with it (though you may have some passing acquaintance with it if you’re a regular reader of this blog), is a waterway running from the Thames at Limehouse to the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington. The canal was opened in two sections – from Paddington to Camden in 1816 and Camden to Limehouse in 1820. In those days, before decent roads and railways, canals were the arteries of industry. The Grand Junction Canal was the quickest means of transporting goods in quantity from the industrial Midlands to London. The Regent’s Canal therefore served an important economic purpose, as it formed the final link between the Midlands and the Port of London and therefore the rest of the world. It survived the coming of the railways and the roads, but by the 1930s was largely obsolete.

Today, although there is a small amount of cargo, it’s primarily used for pleasure craft. The warehouses and factories that once lined its route have either been demolished or repurposed (most notably, one major interchange between rail and canal is now Camden Lock Market and the Stables). The towpath is a popular route with cyclists, walkers and idiots (yo).

My original intention was to only walk a short section of the canal, say Camden to King’s Cross or Islington. But I have this tendency, once I start walking, to keep on going far longer than is perhaps wise. As a result, I ended up walking all the way to Limehouse Basin. As I had previously walked from Camden to Paddington (hence the photos you have been seeing so far), I can now say that I have walked the full length of the canal.

From a psychogeographical point of view, what’s interesting about this walk is that it let me see familiar places from a different point of view. Of course, I’d seen the canal at Paddington, Regent’s Park, Camden, King’s Cross, St Pancras, Caledonian Road, Islington, Hackney and Limehouse before. Indeed, I’ve written about it in at least two of those locations in this very blog. But it had just been a landmark then, with no sort of context. I had some vague awareness that this stretch of canal was the same as that stretch of canal, but only as a theoretical thing. To experience the whole thing from a boat’s eye view, as it were, was rather novel. I think I’ve been enlightened in some way.

Anyway, I’ve waffled on for far too long already, given that this was supposed to be a photo-ey entry. I shall keep the prattle to a minimum from here on in, and instead continue to present my (usual crappy) photographs in geographical order from Paddington to Limehouse. Camden Lock is a notable omission here,  due to the fact that on neither of the walks presented here did I actually intend to document the entire canal.

One last point I would like to make is the range of contrast as you go along the river, from affluent Regent’s Park and Little Venice to the post-industrial landscape of the Docklands. I’ll shut up now. For now.

Sorry, me again. At this point on the walk, the canal cut through the hill at Islington, and I had to leave the towpath. Some explanation may be needed for the following photos.

I snapped this because I had walked along this road once before, a couple of years ago, desperately hungover. I was leaving the Barnsbury flat of a friend we shall simply call The Monster early one Sunday morning. I attracted disapproving looks from pious souls. Anyway, to end up here again was rather surprising.

I eventually reached Angel – you may recall that my first paid acting gig was near here. Despite my familiarity with the area, I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the canal. Fortunately, this sign guided me. It may also explain some of the stranger sights coming up.

Isn’t this just the dearest little owl?

Spitalfields already? God be damned.

And Shoreditch! How we are honoured!

This is a nice thing to do with a block of council flats. Photographic portraits of local folk. It’s like Eastenders, only without the death and unimaginable horror.

Hackney. If you feel a chill down your spine, that is because we are but a stone’s throw from the Last Tuesday Society’s sinister museum.

A dilapidated narrowboat advocating the cleaning up of canals. This would be that famous bargees’ humour I’ve heard so much about.

Some sort of junction. Further investigation is required, I feel – especially as there’s something familiar about this canal here.

Lo the Isle of Dogs!

Herons are basically the easiest birds in the world to photograph. How I managed to make this one blurry enough to shame the most avid Bigfoot enthusiast is therefore beyond me.

I feel this toy boat has a story to tell.

We are so close, me hearties, I can practically taste that lime!

Is that not the viaduct of the London and Blackwall Railway?

It is! Limehouse! We made it! Long live, long live!

I say “we” made it, but mostly you just looked at photos. I didn’t want to make a big thing of this.

The Thames as the sun begins to set.

The Docklands Light Railway at Westferry. Everyone wants to get on the seats at the front of the train, but for a novel experience I recommend the seats at the back as you enter the tunnel for Bank. It’s like disappearing down a giant oesophagus.

 

Further Reading:

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/talk-about-burning-your-bridges/ – An earlier entry focusing on a particular part of the Regent’s Canal.

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