Tag Archives: christmas shopping

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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A splash of Cologne

Enjoyable though the High Society exhibition was, it wasn’t exactly a full day out. Having opened the doors of perception and the like, Izzi and I felt the urge to do something to fill out those awkward late-afternoon-early-evening hours. That period that’s too late for afternoon stuff, but too early for evening stuff. Izzi suggested that a trip to the Cologne Christmas Market on the South Bank would be just the ticket, and I agreed.

Sign's out of date, mate.

While there is no shortage of German Christmas markets, particularly around Christmas (which I believe to be no coincidence), the one on the South Bank is worth a look by virtue of its size and location. It lies roughly between the London Eye and Waterloo Bridge, stopping a little short of both.

I find the South Bank a little awkward to get to from Waterloo Station. You have to duck down alleys, climb stairs, cross busy roads, traverse via subways or some combination thereof, none of which are particularly inviting. I blame the architects. Anyway, having finally got there, we scouted things out.

The Magic Roundabout is easily explained by modern science.

A stall that instantly attracted our attention was one selling gingerbread. Izzi took the opportunity to do some Christmas shopping, in the process acquiring rather more gingerbread than is considered sensible for one person to possess. I was rather taken by the gingerbread houses they had – I didn’t dare to believe that such things existed in this world. We consciously resisted the chocolate fountains, which as you may know are a device of Satan to lead immortal souls to hell. Izzi did reason that strawberries and apples are both fruit, and therefore the benefits of the fountain could be made to outweigh the costs. We did not pursue this line of reasoning any further.

I was rather impressed by a stand that sold nothing but watches, and found myself making a mental shopping list. You know what I rather like? Those ladies’ watches you get that come on chains. I think those look rather nifty. Personally, I favour something fairly plain in the watch line – those pocket watches with the Union Jack cast into the case are unspeakably naff.

I impressed no one with my inability to do a simple wooden puzzle on one of the stalls. I did briefly consider the purchase of a wooden tie. It’s hard to explain one of these things if you’ve never seen one before. It’s a piece of wood, carved into the shape of a tie and segmented for flexibility, the whole being attached to the neck by means of elastic.

I was also very tempted by a Venetian-style ceramic mask, and may yet return. It was one of those commedia del’arte jobbies, you know the sort of thing. This one was particularly grotesque – I believe the character it portrays is “Il Dottore,” which takes its visual inspiration from the seventeenth century plague doctors’ protective mask. Izzi, too, was this close to buying a lacy number. But while she thought it was nice, she didn’t think it was £30-nice, if you catch my drift.

There was also a stall selling liquorice, making much of its apparent health virtues – reducing stress, weight loss and the like. Quite apart from the fact that this is pseudoscientific bollocks with absolutely no basis in reality, this was just a sweet shop. The fellow wasn’t selling liquorice pills or even liquorice root. We’re talking liquorice allsorts here, people. I suppose in a sense he deserves something for sheer balls-out audacity, but I take my liquorice very seriously and so cannot support his enterprise.

"Rink." Now there's a funny word.

To go into everything we saw and did would take a long time and wouldn’t be very interesting anyway, so let it suffice that it’s a great place for getting those quirky stocking filler-type gifts as well as being a pleasant couple of hours in its own right. Combine it with a visit to the National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall or any of the myriad other leisure facilities on the South Bank and you got yourself a day out. If that doesn’t float your boat, there’s an ice skating rink just in front of the London Eye, which is an unrivalled opportunity to test the resilience of your coccyx.

It runs until 23rd December, so you’ve got plenty of time. Tell them I sent ya. They won’t know who I am, but you know.

Further Reading

http://www.xmas-markets.com/en/ – The official site.

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Filed under Current events, Food, London, Markets, Rambling on and on, tourism, Waterloo and Southwark, Weird shops

Fantabulous Festive Facts

I don’t know about you, but I believe in keeping Christmas traditional. That is to say, spend the entire festive period in a food-and-alcohol-based stupor, slumped in front of the television watching Doctor Who at the family home while the sis screeches like a banshee.I was most pleased with the presents I received this year and, I hope, so were my folks. Londonwise, I was given the book Mother London by Michael Moorcock, which is one of the great London novels, and a history of Eel Pie Island in Twickenham. Eel Pie Island is one of the strangest places in London, if not the strangest, and I really need to write an entry about it one of these days.

The marvellous thing about working in London is that Christmas shopping is really easy. Bloomsbury and environs have an abundance of shops ideal for unique presents. The Ma’s present came from Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Persephone, which I have mentioned before in these pages, is an independent bookshop/publisher which specialises in excellent nineteenth and twentieth century books by female authors that have gone out of print. The Sis’ present came from the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones, which has an extensive selection of history books. The Sis is a fan of historical stuff, you see. I ended up having a pleasant conversation about London history with the shop assistant. It’s nice to meet a shop assistant who really knows their stuff – the bro tells me he had a frustrating time with one of the staff at Waterstones in Richmond, whose spelling was so atrocious that she couldn’t find any of the books he was trying to find (searching on the system for Evlin War’s Vyle Bodys and Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Armes apparently drew a blank). The Bro’s present came from Gosh! Comics opposite the British Museum, which to my mind is one of the best comic shops in London if not the best, particularly if you’re looking for indie and classic stuff. The only present I couldn’t find in Bloomsbury was the Da’s, which was an antique Hornby Dublo (that’s “train set” to you) railway carriage – I found it on a model railway dealer’s stall in Tolworth.

But I’m sure you didn’t come here to read about me (although if you did, thanks!). Here, in lieu of something more London-based, are some Festive Facts I’ve accumulated over the years.

  • Thomas Nast's depiction of Merry Old Santa.Despite what they may want you to think, Coca-Cola did not invent the modern depiction of Santa Claus. Rather, the modern version of Santa Claus is an amalgam of many different winter gift-givers, dating back to Odin and the Tree-Father of Norse mythology. The tradition of leaving out carrots and hay for Odin’s flying horse in exchange for gifts was absorbed, along with many other Yule traditions, into the European version of the Christian festival of Christmas. The Christian Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas), a man famous for his generosity, came to be identified with this gift-giving tradition. In the nineteenth century, this gift-giver was merged with the Danish elf Tomte and the British Father Christmas. Contrary to popular belief, Father Christmas and Santa Claus are not quite the same person – Father Christmas was traditionally a personification of Christmas rather than a gift-giver (like Old Father Time or Old Father Thames). He was traditionally depicted as a huge man in fur-lined green robes – think the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol – although Yr. Humble Chronicler has seen Victorian pictures of him in red and blue robes. The various elements of the Christmas gift-giver were ultimately assembled in America as a result of immigration from all over Europe.
  • If any one man can be said to have created the modern Santa, that man is Thomas Nast. Nast was one of the great American cartoonists, who can also be credited with creating the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey and the modern image of Uncle Sam among other potent symbols. His version of Santa, shown just above there, was drawn in 1863 for Harper’s Weekly. It incorporated elements of the jolly fat elf seen in the legends of Tomte and The Night Before Christmas with the larger-than-life Brian Blessed-esque Father Christmas and the white beard and red robes of Sinterklaas. While Haddon H. Sundblom’s Coca-Cola portrait of Santa is a fine piece of festive artwork, it’s just one of a number of Nast descendents. If one were to be cynical (which I never am, of course), one might point out that it’s a pretty fine piece of corporate brainwashing to make people associate the pleasant feelings of their childhood Christmases with the great taste of Coca-Cola. And yet even though I know this, I’ve got a glass of Coke at my elbow right now.
  • The Christmas tree is another pagan tradition absorbed into Christmas, originating with the story of Odin hanging from the bough of an oak tree. These pagan origins are acknowledged in Christian lore. Saint Boniface supposedly came across a bunch of pagans worshipping at an oak tree and, being a total buzzkill, he cut it down. He then found a pine sapling growing among the roots, which he took as a symbol of the rightness of Christian faith (I think if I was a pagan, I would have taken this as a sign that Odin can’t be cut down so easily, but there you go). The evergreen is a potent sign of everlasting life, which of course is very much a Christan thing. Contrary to popular belief, the Christmas tree was not introduced to Britain by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. In fact, it was introduced by King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte. Victoria and Albert, however, did popularise the tree by being depicted around it in engravings published at the time.
  • The tradition of the Christmas turkey is, as you might imagine, an American custom. In medieval England, a peacock or boar was preferred. At some point between the medieval era and the nineteenth century, goose became the popular Christmas bird in Britain. Norfolk is the great poultry-farming region of Britain, and before the arrival of the railways the geese had to be physically walked from Norfolk to London. For this, the birds were fitted with dear little shoes to protect their feet. And no, I have no idea how one herds geese, which are not exactly pack animals nor especially docile (they are regarded by poultry farmers as being better than guard dogs).
  • A common observation made around Christmas time is that the mince pie – a favourite in Britain around Christmas – does not contain mince.  Stranger still, the spicy, fruity substance that fills the pie is known as “mincemeat.” In fact, in the medieval era, mincemeat did indeed contain minced meat. It was common for sweet and savoury substances to be mixed in the medieval banquet – for instance, sugary comfits were often used to decorate joints of meat. The spices were also believed to help preserve the meat. I’ve not come across this theory in any of my sources, but one might also suggest that if the meat had gone off, the fruit and spices would disguise the taste. In the nineteenth century, actual meat was removed from the recipe, but beef suet remained. Tastes changed, and eventually people realised that beef fat and fruit were totally gross together.

So, in conclusion, may I wish you a very happy remains-of-Christmas. I advise you to continue eating and drinking as much as possible – you can feel guilty about it in January.

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