Monthly Archives: March 2015

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 1 of 8)


At the end of February I had a week off work. I had hoped to go away for my first overseas holiday in 5 years and second since 2000. Unfortunately, due to a monumental cock up from Nationwide (who I will no longer be using) this wasn’t possible, but I still had the time booked off. I couldn’t really cancel it as our HR policy says that we have to use any and all roll over from the previous year has to be used by the end of March, so if I didn’t take the time off I’d lose my entitlement.

I wanted to try to do something a bit nice and a bit different from normal, so I decided to go on a pilgrimage. Only I wasn’t trying to visit and relics or holy places – I don’t buy into that pagan nonsense. This is pilgrimage in terms of merely visiting lots of places you want to go. I know a fair few bookshops in London but there are many that are highly spoken of that I’ve never been to. I had a look around and made a list, adding to it as I received recommendations.

When looking around a bookshop, there are all sorts of things to take in and consider. Some shops have that “old book” smell to them, some have wonky floors, some specialise in certain types of books. Almost any bookshop will have a lot of fiction available, but it’s in the quality of the non-fiction that a good bookshop can be discerned. So everywhere I went I made a point of looking out for what was on offer in my twin loves of science and christianity. I made it my aim to buy a book from each one I visited with a goal of trying to make it a book that would typify that shop or that you could only buy there. Ultimately, it was my prerogative, so I admit I sort of broke this on a couple of occasions when I spotted something that just jumped out at me.

I ought to point out that I am far from original here. I had planned on doing a write up of each but before I started to do so, somebody pointed me to The Matilda Project. There is some overlap in the bookshops covered and her descriptions are far more thorough and pleasant to read than mine, even though our opinions of some of the shops do differ greatly.


I began in Bloomsbury, at one of the more left field bookshops. Or maybe that should be left wing. Bookmarks is dedicated to all things Marxist and the fight for equality. As you walk in there are copies of the Socialist Worker for sale on your right. On almost every shelf is a small bust of Karl Marx. There was some slightly dreary jazz playing on the Friday night I was there. It was sparsely populated and the chap who I presume was the proprietor was sat unobtrusively behind a desk, with various revolutionary posters adorning the space behind him.

I was struck by the existence of a children’s section towards the back of the store. I regret not having taken a closer look to see what sort of things were available for 10 year old would-be communists. While Marx was the main focus, there was a more antiquarian section where one could seemingly buy anything and everything that Lenin ever wrote. There were also shelves entitled women’s right and black struggle. The bookshop seems to have its own publishing arm and these had their own shelf, but some were also scattered elsewhere.

You’d be unlikely to find anything by Hayek or Friedman here, but I would take a guess that they get a few mentions in some of the anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal volumes that populated the economics section.

If you’re used to the likes of Waterstones or opening up Amazon packages, then I would recommend this as somewhere to go for a slightly different experience.

Book purchased: Breaking Their Chains: Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910 by Tony Barnsley.

  1. Book Warehouse

This is a chain store with a few outlets scattered around. The particular one I went to is just by Russell Square and is the HQ for the business. It has a fair bit of crap there of little interest, but what it is really good for is grabbing a bargain. If they’ve got it in stock then the chances are that it’ll be cheaper here than any other shop you can go to.

A lot of what they have in stock are from Wordsworth, either in the Wordsworth Classics imprint or Wordsworth Editions. These books tend have fairly poor binding which is why they get sold off so cheaply, but if you don’t mind a book falling apart after the first reading then this is ideal. As might be inferred from this, the real strengths of the bookshop are in fiction, with some specific areas of non-fiction. Unfortunately, they don’t have a strong offering in the sciences and what passes for christianity is rather risible.

Book purchased: A Wordsworth Editions abridgement of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

  1. Quinto

Quinto is one of the many bookshops that can be found down the Charing Cross Road. It specialises in second hand and antiquarian books. They all look incredibly expensive, but appearances can be deceptive. You can browse around in the front of the shop, but as with many of the bookshops in the area this area is rather small and one can feel quite exposed. Thankfully, there’s a very helpful sign that points to a back door and reads something like “[There are plenty more books this way]”. As you follow the sign you are led down some wonky stairs with a thin railing and another sign saying that the railing wasn’t secure so it best not to put your weight on it.

The downstairs area isn’t huge nor was it was terribly well stocked when I was there. But what is there is fantastic. You have to look very carefully at the binding to work out what books it is that you may have picked up, but each one was a gem. Maybe one of the reasons the shelves weren’t well stocked was the fact that there was one chap going round taking them off and ending up with a great pile in his arms. He looked a little comedic as he had to arch his back backwards, but I sort of envied what enjoyment and learning he would be able to take from the horde that he carried.

I’ll definitely be back here, if only to find things that are long out of print and to ensure that someone else can receive the wisdom from the past.

Book purchased: A 1927 edition of Robert Owen’s A New View of Society & Other Writings.

  1. Book Mongers

Situated in the heart of Brixton, Book Mongers is a treasure trove of the second hand. It’s most notable feature is the resident dog who was sat by the window as I came in. He was friendly enough but unobtrusive. He had a little sniff of my hand as I tried to work out the theme of the bookshelf on the left as I walked in, which was a curious mix of gardening, science and travel writing. The place is piled up high with books of all sorts in a gloriously mess that lies someway between semi-organised and disorganised. There was some lively jazz playing on the Saturday morning I visited.

The owner was sort of cordoned off by a wall of books that separated him from the rest of the shop. Yet the way the place was laid out, one had all sorts of little tunnels or nooks to go down which made the best of the way the shop was laid out. At the back of the place there was a shabby looking sofa, from which the most easily reached books were old law textbooks. Someone came in offering a load of medical textbooks while I was there, but they were being donated rather than sold, as the owner was keen to take the address of the donor “for tax reasons”.

I definitely plan to come back here in the future. I just don’t know what great works I may find in the quaint chaos.

Book purchased: The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.

Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at Beautiful Books, The Kennington Bookshop, Foyles and Daunt Books.

Book Review: Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann

I first came across Rachel a few years ago via Twitter. Since then I think she’s published two books, of which this is the first (The Risen Dust being the other) but I only got round to purchasing this at the Greenbelt festival last year when we passed each other like ships in the night.

Opening with the full trio of a foreword, an introduction and a preface, we get to see that this is a work of testimony, intertwined with theological musings.

We begin with the tonka truck Christmas, where, as a 5 year old boy who was struggling with their gender identity, a decision was made to try to embrace masculinity. But this didn’t last and as one could tell from simply reading the back cover, Rachel underwent a sex change. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Citizen Kane and the role of rosebud, only the tonker truck had the opposite effect if anything.

The book has a certain flow to it, but it doesn’t feel like a sequential memoir. So of those I’ve read recently, it is most unlike Moltmann’s and much more like Augustine’s (though with a similar level of swearing to Hauerwas’). It is quite confessional in tone, almost as though we are hearing Rachel tell her story a little after after she had first recounted it painfully and fragmentary to family, a close friend or psychologist. But by now the story has been thought through in whole, seen afresh and told with a purpose. So although the reader is taken along a journey, the author knows in advance where we are going, even if the reader doesn’t.

At times, particularly early on, one feels as though Rachel is beating us over the head with an array of philosophers who are name-dropped by way of referencing how they viewed things and how aspects of their thinking were adopted. Being relatively poorly read in philosophy, I struggled to get a grip of the points being made. But given philosophy was the subject Rachel studied at university and lectured on for a while, this is a forgivable point. I mention it here so that any potential reader may consider themselves duly warned that there will be some mental exercise needed.

One thing you cannot do is read through it at a jaunt. For all the way through the reader is made to stop and think. It’s not that Rachel implores us to do (so rid yourself of the awful triteness of Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle) but her writing compels us to. It varies from page to page, either where she looks at something in a different light, sometimes implicitly asking the question “[have you seen things this way]” or “[how does your church deal with this]”. So as I read it, mostly on public transport, I couldn’t help but keep looking out of the window at the world going slowly by and trying to marry up the grotty end of south London that I pass through with the world as Rachel see it.

One of the reflections that was always going to capture my attention was Rachel’s take on the evangelical church, for this is the broad end of the spectrum where I find home within the larger Church. Now I read various takes on the evangelical churches, some of which are fiercely defensive, overlooking the flaws (both historical and present) and some which are wholly condemnatory, with a haughty “older brother” attitude, presenting evangelicalism as something that one ought to grow out of. Neither are views I find helpful, but thankfully Rachel doesn’t go too far into either one. Rather, there is critique that is carefully measured and an acknowledgement of the good the evangelical churches have had in her life.

One of the aspects that I confess I struggled with was the appeal to poetry. It’s an art form I’ve never really “got” and, aside from the war poets (who she does cite), those parts of the book that rely on an appreciation of poetry were rather lost on me. I guess I’m too much of a rationalist. But if poetry is your thing, then you’ll get more out of this book than me and you may well want to follow up with The Risen Dust.

One phrase that I don’t think Rachel used but that came to mind more than once as I was reading was the phrase “an incomplete gospel”. In her critique of evangelicalism, one of the concerns that comes across is that the gospel preached by the churches she visited or was a part of didn’t quite reach the place where she was. As someone who had undergone a sex change and who was also a lesbian, I hope it’s not transphobic or homophobic to say that that’s a fairly niche place that isn’t too well populated. Regardless, any gospel preached by any church must be one for all. That’s a message of Rachel’s that I wholeheartedly agree with.

One of the running themes of the book is the idea of the “dark God”. Coming again at the incomplete gospel from another angle, we often speak of God as light, not least in reference to John 1. Yet Rachel’s contention is that God has a dark side. This isn’t an assertion of dystheism, but rather saying that when we speak of gospel bringing people out of darkness into light, Rachel contends that sometimes God will stay with us in the darkness. I may have misunderstood, and while I could see some merit to it, I wasn’t wholly convinced. I did wonder if, as many do (myself included), God is envisaged as a projection of ourselves and that the dark God was Rachel’s expression of such a projection. I might be wrong about that. While I would certainly agree that God does meet us in dark places, what I was less sure about was the idea that he would stay with us there and not lift us into the light.

There’s much more to the book than I have space for here. For example, I’ve not mentioned her health struggles – especially with Crohn’s disease or her call to be ordained (although she uses the term priesthood, I wouldn’t echo this, holding as I do a priesthood of all believers). I will leave that for you to discover. As I said in the introduction, this is a work of testimony. I conclude then with an amendment to that: it is a work of testimony that I recommend you read, listen to, think on and grow with.

Book Review: Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

This was the one book I received for Christmas, having acquired rather a lot in my various visits to bookshops last year. Stuff Matters was added to my reading list after it won the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Materials science is not my strongest point. I recall my A-level physics teacher trying to persuade my best friend and I to look into materials science as a degree. I also recall being rather snobbish about it as a 17 year old and dismissing it as a hybrid subject. I was more interested in the purity of maths than the mess of metallurgy.

Yet it’s precisely with metallurgy that Miodownik starts. If you’ve seen him on tv (and he’s done a few shows, most notably the Royal Institution Christmas lectures) then you may well have seen his testimony about how he first got interested in material science. He was attacked by someone with a razor blade and was absolutely fascinated about how such a small object could cut through as many layers as he had on and still cut so cleanly and sharply through his flesh. This story is told in full at the start of Stuff Matters.

The book is told as the story of a photograph. It’s a photo of Mark sat on a roof garden with various objects around him. His contention is that each of the objects are made of interesting substances that each have their own story to tell. His aim is to get us to appreciate the world around us, particularly those things which humans have manufactured or manipulated to suit their own purposes.

In this review, I shan’t cover all of the topics that Miodownik does, but I hope to give you an appreciable taste of the book.

Building on the opening salvo about steel, it is only natural that the opening chapter looks at steel, a substance that Miodownik points out is ubiquitous in the modern world, yet it goes almost unnoticed by many. An interesting point I learnt was that metals tend to be in crystalline forms and that the manipulation of steel in particular (think of a blacksmith hammering out a hot blade) is reliant on the slippage of these crystals over one another. We get a brief rundown in the history of steel, including the industrialisation of it via the Bessemer process.

From steel, we move onto paper, the latter probably having cut me more times than the former. Again we have a fascinating sort of potted history of the substance, though it’s interesting that paper doesn’t really have a single definition. For example, Miodownik includes bank notes in his analysis when many would point out that they are linen-based and not really paper. After all, linen isn’t wood-based which may be many people’s starting point of reference. One fact that I learnt was that receipt paper already has ink within it but that it only appears when treated with heat. This finally explained a feature I’ve long puzzled about whereby if I wave a receipt in front of a halogen lamp heater it appears to go black, as if burnt, yet it is never consumed.

The book is full of such little vignettes of fascination that kept me enthralled which is why I sped through the book much faster than normal. The only disappointment came in the discussion of graphene. I’ve long known what it is but have never grasped why it is has caused such a fuss in recent years. Miodownik does cover the subject but at the end of that chapter I was left none the wiser as to what it is about graphene that ensured that work on it garnered a Nobel Prize or how it could be of wider use than as a mere curio.

One of the quirks of Miodownik’s writing (and his presenting) is a passion almost verging on a fetish for concrete. While it is certainly a great construction substance that deserves to have its story told, Miodownik bemoans the fact that the concrete core of the Shard is covered up, almost as though it’s a dirty secret that is best hidden. As someone who lives not from the author in south London I cannot agree with his attempt to appeal to the aesthetics of concrete, particularly when  I pass the brutalist architecture at Elephant & Castle on my way to work. But it’s rather charming that such an offputting substance had its passionate advocates.

That passion isn’t just limited to concrete though. It permeates the whole book and is, I think, a significant factor as to why it won the Winton Prize.

There’s much more that I’ve left out of this review, but I hope I’ve given you a taste. It’s definitely a recommended read. I learnt from it and if I’ve not been effusive enough to so far, it’s made me slightly regret not looking further into materials science as a degree option.