Monthly Archives: March 2015

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 4 of 8)

Link to part 1
Link to part 2
Link to part 3


  1. Oxfam, Bloomsbury Street

This came as a recommendation to me from a friend. I hadn’t really considered a charity shop as one to visit, but having been to Bookmarks a few days earlier (see part 1) I knew exactly where it was. On walking in, one is struck by the slightly musty smell and the very hard floor which does rather put one off from spending too much time browsing.

The other offputting feature was one of the other people in the shop. He was a bizarrely dressed hipster who was seemingly trying to empty some of the shelves and put big a pile on top of one of the smaller bookcases. Every time he found something he wanted he would click his fingers, but he never looked remotely pleased. His offputting presence was only matched by the chap behind the till who, when I presented him with my purchase, seemed quite miffed that I had made him put his own book down.

As for the shop itself, it had an oppressively hard floor which rather put me off spending too much time there. However, it was very professionally laid out, with clear alphabetising of each section and with different topics clearly labelled. There were reasonable science and religion sections. I can’t say I fell in love with the place, even though they did have a section of reasonably priced rare books. If passing by, it’s worth popping in, but I wouldn’t say you need to go out of your way to visit.

Book purchased: The Poincare Conjecture by Donal O’Shea

  1. Skoob

Skoob is a real find. Not only in the metaphorical sense, but it also takes some searching to actually get to the front door. The address says it is in the Brunswick, a sort of shopping centre in Bloomsbury, flanked on either side by some gritty looking flats. As you come in, you can see a sign that clearly points towards Skoob. However, if you follow the arrow there is only a Waitrose. It puzzled me rather. I walked the pasta aisle and found a small back door to the supermarket. If you come out and turn left you can then see the entrance to Skoob. But that’s not all. Once you walk in the door, you immediately have to go down some steps and you are effectively in the basement of Waitrose.

There are warnings about low ceilings and in places the books are arranged so as to ensure that there is room for the pipes. Notably, the philosophy section had some kind of pipe immediately above it, though I couldn’t determine what flowed through the pipe. In fact, I’d rather not think about that too much.

What I do want to think about is the cave of wonders that is Skoob. The shelves are full to overflowing of a huge variety of books. As one might expect, there is plenty of regular fiction. There was also a large selection of science fiction. Yet this only accounts for maybe half of the stock, as there was a great selection of non-fiction. For some reason, there was a piano of the shop. Although there was no one playing it, it was a charming touch. Just beyond it was a shelf full of the Loeb Classical Library books which I haven’t got round to buying yet, but which, having flicked through, I am hugely impressed with.

Yet it was the religion section that I was largely drawn, with some intriguing works there, including one by Reinhold Niebuhr, another author who I have never read, but have read good things about (especially in the works of Stanley Hauerwas).

I’ll definitely come back here and if you need help in finding it, I’ll happily take you along.

Book purchased: Huldrych Zwingli: His Life and Work by Ulrich Gabler

  1. Judd Books

Judd was never on my radar to visit. I hadn’t seen it recommended nor was it on the map of independent bookshops. I only came across it by accident as I walked from Skoob (above) towards the Quaker Centre (below). Like many of the shops I had visited, it had a selection of books outside, underneath a canopy. I had a quick flick through, but nothing really grabbed me, so I headed inside.

Incidentally, roughly opposite (and a little bit south, down the road) I stumbled across an obelisk marking the final resting place of Charles Wesley.

As I entered, I immediately encountered a problem. The place was very poorly laid out, so even though there were only two other customers in a reasonably sized area, my way was blocked by both of them, so I had to negotiate my way round several tables in order to have a decent look around. The selection of fiction was comparatively small, but their range on literary criticism was as large as any I can recall seeing. So if that’s your thing, then this is your shop.

However, most of their non fiction seemed to be in a basement, which you could access via some stairs. At the top of the stairs one could see a most unfriendly sign telling people that all bags were banned from being taken downstairs. If you wanted to see what else the shop had to offer, you had to leave your bag with the front desk. There was no way I was going to consent to this, so the shop had an instant black mark in my book.

Being confined to the unnecessarily cramped space upstairs, I noticed that the prices were very good, so it’s not a bad place for a bargain. However, I tried to think what sort of book would help reflect what sort of shop would ban people from going downstairs if they already had an y shopping with them. As it happens, I did spot one book that had been on my wishlist for a few years. When I noted the title, it just seemed perfect to reflect a shop where there were areas customers were banned from going to.

Book purchased: Quarantine by Jim Crace

  1. The Quaker Centre

Situated just over the road from Euston station and one of my former offices (Grant Thornton house) is the HQ of Quakers in the UK. The bookshop is sort of scattered around within a communal area where you’ve got a cafe, some elderly folk asleep on some sofas and random study areas.

I had to browse around for a while as the till was unstaffed (in fairness, I was in there around lunchtime). The most offputting thing was there was a chap sat at a table who kept coughing quite markedly, as though he was trying to tell me something. I checked that my flies were done up correctly (which they were) and tried to check if anything else was out of order, but this chap wouldn’t make eye contact. He must just have a very unusual cough.

What’s there is both typically Quaker and so untypically anything else. There’s a wonderful mixture of books on ecology, pacifism, theology (christian and non-christian), some politics (mostly left-leaning) but also some quite anti-christian works. For example, I spotted a copy of a Sam Harris work which I thought stood out like an Alister McGrath work might in a humanist bookshop (if such a thing exists; I’ve not found one yet).

Given its location over the road from the station, if I’m stuck for a while at Euston, I’ll definitely come in again. After all, even for an introvert like me its good to be among Friends.

Book purchased: The War of the Lamb by John Howard Yoder.

Next time, I’ll have an interlude and look at the ones that got away.

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 3 of 8)

Link to part 1
Link to part 2


  1. The British Library bookshop

OK, this isn’t a normal bookshop in any sense of the term, but as the home of some of the greatest works of world literature, it seemed fitting that I pay a visit, particularly as I was in the area, aiming for Housmans (see below). I’d been to the odd exhibition here before but had never really explored the library. It’s quite an odd place, as it is full of student tapping away at laptops, sat at tables that dot the place. But you can’t simply walk up to the books. There are signs everywhere saying that you need some kind of pass to be granted access. So it is a public institution that is 90% closed to the public. The only area that was accessible was the “treasures” room where several of the highlights of the library’s collection are on permanent display.

Included here are pages from Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook, Captain Scott’s diaries, handwritten lyrics by The Beatles and the piece that I consider to be one of the most important single volume works in the entire world: The Codex Sinaiticus.

I’ve seen it before, but I could never stop being enthralled by it. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale, though I couldn’t conceive of a price for such an important work in the history of humanity. So I made my way to the gift shop where one can buy the usual kind of nick-nacks from any museum or gallery, but I wanted to make sure that what I got reflected the location somewhat. There wasn’t a facsimile copy of the Codex Sinaiticus available and most of the books about books where large hardback picture books. However, there was one set of books on sale that were most apt. The British Library is currently putting together an exhibition that brings together the 4 remaining copies of the Magna Carta to mark its 800th anniversary.

Book purchased: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

  1. Housmans

Just around the corner from King’s Cross station, Housman’s is another of the left-wing bookshops I managed to visit. It had a very similar feel to Bookmarks that I had gone to a few days earlier. There were a few busts of Marx on sale, though not so many and there were also busts of Darwin and Einstein too. If anything, this felt less like an old shop and had a bit more of youthful feel to it. If Bookmarks was the home of the grumpy trade unionist, Housmans was the home of the angry anarchist. Indeed, there was quite an extensive set of writings on anarchism and much more on feminism too. If you were to bump into anyone here, I think it would be Laurie Pennie.

There was an interesting sign on the door that was addressed to any would-be shoplifters saying that the shop didn’t make much money and that anyone who did shoplift was robbing from staff who were already poorly paid.

The door to get it had the most marvelous little squeak to it. If you led someone there and just let them hear the sound then they should be able to tell you that they were in a bookshop. In addition to the new books, there was a small stack of second hand volumes as well as a host of pamphlets, obscure newspapers and banners. One that caught my eye was one calling for a British version of the Greek anti-austerity party, Syriza.

I could quite happily return here and would encourage you to visit if you’re ever stuck at King’s Cross or St Pancras with a bit of time to kill. You’re bound to get something far more thought-provoking than the banality that fills the bookshelves of the nearest WH Smith.

Book purchased: The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard

  1. Black Gull Books

Heading a short way up the Northern Line I ended up in Camden Town, an area of London I’ve never been to before. It was quite easy to find, but was a lot smaller than I had been expecting. In fact, it was about the same size as a small living room, with some small bookcases outside as overspill.

In spite of the small size, there was a reasonable selection here. The only criticism is that it wasn’t well laid out. For example, the book I eventually picked up was from a section entitled, “Physics, science and evolution” which is an utterly bizarre mixture of subtopics. Science would be sufficient, physics and biology as subsections thereof with evolution being a further subdivision of biology. So it was almost in defiance of that that I chose a maths book.

The other bizarre bit of labelling was when I was looking for the christianity books. They were labelled under “Self Improvement” which is a very poor description of the christian faith. That said, the selection was quite good and I was tempted by a copy of Augustine’s City of God. There was also quite a lot on jazz and blues, but that’s not a topic I’m particularly interested in reading about.

Book purchased: Further Mathematical Diversions by Martin Gardner

  1. Primrose Hill Books

After exploring the labyrinthine Camden market I found my way out and heading towards Primrose Hill. As the name suggests, it’s on a hill. There’s a sort of sub-park just to the north of Regent’s Park, the summit of which has quite a good view over the city, though on the day I visited, there was a bitingly cold wind in spite of it being rather sunny.

The bookshop is stocked almost entirely by new books and is very heavily biased towards the fiction end of the market. It is a rather small shop and I was the only person in there. One of the things that made it a bit awkward was that it was sort of elongated and the shopkeeper had a clear line of sight to the door. So unless you darted off to one side as soon as you walked in, you would be forced to walk straight towards them.

This evinced in me a fear of those dreaded words “Can I help you?” which usually suffice to send me straight out of any shop, never to return. So my tactic was to make sure I was out of sight for a bit, which got me browsing around the crime fiction section, which seemed to merge into a very generic non-fiction section. I couldn’t find anything specifically on religion and the science section was rather limited in its range.

The floor was nicely comforting. It was carpeted but charmingly wonky in places. So you could shuffle around for a while, but the size of the shop means that it’s probably best when there are no more than 3 or 4 people browsing.

So, what could I get that was a fiction work and had some sort of sense of smallness to it?

Book purchased: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton


Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at some of the shops around Blooomsbury and Euston.


Visiting the bookshops of London (part 2 of 8)

Link to part 1

  1. Beautiful Books

Not far from Book Mongers (see part 1), within the arches of the railway bridge is Beautiful Books, a christian bookshop that seems unusually tidy compared to the shanty food stalls and chaos of the market around it. It’s a christian bookshop of the classical twee kind with a few platitudinous posters on the walls and lots more for sale. It’s the kind that I recall we used to have in Dunstable, next to the more austere baptist church (ours was the more laid back of the two baptist churches in the town centre, but we didn’t have a bookshop).

The books were all along one wall and, at a rough count, seemed to be 1/4 bibles and 1/4 bible reading guides. There was also some apologetics, quite a few biographies of missionaries (though no doubt some of these might be referred to as hagiographies) and some odd bobbins. Being reasonably familiar with the world of christian writing, one can look out for various tell-tale signs to inform you as to the kind of thought that the owners might have by looking at the topics and the authors on display. There was quite a lot of T.D. Jakes and David Pawson on display, along with almost the entire set of C.S. Lewis’ theological writings (no science fiction or Narnia here). I couldn’t spot a single book by a female author and there was very little that was written more than 70 years ago. There was also half a shelf on “creation/evolution” which was sadly only populated with anti-science writings.

With that kind of selection, it was going to be hard to find something I was likely to enjoy, but I did find something that had been on my wishlist for sometime, so I picked it up and took it to the counter. The proprietor was busy shuffling papers at the other end of the shop and it took a bit of rather English faux coughing to attract her attention. I was fearful that I couldn’t see a card reader and that I hadn’t enough cash in my wallet, but it was a relief that I could pay by card and so did, walking out not only with my purchase but also a rather curious newsletter entitled “Christ is Victor” containing short articles with the titles of “The Goodness And Beauty Of Jesus”, “Oil In The Vessel Of Your Life” and “The Hot Water Bottle”.

Book purchased: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.

  1. Kennington Bookshop

Kennington Bookshop won’t be around for long. I had a nice chat with the owner while I was there and she told me that the fixed overheads were too high and that they wouldn’t be renewing the lease once it is up at the end of May.

One of the curious features about this place was that most of the books that were displayed on the tables (not including those on the shelves) had elastic bands around them. It seemed a little odd, as though they were intended to stop people from flicking through the books. It turns out this wasn’t the case as the owner simply had no faith in the quality of modern binding and felt that the elastic bands would preserve them. I’m not convinced of the efficacy of this, but it was a quirky touch that rather endeared the place to me.

As with several of the bookshops I’d already visited in the weekend, there was some music playing in the background; this time it was Classic FM which rather fitted the slightly posh setting of Kennington as well the owner’s accent which wouldn’t have been out of place in the BBC in the 1950s. The shop was split on two floors, but unfortunately much of the downstairs hadn’t been priced so was labelled as “not for sale” which was a real pity as there were some great looking volumes in there. I also spied volume 2 of Michael Foot’s biography of Nye Bevan which would have been much more appealing if volume 1 had also been present.

The upstairs stock consisted of a mixture of new and 2nd hand, but was well presented and offered a reasonable choice of fiction though not a great amount of non fiction.

Book purchased: Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie.

  1. Foyles

I hadn’t planned on going to Foyles as part of my tour. I was aiming for the Southbank Book Market which the website says happens every day, come rain or shine. Sadly, the only evidence of it was an old, lonely sign on some railings overlooking the mudflats of the Thames. It seems the market is no more. So I wandered down the south bank for a bit and stumbled across an outlet of Foyles.

It is slightly odd and it is a grey area as to whether it is truly an independent bookshop. It has all the corporate trappings of Waterstones with a very similar character which is markedly different from many an independent retailer. I wouldn’t say Waterstones and Foyles are characterless, but they are two peas in a pod. They are both excellent if you know what you want, they are well laid out and you can find what you’re after with very little effort. And if it’s not in stock, it can easily be ordered.

[Late edit: Foyles have stated “To clear up your grey area, we ARE an indie: we’re still family-owned. (Indie has nothing to do with no. of shops.)” – I would dispute the latter part. I know of other businesses that are owned either by members of a family or individuals, but where the epithet of ‘independent’ would be most misleading, since in business, the term has connotations of small, single (or few) places of business.]

This particular branch was quite small compared to the flagship store but still had plenty there. I loved the selection of Very Short Introductions and the Great Ideas next to each other and could quite happily have emptied the shelf. There was also on display a series of 80 booklets that Penguin published and were selling for 80p each. However, these just seemed to be extracts of books, rather than works in their own rights.

Having noted that the store is quite generic, it seemed fitting to go for a relatively generic publishing label, which led me to Vintage. However, I still wanted to pick a book that I actually wanted to read.

Book purchased: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

  1. Daunt Books

When I started to research where to go on this little pilgrimage there was one name that appeared at the top of various lists over and over again. This automatically creates the risk that my expectations would be too high. As I walked in I wasn’t bowled over, but neither was I disappointed. It was just nice. There were quite a few people around but it wasn’t overcrowded.

The big selling point of the shop is its travel literature. Yet while it was interesting to see a bookshop organised by country, it was more than just travel writing; it was the literature of that country (all English translations). So there wasn’t, for example, a poetry section. If you wanted Shakespeare you’d go upstairs to the Great Britain section, if you wanted Ovid you would stay on the ground floor and see the Greek section. I was very tempted by The Tale of Genji in the Japanese section but it was in rather poor condition.

While I was happy to browse around, it didn’t feel like the kind of place I could spend all day in. That said, the whole place was just nice. I saw examples of the staff being very helpful, though the chap that served me at the checkout was a little bit surly.

Given the way the shop is organised, it only seemed right to go either for a piece of travel writing or at least a piece about a land that is foreign to me, by an author from that land but who writes with an evocative sense of place. There was quite a lot to choose from, but I eventually opted for a piece set on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – a place I doubt I will ever get to visit in my lifetime. One place I will probably go to again in my lifetime in Daunt Books.

Book purchased: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto

Tomorrow, we’ll head to The British Library, Housmans, Black Gull Books and Primrose Hill Books.

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.