It’s hard to fathom a city brimming with bookstores, some more than a century old, a town where newspapers are free, where commuters read real honest-to-God books, where you can spot as many book posters as movie trailers in the train station. Yes, London is a bookseller’s paradise, and I am officially indulging, even overdosing on the cultural niceties of this amazing city.
Today was my first solo day in London, my daughter Megan having jetted off to Dubai, leaving me to my own devices. I grabbed my Oyster Card (a pre-loaded bus/train pass,) downloaded my route and took off for “a literary walk around Bloomsbury.” Coincidentally, I have been reading an advanced reader’s copy of VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar, a Random House book out next January about this very part of London where Virginia Wolfe (Vanessa’s sister) lived and socialized with other writers and artists. Also associated with Bloomsbury are TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, WB Yeats and Charles Dickens. Oh, the history in this town, and what a place to get lost in!
As has become my habit in London, I started with an indie bookstore. In this case, the London Review Bookshop. (I have yet to find it spelled Shoppe in England. And we Foxes thought we were being so cleverly olde world with that spelling!) LRB was less intimidating than some bookstores I have visited here because it was not opened until 2003, making it just four years older than FoxTale. Compare that to at least two bookstores I’ve visited which are over a century old. Like us, LRB seemed to have a pretty busy event calendar. Unlike FoxTale, they charge attendance for these book signings, usually ten pounds ($16.27 U.S.,) and this seems to be the norm in London. Popular authors command double that amount, and events get sold out quickly. Around town while I’m here, Sue Monk Kidd will be signing The Invention of Wings (€20.) Lee Child is sold out at several different bookstores. Unknown-to-me authors also come with a price tag, though I may do it just to experience a British book signing. Unfortunately I missed a free “party” at, of all places, Slightly Foxed, a bookstore which produces an anthology from contributing authors (customers?) Spotted a copy of The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly—one of my Fox Picks—while at this cute bookstore. I am considering seeing Ken Follett next week if I can work him into my busy schedule between a performance of Comedy of Errors at the Globe and The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theater. (A first world problem to be sure, but I will come home as poor as a Dickens pauper.)
But back to the British trend of charging for book events. No worries, we won’t be upping the ante for our author events at FoxTale, but it’s interesting to note the difference. Do the Brits value books and authors more, or is it part of their philosophy that “nothing should be free,” as one Londoner explained to me? Book prices seem consistent with the U.S., with maybe more of a preponderance of paperbacks. Yet there are wonderful markdowns to be found, and I have almost filled a suitcase with what will make up a British Shelf at FoxTale when I return. Other differences? London Review Bookshop was neat and well-stocked but—dare I say—lacking in the eclectic charm of FoxTale. Also of note, there is little interaction among store clerks and clientele. I’ve heard no enthusiastic book recommendations, witnessed no warm hugs, no passing out of garden vegetables to customers, no raucous laughter, no tattoos and dancing to the hokey pokey in the kids room. Definitely British booksellers are more, ahem, refined than the Foxes.
Then, on this beautiful Sunday afternoon I was off to the British Museum, directly across the street, where the history was absolutely staggering. The museum itself was established in 1753, and some of the more than 13 million works are dated over two million years old. How is this even possible?!? I spent most of my time in the Egyptian/Greek section which housed parts of the Parthenon and the Rosetta Stone. Yes, the Rosetta Stone. (The Magna Carta is in the nearby British Library; more on that institution later.) I seriously had trouble wrapping my head around room after room of ancient grandeur. If it was younger than say, 3300 BC, I just walked on.
I ended the day in a pastry/tea shop where I ordered a pot of tea and a scone with clotted cream. (The Brits charge a bit extra if you are eating in as opposed to “take away.” Nothing’s free.) I had no idea what clotted cream was, but envisioned a nice dollop in my tea. My scone was the size of a bagel, and it came with a large portion of butter and jam, or so I thought. The tea was served with sugar and cream that did not look clotted in the least. Curiosity overcame me and I asked two delightful ladies sitting beside me to define clotted cream. They said it was not to put in tea, but to spread on scones, that it was rather, well, clotted and the color of butter. The more talkative of the two pointed at what I mistook for butter and said, “rather like that.” The two ladies coached me in the “proper” way to apply clotted cream to my scone which was to spread it liberally (“more, more, put it on”), top it with jam, then put yet more clotted cream on top of that. If Kim Jordy is not yet serving clotted cream at Tea Leaves and Thyme, she must do so immediately!
The two British ladies, whose table was almost touching mine, had been talking politics prior to my interruption. Scotland is threatening to secede from the UK, causing a bit of alarm in England, and the Brits seem to be taking it personally. Joan, the quieter of the two, suggested that her friend, (I’ll call her Rona) didn’t have enough information to form a proper opinion on their topic of discussion and suggested she leave it up to the politicians. Rona vehemently (for a Brit) objected that she did too know what she was talking about, that she read the papers and was outraged. They were eating from bowls of a thin soup the color of parsley and followed that with slices of pie, perhaps lemon. “You’re an authentic Southern Belle,” Rona said when I told her where I was from. She didn’t think she would like our politics in the south, Rona said, but she would like to visit Atlanta to see the antebellum homes. Her experience of the U.S. was limited to Texas, and she found the food there deplorable. She couldn’t even taste the food for the heat at a “Tex Mex” restaurant where Americans ate copious amounts of spicy food that masked all the flavor and washed it down with sugar-filled colas. She had also sampled biscuits and was woefully unimpressed. “They took a large scone which they called a biscuit and put gravy on it, rendering it completely soggy,” she lamented.
When I told her about FoxTale, Rona revealed that her quiet friend Joan Lock
was an author of some prominence. Joan was quite shy about it, but finally gave me a list of her most popular crime novels, Dead Image, Dead Bones and Dead Letter. Online, I learned that the unassuming Joan is a former nurse and policewoman and the author of eleven non-fiction police/crime books, including three on Scotland Yard’s First detectives. I will add her books to my list.
Today, I’m off to The Victoria and Albert Museum, with a stop along the way to John Sandoe Books. Updates to come!