The three “B’s”: How to Behave on a Trip to London

I learned three “B’s” on a recent trip to London:

  1. Be safe.
  2. Bring your own book.
  3. Don’t bother with ticketed museum exhibitions at peak times.

The first “B.”  At different ages, we view the concept of safety differently.  One night when I was a young woman, I went out and screamed at the noisy junkies in the alley behind our house.   May  I just say, Thank God they ignored me! I didn’t understand the situation. Still, you can find yourself in that situation again.

The hotel in London was seedy.  (The pictures lied.)   I arrived at midnight, too tired to find another hotel, and checked in with great trepidation.  I looked incredulous when the  desk clerk told me I had to go outside to another building.  He escorted me, but was obviously terrified of the people on the street:  a sensible reaction.  I wanted to say, “Don’t show fear!”  And I was sorry that he had to trek back by himself.

How unsafe was it?  I thought, well, it’s only for a few nights. But the next night someone climbed the stairs at midnight and pounded on the door.  I sat very still and hoped he’d go away. Eventually, he did.

The next day I schlepped my suitcase on the tube and went to a relatively “luxurious” hotel where I had stayed before.  I enjoyed the rest of my trip.

The Second “B.”  Bring your own book, or e-reader. When the weather is slushy and you tire of looking at portraits of the Tudors, go to the British Library and look at the manuscript of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I was thrilled. Then sit down (if you can find a chair) and read it on your  e-reader.  (N.B.  The terrace in front of the British Library was cordoned off like a crime scene because of the snow.  Being an American, I thought this was funny.)

Though I brought my own books, I also went to bookstores  My two favorites are  the flagship Waterstones in Picadilly; and next door is Hatchards,  founded in 1797.

I finished five books in London, a record for me.  (The weather was bad, so I had lots of reading time!)  I read Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire (her best book), Virginia Woolf’s A Common Reader, Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene, Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is on the Landing, and Annette Williams Jaffee’s Adult Education.

The Third “B.”  London has the best art museums.  But you know what? I often enjoy the free exhibits more than the ticketed ones.  That’s because the paid  exhibitions are crowded.  On a quiet weekday I enjoyed Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits at the “Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, but the Royal Academy of Arts was so crowded on a weekend that  I couldn’t get close enough to see the paintings in the  “Charles I:  King and Collector” exhibition.

What I learned?  Pick your times. Meanwhile, see many of the greatest paintings in the world for free.

London without a Shovel

Some of the books I bought in London.

Take the 5 pence,” I said at Oxfam.  Snow was falling, and I needed a bag for my books.  (You pay 5 pence per bag in London, as a way to reduce the use of plastic bags.)

Mind you, I had a Waitrose bag, a Foyles bag, and a Westminster Abbey bag in my hotel room.

There wasn’t much snow in London. Possibly an inch or two.  But it was packed down, slushy, and slippery.   Nobody shoveled the sidewalks.  I saw nary a snow plow nor a snow blower. It took me a day to realize the city seemed empty because the snow had shut it down.  (N.B. Other parts of the UK really got a lot of snow, but London just expected snow.)

Even though Londoners are wusses about the snow, I’m a wuss about the cold. My mother taught me always to take off my coat inside,  but that wasn’t possible in cathedrals.   I froze my ass off at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, though I kept my jacket zipped.  I also visited Waterstones on the day the furnace broke.  At the lovely, warm, almost-empty National Portrait Gallery I sat on a bench and was amazed to find myself looking at  portraits of Andrew Marvell and a very young Milton. Later, at an almost empty Pret a Manger, I ate a fruit cup, drank coffee, and enjoyed Virginia Woolf’s essays on London.

Definitely not an ideal season for tourism, but I loved making the rounds of the bookstores.

In the window of a used bookstore on Charing Cross Road, (possibly) Any Amount of Books, I saw a very old copy of Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?,  but knew there wouldn’t be room in my suitcase.

At Foyles, I browsed in the fiction, essays, and  foreign language sections.   I bought a copy of Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books, which is very much like her previous book about books, Howards End Is on the Landing. I couldn’t fit it in my suitcase, alas!  but read it in the hotel.   I also bought E. Nesbit’s The Lark, (which I read as an e-book a few years ago and wrote about here), with an introduction by Penelope Lively.

I came across Hatchards,  the UK’s oldest bookstore, which was founded in 1797, in a very elegant building on Picadilly (the original building). It is my new favorite bookstore in London.   I bought a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Heritage.


I bought used  paperbacks at Oxfam and  Skoob.  Here’s a list:

Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness

The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West

Daughters of Decadence, edited by Elaine Showalter.

Hermann Hesse’s Rosshalde

William Plomer’s Museum Pieces (looked interesting: I’ll let you know)

H. E. Bates’s Death of a Huntsman (I’m very fond of H. E. Bates)

The Minister by Maurice Edelman. (Never heard of it:  looks amusing)

So did I buy great books or junk?  Only time will tell.

And I hope you have all thawed in London.

A Reader’s View: The Books of London


Mary Stewart’s lost novella.

Is there a better city for books than London?

I doubt it.

Sometimes I think British literary culture is Greece to our Rome, but then I am an Anglophile.  Even though I’m fond of American novelists Harriet Beecher Stowe and  Dawn Powell, I prefer Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Bowen.

And then there are the bookstores.

If I lived in London I  would have to wear blinkers, because I could not afford to pump money into the book economy every week. On my recent trip, when I tired of weird self-guided walks suggested in my guidebook (most ended up being about shopping), I binged on books like a librarian who has inexplicably acquired a windfall in her budget.

If my husband had been with me, he would have kept me from buying so much.

Still, he took it pretty well when he saw the box of books I had mailed to myself.

Here’s where I shopped and what I bought–and I didn’t go to as many bookstores as usual.


AT THE LONDON REVIEW BOOKSHOP:  Not yet available in the U.S., Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent has been widely praised in the UK.  Set in the 1890’s, it is, according to the description, “enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era.” Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone has also received good reviews, and I was influenced by Margaret Drabble’s blurb on the cover:  “[Moss] writes better than anyone I know about the way we live now, about our fears and obsessions and dreams, about mortality and parenthood and just keeping going from day to day.”

LIKE PENGUINS?  I found these at Oxfam, Skoob, London Review Bookshop, and a market on the South Bank.


new-books-penguins-four-usedI scooped up Arnold Bennett’s The Card (I love his Clayhanger trilogy!), Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning (historical novel set in Egypt), Travels with Herodotus (anybody who travels with Herodotus is all right with me) and John Masters’ Far, Far the Mountain Peak (know nothing about it) at Skoob, an excellent used bookstore in Bloomsbury.

My husband and I are dying to read Merle Miller’s The Sure Thing, a McCarthy era novel which I picked up at Oxfam.  Born in Marshalltown, IA, as was the actress Jean Seberg, another outcast of Marshalltown, Miller, a gay activist, wrote the fascinating novel, A Gay and Melancholy Sound, reissued in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series published by Amazon.  (I wrote about it here at my old blog, Frisbee.)


At Waterstones and Foyles, I found the three books pictured above by authors hitherto unknown to me.    I have begun Seraphina Madsen’s Dodge and Burn, a fascinating small press novel described as “a psychedelic road trip”;   Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is a Turkish novel; and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday won the Booker Prize in 1974.


Waterstones or Foyles?  Who knows? Both stores had good science fiction sections.  Joanna Russ’s The Female Man is a ’70s classic of the ’70s and I have long meant to reread Le Guin’s Earthsea books.

wind-off-the-small-isles-stewart-51fyyphh5tlAt Waterstones I bought Mary Stewart’s lost novella, The Wind off the Isles, a beautifully-written but very slight novella that will appeal mainly to Stewart’s fans.  The narrator, Perdita, a writer’s assistant, researches sites for hter employer’s children’s books and organizes travels to the  countries.  On the island of Lanzarote, they are fascinated by the story of a young woman and a fisherman who eloped during a volcanic eruption.  A playwright and his assistant  are pursuing the same story, and there is a mystery involved.  Julian Gale, an actor, one of the characters in Stewart’s super novel, This Rough Magic, is mentioned in this novella!  So you might want to start with that if you have never read Stewart.

Sleeping on Planes & What to Read Between Monuments & Museums: Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days

woman-with-suitcases-in-airport-0636a5184c1670f4514954228afaf8d5I don’t travel much, because I don’t sleep: why leave the hotel after a sleepless night? But I recently conquered my angst and took my third trip to London,  an “imaginary” city, in that I know it only through literature.

I love the drama, wicked satire, and eccentricity of London novels:  Barbara Pym’s indexers and anthropologists swarming  the streets of Bloomsbury;  Anita Brookner’s solitary heroines visiting museums and reading on benches in Regents Park; and, best of all, Muriel Sparks’ Mrs. Hawkins, an editor at a small publishing company, gossiping  at night in a Kensington boarding house.

Flying can be claustrophobic, but it is not a long flight, unless the airline stops in Charlotte instead of Chicago. I slept enough in London that I even got some reading done. There is a Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Costa, or patisserie on every corner where you can sip caffeine and read.  (TRAVEL TIP:  DO NOT ORDER COFFEE, because they will say, “An Americano?,” and serve you a vile mixture of espresso and water.)

If you are the last person without an iPad on the planet and get lost in Hyde Park,  have another latte or three and read your book for 15 minutes because I think your map is upside down!


bright, precious days mcinerney BN-PE464_JAYjpg_MV_20160729171322McInerney was called a member of the literary Brat Pack in the ’80s, along with Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis. McInerney’s first book, Bright Lights, Big City , was the quintessential ’80s novel, notable for its second-person point of view and portrait of a reckless, unhappy young man. It begins,  “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”   The hero,  a writer, has an unsatisfying job as a fact-checker at a magazine and is grieving over the breakup with his girlfriend, a model.  He parties at clubs and snorts way too much cocaine.

I didn’t follow McInnerney’s career, and then in the 21st century rediscovered him.   I loved his story collection,  How It Ended, and his 9/11 novel, The Good Life, the second in his trilogy about a New York couple, Russell and Corinne Calloway.   Bright, Precious Days, the  third in the trilogy, is a compelling read, and you honestly don’t need to read the first two books. (I have not yet read the first book, Brightness Falls.)

Russell and Corinne were deeply shaken in The Good Life by the trauma of 9/11, and have tried to be their best selves since.  Now they are at a crossroads in their marriage: Russell,  known for publishing literary fiction, toys with the idea of buying a commercial blockbuster because of financial problems, and Corinne, a former stockbroker coming to terms with middle age, now manages a massive food bank that distributes vegetables and fruit to the poor and thinks he should stick to his ideals.

Russell and Corinne are, by most of our standards, rich.  Let us just say they are not “the 99 percent,” though they borrow a house in the Hamptons for the summer rather than rent, while the rest of us would be at the Jersey shore.  In many ways, the brilliant McInerney’s fiction fits into my “imaginary city” fetish, because I know New York only from literature.  Russell and Corinne live in a Tribeca loft with their almost-teenage twins, and Corinne thinks it’s much too small.  She wants to move to the suburbs, while  Russell wants to hang on to the cool life he thinks he still lives in Manhattan.  Corinne, a brilliant woman who loves art and literature but spends much of her time with shallow girlfriends and attending benefits (she must so people will donate money to her organization), has an affair with her super-rich ex-boyfriend, Luke, whom she met  working in a soup kitchen after 9/11.  (He has his own plane, so at least Corinne isn’t squished in her seat, as I was.)

Russell is the more interesting character of the two, an old-fashioned publisher/editor who takes his line editing very seriously.  His new star writer, Jack, a “handsome young redneck,” rebels against Russell’s propensity for minimalism.   (The account of the conflict between Russell and Jack is reminiscent of what I’ve read about the clash between  editor Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver.)  Like many writers,  Jack is a handful, indulging in drugs and drinking.  So is a famous travel writer, Phillip Cahout, who has written a book about his three weeks as a hostage of the Taliban.  Russell’s idea is to go all out in a bidding war for this book and have one title on the list that can pay its way.  Cahout, however has a reputation for instability. but Russell glosses over this.

If he begrudged his authors’ drug habits and narcissistic behavior, he wouldn’t have much of a list. “I’ve worked with Kohout before—I basically discovered him, so I think that gives me an edge. Plus, a book like this puts us right in the middle of the cultural dialogue.”

Russell makes a few bad calls, and his company almost goes under.  Corinne is supportive, but they aren’t making love or very connected right now.

McInerney is an exceptional chronicler of New York, and I very much enjoyed this book, but I was occasionally jarred by Corinne’s shallow friends, who are obsessed with fashion, blow jobs, and plastic surgery. Still, turning 50 is difficult.    I do identify with Corinne’s shock as she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror at a restaurant.

Leaning over to pick up her napkin, she was surprised, as she righted herself, to see her face in the smoky mirror behind Casey, as if for a nanosecond she didn’t quite recognize the middle-aged woman, so like her, only slightly older. In her heart she was still twenty-seven, or thirty-three. At most forty-two. She’d always resisted the idea of getting work done, but maybe it was time to start thinking about it.”

Who hasn’t had that experience?  Though there will be no surgery here (how can they face the needles?).

I very much like Corinne’s response to her friend Casey on her appearance.

Have you thought about getting your eyes done?”

“Do I look that bad?”

Corinne also worries about her daughter Storey, who  has put on weight since learning that her sister Hilary’s eggs had been implanted in infertile Corinne’s womb.  Storey wonders if this makes Hilary her mom.

Casey pooh-poohs Corinne’s qualms about talking to Storey about her weight.  “This is no town for fatties.”

This intelligent literary novel is very enjoyable. The dialogue is pitch-perfect.   Occasionally the account of the rich and famous are too much for me me:  imagine a crossover of Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant observations of the unhappy rich with  a women’s best-seller devote to the drama of the glamour.   Who  in my world knows anybody like the mogul Luke? Wel, Mcinerney obviously does, and he is not in my world.  But this strange mix makes it the perfect plane book.

Sam Tanenhuas, the former editor of The New York Times Book Review, is far more articulate than I about McInerney’s work.  He wrote in 2009 of McInerney’s short story collection, How It Ended:

McInerney’s gifts have never been in question. He possesses the literary naturalist’s full tool kit: empathy and curiosity, a peeled eye and a well-tuned ear, a talent for building narratives at once intimate and expansive, plausible and inventive. His sentences, vivid but unshowy, exhibit the same strengths he once identified in Fitzgerald’s; they are “sophisticated without being superior, conspiratorial without the gossip’s malice.”

The Anglophile Abroad: On the Bookish Grid

Virginia Woolf lived here.

Virginia Woolf lived here.

London is not laid out on a grid: it is organic. It grew out of chaos, and it is still chaos for many of us Americans.  But I am getting the hang of it. On a recent trip, I was able to find my favorite sites without a map.

Lytton Strachey

Portrait of Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington

In Bloomsbury I took a self-guided Virginia Woolf walk.  That was rather a let-down, as it is essentially looking at blue plaques on row houses.  Still,  I loved the views of Tavistock Square and Gordon Square, where Virginia and, indeed, almost the whole Bloomsbury group, lived at one time or another in the early 20th century.  And then to make it even more thrilling, I saw portraits and busts of the Bloomsbury Group at the National Portrait Gallery including paintings by Vanessa Bell  and Dora Carrington.  There are portraits or busts of Virginia, Violet Trefusis, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa, Duncan Grant,  and E. M. Forster. What an incestuous group they were!  Brilliant, but always sleeping with each other.

At the British Museum in Bloomsbury, I felt  like a Barbara Pym character: her characters sometimes work or live in Bloomsbury, and surely that’s where all her strange little  anthropological societies are housed. Think of “Less Than Angels” and “Quartet in Autumn.”

Here’s how I know I have a better feel for it than I used to.  I was able to find every bookstore in London by instinct.

London review bookshopBut where  are the signs? Tiny almost organic signs are posted high on buildings.  It is easy to miss Bury Place across from the British Museum, and you don’t want to miss it because the London Review Bookshop is there.

The London Review Bookshop is the perfect size for an independent bookstore.  Not too big, not too small, with every book carefully chosen and arranged (by whom?  The manager?  The booksellers  together?  The LRB itself?). I almost bought an edition of Keats, because it had an intro by Jane Campion.  But I have my Keats at home.  And, naturally I went crazy in the fiction section, where there were fascinating small press books on a table, and I was able to find new books not available in the U. S., among them “The Essex Serpent.” There are also Turkish books on a table, since they are having a Turkish month.


Waterstones Picadilly

I love the booksellers’ culture in London. We don’t have that much in the U. S. anymore, except in big cities and a few university towns. Waterstones  in Picadilly reminds me of the original Borders chain in the ’90s, which had everything you could imagine.  Waterstones is breathtaking.  The tables are cleverly organized:  at the moment they are displaying paperback novels from different decades, the 60s, the ’70s, etc.  Lots of small-press books and I was very amused by arrangement of the historical fiction titles on a table, “Gladiators & (Somethings)”  (Oops, I should have taken notes.)

Foyles is also stunning, and I couldn’t decide if I preferred it or Waterstones. They are competitors.

As for used bookstores, Cecil Court near the Trafalgar Square imagestop has many charming shops, but they are pricey.  I would have loved a first edition of a collection of Kay Boyle’s stories , but I couldn’t justify it.  I have her Complete Stories at home.

There are also some remarkable used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, and others not.

Don’t forget Skoob in Bloomsbury,  the best used bookstore for the common reader (and collectors).

TIP. And so I have discovered it is much more fun to see the sights than to take self-guided walks from the guidebook, or even walks with experts,  I love getting off the tube and seeing Buckingham Palace.

At the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, you can see an excellent exhibition of the Royal Collection of Scottish paintings.

I drroled over Westminster Abbey and sat peacefully in one of the small gardens.  I never cared much about royal weddings but I was ecstatic at the National Portrait Gallery to see the portraits of Princess Diana and Kate.  Oh my goodness!  There is a royal-loving gene in me after all, and I did love both of Obama’s inaugurations.

The trip ended in hilarity at the National Gallery when I had looked at so much art that Velasquez’s Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos looked EXACTLY like James Franco.  Well, maybe there is a slight resemblance.

Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos by Diego Velasquez

Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos by Diego Velasquez

My Inner Jane Eyre: The Box of Books from London

Jane Eyre card British library L_ISBN_5052849613496The bookstores in London are incredible.  I spent hours browsing at Skoob, Waterstones, Oxfam, London Review Bookshop, Foyles, Henry Pordes, Persephone, and some tiny shops whose names I didn’t notice.  The very tiny shops (but none mentioned here) will gouge you with high prices.

I mailed a box of books to myself.  I’ve been watching like a hawk for that box.

It arrived.  It took a while to rip it open.  Talk about tape!  The cats watched with interest.

But what pleased me most?  A  Jane Eyre greeting card from the British Library, a facsimile of the cover of the 1889 edition published by George Routledge and Sons.

And I realize from a Jane Eyre point of view that a collection of cards might be better mementos than books.

I feel smug about my books, though.  Honestly, I’ve never bought so many books at once.  What a great collection! I don’t need any more books for a while.  Do you see why I’m in Book-Buying Rehab????


I found some Viragos and Persephones, as you see in the closeup shot below.

IMG_3425 Note that I had to go to London to find On the Stroll by the American writer, Alix Kates Shulman, author of Diary of an Ex-Prom Queen.  I had ever heard of it.

Below are two other stacks, arranged on the cats’ rocking chair.

IMG_3428These are not organized by publisher, so I’ll call them Used and New.

Used Books:

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Island

Hugh Fleetwood’s An Artist and a Magician

Emma Tennant’s The House of Hospitalities

Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women

Leonard Woolf’s The Village and the Jungle

Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room

Ronald Firbank’s Five Novels

And a replacement copy of Forster’s A Room with a View which I’d lost on the plane

New Books

3 Novels by Cesar Aira

G. B. Stern’s The Matriarch

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

And now for the final picture.  Only two in this stack are used:  Beryl Bainbridge’s Mum and Mr. Armitage and Julien Green’s The Dark Journey.  The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith is  a stunning book, but I realized after lugging it around London that hardcovers are too heavy for traveling.  The same goes for The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus, an enormous paperback I’ve been looking for for ages and of course had to buy!  Julian Barnes’s paperback, Keeping an Eye on Art, is exquisite.  It is now available in the U.S.!  Right after I bought it in the UK, of course.  Oh well, I love all these books, and no regrets!

IMG_3430Now off to hide some of these from my husband.  And  I have to do six months of book rehab before I allow myself to buy a new book!

A Very Short Trip to London!

Shall I go to Keats House?

Shall I go to Keats House?

I love London. The bookstores!   The theater!  (We can’t get tickets for Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, but nobody can.)  I hoped you might have suggestions for sightseeing, bookstores, etc., for our short trip to London.

How about literary events?  On Sunday at The London Lit Weekend, Sir Peter Stothard, classicist, writer, and editor of the TLS,  will chair a session with Tom Holland and Edith Hall on “Why the Classics Matter Today.”  Stothard is a stunning writer (read Alexandria:  The Last Days of Cleopatra), and I enjoyed Tom Holland’s translation of Herodotus. But I have a bad record for ticketed events on vacation:  I skipped a literary event last time, because I didn’t feel like navigating the trains.  Perhaps I should read Holland’s new book instead?  (I’m waiting for Stothard’s next book.)

Is it necessary to see Chelsea and Soho, or was that a ’60s thing?  How about the antique shops on Kensington Church Street? Why can I only think of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington?  What’s your favorite place in London?

Last time I didn’t bother with Westminster. Should I?  Do I need to walk in St. James Park like Mrs. Dalloway?  I’m rereading Mrs. Dalloway for the trip.

My guidebook makes it sound as though Hampstead is in the wilds.  “[It] has always stayed aloof form London…”  But that’s where Keats House is.  And yet if I go to Keats House I will buy Keats merchandise.   Do I need more Keats books?  No.  But I might need the t-shirt.

Little-known museums?  Favorite ruins? Favorite restaurants? Plays I should see?

You-all helped me a lot in 2014, so please tell me your favorite London things.  This is just a mad dash! and no time for rendezvous or the English countryside.  You know London better than I…