London for the Bookish

I’m a book person. Are you?

If you’re not sure, check your reaction to this picture

Did you think:

A: “That place needs a good clear out”

or

B: “If I won the Lottery, I would have a room just like that”

If your answer was B, then you are a book person. Welcome, come sit next to me. We’re going to get along just fine.

I would argue that London is an unusually bookish place. Just ride the Tube and you’ll see carriages full of people reading novels. My friends outside London tell me that no-one reads any more. Really? Come to London, we’re all at it. At any given moment there is a literary festival or a book group meeting or a ‘meet the author’ talk. London reads. It’s one of my favourite things about this city.

Since you’re a book person too, you’ll like these places.

West End Lane Books is a brilliant small independent bookshop. The stock is curated by people who truly know and love books. I always get Christmas and birthday presents for my “impossible to buy for” Dad here. Recently I bought him “Russian Roulette” by Giles Milton, which he devoured in one sitting. (Yes, he’s a book person too.) Their Twitter feed @WELBooks is highly entertaining.

British Library and Bookshop is a regular pilgrimage spot. It is possible to get a Reader Pass, but don’t expect to get into a Reading Room on a day trip. You need to apply in advance, and explain why your research requires content from the British Library.  They can reject your application, or steer you gently towards a more suitable library.  (Gently, mark you.  They are gentle, bookish types.  These are our people.)  It’s still worth a visit for the galleries and for the bookshop where you can buy gifts for your bookish friends and family.

If you want a proper library, my favourite is Swiss Cottage. The architecture creates light and a sense of space which belies the enormous selection of books crammed into this building. The upstairs cafe is much cheaper than the downstairs branch of Del Aziz and also has a selection of secondhand books to swap for free. There are comfy chairs all overy the library as well as desks upstairs for more serious work. The children’s library has activities and books for children of every age. When my son was a baby I took him to ‘Rhyme Time’ there to listen to songs for babies. Now he’s eight he likes to sprawl on the comfy foam steps area of the children’s library to read. He also loves checking books in and out himself on the computerised system.

The best of the bigger bookshops has to be the new Foyles on Charing Cross Road. I spent hours wandering round all the second-hand bookshops on Charing Cross Road with my Dad when I was a kid. They’ve all gone now and however much I love my kindle I can’t help feeling sad about it. The world changes and moves on. Anyway, the new Foyles goes some way to healing the wound with the largest range of books under one roof of any bookshop in the UK. I like to read in French sometimes (“pretentious, moi?”) and their foreign language section is to die for.

I have to mention Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street. It is such a beautiful shop with its wood paneling and graceful arched windows. We always go there immediately after booking a trip; they have an exhaustive selection of travel guides.

I also have an emotional attachment to the bookstalls on the Southbank too. Yes, I know, I’ve already mentioned them. But for me the perfect London weekend day will always be a browse in Tate Modern, then a walk along the river, another browse amongst the books, then drinking a hot chocolate in the BFI cafe while we’re all immersed in reading our new purchases. Bliss, London style.

 

London in love

London is the most romantic city on Earth.  Yes, that’s right, more romantic than Florence, New York and even Paris.

Okay, I admit that I’m biased.  I fell in love here, so every single paving stone of this city is soaked through with associations.  Camden market might seem very unromantic to other eyes, but as I walk past I can see the day I met my husband.  That swooping feeling when you dream that you’re falling – it’s still there every time I pass by.  When I walk to the end of our street I can see us together seven years ago outside the hospital.  I’m holding a tiny scrap of a baby against me, Dave is wrestling with a car seat for the first time – a brand new family.  I walk past that spot almost every day and there we all are, a memory tethered to the doors of the hospital like a balloon – visible only to me, but none the less real for that.  That’s why for me, this is the most romantic city on Earth.

So you’re in love, you’re in London, and you want to go on a date… for free.  Where do you go?  My top five ideas…

1.) A Sunday walk along the South Bank  Again I have to admit my bias – my husband and I walked along the South Bank together the morning after he proposed.  But even for a first date you won’t struggle for conversation, with the river to watch and the book stalls to browse.  If the date goes really well you can continue it at Tate Modern.

2.) A picnic in Regent’s Park or, if you’re double-dating and want a more convivial atmosphere try Primrose Hill.  But Regent’s Park is perfect if you just want to lie on the grass talking and sunbathing- the park is big enough that you can have quite a big patch to yourselves.  Just don’t set up too close to The Hub or you’ll find that the lovely quiet spot you’ve chosen is actually the middle of a cricket match!

3.) A snowy day on the Heath.  If you’ve fallen in love in winter those endless days of lazing on the grass will just have to wait.  In which case, go to Hampstead Heath together in the snow.  It’s like visiting Narnia – right down to the lamp post in the middle of the woods.  Some of the pubs in Hampstead have open fires if you need to warm up afterwards.

4.) Meet me by the statue  Long distance is hard.  Meet by the statue at Saint Pancras after an absence – the perfect reunion.

5.) National Portrait Gallery – with every face, I think about who they were and who they loved.  Emma Hamilton is in Room 17.  Her memory of the day that she found out that her beloved Nelson had died at Trafalgar is in Christopher Hibbert ‘Nelson – A Personal History’ – “They brought me word, Mr Whitby from the Admiralty. ‘Show him in directly,’ I said. He came in, and with a pale countenance and faint voice, said, ‘We have gained a great Victory.’ – ‘Never mind your Victory,’ I said. ‘My letters – give me my letters’ – Captain Whitby was unable to speak – tears in his eyes and a deathly paleness over his face made me comprehend him. I believe I gave a scream and fell back, and for ten hours I could neither speak nor shed a tear.”

Pitfalls of apartment life

There are people who have lived in London for twenty years and never become a local.  They don’t know their neighbours, except by the noise they make.  But of course you can learn a lot just from that.

We used to have a couple of neighbours, long since departed, (not departed this life, you understand, just departed further up the property ladder) who started arguing every evening at 8.30pm.  They reached a crescendo around 9.30pm, just as I was lying in bed wondering when my husband would get back from work and how many times our baby would wake up in the night.  I found myself listening to them in the manner of a radio play.  I couldn’t help myself; it was as loud as if they were standing right next to my bed.  They argued about some shoes she bought, and about his endless DIY, and about whether she listened to him properly, and whether she didn’t listen because he wasn’t very interesting (she had a point there, I felt).  It was a bit like ‘The Archers’ if ‘The Archers’ featured young urban professionals with too many power tools.  I got hooked, and when my husband came in from work he’d ask ‘So, what’s the latest?  Is she going to let him put those shelves up or what?’.  We didn’t get out much at the time – couldn’t afford the babysitter.

They complained once about the noise of our baby crying.  I was tempted to point out that surely if they could hear the baby, then did they realize that I could also hear them?  But like a toddler ‘hiding’ by putting their hands over their eyes, they hadn’t grasped the concept of object permanence as it pertained to their downstairs neighbours.

We never really got to know those neighbours.  It was awkward, because we knew too much already without asking them over for coffee and banana cake.   And we weren’t impartial.  We were both definitely on ‘her’ side.  My husband held a grudge over a DIY-related mishap that caused our baby’s nursery to flood at 2am, and said only: ‘I’m glad she gives him earache, the drill-happy fool’.  For my part, I couldn’t be doing with a husband who was forever faffing about with the decor – it was a small flat, just how many shelves could they need?  And he shouldn’t have started on her shoes.  We’ve all bought ill-advised footwear on credit, and a gentleman wouldn’t have mentioned it.

I like all of our neighbours now.  Even if the young man upstairs has just started… to learn the trumpet.  Ah, well.

Picnics in London

Food tastes better outside.  Sausages sizzling over a campfire, fish and chips on the beach, a Flake 99 ice-cream at the park after school, steaks on the barbecue… Hungry already?

This delicious alchemy even works on frankly substandard food – those campfire sausages tend to be a little burnt on the outside, don’t they?  And yet the memory of their taste is more vivid than any of the Michelin-starred meals I’ve enjoyed.

In the summer we often take our tea to the local park and eat there.  An average family meal turns into a celebratory event just by adding a few picnic blankets and the promise of an ice-cream from the van for dessert.  Restaurants in London do tend to be expensive, but you can ‘eat out’ very cheaply in this city.  My favourite venues are:-

  • Golders Hill Park which is beautifully landscaped, with lots of open spaces.  It’s particularly good for small children thanks to the free zoo, sand-filled toddlers playground, and adventure climbing frame. In summer there is often a free butterfly house too.
  • The area of Hampstead Heath just above the Vale of Health is great for picnics – head up the slope to be wowed by a view of London which stretches out past Canary Wharf and the Gherkin to the rolling hills beyond.  There is a wide open field sheltered by trees.
My son playing frisbee
Don't try this in a restaurant
  • Regents Park is a regular venue for us.  In another life, I remember lying on a blanket reading all day in Regents Park while my husband sketched the other picnickers.  Now that I’m a mother those ‘lying down reading’ days are over, but Regents Park is still a great place to be.  Each area of the park has its own attractions – if you’re on the edge that runs along London Zoo you can see the giraffes and the zebras through the hedge.  Whereas down by the ponds my son loves feeding his crusts to the rare breed ducks and herons and watching the rowing boats.
  • Hyde Park is convenient if you are sightseeing or running errands in town, and it’s extensive enough to find your own private patch of grass even on the busiest day.  My son and I watched some breakdancers practising there while we were eating our sandwiches last week.

Later this week I’ll be packing a picnic and joining my son and his primary school class on Hampstead Heath for a day out.  I’ll be responsible for four or five of his classmates so I doubt if I’ll finish my sandwiches!   But they will taste amazing.

Did you want a list?

I’m a list-maker extraordinaire.  I have schedules, spreadsheets, notebooks with coloured flags sticking out of them, pens which are only used for writing particular tasks into particular notebooks.  (And when that pen goes missing…  oh, the horror.  I have to either buy a new pen of the exact same colour, or stop doing that kind of task.)

So did you want a list?  “100 cool things to do in London” – is that what you wanted?  I am surely equipped to give that to you.  But… No. For once in my life I’m not going to write a list.

If you want a detailed tourist guide to London, check this and this

If you’re just looking for ‘free things to do in London’ then check this

If you want to know that it’s possible to live in this crazy city on a small income and still be content, and if you want to know what that feels like and looks like, you’re in the right place.

An afternoon at the Imperial War Museum

It is, astonishingly, free to visit the IWM but donations are appreciated.  As we walked around the corner from North Lambeth tube my five year old son started jumping up and down with excitement – ‘Mummy, those are the biggest guns I have EVER seen in my whole life!’.  He was over-awed by the submarines, Spitfire, Sherman Tank, and Polaris missile on display, but gradually his questions became more philosophical, leading up to the real stumper “Why do we have war, Mum?”

IWM scrapbook
My son (and his talented father) made a scrapbook

The museum is certainly more thought-provoking than I expected.  I noticed a group of people collected around a small black object,  shaking their heads with bewilderment as they read the information next to it, and hesitating to move on.  It was the “Little Boy” bomb, the same model as was detonated over Hiroshima.  There is a Holocaust Exhibition at the top of the museum but it is not suitable for children.

A Tibetan Peace Garden, originally opened by the Dalai Lama,  forms part of the beautifully kept gardens around this museum, and there is a park off to the side where you could take a picnic.

After visiting the museum we walked to the river and crossed at Westminster Bridge – my favourite view of London.

Property ladder?

We rent our flat, and it’s tiny.  We’re saving up for a deposit on a place of our own, but that will be tiny too.  That’s central London for you.  Everyone else wants to live here too, and the laws of supply and demand are unforgiving.

Property is an obsession in London, and even those lucky few who own a decent-sized family home worry about keeping up with the giant mortgage.  Or they hanker for that extra step up the ladder which climbs inexorably towards Hampstead Village.  I’m as captivated by the “property porn” online as the next feeble human, but envy is not a good look.  Never mind the property snakes and ladders, I can live like a property millionaire wherever I am, with my three step system for happy small space living:-

1. Have your dreams anyway

I kept daydreaming about a garden, wishing that I could plant herbs and vegetables, imagining myself relaxing outside on a sunny day.  We have a balcony which is half the size of the average kitchen table.  But I thought, why not do it anyway?  So I asked for this book for my birthday, and planted the balcony with herbs, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries, all of which are well-suited to growing in containers.  I killed about half of them, but the half that survived tasted great.

2. Get into minimalism

Not the design trend, the philosophy. I started out by reading Zen Habits then Becoming Minimalist then The Minimalists and now I check about a dozen minimalist blogs for inspiration every week.  Inspired by Dave Bruno’s brilliant 100 thing challenge and  this blog on 28th December 2010 I resolved to have 365 less possessions in one year’s time – by Christmas 2011.   Every Saturday I check around the flat and find seven items that we can either sell, donate or throw out.  Today we’re donating a black bag of kids clothes to charity, giving another bag of kids clothes to friends, and I’ve set aside some plates and cups and a pair of i-pod speakers to put in the next car boot sale we do.  Our flat looks so much better.  Having less stuff means that however small your space is, you can still experience the luxury of space.  Funny how the less you own, the more luxury you enjoy…

3. Go out

There are so many things to do in London, why would you want to stay home anyway?  I love to get out onto the Heath, go to a free talk, or a gallery, or take my son to the park.  And when he’s playing at the park (instead of in that dream garden that lives in my head), he makes friends, or bumps into friends he knows already.  And I see my neighbours walking their dogs or watching their kids play and we have a chat.  Maybe if we lived in that palace in Hampstead I wouldn’t have the same quality of life I do now.