A Dream Comes True, With Books
Some experiences, even - or perhaps most especially - ones long-awaited and anticipated, fail to live up to expectation. For instance, I once had a friend whose parents, like a lot of older people it seems, longed to see the Grand Canyon before, as they put it, “it got too late”. New York Italians, they were demonstrative in their enthusiasm for this trip, renting a large motor home for the journey westward and setting out with maps on their laps.
I myself have never traveled cross county by car, much less by motor home, but I have a sneaking suspicion that after the third or fourth roadside food establishment, or perhaps after the first or second night without a hot bath, the charm of the road might just become a bit frayed around the edges for me. Perhaps that’s what happened to my friend’s mother for when they finally pulled up beside all the grandeur that is indeed the Grand Canyon, her husband hopped out and stood before it, entranced and amazed, only to find she’d remained in the motor home.
“Come see, Sophia!”, he cried.
“I can see it from here, Joe”, she snapped.
She didn’t get out of the car.
I learned to read early, along about the time I learned to appreciate the magic that is Christmas. The first books I read were British. Mary Poppins, Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit. Soon came A Christmas Carol and in my heart Christmas became forever intertwined with London and snow, books and stories. Christmas shopping in London was a fantasy I often indulged. Making my way beneath the twinkling lights of tiny circuitous streets with the fragrance of hot chocolate and roasting chestnuts hanging in the air, snow collecting on the hood of my coat. I could hear the old bells hanging on the door of each bookshop I entered, see the Christmas trees and wreaths glimmering amongst the brightly colored spines of all the books lining the shelves. I could imagine myself having my selections wrapped up in brown paper and tied with ribbons. Oh it was a delicious fantasy, far more potent for me than any trip to the Grand Canyon, grand though that may be.
Well, in December, on rather the spur of the moment, The Songwriter and I decided to see if that fantasy could be realized. Edward was always the one who pined for me whenever I went away; I could never leave him at Christmas. However, Apple is happy as a clam with her friend who moves in whenever we move out, so this was the year to go. And I am delighted to say that sometimes long-held fantasies can indeed become realities, even in a pretty messed-up world.
It was cold in London, the kind of cold one expects at Christmas, the kind of cold that promises snow. There were Christmas trees everywhere, on every corner, in every window. The air smelled like fir. A mile of magnificent angels flew above Regent Street, resplendent creatures of light that made me stop in the sea of shoppers to stare up, utterly transfixed. Every pub was warm and welcoming, every face wore a smile. And yes, of course, it snowed. Great fat flakes fell all the day we wandered the old city, icing a cake of pure joy. We slept with smiles on our faces each night we were there.
But of course, the best shops were the bookshops and I’m happy to say I went to as many as I could. John Sandoe, Hatchard’s. Heywood Hill, Daunt. It was sublime. Sometimes fantasy pales in the face of reality. I can empirically say that London at Christmas, for me, far exceeded every dream I'd ever had.
Because I know my readers love books at least as much as I do, here are the ones I gathered up in London, as well as a couple of Christmas presents I received, and a few of the ones I’ve found since returning. As always, click on the covers to find out more.
I do hope you enjoy browsing around.
(Also, on a side note…. I have been receiving notes and letters about my recent lack of postings. I have the kindest readers in the world, by the way. It’s true, I have been struggling a bit without Edward. Losing him so suddenly, and in the midst of one of the most distressing periods in our history here, has been more difficult that I could have imagined. But I’m learning that if you can’t “get over it”, you can at least get on with it. I am writing. I am hoping. I am hoping for more hope. And I am thankful for you all.)
1. The Secret Life of the Owl
This was a Christmas present from The Songwriter,
squirreled away from John Sandoe Books whilst we were in London.
It’s a lovely book.
by Ali Smith
This was pushed into my hands by one
of the knowledgeable people who work at John Sandoe's.
It’s the first in what is to be a quartet of books.
The latest, Winter, has just been released
and it’s beside my bed now.
3. Manhattan Beach
by Jennifer Egan
This is a big, engrossing tale, almost old-fashioned in scope and tone, with the most gorgeous prose you can imagine. I was so gobsmacked by it that I immediately dove headfirst into every book by Ms. Egan that I could get my paws on. Therefore, I can heartily recommend, in addition to Manhattan Beach,
4. The Diary of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell
The Songwriter managed to spirit this gem of a book away from Watermill Books, a magical bookshop in Aberfeldy, Scotland that we were fortunate to visit when we were there in October.
Really, he gives the best presents.
5. The Crown
by Robert Lacey
This was a gift from a good friend, the same good friend who looks after Apple while we’re gone. See why we never worry about her when we leave? We know home watching The Crown.
If you’re a fan of the show, and who isn’t, this is a must have.
A bonus? It’s chock full of marvelous photographs.
6. The Illustrated Letters of Virginia Woolf
Selected and Introduced by Frances Spalding
I found this on a table in the back of Hatchard’s
on one of those above mentioned snowy days.
My arms were laden with gifts for others,
but this one was just for me.
7. A Note of Explanation:
A Little Tale of Secrets and Enchantment
from Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House
by Vita Sackville-West
A previously unknown story by Sackville-West that was originally written in 1924 for the famous dollhouse of Queen Mary at Windsor Castle (which, incidentally, I visited for the first time this trip, on the very day of the Queen’s staff Christmas party no less. Her Majesty was there, along with Harry and Meghan, but unfortunately neglected to come down and say hello. Such is life. ) and remained there in its teeny-tiny form until last year when it was published in this beautifully illustrated volume. I discovered it in the equally teeny-tiny splendor that is Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shoppe in Covent Garden, one of my favourite shops on the planet. Given its provenance, this book is every bit as wonderful as it should be.
8. Christmas Pudding
by Nancy Mitford
During the Second World War, the novelist and famous sister, Nancy Mitford, worked at Heywood Hill Books, the tiny, well-curated bookshop in the Mayfair area of London. With its mix of old, new and antiquarian books, the shop has lost none of its unique brand of charm, the same charm that earned it the reputation as one of the best bookshops in the old city. As one would expect, Heywood Hill has a stellar collection of Mitford Books, and I could not resist this one. And yes, they wrapped it up in brown paper and tied it with a ribbon.
Also, if you haven’t, do read these:
Wilmont, comfortably ensconced at The Draycott,
with my treasures.
with my treasures.