London snapshots…

By Caitlin Kelly

Today is my last day in London, after eight days. I head back to Paris for a final week of vacation — having reported three stories here in England in three tiring days — then return home to New York on January 19.

I am also relieved that the terror standoff in Paris has ended, although not at all sure there won’t be more mayhem there to come.

I’ve enjoyed my visit here in many ways.

London costs a fortune! Bring money! Lots of it. This pile of coins is barely enough to buy a coffee...
London costs a fortune! Bring money! Lots of it. This pile of coins is barely enough to buy a coffee…

Did I see all the famous sights? I did not…

My visit, typical of how I prefer to travel, combined some work and much socializing. I walked everywhere and ate some great meals. Did some shopping, buying everything from an Edwardian hatpin to a 1920s fragment of handwoven Ghanaian silk. (Yup, ecletic ‘r us.)

I saw one great and moving show, on til March 15, of photos showing the aftermath of war, at Tate Modern. I walked there the long way from the Underground, along Queen’s Walk beside the river, so I also discovered the gallery for the Royal Watercolor Society and caught a lovely show there of small works.

Spent my life on the Underground, using my Oyster card. Love this shadowy reference to Sherlock Holmes
Spent my life on the Underground, using my Oyster card. Love this shadowy reference to Sherlock Holmes

Enjoyed the market at Portobello and the one at Spitalfields. Had a terrific chicken Caesar at Fortnum & Mason and ogled their legendary food hampers and mountains of truffles.

I’ve gotten to know Cadence, author of the blog Small Dog Syndrome, and her husband Jeff, who so kindly welcomed me into their tiny flat. We had never met. It takes three cool people to share a small space graciously, and with a 30 year age difference between us.

I also finally met — five years after first reading her blog, Sunshine in London, about being a South African transplant to London — Ruth Bradnum Martin, who treated me to G & T’s at The Swan, a gorgeous restaurant next door to Shakespeare’s Globe theater. We sat with a stunning view, directly across the Thames, of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Sunshine! St. Paul's across the Thames.
Sunshine! St. Paul’s across the Thames.

I caught up with my friend Hazel Thompson, a super-talented professional photographer who travels the world non-stop and whose work on sex trafficking of Indian women has won wide acclaim. We hadn’t seen one another in three years, and had a great dinner at Village East, a trendy restaurant in Bermondsey. Hazel discovered the place when she shot it for The New York Times; we met because my husband, a photo editor there, had assigned work to her for years.

And I met Josh Spero, editor of Spear’s magazine who I started following on Twitter just because he was so funny and smart. He took me to my favorite venue of the entire visit — a secret members-only room above Andrew Edmunds, a 30-year-old restaurant on Lexington Street in Soho. The house is ancient, the floors buckling. Two small dogs, Jezebel and Tess, hopped up on the sofa beside me or begged diners for food. The room was dark and filled with the delicious scent of hyacinths.

Heaven.

Here are some of my images, and impressions:

Looking down F & M's spiral staircase
Looking down F & M’s spiral staircase

Fortnum & Mason, on Piccadilly Circus, is a London legend. Typical of how I roll, I arrived at their door by accident — famished after racing around town to do interviews for a story — and grouchy as hell. “Toilets, food,” I growled at a lovely clerk with a pale aqua name badge. Shona literally took me by the hand, into their tiny elevator, and delivered me personally to their ice-cream parlor (which also sells salad.) Salad, a bottle of water, a pot of mint tea and a raspberry macaron came to 26 pounds — about $40. Pricey, yes. Elegant, soothing and memorable, also.

Thanks to the helpful London blog posts from fellow blogger Juliet in Paris, I strolled Marylebone High Street and loved it. One of the tricky bits in following others’ advice when traveling is…do they share your taste? The minute she and I met (spending New Year’s Eve together in Paris, another blogger blind date!), I knew I could trust her travel judgment.

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I visited Burlington Arcade for a story. My dears! My dears! It is guarded at either end by a be-cloaked watchman and is an array of costly elegance — all fine leather goods and jewelers and N. Peal cashmere and, my favorite, Penhaligon, whose fragrances are to die for. (Try my standby, Blenheim Bouquet, a man’s scent from 1903.)

Portobello Market. Crazy. Overwhelming. Goes on for miles. But if you like antiques, a must-do. I coveted a gorgeous set of emerald-green Georgian wine glasses and learned a lot about them from their dealer.

Borough Market. Go! This was by far one of my favorite experiences of the week. It is — yes, really — 1,000 years old and is a bustling madhouse of extraordinary food and drink. We bought chai tea, homemade Turkish delight, fruit and veg and cheese. There are more than 100 stalls and, yes, you can sit down and eat as well!

Spitalfields Market. This one sells new merchandise, a wide array of soaps, clothing, shoes, jewelry. It’s covered and surrounded by plenty of great restaurants; we ate at Giraffe.

Gorgeous
Gorgeous…all mint green, white and gold

St. Marylebone Church. One of the challenges of this trip is my left knee, which is severely arthritic and can get really painful and tired after a day of walking and stairs. Just in time for a needed rest, I found this gorgeous church and settled into its pews for some quiet contemplation. The organist was practicing. I read a book of names of those who lost relatives in WWI — one family lost 33 men. A plaque on one wall said simply “He did his duty.”

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Liberty. I never fail to stop into this store, mostly to admire its quirky/elegant/bohemian choices of fabric, clothing, shoes and accessories.

The city is so huge and there are so many things to see and do. I’ve been here many times, so have seen some of its best already — Sir John Soane’s House, Freud’s house, the Imperial War Museum, The National Portrait Gallery.

Next time: The Wallace Collection, the V & A, The British Museum and possibly the Tate.

I’m not one for “tourist attractions” ; my favorite things to do are: walk, eat, shop, take photos, visit with friends. Slip down a narrow, crooked side street and discover something new and unexpected.

Even just sitting down with a pot of tea for a half hour or more offers a lovely, needed break from this crazy, overcrowded city.

My definition of great travel?

Just being there.

Please crowdfund this young British author — his idea is terrific!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Josh Spero ed pic 2012 crop

If it weren’t for Twitter, I would never have discovered the wit and wisdom of Josh Spero, a 30-year-old London journalist who covers art for Tatler, a glossy British monthly magazine whose primary audience is people with multiply-hyphenated surnames and country houses that make Downton Abbey look shabby.

He also edits Spear’s magazine.

Josh is crowdfunding his lovely and unusual idea for a book — to seek out the previous owners of the books of classics he studied while at Oxford; so far, he’s got one-quarter of his goal amount.

We have yet to meet in person, I hope to do so when I get to London in early January 2015.

A few Spero-isms:

“I’ve never been able to stand rules and regulations”

“My working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama”

“I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it”

Tell us a bit of your personal history….

From six months until 26 years, I lived in Edgware, a barren untroubling suburb of north-west London, whose best escape was books. We used to walk down to the second-hand bookshop the other side of town, near the salt-beef bar, and I would buy half a dozen Hardy Boys novels a week, before I moved on to cheap copies of literary classics. My dad was then – is still – a London black-cab driver, my mum a housewife until I went to private school, when she had to get a job to pay for it.

University College School was in Hampstead, a leafy village within London which had been home to Freud and Daphne du Maurier (not as cohabitants), and it was famously, perhaps notoriously, liberal, which worked for me: I have never been able to stand rules and regulations. And still I read everything I could find.

Where and what did you study at university and why?

At UCS, I was taken by Classics – the Greek and Latin languages and their worlds. I loved the drama of their histories, the great men who kicked the Gauls’ arses (I was never a fan of Asterix) and beat back the Persians. It was a revelation to delve into Vergil’s occultism and Euripides’ mania, so I was desperate to study it at Oxford, the best place in the world for Classics, no doubt.

After passing Magdalen College’s stiff interview and being told I had a decent chance of a decent degree, I spent four glorious years there, half of them locked in the library, the other half arguing my way out of positions I hadn’t meant to argue my way into and doing Oxford Things (punting, politicking, student newspaper, inedible Formal Hall dinners).

Where did you get the idea for this book?

One of my first freelance writing jobs was covering the summer auctions of Contemporary art at Sotheby’s for The Guardian in 2007, those thrilling incomprehensible displays of pills in cabinets and what looked like disassembled crates. There the idea of provenance insinuated itself into my brain: every catalogue listed with delicious rectitude a work of art’s previous owners; soon it occurred to me that the same thing was true for books – and not just expensive books either. That’s where Second-Hand Stories comes from.

Over four years at Oxford, and six years tutoring afterwards, I had accumulated well over a hundred Classics books, from how to write in Greek verse (weirdly pleasurable) to texts of everyone from Plato to Propertius. There had to be curious tales tied to the names inscribed in them, so I sorted out the fifty-odd books in which their owners had recorded their names and set about tracing them, the previous owners of my books. I didn’t mind if they weren’t celebrities or lords or royalty: my working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama.

What was the best part of writing it?

The best part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. While I thought I might uncover some unusual tales from my eleven subjects, I never imagined what I’d find.

Thomas Dunbabin, who owned a thick purple-covered commentary on the historian Herodotus, had led the resistance against the Nazis in Crete in World War Two. Peter Levi was a poet-priest who had a chaste love affair with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Emilie Vleminckx is a student my age who conquered a blow-up at Oxford, a university she had fled to to escape her stifling life in Belgium. There was an actor in Hollywood films, a teacher in fascist Italy, a code-cracker from Bletchley Park and a boy I loved who died too young. To read the full stories, you need to buy the book! http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories

There are, in Second-Hand Stories, some incredible tales, all of which I was lucky enough to come upon.

What surprised you most when you started seeking out the previous owners of your books?

Although I knew Classicists were an interesting bunch – we end up everywhere, from Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) to the darkest recesses of the library – I  had not the slightest inkling so many amazing lives were contained in my library. You’d have to be a great novelist with the broadest imagination to assemble half the characters that reality did. I was also surprised by how willing almost all of them – or their relatives – were to talk to me. Without them, Second-Hand Stories would have been utterly impossible.

What was the most difficult/challenging aspect of writing it?

The most difficult part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. Some were somewhat easier, having written their name and Oxford or Cambridge college in them. But others involved detective work, Google work or, frankly, guesswork.

One book was dedicated ‘To Peter, with love and gratitude, from Maurice’, where Maurice was obviously Maurice Bowra, the author of the book, a translation of the odes of Pindar (a vile toady to winners of the Olympian games). But the Peter was mysterious, until a smart suggestion from a former tutor made us look at the introduction, where Bowra had thanked Peter Levi.

Another only had the letters ‘MBMcCB’. It took several solid attacks on Google before I discovered someone else who had the same final three initials and it turned out the owner was his brother.

There was plenty of direction and serendipity in putting the cast of Second-Hand Stories together.

Any thoughts on e-books (which would have made your entire project — sadly! — moot.)

I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it. For a start, as you say, my book wouldn’t exist if we only had e-books – owners have no way of writing their names on them (if, by the terms and conditions, they even own them in the first place); they easily disappear or are wiped or become obsolete (we’ll always have the technology to read paper books, ie eyes); and you can’t have any real engagement with them (all those immaterial words on a screen have none of the heft of black ink of white paper). The physicality of books, their beauty and weight and feel, is my ultimate reason for rejecting the functional dullness of e-books.

Were there any other challenges in writing Second-Hand Stories?

Yes: getting it published. I was rejected by a great number of publishers largely with the note that ‘it isn’t commercial’. Good! It doesn’t have to be commercial – it has to be interesting. That’s why I’m thrilled Unbound http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories believe in it. They’re a crowdfunded publisher, which means I need your support.

If you like the sound of my book, please pledge towards it here http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-storiesit’s only going to be published with your help. There are rewards at each level too, ranging including signed first-edition copies, invitations to the launch party and even a private tutorial on Classics with me.

I’ve never done this at Broadside before, but love Josh’s idea and his spirit.

I hope you’ll support his book!