I find buying books hard to resist. My wife, no slouch herself when it comes to reading, thinks I suffer from an addiction or compulsion – a kind of book lust. I find it impossible to content myself with simply buying another book to read when I have finished the last one. As I’ve written before I often have several to-read piles of ridiculous ambition on the go, which lurk in various places around the house.
For this reason a visit to Ely is a dangerous thing.
The city, one of Britain’s smallest, is only there because of the cathedral. At some point in the late 7th century Ethelreda founded a monastery on the site of a parish church and by around 300 years later, it had become one of the two richest abbeys in all England – second only to Glastonbury in its vast wealth. In the Norman period work on what became the present cathedral began and for a few hundred years the good times continued, as countless pilgrims made their way towards this place on the River Ouse to visit the shrine of the now St Ethelreda, until 1539 when Henry VIII put a violent end to that kind of thing. All the while around the magnificent gothic bulk of the ‘ship of the fens’ people began to settle and the little city grew up around it.
That, along with Cromwell’s house, is what draws most outsiders to Ely.
Like many visitors, I too have gawped up at The Cathedral’s Octagon and admired its breath-taking beauty. However what I really like about the place is the magnificent bookshop on the High Street (whose windows look out over the Cathedral just in case you find yourself missing it).
The Topping and Company bookshop is so good it’s almost laughable. This is the kind of shop that you don’t expect to find in real life; only, perhaps, in a lost Penelope Lively children’s book, or there to be sneered at for its too-good-to-be-true perfection in a Richard Curtis film.
But such a shop does exist and just after Christmas I paid it another visit.
The crime section alone, by the door as you walk in, is bursting with volumes and not just the usual suspects. I don’t read a lot of crime stuff, but I am partial to a bit of Walter Mosley and Phil Rickman. In my experience, in the average bookshop you’re lucky to find one book from Rickman’s Merrily Watkin’s series – a kind of police procedural meets the paranormal with a female vicar – the Deliverance Consultant or Advisor on the Paranormal, for the Diocese of Hereford at its centre – but that’s the bare bones and doesn’t do the series justice (in addition to the well-handled crime and paranormal elements, Rickman achieves a brilliant sense of place in the books, has constructed a great, believable, non-sentimental relationship between mother and teenage daughter, creates fully-fleshed out characters – even the police and packs each book with interesting folklore, history, music and literary references). Topping & Co had every single one in the series, along with most of Mosley’s brilliant Easy Rawlins novels, so I take that to be a good sign.
Throughout the rest of the shop dark shelves reach up to the ceiling along every wall, and on all three floors. Tables groan with stock. Everywhere there are books, books of all kinds, on most subjects you care to name, here are books you’ve seen reviewed recently, there are classics you always meant to get around to reading, Folio editions, large format illustrated hardback treasures, a wonderful children’s book section, small press local history books, books you didn’t know existed, but are delighted to see that they do.
Faced with all this I managed to escape relatively lightly and bought only six books to add to this year’s ever-expanding to-read pile, which currently looks like this:
Stoner, John Williams. Vintage.
The retro-hit du jour, concerns the quiet life of an academic at the University of Missouri in the early 20th century. I’ve actually started this and the hype is not wrong. A beautiful, wise and compassionate book so far.
This is how you lose her, Junot Diaz. Faber.
New collection of short stories by the author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The Ghost Hunters, Neil Spring. Quercus.
An account of Harry Price’s investigations at Borley Rectory as told by his fictional assistant.
Spider, Katarzyna & Sergiusz Michalski
Wolf, Garry Marvin
Two volumes from a fascinating series by Reaktion books covering the cultural, spiritual and historic stories of an extensive range of animals.
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why writers Drink, Olivia Laing. Picador.
Author of To The River on the relationship between alcohol and some of the most celebrated American writers of the last century.
This Other London, John Rogers. Harper Collins.
Another one I’ve already started. Intriguing exploration of London’s sprawl as the writer and film-maker investigates the city’s less celebrated streets and neighbourhoods.
Marshland, Gareth E. Rees. Influx Press.
Exploring the eldritch world of the marshes of Hackney, Leyton and Walthamstow.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley. Faber.
The man from St Etienne delves into music and tries to avoid indulging in muso-rock snobbery.
Waterland, Graham Swift. Macmillan.
Meant to re-read last year for its 20th anniversary. Hope its as brilliant as I remember.
Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its thresholds, James Hamilton Patterson.
A wonderful, wonderful book on all aspects of the ocean from charts and islands, to pirates, fishing and loss, monsters of the deep, wrecks and death.
Capital, Maureen Duffy. Harvill.
This should be much better known. A dark-tinged celebration and meditation on London’s multi-layered history, sees historians, Neanderthals, figures from Arthurian myth and West Indian immigrants, amongst others explore, discover and add their stories to the ever hungry city.
That should keep me going for a while. Whatever takes your fancy in books, if you find yourself in Ely, visit the bookshop. It might even be worth making the trip to do just that.
Links and References