The last time I was in Cambridge it was summer, the stone chapels and colleges stood out against a bright blue sky and my legs were bare. I remember sitting out on the grass reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and being in a good mood despite my disappointment with the novel.
But this time around, I find myself scurrying from bookshop to coffee shop and back out again only when I’ve read a bit of poetry or had a bit of tea to steel me against the snow. Yes, snow. In March. This time around, I’m sitting in Cafe Nero’s (don’t judge me, the independents here are all expensive) and reading Toni Morrison’s Sula. The bleak weather of England and the hot American South of the novel make a surprisingly good combination. And the tea doesn’t hurt.
When the weather in England does this to us, we let out a collective sigh of ‘Why the hell do people still live here?’ That said, days like this are as perfect for some activities as they are preventative for others. I’ve heard this called ‘museum weather’ and ‘cinema weather’ and the general consensus seems to be that on days like this, staying somewhere warm and comfortable is the only thing to do. Hence my pattern of bookshops and coffee shops.
Cambridge’s Angel Bookshop in a way seems to be at its best on days like this, when the only thing anyone can think about is coming in from the cold. When winters got cold in my childhood, the most wonderful feeling in the world was to come home, take off my boots and wet socks, be wrapped up in a blanket and read a story. In many ways, it still is. Although nothing can compare to your mum’s hot chocolate and her storytelling (my own mum has the best troll/goblin voice in the world), walking off the road and into The Angel Bookshop comes pretty damn close.
Run by the same bookseller who owns The Lamb Bookshop back in Bloomsbury, The Angel shows evidence of the same careful selection of books, dedication to good quality children’s literature and incomprehensible ability to provide browsers with discount prices, undercutting Waterstone’s, if not Amazon.
A large portion of the ground floor is taken up by children’s books and the entire floor feels like it is, with colourful mobiles hanging from the roof and The Gruffalo staring at you from almost everywhere. Already feeling nostalgic for the warm insides of my childhood, this bookshop reminded me of another one half a world away where my love affair with reading began in the mid-90s. It was called Mable’s Fables and like The Angel Bookshop, it had a brilliant selection of children’s books arranged by age group. If only Twilight hadn’t been present in the Angel’s 11+ section, it would have been perfection. But I guess even the best of bookshops are subject to the ridiculous whims of the market.
Also on the ground floor are some fiction books with a sign promising more downstairs and shelves filled with cookbooks, travel literature and a table of miscellaneous recommendations. The most interesting one was called The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm. It is, sure enough, a book about the history of magic and the literature of magic in the British Isles. I mean, come on, how cool is that? I spied a chapter called ‘Star-cunning and Wyrd-craft: The World of the Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer’. I am a massive geek about Old English and about Anglo-Saxon literature and one of my favourite OE words is wyrd which means something like fate or destiny – the modern English word ‘weird’ is descended from it. My second favourite is wordhord, literally ‘word hoard’ which is basically the words that you store up and keep, waiting to be used, in your mind. When Beowulf says he is opening his wordhord, he means he is unleashing his words; he is storytelling. My completely unacademic theory is that wyrd and word sound similar because words and stories and poetry have the power to not only tell, but decide our own stories and our fates. But enough of my geekery.
Downstairs is a basement full of bargains. There are, of course, Wordsworth Classics for £2 each, but there are also contemporary fiction, biography and autobiography, literary theory, travel and history sections. The majority of the books are massively discounted, most are half the retail price. I bought a hardcover copy of the massive The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous and unfinished 2011 novel. It was discounted from £20 to £8 and more than worth having to carry the thing around with me for the rest of the day. I think. I was also delighted to discover a large hardcover book on the central table (which incidentally is absolutely covered in beautiful and interesting books – seriously, a treasure trove) which was a complete and full-colour facsimile of the 1660 Harmonica Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius. Guess what it is. It’s a star atlas. A star atlas. How very romantic is that? The book was absolutely giant and cost £40 (though that was a discount too) so I didn’t buy it. It is also the least practical purchase I could possibly imagine, but I still kind of regret the decision.
On my way back out of the basement (where I spent a very long time), I passed back through the children’s section again. As I lovingly admired books by my old friends Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman and Judy Blume, I relived that bittersweet moment from childhood when you realise that even if you read all day every day for the rest of your life, you’d still never get to the end of all the books. Though the thought almost certainly depressed me the first time I had it years ago, when it has returned over the years I’ve been struck also by the positive side of it – you could read all day every day for the rest of your life, but you’d still never run out of books.