My Week in Oxfam – a serial browser’s diary

Josie Long once commented that an alarm went off in charity shops when I arrived in their town. “Quick Molly, double the price on all the Penguin Modern Classics, he’s back”.

Started the day researching the psychological research into shopping for my next Focus Magazine column, then mumbled into the Royal Society, fearful of the might of the brains within, to interview Martin Rees for a Monkey Cage special on Entropy (if only the Carry On films had done one set in CERN, “Entropy, entropy, they’ve all got it Entropy”). A hasty walk to 6Music for the Steve Lamacq Show where my psychic powers based on listener song choices didn’t quite lead to me exactly guessing “Georgia from Edinburgh who works at The Fruitmarket Gallery”, and then to my dad’s for The Avengers (Steed not Marvel) and Finding Vivian Maier, a film which engaged us both and provoked post whisky conversation. No time for even the slightest detour to an Oxfam, and I know all the shortcuts and how to speed browse.

I had two sessions of speed browsing at the same Oxfam today, Oxfam Goodge St in London. It is on the way to the BBC as long as I “accidentally” take a longer route from Euston.

The first visit was after a Book Shambles interview with Lisa Dwan about Texts for Nothing at the Old Vic and before going on BBC World News with Claudia Hammond to discuss The Anatomy of Rest (you can hear the final Anatomy of Rest show HERE).

Each book I buy is purchased in the belief that something lies within that I can turn into a performance or a paragraph in a book I might or might not write or just in the hope that it will change the way I perceive the world for a minute or the rest of my life. It is rare when browsing that I make an immediate decision, but the very cheap Folio Society’s editions of Brighton Rock and Slaughterhouse 5 were swiftly in my hands and remained there until I reached the counter. This also frees up my previous copies which can be passed on via the Book Shambles book giveaway.
The lovely Folio edition of Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry seemed a necessity as well. (I gloated about the excellence of my hall later that evening at the Genesis cinema which led to me losing the Wind, Sand and Stars there. I deserved that.)

“‘The strength of the vampire is that no one will believe in him.’
Thank you, Dr Van Helsing, he though putting down his copy of Dracula”

I also picked up a cheap late 60s paperback edition of I Am Legend, another favourite which I buy whenever I see it secondhand (something I also do with Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan books. I also seek out every different version of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death). Oh, and there was a pristine copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and there was a son of mine that would not forgive me if I left that on the shelf.

Later in the day, I returned for the copy of Penguin’s Three Gothic Novels that was on the shelf. I was introducing the surreal Czech cinema delight Valerie and Her Week of Wonders for the Folk Horror Cinema Club at the Genesis Cinema. It is a brisk and colourful oddity, the sort of film that has you wishing for the simple narrative arc of Mulholland Drive. The original story was inspired by gothic novels, so I thought I might read a little of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.

“During his interview Jerome’s mind was agitated by a thousand contrary passions. He trembled for the life of his son, and his first idea was to persuade Isabella to return to the castle. Yet he was scarce less alarmed at the thought of her union with Manfred”

Unfortunately, in the few hours I had been gone, the shelves had been updated. There was a copy of Ritual Animal Disguise from the Folklore Society’s Mistletoe series, and until this point in my life, I had never had any book on the lost gods of England, and there it was The Lost Gods of England by Brian Branston. And I had decided against the William Gaunt trilogy of books about the Victorian era of artistic endeavour, but one colour plate of Walter Sickert’s the Old Bedford – A Corner of the Gallery, and I realised how silly my decision had been.

Pause from browsing to make time for actually reading some of the books.

I arrive early for the Brian Cox Live show in Manchester so I can return to the Elizabeth Price curated exhibition. The Oxfam nearby on Oxford Road has no necessities. This is fortunate as the Whitworth shop may be sadly old out of the book of the exhibition, but has reduced price copies of Live: Art and Performance (Routledge), The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman (California) and ‘Art and Labour’s Cause is One’ , A Whitworth book on Walter Crane, an inspiring figure that I knew nothing of until this browse.

Despite a diversion to Wakefield’s Hepworth Gallery, I still arrived in Bradford in time to find its Oxfam. Not expecting much, the book room above the shop is big. Time to activate speed browse.
Building a Bridge to the 18th Century was the only Neil Postman book I don’t have. This statement is no longer true. I was sadly lacking any books on censorship and Irish cinema, so now I have Ciaran Carty’s Confession of a Sewer Rat. I spent £10 on a paperback of David Attenborough’s Fabulous Animals at Norwich’s Oxfam bookshop some years ago, here was a pristine hardback for 99p (the paperback will now be placed in the Book Shambles book giveaway package). The Human Conspiracy by Nigel Calder, a prolific science writer for 50 years or more, corrects mistakes in our understanding in the science of human behaviour. As it is now nearly 40 years old, i thought it would be interesting to see what ideas have stuck under the scrutiny of new evidence and which have been rinsed down the plughole. And a Woody Allen Reader when I want to be reminded how witless I am. Oh, and there’s Susan Sontag’s Illness as a Metaphor/AIDS and its Metaphors, because you should always be on the look out to increase your metaphors.

Oops, I somehow walked past Oxfam on Marylebone High Street when traveling from St Pancras to Oxford Circus. So that was Martin Rowson’s Coalition Book, three plays by Pirandello and three by Ionesco (probably needed for my research on my show about our experience of reality, that’s my alibi), and Eco’s Kant and The Platypus because I thought I was cleverer than I was.

Look, we had to go to Oxfam Books in Berkhamsted because my son was worried it had a Beano Annual in that he didn’t have. It did, it was 2010. It also had a book of Mervyn Peake’s Writings and Drawings that I didn’t have and an Everyman Art Library book on Photography and the Body which I also didn’t have. I need these books because I am writing a stand up show about art probably, so, needs must.

And that was my week in Oxfam. Where will I go next week? Get ready Oxfam Reading and Preston.

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles podcast is back with an interview w/ Alan Moore, then Noel Fielding, Sarah Bakewell, Nick Offerman and many more. It is HERE.

And there’s a new volume of horror stories by comedians – Stewart Lee, James Acaster, Jose Long, Alice Lowe, Rufus Hound, Isy Suttie, Natalie Haynes AND Alan Moore. Dead Funny Encore is HERE


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