Monthly Archives: March 2016

Whipplesnaith, The Night Climbers of Cambridge
Barbara Vine, Grasshopper

Don’t try this at home. Or rather, don’t try it in Cambridge. The Night Climbers of Cambridge circulated in samizdat form for a while, and a copy in the University Library could be consulted by special permission, but has now been reprinted. It is a guide to how to ascend various buildings in the city by external routes, based on the exploits of a group of climbers in the 1930s and illustrated with photographs.

Detailed instructions on how to achieve various climbs are interspersed with accounts of cat-and-mouse games with College porters and other anecdotes (the footnote to p. 156 is particularly entertaining, even if one can see the punchline coming way in advance). The style parodies that of guidebooks of the day: ‘We go to Trinity, the aristocrat of the college climbing-grounds’.

The pièce de résistance is of course King’s College Chapel. The caption to a photograph of the ascent of a pinnacle ends: ‘With three simultaneous grips for the rest of the way up the climb is safe’. Here I can only quote from Douglas Adams: ‘This must be some strange use of the word safe I wasn’t previously aware of’.

Many a night-climber’s career started by climbing into College after it was locked for the night, but other aspects of life in those days, such as patrolling policemen, seem almost as outdated. A Night Climbers’ Society, with its own tie, still existed around 1990 (I knew the President slightly) but little actual climbing appeared to go on by then.

Did this happen at Oxford too, or was it one of those things like circus skills which Cambridge in particular goes in for? The Oxford equivalent seemed to be navigating mysterious subterranean waterways, and if the Oxford Today letters page is to be believed, at one time most of the men and quite a lot of the women had a go at it.

The characters in Grasshopper also go in for climbing on roofs, though they normally get there from dormer windows, which I expect their Cambridge equivalents would disdain. If you enjoyed King Solomon’s Carpet, you’ll probably enjoy this novel too, set in Maida Vale.

I repeat: these exploits are not to be emulated by the reader. But I’m now going to look at a lot of old buildings in a rather different way.

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment

the Gun Street bookshop

I was near Gun Street in Reading today and recalled with fondness the bookshop which used to be there many years ago. It has imprinted on me as the bookshop all others ought to resemble. I can still recall the layout with a gallery overhanging the main space underneath, into which you descended on entering. I think it specialised in paperbacks.

Central Reading now has only one bookshop, a Waterstone’s where I looked in vain for a copy of The Buildings of England for Berkshire. (We already have a copy, but of Pevsner’s original volume, which is one of his weaker ones. The revision is much improved.)

I reflected further on how bookshops come and go. It isn’t all a story of decline. Where I live now in Bath, there was an independent bookshop, Whiteman’s, just East of the Abbey. It was decidedly eccentric as it specialised in books of local interest, maps and travel, and books about trains. Whiteman’s has gone, but we now have Toppings and Mr B’s, each with its own emphasis, but with a far better general stock.

Bristol is less fortunate. It has a large Russell Group university but the bookshop in Park St, latterly a Blackwell’s outlet, which served as the University bookshop has closed recently. No one seems embarrassed by the fact that there isn’t a University bookshop covering the full range of academic subjects; the one in the Students’ Union building is very small and restricted.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments