A reader’s guide to Cambridge charity shops

The fruits of an afternoon's research

The fruits of an afternoon’s research

I have always bought books in charity shops, and, so long as charity shops, books, or I continue to exist, I always will. There wasn’t much spare money around when I was growing up, and besides, I have a perverse liking for things that are out of print.

In terms of books, charity shops are good for:

  • things I have a vague idea that I’m collecting (for example, Blue Peter annuals, or John Buchans in the red Nelson edition, which is the only thing that fits on the second shelf of my big bookcase);
  • last year’s bestsellers;
  • impulse buys.

Charity shops are not so good for:

  • things that have only just been published, though you occasionally get lucky;
  • rare or specific books, though you occasionally get lucky;
  • things you need within a tight timeframe, though you occasionally get lucky.

I spend less time in charity shops than I used to, mainly because there are none within walking distance of my office – at least, not if I want to get out and back and spend a reasonable amount of time actually in the shop all within my lunch break. However, there are always Saturdays. I’ve lived in Cambridge for getting on for three years now, and have explored a reasonable portion of the city in that time. There are two streets in particular that have an abundance of charity shops: Burleigh Street and Mill Road.

Charity shops fall into two broad categories. There are the carefully curated, and the undiscriminatingly chaotic.

The latter are, of course, by far the best for books. You never know what you’re going to find; you pick up things you’d never heard of because you are intrigued by the picture on the spine or because the title reminds you of something you were looking for six months ago. You never find what you’re actually looking for, but the chances are you’ll find something else worth reading.

In the carefully curated category, by contrast, you will find two stingy shelves of books, whose contents will be unremittingly boring, and suspiciously similar to those in every other carefully curated charity shop in the street. If you’re looking for last year’s bestseller, this is the place to go. If not, it won’t take you long to scan the shelves and decide there’s nothing to keep you there. (You will also find some inoffensive and deeply boring clothes, and the ones with an ‘Atmosphere’ label will probably cost a pound more than they were originally sold for in Primark.)

A more promising subset of ‘carefully curated’ is the specialist charity bookshop. There are two of these in Cambridge – the Oxfam bookshop on Sidney Street, and Books for Amnesty on Mill Road. The great advantage of these is the fact that the books are arranged in a coherent and logical fashion, and, if you know what you’re looking for, you can be in and out within three minutes.

However, the chances are that you’ll pay a similar price to those charged by specialist second-hand dealers. Which is good for the charity, of course… up to the point where you don’t buy the book because you didn’t want it that much. And of course, if you don’t know exactly what you want, the choice can be somewhat overwhelming.

My two favourite shops on Burleigh Street are Oxfam and the RSPCA. Oxfam has  a vast range of all sorts of stuff over two floors. The books are helpfully arranged by category, and there are plenty of categories, and there is plenty of variety within those categories. The last thing I got in there was a book of poems by Luci Shaw, and the thing before that was A Murder Is Announced. It’s also, so my father informs me, good for Ordnance Survey maps.

The RSPCA doesn’t have such a wide selection, but what it does have is of good quality. I picked up the bulk of my Buchan collection there. The British Heart Foundation tends to have interesting books. Like all BHF shops, it’s crammed full of too much stuff, both second-hand and the hideous ‘new goods’, but it can be worth fighting your way to the back left-hand corner. I wouldn’t go out of my way to any of the others, and have resolved never to give books to the Scope shop, which sends them (so one assistant told me, at least) for pulping if they haven’t sold after only a fortnight on the shelf.

Mill Road has the Sally Ann, which is a spacious shop with a lot of stuff in it, and another Oxfam, this one affably scruffy. The YMCA is comparatively new. It has hardly any books, but I did get A Book of Escapes in there.

It is worth going beyond the railway bridge, if only for the RSPCA bookshop. This is less like a charity shop and more like something you’d find in Hay-on-Wye. Books everywhere, stacked on the top of shelves, on the floor. Penguins, Pelicans, Viragos, old hardbacks, old paperbacks… It’s wonderful.

I don’t recommend going round all the charity shops in one day. There are, after all, only so many books that can be loaded into a bike basket before the steering goes all skew-whiff.

We’ll turn it around


I’ve spent quite of lot of 2017 being ill. The boomerang virus has hit me three times since New Year’s Eve. At the moment it’s manifesting in a hacking cough, set off by a) singing anything longer than a bar and a half in one breath; b) laughing; c) breathing in cold air. Previously it’s made itself known in extreme lethargy, fever, sniffles tending to nosebleeds, headaches, lack of sleep, a sore throat, and a cough. Not, fortunately, all at once. Or, at least, not for long.

Consequently, I’ve spent quite a lot of 2017 wrapped up in a blanket and occupying myself with things that haven’t needed much energy. In what is perhaps not a coincidence, I have fallen hard for Yuri!!! on Ice, which is a very sweet and optimistic anime about figure skating. This despite my having had no prior interest in either anime or figure skating. It just seems to appeal to the same part of my brain that likes epaulettes and grand opera and dark chocolate. And Ruritania.

It’s probably also significant that Yuri!!! on Ice takes place in a universe where there’s no homophobia and where the sport system can be trusted. By contrast, I have spent the last year writing in a universe where sport chews you up and spits you out, and several years before that writing in a universe where homophobia is depressingly and devastatingly real. So perhaps I just needed a break.

There are parts of my brain that think it is absolutely appalling of me to be watching anything at all light and fluffy (not to mention admitting to it in public) when As We All Know The World Is Going To Hell. (There are other parts of my brain that don’t like my admitting to liking anything at all, including epaulettes, grand opera, and dark chocolate, because that’s really embarrassing, apparently. And another one that’s pointing out that I promised myself several years ago that I’d never apologise for my reading or watching material, because if an English Lit degree doesn’t give you the right to read what you like without feeling guilty about it, what does? Brains, eh?)

The thing is, it’s not as simple as that. In the same way that one can’t (at least, I can’t) read The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau without reflecting that Rudolf V is actually a pathetic excuse for a king who deserves everything he gets, and wondering whether there’s a Ruritanian Communist Party, it’s difficult to watch Yuri!!! on Ice without acknowledging that, sadly, Russia doesn’t work like that, and China doesn’t work like that, and probably skating doesn’t work like that either. Which makes for some genuinely interesting fanfic; but I’ve been reading a lot of fluff, too.

It’s a constant push and pull: between escapism and realism (but how real is the realism?), between optimism and pessimism; the tension between the world as one would like it to be and the world as one fears it is; the question of what truth looks like in fiction. I feel the urge to complicate the simple stuff; and to give the miserable stuff a happy ending; to question whether an ending that an author clearly intended as happy is as happy as all that; and to  It’s a question with which a consumer engages as much as a creator. Actually, I find that the lines are blurred, and that I’m arguing with something with everything I write: some other book, something someone else said, adding another layer to the debate.

On which subject: I’ve got back into the editing process for A Spoke In The Wheel this week, after spending all of January too knackered and too scared to look at it. It turns out that it’s neither as bad nor as miserable as my mind had made it out to be. (Again, I say, brains, eh?) And I find myself wondering, now, where it falls on that continuum between realism and escapism. I’ve tried to set it in the real world, where zero hours contracts and sexism and burnout exist. I’ve got a friend checking it at the moment for errors in my portrayal of the notoriously dreadful UK disability benefits process. It’s fairly cynical about sport, or, at least, the narrator is.

But I find, re-reading it, that on the whole it’s hopeful. And I’m glad about that. Apart from anything else, it occurs to me that if we can’t let ourselves imagine a better world, we’re unlikely ever to get one.

Postcards from a journey through burnout

I’ve been thinking a lot about burnout this year. I’ve been there a few times. It’s a known hazard of being brought up in an activist family. It’s a known hazard of being a member of an organised religion. It’s a known hazard of working for a trade union.

It’s what happens when you’ve signed petitions until your email inbox is nothing but Avaaz and 38degrees, and when you marched against pretty much everything, and when your weekends have disappeared into doorknocking or leafleting or selling flowers of solidarity, and you’ve bought fair trade, and you don’t own a car and you haven’t travelled by air since 2007, and you can’t remember which of the cereal brands you’re meant to be boycotting, and buying cheap stuff is exploitative and buying expensive stuff is extravagant, and the personal is political, and the political is personal, and you’ve voted, and you’ve badgered several other people into voting, ruining your relationships in the process, and after all that the world is still a mess and you’re still feeling guilty because you haven’t fixed it.

For example, this was me in 2012:

It was all very well when I was fifteen and had no life and was all idealistic, but these days I do not have the energy to be any more political than I am paid to be, and I am sick to the back teeth with everyone else’s Causes, while simultaneously feeling guilty for Not Caring and therefore obviously being a Horrible Person. I don’t think I have any causes left myself. I am so tired of them all.

I have been back in that place this past year. It probably dates back to before the general election in May 2015. I have felt so burnt out, so powerless, so useless, and it’s been particularly difficult because of the way that things have been falling apart. I’ve been feeling that I should be doing something and knowing that there is very little I can do and that nevertheless that’s no excuse for not trying. Filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and all that. So you keep going either until the world is fixed, or until you fall apart, whichever is the sooner. Guess which is the sooner.

I think it might be a defence mechanism. I think it’s what happens when your body works out that the reason you won’t rest is because you care, so it stops you caring.

In August, trying to channel a version of myself who wasn’t exhausted and jaded and burnt out, I wrote this to myself:

you are loved, you are enough
even though you don’t know how to be an activist and an introvert
even though you think you have probably had it with activism of any sort anyway
because so much activism seems to have become about telling people that they aren’t enough and they don’t do enough
and however much you do it’s never enough
because guess what, you can’t fix the world by yourself
and you’ve learned enough to know it’s not your job to bully other people into fixing the world with you
even though you stopped volunteering to do stuff ages ago and the desire to volunteer for stuff has yet to re-emerge and maybe it never will
even though you can’t tell how much of this is predictable August head-stuff and how much is real
and you fear that everyone will think it’s head-stuff while it’s been co-existing with being OK, actually
this thing goes two ways and you’re allowed to be the one who says NO
and do you know,
yes, the thing that is right is often costly and challenging
a) not always, sometimes it can be easy
b) just because something is costly and challenging does not mean that it is right
and you can’t make something right by making it harder
you are loved, you are enough
[and no, this is not a trick designed to make you get up and start doing stuff just because you’ve been told you are enough as you are]
[you think you’ve met that one before]
if you stayed in bed forever you would be loved, you would be enough
and I’m not even going to tell you that you won’t stay in bed forever
because I don’t want you to think that this is in any way conditional
you are loved, you are enough
you are loved, you are enough
that’s it.

And yes, of course some of it was predictable August head-stuff and I feel better now. And at the same time I do not want to get into that state again.

A few weeks ago, having been recovering gradually through September and October, I wrote this on Twitter:

I have been feeling guilty for most of my conscious life for not fixing the world.

Logically, one has to stop fixing things well before all the things are fixed, perhaps before any of them are.

The question is, how to stop feeling guilty about stopping.

Because eventually, you reach the point where you have to stop because you’re feeling burnt out and exhausted.

Perhaps so much so that you can’t imagine ever wanting to start again. And yet your sense of worth is tied up in fixing things.

Meanwhile the rest of the world carries on fixing and breaking things, depending on your point of view, and always wants you to help.


This is where I’m trying to break the pattern this time: to move my sense of self-worth away from what I do or don’t do, and towards the simple fact that I’m human.

I was giving myself permission to stop trying to fix things, to accept that there are certain things that are basically unfixable, that there are certain people’s opinions that won’t be changed, that push push push all the time doesn’t work. That even if I’d managed, for example, to get to the Stop The War march, the war wouldn’t have stopped.

The next day – obviously feeling better for having got all that out – I continued the conversation with myself, and wrote in my diary:

I think that if I am ever to fix anything it will be by writing fiction. It is the way that I share the ways in which I fix myself. And I can’t fix anybody; they have to work it out for themselves; and fiction helps us make the jump, because we have to put in the work.

It made more sense at the time, but what I think I meant was this: fiction – reading it, writing it – has been instrumental in helping me understand that I am human, and that being human is enough. Whether I’m writing, whether I’m working, whether I’m falling apart, being human is enough. Who knows, maybe that will stick. Maybe that was my last burnout. Maybe next time I’ll remember to stop before I fall apart.

In the meantime, I’m going to avoid putting the same pressures on myself, and on anyone else.

Telling people that they’re not doing enough to fix things, or that they’re trying to fix things the wrong way, is not going to get things fixed, or get them to do more.

Or, if it does get them to do more, it won’t last long, because it will hasten their inevitable burnout, and things will remain unfixed.

Guilt is not a sustainable motivator.

Interview at Women and Words


A very happy Easter to all those who have been, or still are, celebrating it today – and to those who feel like they’ve only left church to sleep since Thursday, I wish you a sit-down and a glass of wine.

I’ve been taking things a bit easier of late, and will continue to do so for the next couple of weeks (might post, might not, depending on how I feel) – but there’s an interview with me at Women & Words today if you want something to read.

Plodding on, and an extract

Plodding on

Plodding on

Today I’ve been messing around with chapter headings, emailing people about ISBNs, and uploading the entire work to Lulu to see what would happen. (Nothing too terrifying, is the answer, but then it logged me out, and I took that as a sign that I should give up for the day.)

I’ve taken a very long nap, flailed around the sitting room to ABBA songs, and eaten some Christmas cake.

I’ve also put up an extract from the first chapter of Speak Its Name. Enjoy!

Setting a date to set a publication date

Mince pies

And some mince pies, sadly virtual

On Sunday I made mince pies for my mother’s birthday lunch. They turned out beautifully: proper boozy, nutty, mincemeat in thin, crisp pastry. I made more today, while listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols; they aren’t quite so good, but they will do very nicely. My plans for the next twenty-four hours go: church, eat, church, sleep, church, cook, eat, sleep. I hope you have a lovely Christmas, if you celebrate, and if you don’t I hope you have a lovely time not celebrating!

I’ve been doing more work on Speak Its Name with the help of my obliging ex-colleague. We’ve arranged to continue edits on each other’s work over the Christmas break. And I’ve promised myself that on New Year’s Eve I will set a firm date for publication. I’m thinking in terms of early to mid February at the moment, but, as ever, I need to check some things with some people. Come back on the 31st and I will let you know!

Reverb day 4: stocktaking and replenishing



As the year ends, and we look back at the joys, achievements and disappointments of the past twelve months, it’s worth taking some time to recognise what our efforts have demanded of us and where our resources have been depleted.

Whether you have spent 2015 bringing some long-cherished project to fruition or simply trying to keep your head above water, it’s likely that this has come at some cost to you.

How can you replenish your (physical, mental, spiritual and/or emotional) resources? What do you need most of all at this moment?

I feel slightly diffident writing to my own prompt. I’m also amused, both by my own foresight in knowing that I’d be feeling like a wrung-out dishcloth by this point in the winter, and by Kat’s timing in putting it up today, when I am feeling much like a wrung-out dishcloth that I was sent home sick from work, and have spent most of the afternoon asleep.

What have I spent 2015 doing? Editing Speak Its Name and preparing it for publication. (I’d rather hoped that it would be out in the world at this point; it’s getting there, but slowly, slowly… I’ll take stock at the end of December, and hope to be able to give a publication date then.) Planning and executing what one of my colleagues calls a ‘birthday parade’ – a succession of activities and celebrations to mark my 30th birthday. In my case, it was a four-day walk from Reading to Winchester, which I am intending to write up on this blog before too long, a birthday party with a ceilidh and a ride on a 1935 Renault TN4F and a 1959 Leyland Tiger Cub (both buses, if you were wondering!), and seeing Joan Baez at Cambridge Folk Festival. Replaying an old work pattern, where I get bored in a quiet period and then over-commit myself for a busy one. Working through some fairly mind-blowing mental revelations.

Yes; it makes sense that I am feeling a little run-down! And I’m still in this over-committed pattern: coming down with this bug today has meant that I’ve missed two social activities already, and am likely to miss at least some of the four planned for the long weekend. The first day I have that’s completely free, where I have nothing planned and no obligations to anyone, is 22nd December. I’m not going to let that happen next year; I’m going to fight for my free weekends.

This year I’ve also come to notice just how much of an introvert I am. The week where I had two conferences, a leaving do, a 60th birthday party and a huge family lunch was a bit of an eye-opener; I ended up hiding downstairs crying on that last day. I am reluctantly realising that I just can’t cope with that many people for that sustained a length of time. I need to build much more solitude into my life.

So how to replenish my resources? I wrote yesterday about a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off cycle. I would like, without burdening myself with yet more obligations during this over-committed Advent, to start thinking about things I can do during my recovery weeks to refresh myself. More: I would like to start doing those things now. I would like to find blissful gaps in all this bustle and charivari. Why not? I need replenishing now.

Take long, warm, baths. Shut my study door. Read poetry. Wander around parks and museums in my lunch break. Read old, familiar books. Read new, exciting books. Lie on my sofa and listen to grand opera. Go for long walks. Notice things.

What do I need most of all at this moment? To go to bed. Good night, all.