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Coptic Street Sunset

by David Redd

part 1 of 2

The lamp from the shop in Coptic Street is only a pale earthenware bowl, very shallow, small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, one end pinched into a point for the long-vanished wick. It lies on the shelf above me now, its bowl filling with dust, as I write this memoir of how the lamp might have changed the world.

Most readers will know that on this earth there exist small ancient shops with magic in them. I walked away from one in London in 1966, and watched the sunset glow like a rose-tinted ocean above Coptic Street. Charles Dickens walked past one in London much earlier, and was inspired to write a novel called The Old Curiosity Shop which has cast its spell on readers ever since. I dare say Shakespeare knew a shop which sold everything from old chronicles to Yorick’s skull. Hundreds of other writers have described such places in their imaginations, but these shops can appear in reality, and most people have seen one, or know someone who has.

For instance, my good friend and occasional muse, young Bernard Earp, once discovered a small magic shop in Bolton. I was working nearby on the M60 motorway, and as usual on these assignments I sought picture postcards of the area to send to my elderly mother, then terminally ill at home in Wales. This is Bernard’s story of what he found for me, and where, exactly as written in his letter dated 01 July 1998:

“I had been to the Gym and was walking back to catch the bus home, all the while thinking to myself that I really had to look around for some local postcards for you. (Couldn’t let the old Town down!) There is a small Church Shop next to the Bus Stop. I have never seen it open; the shutters are always down so I’ve never even been able to look in the windows whilst waiting. This day it was open. Glancing in the window what did I see but some Postcards, on sale too. I went in. I bought the two packs and got out just as my bus arrived. That shop has not been open since.”

My mother got her postcards. When the world needs a small magic shop, the small magic shop will be there.

But such shops operate according to other rules than ours. The artist and writer Deirdre Counihan, of Brighton, once told me: “There was a shop near us that had this book in the window, The Story of the Paper Doll, which I really needed for something I was doing. Could I find the shop open? No. I made up huge ivory towers of idea of what the shop might, in fact, be fronting.” My own theory is that Deirdre’s small magic shop disliked the paper doll project, and deliberately kept its door closed to her.

I have only found such a shop once.

One afternoon in late 1966 I was walking through central London, hoping to meet a literary agent called Mr Curtis who reportedly had an office in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum. On my way I saw an intriguing shop window, paused, and through its dusty panes marvelled at a higgledy-piggledy confusion of books antique and modern, browning schoolboy weeklies, duplicated pamphlets, and unlikely oddments such as old brass candlesticks and an encased stuffed owl. Altogether that window held everything one would expect of a small magic shop, although in those days I had not yet heard the phrase.

My delight in seeing this treasure-store must have been very like that of Charles Dickens discovering his Old Curiosity Shop, albeit he was an established author and knew immediately that the shop was a gift to his imagination, whereas I recognised only that I had seen something wonderful and strange. In that first stare through the window I did not even see the little earthenware lamp; it was hidden inside, lost amid other items, awaiting someone else.

The address was Number Seven, Coptic Street. The building is still there, only two doors away from one of the best Greek restaurants in London, but in those days even the Pizza Express had not yet opened and the shop still looked more Victorian than modern.

Within its poorly-lit interior, a chaotic sea of books surrounded me. Crowded shelves rose like cliffs; tables and book-piles were islands of the printed word. The smell of old pages, old bindings, was like a drug. Perhaps my eyes ranged across the tiny lamp during that first visit, but if so I do not recall it. Instead, I saw movement in a rear cubbyhole, and there emerged a friendly little character with balding head and bright eyes behind spectacles. Naturally we talked, or rather I poured out my enthusiasm for his shop, and he chuckled. Visitors were usually more curious about him than his premises. But if I liked this place so much, he murmured, why not become his assistant here? (An offer typical of the kindly soul I came to know as Uncle Albert.)

I started work the next morning.

With me I brought my friend Akani, who shared my lodgings in Hackney and shared my need for congenial employment. Uncle Albert happily engaged us both, on an informal commission basis because he could not afford actual salaries. Our task was simply to watch the stock while customers browsed, for people would pass through day after day like ghosts, visible while they stood reading but rarely materialising solidly enough to make a purchase.

We two assistants enabled Uncle Albert to remain at the back undisturbed, talking to his friends and endlessly drafting long treatises on changing the world. It was an ideal arrangement. He gained more time for his campaigning — not least because I retyped various political articles for him — and we would-be Shakespeares gained space to work at our own writing. I would think of the nearby literary agency and compose epic tales of the far future for them, there among the shelves of forgotten best-sellers and the staring owl and the ever-changing shadow in the far corner. Often I typed standing up, with my old Smith-Corona balanced upon a stack of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, topped by a large-format Augusta & Burian book on mammoths. Akani squatted by the window and wrote in neat longhand, producing well-observed short stories such as “The Lonely Young Foreigners” as if he were an African Samuel Selvon. He had interviewed people for broadcasting, back home in Nigeria, and his ear for dialogue was much better than mine.

It was Akani who discovered the lamp.

One long afternoon when our ghosts were absent Akani became restless, laid aside his pad, tried to distract me from my current story, and finally started prowling the books and curios as if in search of something unknown. Most of the stock was heaped in untidy piles, in keeping with our proprietor’s philosophy of life, the books as unsorted as when they had been carted over from their previous home in Grays Inn Road. (Uncle Albert had found that renting a new shop was easier than keeping up payments on an old one.) The bric-a-brac was scattered everywhere; once I had seen an editor leave payment in kind by tossing trinkets randomly into the general disarray. Akani moved around commenting on this or that, until my current story ceased to flow. I gave up, not too resentfully, and was standing with him when he pointed to a little bowl of pale fired clay and laughed. “Aladdin’s Lamp!”

To me it looked more primitive than any decent pantomime prop, very small, its only feature a V-shape at one end ready to hold a wick, but I went along with his joke. “Right, let’s rub it and make three wishes!”

My finger started to touch the lamp, and stopped. A most peculiar feeling shot through my hand, like the power in certain bluestones on the Preseli hills back home. I remember that I drew back in shocked silence.

Akani laughed again. “Hey, Dave, afraid it’s got the wrong kind of genie?” He knew our stories, although where he came from the spirits took different forms.

I heard tapping sounds from Uncle Albert’s typewriter at the back.

I also heard the rustle of wings, or perhaps only a gust of wind.

Akani seemed weirdly brighter before me, and behind him the shadows became darker, until I blinked and my eyes returned to normal.

In the corner was a customer whom I had not seen before.

His clothing I recall as a pure white cloak with odd golden embellishments at his shoulders; not normal, but no stranger than the caftans and other alien garments starting to appear in London. He was about my height, that is to say a head shorter than Akani, who was a typically tall Igbo (or Ibo, as we said then.) The man’s face was open and affable between thinning grey-white hair and a matching beard; seeing him in that cloak I swear I thought but did not say, He looks like an angel. An unusually hunched and elderly angel.

“Gentlemen,” he began. “Are you the staff?”

“Er, yes,” Akani and I said together, both of us more hesitant than we should have been to a new customer.

I remembered to ask, “Can we help you, sir?”

He glanced around as if unsure of his surroundings, but then his eyes turned to the lamp before me. Somehow I was not surprised.

“An interesting relic,” he said. “Is it for sale?”

“Everything’s for sale!” I gasped out hurriedly, because we who dined most days on toast and honey would welcome any chance of commission.

“Only the lamp interests me,” he said, disappointingly. “This lamp has power. When it is lit, tongues of fire will descend on the people.”

I had learned not to question flights of fancy from our customers, and said only, “I don’t think it’s been priced yet.”

Akani said, “Make us an offer.”

Tap-tap! Uncle Albert was still busily typing away, leaving the shop in our young and untested hands.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by David Redd

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