Horace Walpole’s to blame for this mess, not me; with books scattered about everywhere, like giants’ confetti. Not that he threw them around himself; his ghost doesn’t haunt my humble abode. And I’m sure, if he haunted anywhere it would be detached with a gravel drive at the very least and probably in Chelsea or Mayfair, not Bromley. Besides even 200 years on from his death, he’s the same well-mannered fellow he always was, not the discourteous kind of poltergeist who throws around his hosts possessions. Take this as gospel truth, because I know him, intimately. Better than I know the man who delivers the milk, or most of my neighbours. Because he is one of those writers, who bring the world they move in alive for me, from the fine painting of Rose the Royal Gardener with his pineapple, to the terrifying mob intent on setting free the lions in The Tower. Someone through whom I escape to a different way of living, when I want a rest from my own. I’m always dipping into his letters. In fact I own two editions of them. Not that I collect Walpole; I can’t afford to, the rare and delicately printed productions of his Strawberry Hill Press are beyond my means and patience. But it struck me, as I looked at the sixteen volumes of Mrs. Toynbee’s edition rambling across the bedside table and the ten stout volumes of Cunningham’s edition (bound in red morocco, I’d have you know) squeezed into the bookcase, that, if I was ever going to tidy up this house, it was absurd to own multiple copies of the same text. By the way, I’ve just remembered, there’s a third copy downstairs, Mann’s three volume edition and in the original paper-covered boards. Read this? I hardly dare to open it, it’s so delicate.
Wait; this tidying-up bug bit me before I started piling volumes of dear old Horace W. by the front door. You see I paid a Christmas visit to my friend Antony in Tunbridge Wells and, looking around his flat while we were having an aperitif, I couldn’t help noticing his books. Because they sat neatly and obediently in the bookcases; they didn’t clamber onto tables or march in serried piles across the floor. I do have my standards at home, I mean there aren’t books in the bed or in the fridge or anything, but they do tend to pile up on any flat surface. Moreover, as I explained to him over a second glass, this book-logged condition ( if you can be water logged you can be book logged, believe me), had led to an otherworldly experience. The sort of spooky experience where something is wrong but you can’t put your finger on what it is exactly.
I had been reading Byron’s Don Juan, another of those books where the author speaks to you as if he were sitting on the sofa opposite, rather than mouldering in the family vault. But the copy I was using never seemed right; sometimes when I picked it up the pages seemed yellowed, whereas before they had been clean and white; an annoying ink spot appeared on the blue cloth binding one evening, but wasn’t visible next morning and, when I opened the book at my bookmark, it dawned on me, after two or three stanzas, that I had read them before. I had fetched the book from upstairs (confession I read in bed), sat down in the chair and yet again had the exasperating experience of bookmark induced déjà vu. The ink blot, painful to a bibliophile, had also reappeared on the cover. Musing on this blot, that appeared like some small scale admonition from another world, I looked at the bookcase opposite me. Here I saw the answer: a second copy of the same book; identical to the one I was holding, apart from being in better condition. Now I was not aware I owned two copies, had no memory of buying a second copy and, until that moment, would have taken my oath I owned only one.
It was easy to tidy up, Antony explained to me, leaning back and spreading himself in the armchair, smiling at me like a kindly uncle: you simply made three heaps of books: one of those you needed, one of those you weren’t sure about and another of those that could definitely go.
After all the drinks and the Christmas dinner, I was a bit late getting up the next morning but, after a strong cup of coffee, I hastened to put his advice into action. The grubbier copy of Don Juan could go on the condemned pile for a start, along with the dog-eared paperback novels that form a front rank on the edge of the shelf, defending the cloth bound treasures behind them. But as I dumped the tatty old Penguins on top of the Don Juan, I had an attack of sentiment; this copy of Pickwick Papers, yellow of page and creased of spine, recalled the happy hours when I first discovered Dickens, thirty odd years ago. In the end I compromised and put the paperbacks in the middle pile, for later consideration.
On the shelf behind was an almost complete set of Lord Lytton’s novels. One of my problems is that I am collector of sets and series: if I have a few volumes from a set of books, I look out for the other volumes at shops and auctions. Have you tried this? The sensation when you find one of the missing volumes is delightful, you appreciate how what’s-his-name felt in The Comedy of Errors when he found that the Abbess was his long lost mother. Realistically my short lived passion for Lord Lytton and his works, had faded to ashes, I was never going to read of the doings of Kenelm Chillingly or Eugene Aram. But it was a nice set and I was only a few volumes away from completing it. But, believe me, I’m strong, when I’ve set my mind to a task I go through with it, so reluctantly I put most of Lord Lytton on the ‘maybe’ pile. This middle pile now rambled across the floor and up onto my armchair.
The next bookcase, by the window, contains reference works. Bibliographies, dictionaries and the like. These are the golden key to good bookselling. Don’t think you can look everything up on the internet, because you can’t. One of the curses of internet bookselling is lazy sellers who throw around terms like ‘first edition’ and ‘complete’, without collating their book against a bibliographic description. Besides even when I can look something up on the internet, I don’t want to. I prefer using books.
However, realistically many of the books here were just dust-gatherers: catalogues of libraries long dispersed, of authors forgotten forever and, I mean, what chance is there of me having the opportunity to use a bibliographic study of Shakespeare’s first folio? Hesitantly I moved a few of these books to the growing piles on the floor.
The next case contains poetry. Here a pause, of half an hour or so, occurred: because when I was putting a copy of John Donne onto the pile on the floor my eye fell on;-
‘Where, like a pillow on a bed,
A pregnant bank swell’d up, to rest
A violet’s reclining head…’
And I read on, and on. It seemed sheer bad manners to put someone who has entertained you for half an hour on the scrap heap, so I didn’t.
The morning wore on and I stuck to my task, honestly I did. But I was distracted from a fascinating article in a copy of Book and Magazine collector, by the doorbell. Outside was a couriers van, and from it came three boxes. Good heavy boxes that bent the drivers knees as he carried them to the door. Glancing at the labels I experienced a surge of excitement: the boxes came from Mr. S., a customer who had offered me some of his cast-offs as part payment for a book he was buying. I tore open the boxes and sifted through the books: as promised there was a nice Eighteenth Century Milton, a Henry James first in a variant binding and much more besides.
This brings me to the point where I started; standing up I found it difficult to walk or sit down, for books were simply everywhere. There’s a parable about driving out one devil and seven more coming in, and this tidying-up business was much the same. The room was a mess and there were five books on the pile I was to get rid of. Oh well, it was a sunny afternoon and I’d enjoy the walk to the charity shop.