My Home Library Part 3
I filled my entire house with built-in bookcases
Yesterday’s comments reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about for years.
When I moved into my last house in Kentish Town, it was in a cobbled backstreet mostly still filled with Irish families, and the properties were still council. Opposite me was – I kid you not – the Beano depot, from which comics were delivered. There was a corner pub used by the police and informants, and all the roads were named after battles and generals in the Crimean war (I wrote about the street in ‘The Water Room’).
As I moved in my new neighbour, a brassy blonde radio cab controller with a voice like a foghorn, was sitting on the front steps (a major pastime in that part of town back then) with her five children squeezed around her. She watched me and the movers lugging in book boxes, and stopped me.
‘What’s in all them boxes?’
‘What, all of ’em?’
‘You gonna keep ’em all in the ‘ouse?’
She gave me a sour look. ‘You wouldn’t catch me keeping books in the ‘ouse.’
But she herself had boxes delivered regularly, usually around midnight. I caused great consternation next door because at the time I was dating a British Airways cabin purser who would come over straight from work in his uniform, and thinking he was some kind of policeman the family would rush to hide the huge stack of boxes they kept by the front window.
I filled my entire house with built-in bookcases. On hot nights I would climb up onto the roof and read under a booklight, sitting in a valley of slates. I remember watching Halley’s Comet pass by like a great single headlamp in the night sky, and I decided to stay up there until morning. In the middle of the night I heard movement in the street below and, peering over the edge of the roof, I saw boxes being delivered next door. They were filled with video recorders.
One day I gave one of the little girls a Moomin book because she asked about it. My neighbour was around like a shot.
‘Ere, did you give Bunny a book?’
‘Yes, I did. It’s very good.’
‘She don’t wanna book, we got enough shit in there already.’ She handed the book back to me.
Over the years I watched the children grow, wary of any interaction that would get me or them into trouble. One by one, they fell foul of the law and went into the prison system. Detention, probation, home arrest, jail sentences. The corner pub was turned into flats, and the Irish families, most of whom had their parents living a few doors down where they could keep an eye on them, were moved out or sold up as property value spiralled. Without them, the ‘neighbourhood’ vanished.
Most of the books from that house are still with me. They formed the basis of the library I now have.