A few weeks ago, I was reunited with my books. They'd been in storage somewhere in Fife for more than a year, victim of a property transaction that took longer than expected. Finally, at 5.30am one Thursday morning, two van loads appeared outside my Peckham flat and over the next hour or so, box after box was transferred to my then-unfinished rooms. It was like being reacquainted with old friends.
With the help of an old flatmate, I'd constructed suitable storage the evening before. Filling one wall of a room with ceiling-to-floor bookshelves had long been an ambition of mine and – barring sloppy measurements which necessitated removing some skirting boards – it has been realised. But in my haste to clear floor space, I put all the books on the shelves in no particular order. Organising them properly, I told myself, could wait.
Well, in the midst of lockdown 2.0 I had my chance. The past week has been spent devising a 'system' – friends told me I needed a system – and shifting piles of tomes from room to room, hoping there would be enough space. I found myself rediscovering books I couldn't remember buying, several I had never got around to reading and, best of all, recalling how good some of those I had read were.
What system to use? Although I work at a library, I'm not a librarian, so any formal numbered, decimal or alphabetical technique was out. I live in a part of London which is gentrifying quickly, and from my walks I've noticed that colour-coding books is 'a thing', but for me that would be a middle-class affectation too far. Ultimately, I settled upon a broad subject-and-size method.
I started with the middle of three bays in my lounge. There, I gathered together all the books I own by or about British Prime Ministers, augmented with some political diaries. I've made a point of collecting these over the years, not just to read but as a sort of core biographical history of the UK as seen through the eyes of its premiers. The earliest is John Morley's three-volume Life of Gladstone
(once owned, according to its bookplate, by the former Scottish Secretary, Sir John Gilmour), followed by Lloyd George's six volumes of (First World) war memoirs, one of which is signed.
A whole shelf is now taken up by the authorised biography of Winston Churchill, begun by his son Randolph (vols 1-2) and completed by the historian Martin Gilbert (vols 3-8), together with seven 'companion' volumes, a quixotic attempt to publish all Churchill's known correspondence. Below those are a trio of memoirs by Anthony Eden, two of which are inscribed 'Avon', and Harold Macmillan's half dozen volumes of autobiography, an indulgence facilitated in part by the family publishing firm.
The most recent additions are Charles Moore's three-volume authorised Life of Thatcher
and David Cameron's 2019 contribution to the genre, For the Record
. Once the central bay was filled, I turned to the right (biography and some history), and the left (Scottish and UK history). I mentioned size as well as subject, for only hardbacks and large paperbacks earned a place in this section, not least because the shelves were specifically designed to accommodate them.
In my study, I recreated the broad pattern above with smaller hardbacks and paperbacks; novels (which are dwarfed by the non-fiction) were banished to the attic bedroom alongside journals, pamphlets and pocket-sized publications. In the course of all this, I discovered duplicate copies as well as incomplete runs. The former will either be sold or given away – I had a taker for six volumes of Tony Benn's diaries within minutes of advertising them on Facebook – while the latter are being plugged via Amazon and AbeBooks.
For some reason, I had only the first and last volumes of a Lloyd George biography by John Grigg (best known, as Lord Altrincham, for criticising the Queen's voice and manner in a 1950s article), but two and three were easily tracked down relatively inexpensively online. In a rather self-indulgent move, I filled one small bookcase with multiple copies of my own books – I usually keep at least three of each – together with other volumes to which I've contributed chapters or essays. I now look at this in a rather detached manner, amazed that I found the time.
I took a break from this intense bout of bibliophilia to go for a run around Burgess Park. In my ongoing attempt to demonstrate that ageing dogs can still learn new tricks, this was my first proper run since I was forced to do circuits round a muddy sports field at (the old) Leith Academy. I'd bought running shoes shortly before the first lockdown, but they had ended up sitting in various wardrobes ever since, taunting my good intentions.
There was a psychological barrier akin to that of starting a new book. To conquer this, I hit upon the idea of asking a friend in Streatham if she'd mind running with me. Luckily, she agreed, so we convened on the east side of the park on Sunday afternoon to break me in. Half an hour later and we'd done a 4km loop in around half an hour. Weirdly, my main concern was what to do with my arms, but once I'd settled into a rhythm, they looked after themselves.
Hopefully, a run every couple of days will take the place of the swimming that's no longer permitted in England due to the lockdown restrictions. During lockdown 1.0 it was yoga, then swimming when the rules changed, initially outside at the marvellous (and much missed) London Fields Lido. It seems highly unlikely that any future changes will prevent me jogging around a park.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian