The hairdresser has recently moved house. Naturally, when I come for a cut, that subject comes up, and the first few minutes of the appointment are conveniently filled by topical conversation about boxes.
‘Do you know how many boxes we’ve moved?’
‘One hundred and fifty.’
‘One hundred and fifty?!’ I think that is a wonderful round number.
‘Yes – your head a bit to the side – that many. Not all of them large, of course. About a half had books in them, and you don’t want to put too many books in a single box.’
We are quiet for a bit, in silent agreement that one really does not want to put too many books in a single box. Then I say:
‘I dread the prospect of moving.’
‘It’s all well when you have your books on the shelves, and they take deceptively little space. It is an entirely different matter when you need to pack. I have a terrible suspicion my partner and I ‘ve got too many.’
The hairdresser does not reply straight away. He goes on arranging his tools and fixes a black dressing cape around my neck. As he starts combing my fringe this way and that, he says:
‘We bought our first house in Oxford back in the ‘80s, in Summertown. It belonged to Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, but we did not know that at first. That house was covered in books. They were everywhere. The stairs had a pile of books on each side. There was just a narrow path to go up or down in the middle. In fact, there were so many books, it was the reason they were moving. They needed a place for a bigger library.’
I am yet to read either Iris Murdoch or John Bayley, but anyone with a book obsession of that magnitude evokes respect and interest.
‘When the agent let us in, the house was supposed to be empty. But Iris Murdoch was at home, working, and we were introduced to her. She looked like a bird in a nest. There were piles of books and papers on her desk – so many papers, they were rolling off onto the floor. And the floor looked just the same, covered in books and papers. There were two bookcases behind her desk, entirely full. She was sitting in the middle of it all, like a bird in a nest. I wished I had a camera with me, it looked like such a great photo. You could imagine it on the cover of Time.’
The snipping of scissors fills the silence that follows. I think of an old flat back in Saint Petersburg. M.’s family lived there for four generations, and in the end that place contained more personal history than an average biography. There were bookshelves put on top of bookcases, since the high ceilings allowed for archaeological strata.
‘Anyway, through the purchase of that house we became friends with them. They would invite us over, and we got introduced to a whole other Oxford circle. They often had dinners, at the new place in Charlbury Road. Speaking of the new place–’
He pauses and catches my eye in the mirror before me. His face crinkles from the joke he is about to tell.
‘We visited them over a period of time, and the thing is: it took them less than two years to fill that house with books as well.’
Current album: MGMT, MGMT
Current book: Daniel Clowes, The Death-Ray
Current TV series: Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Series 1 (2007)