Fiddler in the roof

Time, I am told, to clear out the books from my study. After about two and a half years, it has been, I concede, long enough. Besides, not only is the ex-wife on my case, so is my daughter. A man can withstand one woman, but two is too much.

The idea is to convert the space into a bedroom, or maybe even two, for the boys. "You, of all people," the ex says, "should understand the importance of a private space." Whatever can she mean?

I remember when we moved into the family home, around 16 years ago, and earmarked the loft space for my own workplace, Razors took one look and christened it "the tug emporium". It took me a while to work out what he was driving at.

But the place was used for work, too, and in it, on rudimentary bricks-and-planks shelving, I placed all the books I had used for my university studies. Here was all the poetry, all the Beckett, all the abstruse and recondite literary criticism. Along with God knows what else. I would occasionally wonder how many books there were; now, after having shoved them into boxes and established an average number of books per box, I know it's somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500. This is not counting the books I am leaving behind, to be disposed of as my ex sees fit.

So, tug emporium or not, it was, I always felt, the brain of the house. In our previous dwelling, I used to work in a room that had a view over the rooftops of northern Shepherd's Bush, and this I could find awfully distracting; I would watch our late lamented cat, Horace, beat the crap out of the neighbourhood toms and cheer him on. In the tug emporium, I had only the bare bricks of the converging chimney flues for diversion, unless I chose to relieve the tedium by staring at the bare white screen and its blinking cursor.

A moving house

As I remove the books, I feel like Keir Dullea dismantling HAL's higher circuits in 2001: a Space Odyssey. The process feels as slow and fraught. Will one of the three redundant computers cluttering up the place suddenly start singing "Daisy, Daisy" and then come out with a message revealing the true import of my mission? Only, I already know the true mission: to move on, to move away, to let things go.

I learned a great word the other day - tropophobia; the fear of change; or, used specifically, the fear of moving house. Wonderful how the Greeks have a word for everything.

It is somehow soothing to imagine Plato getting his chiton in a twist when he had to move from one of his caves, just as he'd become attached to it. Suffering mightily as I do from tropophobia, this was a job I tried to put off for as long as possible; that I can do it now suggests I have rediscovered a degree of psychic strength.

You need it, when you are taking deep core samples of your own past. Here is the letter from C -- from 1983; 27 years later, I still can't tell whether it is a love letter or not.

Here is my copy of Tercentenary Essays in Honour of Andrew Marvell, the first book I ever bought in Heffers. £8.95? A hell of a lot of money in those days. What on earth was I thinking? I guess I read about a page of it. It can go. Here is a box file of photocopies of my earliest published pieces, composed on a typewriter because they hadn't invented the computer yet. Here is my well-thumbed, and indeed well-frowned-over, copy of
Ezra Pound's Cantos. I would wave it in people's faces and say that all of literature was contained within it. Heavens, what a prick I was. In the box it goes; I'll come back to it one day.

I have been a nostalgist, though, from an early age. I think I was about six when I first saw, in a redundant toy, a charm and message that would only become louder through time. Early tragedy can do this to one. It is amazing I have managed to get rid of anything at all. But in the end we have to let everything go. There is no hurry, though. As I stack the boxes in my parents' loft, where the layers of thick black dust fall like the opposite of snow, I realise that, in the end, everything lets go of us. Whether we want it to or not.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN