Our columnist Jason Goodwin talks about jam jars, duvets and the books which are taking over his house.


When I emerged from the cellar in triumph, carrying a cardboard box full of slightly cobwebby jam jars, lids rattling cheerfully at the bottom, I was able to reflect that one of the great advantages of middle age is that you have a lot more empty jars put by than you did when you were young. More lids, too, and some of them even fit the jars. This makes marmalade-making much less of a chore.

The same goes for walking sticks, Wellington boots and birdspotting books. I don’t mean they help make marmalade. You have more of them.

Kate’s previous foray into the cellar revealed the Christmas decorations sinister with damp, their wicker basket a horrid sepulchre of mould. Then, she discovered a covey of dead mice in the airing cupboard. Although she thought they looked adorable, curled up together as if asleep, I had to dispose of them – she was less infatuated when she discovered they’d chewed a good sheet to tatters and scattered their droppings across a woollen blanket.

On the jam-jar principle of gradual accretion, it’s not a disaster. There are more sheets to be had in the cupboard and more blankets, too – although no one uses those any more.

Paul Rycaut, an English merchant in the Levant Company who wrote a history of the Ottoman empire in 1740, was responsible for introducing the duvet into England. It seems to have taken 200 years to catch on, but when it caught, it moved like a bush fire.

Almost no one makes up beds with blankets any more and yet I remember when I was at school that Lukas Knutsson had a duvet because he was Swedish. Anyway, we still have blankets in the airing cupboard.

Having said how useful it is to have collections of jam jars, sheets and Wellington boots for friends of different sizes, one of the perils of middle age is too much stuff, which can’t ever be thrown away because it either has sentimental value or might come in handy some day. Everything has retrospective value – or potential.

‘The more books we have, the harder it becomes to find the book I want and the more ashamed I am of writing books, which must add to piles in other people’s houses’

One of the reasons I emerged with the jam jars in such triumph is that the cellar is, in fact, pretty full. It has broken chairs, old suitcases, tools, wines, picture frames without glass, sheets of glass without picture frames and boxes of old toys that have probably grown beards. Finding the crate of jars was something of a stroke of luck.

Elsewhere, we have books. We have books by the yard, the gross, the lakh and the crore. Many of them are housed on bookshelves in the hall and the study, as well as the sitting room and various bedrooms. Others are stacked in corridors and march up the stairs on both sides of the treads in piles, which seem to circulate very slowly so that the piles occasionally throw up an unexpected treat on the way to bed. A visitor recently observed that we seem to have books all over the floors and carpets on the furniture, which is not entirely untrue.

The more books we have, the harder it becomes to find the book I want and the more ashamed I am of writing books, which must add to piles in other people’s houses.

However, I use it as an escape, a way of sublimating my fears. So it is with Count Palewski, a character in my novels, the Polish ambassador to the Ottoman court. I gave him a library so he could restlessly rearrange the titles – sometimes by author, sometimes by subject and once in descending order of size – stumbling across forgotten treasures on the way.