A visit from The London Alcove Company – creating order out of chaos

Image: Shelving design by The London Alcove Company

It sounds very grand, but I am creating a library

A friend of my daughter’s, visiting our house for the first time, texted her standing uncertainly outside, peering in from the street: ‘Is yours the house with the book wallpaper?’

Another boyfriend, venturing into the living room, asked me incredulously: “Have you actually read all these?”

Image: Novels culled by Mari Kondo and carefully alphetebised during Covid

A life in books

The books are real and yes, I have read them, mostly. What’s more, I can usually tell you where and when I read them and, in some cases, what impact they had on my life. Leon Uris’ novel Exodus played a big part in my decision to go and work on a kibbutz in Israel at the age of 18, while Avi Shlaim’s history The Iron Wall, Israel and the Arab World is the best explanation of Israel’s history I have come across.

I remember which ones I read on sleep deprived nights when my children were small, and the odd postcard or ticket tucked inside to serve as a bookmark reveals which I was reading on various holidays.

Image: My small collection of books on the history of Africa  from the the making of a documentary series

Some are by friends and colleagues – BBC presenter Tim Sebastian used to knock out ‘airport trash’ thrillers when travelling the world doing interviews for HARDtalk. Zeinab Badawi’s new book on the history of Africa came out of a documentary series we made together and evokes happy memories of jolting around in a 4×4 with camera crews from the coast of Senegal to the plains of the Serengeti, the pyramids of Sudan to the ancient settlements of Zimbabwe.

I have just read Rebecca Frayn’s new novel Lost in Ibiza and Mihir Bose’s memoir Thank you Mrs Crombie and have yet to read Peter Oborne’s book Islam: The Fate of Abraham.

I even appear in a few of these volumes, in the acknowledgements at the back. The thing about a collection is that you can chart your life by its acquisitions. A lot of my factual books are review copies collected over decades of producing TV and radio programmes – glossy coffee table books from my days on Midweek with Libby Purves on Radio 4 and political biographies from the years working on HARDtalk. They all evoke memories.

I find it hard to resist beautiful picture books, like the catalogues of art exhibitions l’ve visited, and the annual collections of photographs from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year. I still have the Giles cartoon annuals which were a traditional part of our family Christmases growing up, and the complete collection of the Knowledge encyclopaedias we collected as weekly magazines when we were children.

These enormous binders represented our window on the world in those pre-internet days. I also have some Ladybird books from that era, and travel guides for every country I have ever visited.

Most of these books are currently stacked in piles around the house, taking up floor space, creating knee-high obstacles, adding an even greater level of chaos to what at best could never be described as a tidy house. Having ripped out the homemade sagging bookshelves that have served the purpose for 30 odd years, and moved a radiator, with some excitement I am awaiting delivery of custom-made bookshelves. I am creating a library.

Image: Cameron & Oscar with Mungo the terrier at The London Alcove Company in Barnes

Creating a home fit for my treasures

Cameron Riddell, a New Zealander who fetched up in London 25 years ago as a musician, making ends meet by working with a company fitting out expensive residential housing developments in Belgravia and Kensington, now owns and runs The London Alcove Company, based in Barnes.

They do beautiful work. They create harmonious shelving and cupboards to fit any space, that look both solid and elegant, with smooth, rounded finishes in sumptuous colours. I can’t wait to arrange my books in their new home.

Having come round to talk about what I wanted and look at the space, Cameron made sketches and suggestions and then sent along Oscar, the designer, to translate his initial drawing into a 3D model you can move around on a computer screen to look at from different angles, using software he informs me is also used by NASA for their designs.

Image: Oscar creating my design using CAD – 3D Computer Aided Design

Once I’d signed it off, the design went to the master craftsmen  to make it into something practical, inspiring and aesthetically pleasing in their workshop. When they come to install it, I have been warned they will take over the whole room while they fit it exactly, hide away the wiring from the TV which will be the centrepiece (it is more of a den than a library if we are being strict about it) and decorate.

And then, oh joy, I will get to arrange my books. I read an article about a writer who designed her library to display her books coded by their colour. That seems a bizarre idea to me. Mine will be by theme. But also, practically, they will have to be ordered by size. That presents a conundrum. There may be tears before bedtime.

What if they don’t all fit? These are the survivors of a Mari Kondo session during Covid, but book collections are dynamic. They have a habit of growing. My novels are now displayed alphabetically by author, thanks to the pandemic, but even with strategic placeholders eventually the gaps are filled and piles of books start appearing where there shouldn’t be piles.

Image: Oscar & Cameron at The London Alcove Company in Barnes

The London Alcove Company has a fat compendium of lovely letters from appreciative clients. Most of their work is from repeat customers or by recommendation, (a friend recommended them to me). They are used to collectors; their cabinets have displayed everything from thimbles to very valuable violins.

“We have made display cases of a number of vintage guitars and an 18th century loot. It was for a chap in Clapham who was the original guitarist for Genesis” Cameron tells me.

The displays look great, but what if their owner is given another one that they can’t refuse? What then? Maybe they should set up a support group for distressed collectors to share their sorting problems. Or maybe before too long I will find myself inviting them back to remodel another part of the house to take up the slack.

One of their customers is a retired diplomat who moved from a house in Clapham to one in Deal, in Kent.

“We did his whole house”. I have been warned.

The London Alcove Company are at 5 Rocks Lane, Barnes, SW13 0DB. Tel: 0800 389 5724


Image: Above – Oscar & Cameron at The London Alcove Company in Barnes. Below – some more of their work

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