On occasion I cloak myself in black, dig out my one pair of sensible black shoes that my mother bought me for my university interviews, pin back my flyaway hair and flex my muscles as I stand with loaded silver trays of champagne glasses at the top of the stairs of 50 Albemarle Street, the home of John Murray. I push drinks and the most beautifully crafted canapes upon the great, the good, the toffs of various foundations, associations and societies. Last night the quaffers and munchers were all members of The Byron Society. Interestingly (and disappointingly) there was no scandal, excess, incestuous love affairs or anything of the kind that Byron would have instigated or indulged in. They all seemed to leave for an early night.
This year marks the bicentenary of the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron also took his seat in the House of Lords in 1812. All this means that laid out in the ground floor display room at John Murray's are the objects, trinkets and letters that were left to the publishing house by Byron. It turns out that this means mostly hair.
The first thing I'm asked on walking into the kitchen area is 'Have you seen all the hair?!'. This was not the most settling thing to hear in such close proximity to canape preparation. But in the little room just along the corridor, there was indeed a great deal of hair. Two hundred year old hair. Belonging to the ladyloves of Byron. Ranging from rich auburn to chestnut brown, locks of female hair were displayed in scant coils tied with thread, ropes of little ringlets and, in one disturbing case, a thick cascade that curled down off the table. Faded handwritten labels dictated whose heads these samples were once attached to. The current John Murray urged me to stroke the dangling strands. I refused with a nervous grimace.
Alongside the hair were Byron's inner boots. He had very tiny feet. The right foot much smaller of course. Tiny feet and a rather large collection of hair.