Obituary: James Stevens Cox

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The Independent Online
I first got to know James Stevens Cox when, many years ago, my family handled the sale of his hairdressing collection, writes Edward Maggs [further to the obituary by Nicolas Barker, 18 March]. This involved a vast array of hardware, including bigoudis, curling tongs and hairpieces (sadly no merkins, although he was fully trained in their manufacture and delighted in retailing their history). The largest items were an extraordinary and lethal-looking late 18th-century hair-drier fuelled by burning coals and looking, with its almost completely enclosed helmet, more like an instrument of torture; and a first-generation permanent waving machine.

The latter would not have been out of place in an episode of Dr Who as a device for sucking people's brains out, and Jim explained its significance not only in the history of hairdressing but also in his family's prosperity: they had the first such machine in Bristol, and made a fortune with it at a time when you could charge 30s for a wave. Within six months, the going rate was down to 1s 6d "with a fish supper thrown in".

In a suitably bizarre ending, the collection was sold quickly to a "Museum of Femininity" sponsored by a Japanese manufacturer of ladies' underwear, the transaction held up only by panicky phone calls from the Tokyo docks as customs agents tried to work out what on earth these machines were.

The profits from the perming machine would not have been wasted, for Jim was legendarily careful with his money. He was certainly no miser in the mould of Arnold Bennett's bookseller Henry Earlforward, but he exercised a thorough disdain for the trivia that eat up so much of most people's incomes.

This individuality was seemingly untrammelled, and he was partial to unconventional theories of life: at one time, having studied the subject thoroughly and concluded that these contained everything necessary for physical health, he fed his family while on a trip in the US (travelling by Greyhound bus) entirely on oranges and Complan. An even more alarming dietary fad was a taste for mealworms: having observed how his toucans thrived on them, he took to carrying a lozenge-tin-full, and passing them around as a digestif after dinner.

Another belief was in the destructive qualities of soap when applied to the human skin, and he was happy to boast of not having applied this dangerous substance to his face for 30 years, instead placing his faith in the unguent qualities of almond oil. One couldn't argue, since his complexion indeed remained remarkably smooth.

All of these mannerisms were displayed with the greatest good-humour and self-knowledge. His rather Old Testament appearance and booming voice gave a weight to otherwise slack jokes: walking along the seafront we saw a fairly ample woman in a bikini, and his delivery of what may have been an old chestnut - "Whenever I see a lady like that, I want to tell her, 'Madam, there is a divinity that shapes our ends'" - was as perfect as that of any professional comedian.

His bookselling career included handling the manuscript of Under Milk Wood for Douglas Cleverdon, who had retrieved it from the Fitzrovia pub where Dylan Thomas left it, and he was said at one time to have had three Shakespeare quartos, among the rarest books in English literature. One cannot often honestly say, "We will not see his like again", but, as Nest Cleverdon (Douglas's widow) added: "We've never seen his like before."