My Writing Space
The Last Refuge
Burial at Sea
MY WRITING SPACE
My writing room is on the second floor of a three-story house. It’s illuminated during the day by a hole I had made in the ceiling, directly in line with the lucarne, or skylight, on the roof above. Light flows down on me like the Holy Ghost. At night the hole is sealed off by a carpet from Morocco, and two spotlights converge over my head.
When I moved in M. Pellizzari, the carpenter, fashioned the pinewood desk and an accompanying choir of bookshelves. The desk is as wide as my arm span, and spacious enough to accommodate a printer on the left side, a wooden lectern that seats a mobile cork notice-board on the right, and the computer screen and keyboard in the middle. Inset underneath are open cupboards, six on each side of the space for my legs to stretch.
The bookshelves hinge the corner of the room to my left, extending, floor to rafters, along one third of the adjoining walls. Sitting at my desk, I see all my essential books, and since they are old friends, I can recognise them individually, though not by title. Their size, shape, and state of dilapidation are long familiar. The remaining space is taken up on the left by a giant cork notice-board, and a hip-high shelf under which there are twelve more open cupboards. If I wished to write standing up like Hemingway, I could do so on this surface. The wall in front of me supports a porte-fenêtre, and the one to the right is panelled with mirrors, which reflect light from my window on the world. The wall behind me is blank, except for a black and white print by Yann Welsh of Icarus Falling to Earth.
The desk fills the room, leaving a narrow corridor to walk around it. I can reach the inner circle of reference books and writing materials without moving from my seat. Castors on a revolving chair allow me to roll to my bookshelves, or the window which opens on to a little veranda. I find my mind focuses better when I don’t have to think of my back. I have to get up to reach my pipes. The rack and box of accessories are kept in an alcove behind the door.
The desk faces a foothill of the Pyrenees and the vineyards. There is a hanging garden between them and eye-level, where I can see Rue Waldeck Rousseau. The space below me opens on to some terraced gardens, so I can hear and watch what’s going on outside. When I first came to Bras de Venus I lived on Route Cap Béar and had a massive desk facing the sea. I didn’t realise how badly this affected my moods and morale until I re-read the satirical memoir (Storytime, 2005) that I wrote there. The continual changing of the sea was a rival to my state of mind. It wasn’t so much a distraction, but a subliminal presence, and not a friendly one.
Now, if I look up from my desk, I’m reassured by the hills. They remain the same, with a ragged outline over which Catalan warriors might suddenly appear, and never do. The vineyards change, but with the rhythm of the seasons. Fruition and renewal is a constant. The hanging garden is a thicket of mimosa and russet broom where singing birds and owls can be heard but not seen. The gardens below are in flower all year round, watered by an artesian well, and the neighbours and their cats and dogs are easy to live with. The fights among them, and cross-species, are largely half-hearted.
When a new generation of kittens arrives, the ribambelle crossing the wall, led by the mother-cat, is a promise of joy. Particularly when they wrestle in the raspberry bushes, or lie in the sun licking each other clean. And as the kittens grow up, the caterwauling in the dark confirms the next litter is being negotiated.
The dogs bark to alert the neighbourhood to passing strangers. Only the sad howls of Dan, the ancient pitbull terrier, bother me. He is bereft when his master, Emmanuel, goes out to shop or pump iron. The activities of local people are a backdrop to my writing life, like a clock that ticks and chimes at regular intervals. Mostly they do the same things every day at the same hour. Even their unscheduled antics do not disturb me. When they get drunk and quarrel loudly I take it for granted. Nothing much happens that has not happened before.
My writing desk and its surroundings enhance the circumstances in which I work. I can relax within myself without being completely cut off from the world outside. This seems to me a good arrangement, communal rather than solitary. I like to think that there is nothing precious about my occupation. I can stop anytime and give the world the time of day, or night. Even annoying traffic can be allowed its moments. A car skidding to avoid a cat. I see it limp off. Missed!
I compose directly on to a keyboard, which I prefer to call a clavier. Playing on a word processor is a musical experience. You don’t need to figure out where the notes are. You know their place off by heart. The relation between the fingers and the brain is an intimate one, and the screen is where they come together to present themselves to the ear. I make aides memoires to myself frequently, on a pad with a felt pen. It’s an old habit that has got out of hand. The scribbles become increasingly cryptic as my writing deteriorates. Deciphering them is one of the banes of my life.
However, I have found this practice a purpose in itself. I pin the scraps I can decode on to the mobile notice-board and, even though I may never use them, they make me feel better. A lost notion regained. I tack the remainder to the giant notice-board above the Hemingway shelf, and when I run out of ideas, I stand before these slips of half-thoughts and stray words that once sang to me, if only for an instant. What had I in mind, I ask myself?
My wild guesses are rarely a source of inspiration, and detaching and tearing up the scraps has from time to time proved a salutary release, when their myriad threatens to cloud my notice-board so I can’t check the calendar or see my favoured postcards (currently, Picasso’s Homme Ecrivant, 1967, James Ensor’s Man with the Flowery Hat, 1883, Jacques Emile Blanche’s portrait of James Joyce, date unknown, and a photo of Orson Welles, 1979). I’m tidying up my writing space, and that means I’m getting closer to finishing something.