Perhaps one of the attractions of the writer’s life is having one’s own space to work in. A study is a sanctuary and an engine room of ideas. Sitting in my own domestic cockpit I often wonder how great correspondents such as war reporters can write ‘on the hoof’, filing their dramatic stories via satellite from some rubble-strewn battlefield. Give me the comfy chair and the adjacent coffee pot any day. So, when faced with surrendering that precious space for something less accommodating, I speculated on the effect such a sacrifice would have on creativity.
I’ve usually agreed with the dark wisdom of Stephen King, until he wrote in Doctor Sleep ‘There came a time when you realized that moving on was pointless. That you took yourself with you wherever you went.’ Yet there can come a time in a writer’s life when advanced age, creeping infirmity and a seriously abbreviated income urge some kind of relocation.
After living in the East Midlands for almost thirty-two years, we decided that we could no longer afford the luxury of the two of us rattling around in a disintegrating Edwardian four-bedroomed detached house. Yet that house was the place where, twenty-five years ago, I became a full-time writer. It was the depository of family memories, of success, failure, joy and grief. And it provided me with a generous-sized study and substantial library space. Yet for economy’s sake alone, we needed to downsize. Discovering that our original home town of Hull was to become UK City of Culture, we were inspired to heed the Humber’s siren call and sell up. We found a buyer after slashing £20k off our asking price, and discovered a compact three-bed semi in Hull. We were naively relieved, yet had no idea what we’d let ourselves in for, including three months of insidious legal torture known as conveyancing, as well as having to sacrifice 50% of our furniture.
Packing 1,000 twelve-inch vinyl LPs into thirty deadweight boxes was the only way to avoid hernias. Then came the 2,500 CDs, hundreds of DVDs, until I finally faced up to the stark realisation that my library of well over 3,000 books collected over sixty years had to be seriously abridged. These had been my friends and assistants down the decades. There was never any library-cataloguing methodology to this ramshackle collection. Only about 10% of it was fiction, but it included works collected in my youth, titles by writers like Jack London, Conrad and Melville. During my years as a young deckhand in the Merchant Navy those well-thumbed tomes had sailed with me around the world, constantly shoring up my distant dream of becoming a writer.
Yet could I bear to divest myself of any Hemingway, Orwell or Ray Bradbury? I toyed with the idea of losing some Jack Higgins, Len Deighton and Robert Harris, but the cull was limited. What about the Will Self books I’d promised to read along with various Whitbread and Booker winners which taunted me, still unopened, on that top shelf? So some of the fiction had to go, but it hardly filled a Tesco Bag for Life. The poets, those cajoling voices who inspire in quiet moments, had to stay; Dylan Thomas, Blake, Neruda, the War Poets, and of course Shakespeare.
Although my eventual vague attempts at writing fiction failed to emulate Melville or Conrad, I found my métier in non-fiction, especially history. A visit to Sweden in 1998 to discuss a possible TV documentary about wartime wrecks in the Baltic propelled me into my first non-fiction learning curve. I was a non-academic with three measly ‘O’ levels. My Honoured by Strangers (2001) was a WW1 naval biography which threw me in at the deep end. My copious stock of naval histories from Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum and the Royal Navy’s Submarine Museum at Gosport remain in those boxes and will never be surrendered.
My German grandfather who lived in Hull refused to return to Germany in the 1930s because of Hitler. That connection fired my young imagination. In 1959 I took another book to sea with me: William L. Shirer’s masterful The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I decided that one day I would write a novel about a German family covering the years 1929–45. Over the years I’ve collected everything I could on the period, which has led to my wife’s constant gripe that I have more books about the Third Reich than Goebbels had ever managed to burn. I hung onto William Shirer, Antony Beevor, Albert Speer and a few others, but books about the Waffen-SS are now invading the Cancer UK shelves.
During research for a book in 2013, The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena, I had collected dozens of arcane tomes on the paranormal, UFOs, conspiracy theories, spiritualism and ghosts. It had been on my ‘to write’ bucket list for years. The book did well, but such imprecise research material revealed a literary puberty I had to shake off. They were fun to read, but had to go. The RSPCA shop told me these vanished from their shelves like the proverbial hot cakes.
My new study offers less than 25% of the old study space and around the new house there is scant space for extensive shelving. Losing 1,000 books felt like machine-gunning your family. Still, the various charity shops all seemed to absorb the influx of nonfiction titles which, I hoped, would sit smugly alongside their extensive stocks of Clive Cussler, Barbara Taylor Bradford and the ubiquitous Dan Brown.
As the date for moving house draws ever closer, your daily creativity takes a hit. You stare at the screen as the study around you starts to dissolve. Pictures go from walls and shelves are emptied. We continued with the seemingly endless process of packing. Books are heavy. How strong or willing will that removals guy need to be to lift that burdensome box of assorted hardback history? Will he need a surgical appliance? How many books should I pack in a box? I counted the various-sized boxes of books, fifty-three in all. On the day of the move we did not feel immediate joy or relief. We experienced a kind of weary nausea which was exacerbated by the incessant agonised wails of our poor tortured cat, Flossie, forced to spend fourteen hours in two bathrooms, a cat carrier and a car.
Fast forward ten weeks. I am now writing this in my 6ft x 8ft City of Culture eyrie. It’s a nice, cosy little room, but there are still forty-eight boxes of books in a damp garage whose pages may never be graced by sunlight again, alongside silent CDs and DVDs awaiting discovery by a future archaeologist.
I can stretch my arms out at this desk and touch both facing walls. It’s like starting over. A few handy reference works, essentials such as the OED, Who’s Who in History, Brewer’s Phrase and Fable, and The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations plus the Bible are piled around me. As writing tour-brochures and CD liner notes for the music industry and a blues magazine pays my council tax, The Complete NME Singles and The Complete NME Album Charts. Paul Oliver’s Blackwell Guide to Recorded Blues plus various record company histories and many artists’ biographies are piled up on the carpet. I accept their presence as just enough to rekindle inspiration. I know that darkened garage might well seem like a literary Aladdin’s cave come summer.
Yet beyond all this, there’s something else to realise. I’m a well-fed old pensioner with a real home in a safe part of the world living in what could easily be termed self-indulgent luxury. No one has bombed us, we get our milk and mail delivered every day and we’ve got Netflix. Sometime soon, I’ll find those three volumes on Orson Welles by Simon Callow and actually read them. So now that I’ve calmed down, I can look back at the past six months and see the whole moving project as grist to the creative mill. Sixty years on, thanks to William L. Shirer I have now finished my German novel The Man Who Feeds the Swans. Maybe Stephen King was right. You take yourself with you wherever you go. But I’d be even happier if I knew which of those stored boxes contains my Folio Edition of Moby Dick…
You might also like:
Roy Bainton speaks with Frances Byrnes about the stories an adventurous life accumulates, the increasing difficulty of surviving as a freelancer, and the way music and writing come together as a cornerstone of his career.
Donny O’Rourke finds himself in the book-blessed town of Ullapool in May, celebrating the bonfires and bluebells of the Celtic Beltane festival.
Chris Arthur reflects on the inspirations of his ‘odd-object’ essays, and considers the popularity of this particular form and the most important aspect of oddness within it.