You can tell a lot about a writer just by looking at their desk. That was the idea behind a recent special photo supplement in The Guardian.
So I thought I’d better take a look at mine. Pity I didn’t tidy it first.
This was once the dining room of the house, but the previous owners used it as an office, and it’s stayed that way today. The desk is just a cheap and simple slab of chipboard, but I like its simplicity and it’s got space for my longer legs. As well as a few pairs of running shoes, obviously.
The lower half of the bookcase on the left proudly houses my geology library. Classic textbooks I once used for teaching, but only the essential core of a formerly vast collection. I cut it down some years ago by donating three huge boxes to the university where I learned my trade.
I left them, with a note inside, one damp October evening, and received a grateful thankyou letter just nine months later. They’d assumed the boxes contained a pile of rock samples left by some disorganised student, just like me.
In fact there’s a copy of my thesis hidden far down, near the floor. 250 pages which took me three and a half years to write – and it wasn’t even science fiction. I wrote the first draft longhand, and then learned to type it out at night.
Higher up live my favourite books on geology, golf and running, and a wad of maps. I love maps – and that’s very lucky, since I work with them, every single day. As a boy, I read maps for pleasure, and the bathroom still keeps an atlas handy for brief but important consultations. A couple of larger maps are lurking in the magazine rack. Once rolled, I can never remember which ones they are.
Next to the lampshade on the left, there’s a framed geological map of the western English Channel which I made, two jobs ago, by compiling all the published UK and French mapping with offshore seismic and well data. It’s one of the favourite creations I’ve ever made at work.
In contrast, the ugly piece of metal nearby is a business award given to our office by another employer. We parted company shortly after, and although it’s sulking there for now it’ll be good for grinding gravel, one day soon.
The smaller bookcase is devoted to novels, photographs, and assorted junk. There’s an overflow running onto more shelves, just out of view.
I’ve debated long and hard about the wisdom of keeping books. Reference material is always handy, even if it eventually goes out of date. But why keep a novel I read four years ago, and will never open again ? It’s hard to say, and so on moving here six years ago I shipped a whole load out to the charity shop. Of those I’ve missed a few, but then again, too few to mention.
The lower sedimentary strata of the shelves reveal assorted clutter and detritus which accumulate through thick and thin. A plastic box of sand dollars which my parents collected in Florida, many years ago and which I’m just about to unpack onto a display shelf somewhere. Tomorrow.
Hidden on the right, pens and pencils fill the pewter tankard which my late grandfather gave me for passing my driving test. At the front is a freebie desk clock gathered at a tradeshow in Houston last year. I like its triangular design but the over-eager alarm function causes endless trouble. I was up at midnight last night to turn it off again, and it’s on a final warning.
Not far away, next to the electric guitar (a worryingly recent acquisition for a man of my maturity) I can see a pair of speedos, waiting for their next outing. After six months of lunchtimes in my current job, I’ve not made it to the pool yet. Given time and opportunity, running wins every time.
The photos are mostly of children, and there’s just one running shot, from a race in Manchester a few years ago. The only time I’ve run 10km in under 50 minutes – increasingly likely to become the only time I ever did.
The configuration of my workspace lies across a frontier in popular music. There’s a 90s CD player upon the shelf – until recently my substitute Wharfedales of choice. Far to the left lies an ancient music centre, recently rescued from oblivion. Just the name tells you everything about its vintage, but the sound quality is good and the white iPod cable shows you why it’s there.
Finally there’s the surface of the desk itself. I can’t see much space to work here, what with domestic papers and utility bills awaiting the next rainy Sunday to be stacked inside the filing cabinet for another year or two.
There’s a mousemat on the desk, but the computer waits elsewhere. By the sofa, where I write direct into my laptop. No Mont Blanc or Olivetti Classic for me.
From the sofa I can see the window as I write (not quite touch-typing, but at 7 or 8 fingers, speed is a gift of that long thesis). And from there I can admire this impression of a working desk I’ve created, from a safe and healthy distance.
Perhaps that’s how it is. This desk stores my stuff, but I never really work there. I hate staring at the wall, at least from that close up. I much prefer a wider outlook, with just a distant view of detail. And maybe that’s exactly how I am.