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.
Every desk was different – tidy or cluttered, modern or ancient, with different flavours of pen and paper, typewriter or computer.
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.
160. A year of Roads of Stone
138. A winter Sunday on the North Downs
134. Before the mast: Pewley Down, Guildford
13. A winter night’s fartlek – Guildford town and track
I was wondering where the computer was. I find working on a laptop irritating as the keyboard is too small. I usually use a pc, but when I do use my laptop, I plug in a classic keyboard and a mouse.
Funny isn’t it how most people’s offices/desks are pretty messy. Must be part of creative types. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. 🙂
Point taken, Sarah. I cleared the papers off my desk, this morning.
I love this post, shame I can’t zoom in close enough to the photo to read some of the titles though. I like rifling through other people’s bookshelves.
I had a major clear out of books when I moved to London. quite by force actually. I was left with an ultimatum along the lines of “it’s me or a bookcase”. It was a tough call but does mean that all my remaining books mean something special to me.
I don’t envy you having to type out your thesis. I finished mine last year and was incredibly grateful that I’d delayed long enough for the age of the computer to really take hold. The amount of times I had to change the pagination after removing or resizing a chart would have been enough to flip me over the edge if I’d had to retype pages.
Thanks, Angela – and welcome to the heroine of the Great North Run, no less.
Well done on finishing your thesis. It wasn’t quite so very long ago that I finished mine – and it was all typed on a computer, too. The printer was something monstrous to behold, though – a huge daisy wheel job which was several feet long.
A visit to the pub one evening led me to delete a (luckily relatively short) chapter of my thesis by accident. Quite revealingly, I lost that text before my beer, after pressing the wrong key in my urgent haste to squeeze one in ahead of closing time.
It was quite a black moment, but I carried on with my plan, undeterred. Indeed I extended it, to two pints of Morrell’s. And then I went back and re-wrote that chapter again from scratch. All night.
In the end, I seemed to have remembered most of it by the time dawn broke. I think. But I do sometimes wonder just how much wisdom was lost for ever, in exchange for all the extra fluidity of writing unearthed that night …
Your utility bills are shoved in a filing cabinet? Could you check and see if mine are there? They may be buried in the scree of my desk, though. Nice view of your world, Roads. I don’t trust “tidy.”
This is getting to be better than therapy, Lizzie.
Great choice of language, too – ‘In the scree of my desk’. I like that style.
Interesting that you pick up on those utility bills, as well. Maybe I should ditch them altogether, if I really want to free my mind.
And I’ll chuck any of your bills lurking there, too. Naturally.
Consider it done – dicho y hecho …
Just having a look at my desk, which is in fact the dining room table. Here is what I see rapidly:
Son doing homework
Half eaten bag of crisps
Cotton wool and loo paper (for cleaning laptop)
Mountain of unopened bills
Large bunch of flowers
I read something somewhere years ago that one should always be suspicious of people with tidy desks – I am obviously the most honest and open person in the world!
Switzerland certainly expects a much tidier desk than that, Louise.
Surely you’ll have to work on it, or risk being cast as a black sheep … 😉
You’re right, Roads! I think the Tidy Police will be around soon and I will be ejected from the country as having a bad influence on the natives! Too many years of living in the disorganised south-west of France and being untidy by nature cannot be cured by the Swiss in two years! Another reason to leave!
Hi Roads. This is a great idea!
I have, as you might expect, a pretty cluttered desk in front of me. It’s one of those purpose-built corner jobbies. The right-hand upright houses a (fairly ancient) Dell tower computer, the left three heavily-stuffed drawers. On top and to the right, two pairs of metal/weave filing trays overflowing with bills, running entries (old and new), a book or two and sections of my son’s A-Level course work (Business Studies I suspect – it’s easier to spot when Photography has been the task du jour). To the left a beautifully crafted wrought iron letter holder, made for me by my (incredibly talented) Blacksmith brother, Jim. The base is the surface of a pond; letters (and er, more running entries)are held between the reeds and the up-turned feet of a dabbling duck. Two half-filled plastic CD-Rom containers, a mini three-drawer storage box (containing foreign currency that I’ll always forget to look out when I travel, rubber bands (I never use them) and odd bits and bobs, the origin or use of which I have no clue about).
Dead ahead a slighter newer (than the PC) Dell flat screen monitor, flanked by a pair of speakers. A couple of dust-covered staplers and a redundant hole punch, a plastic tube containing two liveried golf balls and a selection of tees painted to look like miniature pints of Guinness. Oh, and a Leatherman (genuine) in a leather belt case. I keep it on my desk so as not to leave it in my computer bag and thereby lose it at airport security.
The window ledge behind my desk/ to the left holds (left to right) an old bottle of Fentimans traditional Ginger Beer; A pewter tankard (received for Longest Drive on a day when no-one else hit the fairway!); a mini-set of clubs on a mini-trolley; a model of a skeleton sat at a computer terminal (the screen says ‘Surfed Too Long’ – oops!); a ‘nineteenth hole’ coffee mug in the shape of a golf ball; a replica model of the Spider Man chopper (as seen on American Chopper); an Arkansas Razorbacks ceramic beer tankard (purchased during a visit to Fayetteville – yeehah!); a replica Willy’s 1947 US Army Jeep (I used to drive one, many moons ago); a statuette of Quasimodo with the inscription ‘Ash – Paris Marathon 2006 – 3:52:08′ – a gift from Moyleman and the 2006 Paris team; a replica model of The Joker (from Batman); a large pebble from Ringstead Bay, Dorset.
The wall behind the screen/ to my right is a baroque collection of photos, children’s drawings and memorabelia. A framed photo of Kelly Holmes winning gold in Sydney (800 metres – Matola lunging for the line, the pain of defeat writ horribly on her straining face – Kelly wide-eyed, disbelieving, triumphant) takes centre stage. A large picture of my son’s football team (circa 1994) receiving Player of the Year awards from the great Jimmy Hill; my daughters’ dance school in full show regalia; a signed photograph (b&w) of Eric Cantona doing his Community Service after the infamous kung-fu incident at Sellhurst Park; a 1999 Champions League Final programme (delivered by a very lucky friend who was there, the swine!); my first ‘thank you’ certificate from JDRF after the London Marathon of 2003; an overhead shot of my jumpmaster taking part in a twenty-way formation at the World Skydiving Championships in (or rather, above) Muskogee Oklahoma; photos from my Captains’ Day (Mayfield Golfing Society) at Chartham Park (2002); a photo of myself and the mighty Seafront Plodder just after the Brighton Half (my first race) in 2003; my favorite photo of Ringstead Bay (Dorset) at dusk . . . and several pictures of my lovely family.
Crikey, what a lucky bloke I am!
The room’s only ten by ten (feet) but I’d best not describe the bookcase or the storage shelves; we’ll be here all night!
(Hm . . s’pose I could’ve just taken a couple of pictures . . .)
Great description, Sweder. Yes, I remember that desk of yours.
You pack a lot of life into a small space, and in more ways than one.
Many thanks …
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Thought you might be interested in (and a good contestant for) this contest. http://www.messyofficecontest.com
Love the picture!
It’s OK, Steve. I’ve tidied it up now. Really I have.
“I much prefer a wider outlook, with just a distant view of detail. And maybe that’s exactly how I am.” Well, that is clearly untrue about detail! From what I can read, your attention to detail is exceptional!
My desk is lonely as I have taken to the sofa with the laptop, mixing work with non-work, hence bad posture and biscuit crumbs around…
Thanks, Sheila. The Guardian have kept up their regular feature (it’s in the Review section, each Saturday) and it’s really fascinating to see the different kinds of rooms and writing materials used, as well as the frequent disarray all around the creative hub itself.