Reading Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch was proving a struggle. Physically, more than anything else – it’s enormous; its sheer heft lends itself to Christmas and New Year fantasies of sitting curled up by a fire, possibly with a cat on your lap, and a slow drip-feed of gin as you wile away those nameless days at the end of December, immersed in her Dickensian yarn of orphanhood and deception. Trouble is I don’t possess a particularly comfortable chair and although I’m fortunate enough to have an open fire there is not enough seasoned wood at my disposal right now. I could buy some coal at the petrol station around the corner I suppose but the price is outlandish. Even more problematically, I’m allergic to cats.
A little long-winded in places it might be but this novel is also magnificent and involving. Theo Decker and his memories of his mother have on several occasions made my eyes prickle with tears and I’m very un-English when it comes to crying, I love it. The more tears the merrier. People complain that certain movies and books manipulate them into crying as if that’s a bad thing. That’s like objecting to Twiglets because they taste of weird Marmite. That’s the whole point of them. Reading it at home presents one set of problems but taking The Goldfinch out and about is akin to choosing to wander around with a small anchor in my bag. The prospect of bursting into tears on buses isn’t the cause of my reluctance to leave the house with it but rather the sheer sodding size of the thing.
I’ve never been keen on having more than a single book on the go at any one time. I enjoy the focus, the absence of dissipation of being a book serial monogamist. We can only be grateful that Hitler wasn’t a more voracious reader. If he had been he might have felt the same way as me and so when it came to war he’d have realised fighting on two fronts meant you couldn’t really concentrate on either. Unfortunately though this was the solution that was beginning to dawn on me. An indoor book and an outdoor book; a devastatingly bleak winter bogged down in the Ukraine ameliorated by the sandy beaches of the Channel Islands. My concern that tackling two books simultaneously diminishes both was tempered by holding The Goldfinch in my hands and realising that when a novel can fairly be described as a “blunt instrument” normal rules of engagement have to be put aside.
If there was to be a second book on the go it definitely shouldn’t be a novel I decided but instead non-fiction. In my flat there are more unread books than I shall probably ever find time to get around to and I add to the piles unceasingly. Third down in the second small tower of them on the coffee table I came across Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer. Why I’d bought this I can’t remember but I’m glad I did. It’s a curious stream of consciousness concerning his (failed) attempts to write a book about DH Lawrence; much more fun than it sounds. I’m half-way through now and the feeling is brewing that amongst all this other stuff not about DH Lawrence will be in fact a sort of book about DH Lawrence but thankfully, from my point of view, not as much of one as the writer had originally intended. Instead, most of it is about how irksome he finds writing the biography and all the things he does, places he goes to, and people he meets while he struggles to knuckle down and get on with the damned thing. One large theme is his attempts to find the ideal place to write. He shuffles about Europe hoping on one page that Rome could be the answer and elsewhere that a Greek island might suit him better. He travels with his girlfriend to Sicily and Florence too but nowhere seems quite right. It’s not only the locations he selects for very precise Lawrentian reasons that turn out to be unexpectedly problematic, other things too stop him embarking on his work: heat, too much and too little of it, food, other people, and which reading matter he should take with him all play their destructive part. I started reading this in the bath, I’ve read it on the bus as planned, and in complete contravention of even the most cursory understanding of the failures of Operation Barbarossa I’ve read it in bed.
I too often wonder where the best place would be for me to work. My choices are less romantic than Geoff Dyer’s but sometimes I try heaving my ancient laptop to Peckham library to be away from domestic distractions and make some good headway with things. If I’m honest, the ‘sometimes’ I refer to is less random than it sounds. Every other Monday my cleaner comes and I want to get out of her way. However, once settled in at the library by the time my failing computer has actually turned on and ground its way through all the things it needs to grind through to give an impression of functioning it’s time to go home again and wallow in the chemically clean fug Berta leaves behind her. The following thirteen days I take my chances in the flat despite the temptations gathered all around.
Possibly Mr Dyer will appreciate my conundrum about where best to work, and he may even be a little jealous; he needs air and rail travel to be disappointed by the places he ends up in whereas I only require my home as a canvas for inactivity. At a point in the long-distant past I had a bit of money some of which I used to buy a desk. Rather it was a 1930s dining table which sits in the bay of my living room window. I liked it because it didn’t have drawers that I knew I’d have to fill up. On it now sits a defunct printer (that might or might not be made to work and which is why I’ve not thrown it away) and various dictionaries and other books about words never referred to – they merely serve to topple over whenever I have to shift the desk to reach something which has fallen to the floor. There are heaps of my notes which will probably never be looked at again, a telephone and an anglepoise lamp which lends a clue to the desk / table’s intended purpose. I almost never work at it. I loathe working in the living room and I only see the desk as something which has made my domestic arrangements less satisfactory than they could otherwise be. It takes up the space that I imagine a second sofa would more pleasingly occupy. I sometimes stare at the room and fantasise about what life might be like without my 1930s desk / table ruining it for me.
Moving through, as an estate agent would say, you’ll notice the dining room is pretty large. When my ex and I embarked on our unhappy attempt at co-habitation some years back he worked at his desk, yet another table, this time a glass-topped one, which sat in the alcove to the left of the fireplace in here. After he left I continued to use it but its proximity to the kitchen meant I always had a reason to get up from it and do something else.
For my most recent birthday, my very good friend Anthony offered me his kitchen cabinet. He knew I liked it and due to his own furniture reconfigurations it was now surplus to his requirements. Yes please, I said, I’d love it. I am a terrible hoarder of kitchen paraphernalia; not gadgets but rather crockery and batterie de cuisine as old-fashioned cookbooks with inscrutable illustrations for boning a chicken would have it This new cabinet allows me to extend my kitchen into the dining room – a culinary mission creep – and there it now sits full of plates, bowls and place mats in the bottom cupboard and prettier things like bottles of booze, two entrée dishes, a soup tureen, Kilner jars of pulses, boxes of pasta and jars and tins of things, those that are nicely designed, in the glass-fronted top half.
Objects on show are to be easy on the eye, yet authentic and functional: a definition which would certainly encompass a jar of some Italian white granules that fizz when added to water, like liver salts. Sold to me by the owner of a delicatessen, he had prefaced his sale with a baffling and unfunny yarn about old Italian geezers which I dutifully laughed at and was nervous that I might somehow be expected to demonstrate my comprehension of (the experience reminding me of having Clement Freud, that friendly old alligator, engage you in conversation).
Needless to say where the cabinet now sits was not some empty sorry space awaiting fulfilment. There had been a handsome chest of drawers there that is now where the glass desk / table previously went (this now being housed in the cellar) and all of this means I’ve lost my main place of so-called work. So temporarily, or realistically quite permanently, I’m writing this at the end of my ugly and enormous Edwardian dining table. Admittedly, it’s quite nice to have a corner of it given a purpose and its height is more comfortable to work at than either of my other more proper desk / tables ever were. Unhelpfully, I’m inclined to escape it as much as I did its predecessors not least because it doesn’t feel as if it was ever intended for work but rather the consumption of brown windsor soup, and therefore my fleeing is less of a sin than before.
Yesterday, for all the many kindnesses Anthony has rendered me over the years I was grateful to be able to return a one-hundredth of them. In the recent storms his shed roof had blown clean away and we spent the day mopping down his inordinate quantities of tools, lengths of cable, chandelier wiring and so forth that were housed there. I was a little late arriving for my mercy mission having been sidetracked by a local charity shop that had in its window display to one side of a very ugly vase a photo of Wilfrid Brambell in his Albert Steptoe garb and on the other one of Barbra Streisand as herself. With another friend, Anthony had put the shed roof back on and I was quietly grateful to be left with the equivalent task of polishing the fire irons after someone else had built the actual fireplace. But my hours in this shed brought out those male urges that sheds engender in men and the thought came to me that a shed might be the answer to my lack of real work(place). Anthony and I took a break, drank some hot drinks and looked at sheds on eBay. We considered proper old-fashioned ones like his, ones that could almost be described as summerhouses – how big do I think my little scrap of London garden actually is? – and we got hysterical over a particular beauty that seemed designed to store a large collection of My Little Ponies whilst simultaneously being capable of catching the eye of Norman Bates’ mother. I became quite excited about the possibility of a shed and the splendid things it would allow me to do. Visions of actually having to get washed and dressed before it’s time for Jeremy Vine and leaving the flat and all its distractions in the morning to do that thing that people call “going to work”. Even if it only involves taking a few steps across the garden. Anthony described all the items I could have in my shed to make my life there more enjoyable. No, I said, striking a rather puritanical note, all I needed was a small desk (my fourth, and truthfully there’s every chance it would actually be a table), my laptop, some pens and a notebook and a lamp. Oh, the quantity of work I’ll get done when I’ve got my shed sorted out, I keep thinking. It will be amazing. Obviously there isn’t currently space for a shed in my garden. Where it would ideally be situated currently grows a sycamore tree. That horrid thing will have to come down to make way for my new life. And of course its wood will need to be chopped and stored readying itself for burning in the fireplace in front of my two sofas and absence of 1930s dining table / desk in a year or so’s time. And only once all that is done and out of the way, and the obligatory trip to IKEA made, will I be able to get round to doing something really bloody exceptional in there. In my shed.