The Writer's Desk
In the summer of 2005 Italian footballer turned sculptor Giancarlo Neri installed his huge 30-foot sculpture 'The Writer' on Parliament Hill, part of Hampstead Heath in north London. Neri's tribute to the lonely heroism of writing took the form of a monumental vacant wooden table and chair. The giant sculpture, made of six tons of steel and 1,000 pounds of wood, was an uncanny presence set against the sunburnt grass and trees of London's historic park where Karl Marx liked to walk on Sunday. It was an apt location for the work given the many literary Gullivers who lived and wrote in this part of north London, including Keats, Coleridge, Freud and CLR James. "As one moves around the elongated table legs and looks up from under the table," wrote critics Nirmal Puwar and Sanjay Sharma, "the weight of the world as it is carried by the labour of writers, overwhelms, tires and leaves one wondering."
The striking sculpture, so out of place, brings to the foreground the 'where' of writing. For many great writers like Marx it had to be one specific place, in his case desk 07 in the British Library's Reading Room. Freud, a refugee from Nazi Germany, would recreate his writing desk wherever he ended up. His cluttered desk at the Freud Museum in nearby Finchley is packed with ancient sculptures in wood and bronze of idols, gods and deities from Egypt, China, Greece and Rome which looked back at him from the edges of the table. He saw collecting them as one of his main addictions alongside his
famous penchant for smoking cigars. He needed to surround himself with carved friends and ghoulish idols in order to put pen to paper.
Georges Perec wrote that he liked his desk to be "cluttered, almost to excess". Tidying up marked for him the beginning and the end of a writing project. "At such times I dream of an immaculate, unsullied desktop, with everything in the right place and nothing unnecessary on it," he writes. "Nothing protruding from it, with all my pencils sharpened (but why do I have more than one pencil? I can see six of them, at a glance!), with all my papers in piles, or even better, with no papers on it at all, just a notebook open at a fresh page." Like him I think and write surrounded by mess punctuated by brief binges of tidiness. Brief periods of order mark the end of one thing and the beginning of something else. I often need my books around me in order to write, the names on their spines peering back like Freud's sculptures. I don't order the books on the shelves: somehow the anarchic contiguity - Harper Lee rubbing covers with Clifford Geertz - is intellectually productive and pleasing. I simply can't work in the same place all the time and recently I have developed an allergic reaction to my desk.
I think part of this aversion is linked to the restlessness and frustration inherent in the act of writing. The time spent reading and priming one's mind is always as long, if not longer, than the period spent hammering out the words on the keyboard.