20th June

Walking away from the desk or finding a new place to write is part of that process of writing preparation. This is not an individual problem or foible. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbamn has a house close to Hampstead Health in which he uses three studies and seven writing desks including a white children's one that he bought for his daughter to do her homework on. Jill Krementz's wonderful book of photographs The Writer's Desk captures the workplaces of an inspiring range of authors from Eudora Welty to Ralph Ellison. John Updike's introduction comments that he looks at these photographs with, "a prurient interest, the way that I might look at the beds of notorious courtesans". Updike confesses to having three desks, each supporting a different activity: an oak desk where he answer letters and talks on the telephone; an olive, drab, steel military desk where he does delicate writing (poems or the beginning of a novel) by hand with a pencil; and lastly, a white Formica-veneered table dedicated to the practical industry of word processing and typing up. "Being able to move from desk to desk, like being able to turn over in bed, solves some cramps and fidgets and stratifies the authorial persona," Updike concludes.

Many authors like Katherine Anne Porter need a cup of strong black coffee to start the day but what is striking about Krementz's book is the incredible diversity in the writers' preferred surroundings. Jean Piaget and Dorothy West need mess and organised chaos while Edmund White and EB White compose their sentences in


rooms that are virtually paper free, Saul Bellow and Rita Dove put pen to paper on their feet at standing desks while Walker Percy and Cathleen Schine write their books in bed. For other writers it's a matter of physically getting away from all that is familiar and finding a writing desk in a remote village or a grand metropolis in which they can be anonymous. We each need to find our own way of furnishing a productive literary environment.

The other thing that is striking about Neri's magnificent desk monument is the way it suggests the proliferation of places where authors can write. In the age of the laptop computer writers are no longer hostage to the immobile typewriter and a desk can be found almost anywhere as long as the battery is charged or if there is a compatible mains socket close at hand. This points to another dimension of the desk allergy syndrome that stems from the nature of life in the 21st century. The alchemy of wi-fi hot spots and the global reach of email make it almost impossible to escape academic responsibilities for longer than the duration of a plane flight. Connectivity offers a staggering capacity for writers to access information. The price we pay for this resource that has so quickly been taken for granted is the exasperation of seemingly endless queries about meetings, essays and deadlines. The academic life has become open access. In order to think and write I find myself seeking out places to disconnect and get off the information superhighway.




30 June