A Tidy House Is The Sign Of A Wasted Life

Reading & Writing

That’s what I read on a greetings card. Friends are always horrified when they walk into my home. ‘But where is everything?’ they ask. ‘How on earth can you work like this? There’s nothing here!’

I grew up in a terraced Victorian house where space and light were both restricted. In summer you stayed cool inside, but in winter you lost the will to live. It was cluttered and layered with books, magazines and far too many ornamental objects. When I finally gave up my job for my career and switched to writing novels full-time, I wanted a better space in which to work.

My partner and I found an apartment where the architects had spent four months measuring light levels before putting in the walls. Most of the outer walls are floor-to-ceiling glass. Living in a goldfish bowl takes some getting used to. The unforgiving design ethic is not conducive to the care and protection of beloved old books. Only one room could be shielded from the relentless glare of daylight, so that’s where the library lives. We couldn’t leave books out in the light because even recent volumes have yellowed and turned brittle (whereas my rare paperback collections from the 1950s are fine).

Shelves were ordered, but only enough to keep the lines of the room. In my old house I had sat surrounded by wobbly stacks, shifting them from tables to eat, piling them beside my bed until I was in danger of being buried alive.

We decided to take all the books with us, but remove duplicates. The dogeared student texts went, along with spares and reference books that were available online. Practical choices were made – we dumped the gardening books because we no longer had a garden.

There were still not enough shelves, even though they ran to the ceiling. I hung on to some very strange book choices. The worthy volumes that we felt required to keep had been discarded in favour of guilty pleasures. The Pan Books Of Horror, Spider-Man and The Films of Norman Wisdom had inexplicably been deemed more valuable than the Brontes. The new truncated library that emerged was as idiosyncratic as the old one, and as enjoyable. I think libraries should breathe and fluctuate.

Wi-Fi meant no cables, and the printer could be tucked away – although it’s virtually redundant now. The study naturally became a paper-free zone as nearly all of my research documents, photos and letters are stored online. Even awards are stored in an electronic format. The study windows overlook St Paul’s, an inspirational sight for any London writer, and blinds can be lowered one at a time according to the position of the sun.

One problem is that my past books have all been written on different systems, and there’s no single access source for the texts. At some point in the future I’ll have to transcribe them to Word, a job I’m dreading – the earliest were typed on manual typewriters. I keep style guides and character reference notes online, but still revert to pen and paper occasionally to help me visualise a situation.
It’s a great way to work, calm and uncluttered, and a bit of a joke considering the hopelessly untidy clutter of my brain.

3 comments on “A Tidy House Is The Sign Of A Wasted Life”

  1. Mary says:

    What a wonderful view; St Paul’s. Your writing is highly detailed, so I can quite understand the need for clarity around you. My daughter is a talented artist,but always has to have a ‘clutter clearance’ before she starts painting. Heaven help the spiders!

  2. If you want a transcriber, I’d be up for it.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I’m glad Dickon offered first. My fingers were hovering over the keys.
    And since it is hard to get through my house I guess my life has been thoroughly … used?…filled? …messed up?

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