In the latest in our series where we ask writers to walk us through their creative spaces, we peek in on one of the most admired and beloved poets in the British canon. Philip Gross is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Wales and is author of 18 poetry collections and children’s books. He won the T.S.Eliot Prize 2009 with The Water Table. A Fold In The River, with artist Valerie Coffin Price, appeared in 2015, and a new Bloodaxe collection Love Songs of Carbon, was a PBS Recommendation. www.philipgross.co.uk
Here is a room. And, here, a room within the room – something as intricate as a doll’s house, and almost the same dimensions too. It’s a roll-top desk. Antique? No, though it hopes to be mistaken for one. It’s not even an heirloom, except by association. All my childhood, there was my father’s fold-down desk, with its little compartments, with his account books kept daily in his tiny writing and neat stacks of foreign correspondence, that seemed to define where he went, a place both inside himself and at the same time a part of a world I couldn’t guess at yet.
For half my life I scorned it. Me, I was a free thinker, a free writer, working on my knee, sprawled on a sofa, in a cafe, on a train… Only after his death I found myself in an antiques warehouse, looking at this (let’s be honest) aberration with its countless drawers and nooks. It seemed to block the doorway and say ‘You don’t leave without me.’
And here we are, together, in my work room that is the antithesis of a private study or a shed. It is the middle of the house, the room the front porch opens into, and the kitchen, with the smells of cooking coming in. At the focal point, the point the chairs and bookshelves look towards, stands this… like a cross between a defrocked church organ and a cabinet of curiosities.
An inventory, then… About a hundred postcards, kept for oddity or beauty or just in case. Post-its of many colours, fibre-tips of all grades, stamps of all denominations, sheaves of variously challenged pencils, satisfying rubbers, all the petty stationery I find (is this embarrassing?) quite pleasing… Many notebooks in different stages of use or, impatient, ready to begin. All these are unlined, by the way; no one dictates which plane I write in. Here’s a scribble-pad of scrap made of A4 drafts and junk mail torn in half. In the wide drawer, folders of unpublished, dormant or emergent things. In the deep ones, empty folders, recycled envelopes, electric leads, plugs and chargers for I’ve no idea what machines.
Here’s a Sherlock-Holmes-style pipe I tried as a response, brief and pretentious, to a puzzling adolescence fifty ago; it solved nothing. Here are name tags and lanyards inexplicably saved (ah, lanyards, those symbols of corporate times) from a dozen conferences. On the desk top, patient, rather hopeless piles of books and magazines… alongside a little bronze Dogon horseman from Mali, a slinky silver lizard from my grandfather’s India, a perfect apple made of birch wood, and a strip of peeled and curling birch bark too, plus many pebbles, each one quite specific and itself… There’s a shaky pop-up paper-engineering poem made by me in an art workshop where I had the release of not expecting myself to do anything well… and a Christmas cactus with a heretical take on seasons. Beneath its shade, a quizzical surreal beastie made from papier maché by my daughter, a tiny dryad carved by my dad, still half-emergent from her twig, and a sepia photo of a stiffly posed Edwardian family whose claim to fame is that no-one in the world knows who they are.
I have friends who believe in decluttering, with a fervour that seems half panic, half Puritan zeal. They say ‘stuff’ and ‘things’ as if handling the words with tongs. If we could get rid of the stuff, they say, then we could really be ourselves. My desk says otherwise. I can’t see a single object (no, not even the lanyards) which isn’t charged with its own occasion. Each pebble is a touch-print of a moment, of a place, often a person. Granite, serpentine, flint, pink gypsum… I know which beach or hilltop, which particular day they contain. As I hold them in my hand, they hold part of me too.
So I was asked to write about a room, and look, I’ve got no further than a desk. But the desk, in some way, makes the room, as the room makes the house, and the house… Need I go on? It’s hard to say why. Oh, did I mention that I almost never actually write at it? I still scribble or type on my knee, on a sofa, on the train. But this desk, somehow, is fundamental. Try the thought experiment: to see the room without it. No. Without it, I can’t imagine this room being mine, or a writer’s, at all.