If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? —Albert Einstein
Writer’s desks, along with their original manuscripts and signed copies of their novels, are now part of the cult of the author, and some that are appropriately old and famous can go for fabulous prices at auction, or – if the author is really, really famous – are preserved in museums of the author’s home or birthplace. They are all singularly lifeless, soulless lumps of wood.
Take Leo Tolstoy’s desk, preserved under glass at the Tolstoy museum, with everything precisely in order – a half-finished letter laid out square to the surface – a pair of polished candlesticks and new candles, three pots of ink arranged in a marble stand – everything immaculate and in its proper place. How dull. It could be the desk of a nineteenth century bank manager. Now, by contrast, look at the recreation of his desk in The Last Station, a film about the final days of Tolstoy’s life. It looks like a pigeon’s nest, more wild and untamed even than Christopher Plummer’s impressively tangled beard. Words spill out of notebooks and letters, spilling out of pigeonholes and drawers in a cascade of ink and paper. It’s a desk you can believe was used by the author of several doorstop novels of more than a million words, embracing every aspect of Russian life. It’s a beautifully ordered mind finding its expression in a glorious chaos.
Ever since, I’ve been worrying – is my desk untidy enough? Is it untidy in the right ways?
I wrote my MA thesis on a series of tiny, rickety plywood desks with barely room enough for a keyboard and monitor. The first thing I did when I had a PhD and a decent wodge of funding to do it with, was to spend far too much money on an impressively solid, leather topped corner desk that provides an impressive amount of workspace to sprawl into, as well as a footwell large enough to contain a printer/scanner, ten volumes of diaries stretching back to 2008, an electric heater and various plugs and adaptors.
Let’s take a quick census, a map of the terrain at this moment in time. I’m writing this longhand, even though I know I’ll have to type it up later, because writing longhand relaxes me. My desk is essentially an equilateral triangle, with the point rounded or truncated. Directly ahead of me is my laptop, sitting slightly lopsidedly on its powercord and showing me a screensaver of unusual words: it’s just come up with ‘connatural’ meaning ‘belonging naturally, or innate.’ Behind it is a selected volume of Coleridge’s Notebooks, lightly annotated; behind that is a desk lamp which I never use, but keep there because it’s the sort of old-fashioned brass lamp that should sit on desks of this sort.
Along the right hand edge of the desk marches a regiment of paperbacks that have overspilled my bookshelves and begun to annex windowsills and tabletops all over the flat. One day, I will rearrange my shelves so that all the impressive, writerly things are stacked here in easy reach – the OED, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Rhyming Dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style. For the moment it’s the usual mix of Genre Fiction, Poetry, Ancient History and Teach Yourself German in 20 Easy Lessons. Stacked up on top of the books are a mixture of notebooks, DVDs, post-its, maps and programmes; underneath them a tape measure, an orphaned Christmas card, a lump of quartz from the mountainside above Delphi, an AA battery, a pair of bicycle clips, a labyrinth of computer cables and – the oasis in this desert – a mug of earl grey and lemon on a Doctor Who coaster!
The left hand side of the desk appears at first glance to be possessed by an indiscriminate mountain of paper, but which, under closer inspection, resolves itself into a copy of Christine Gerrard’s The Patriot Opposition to Walpole, open at page 72 – a bound copy of the Cardiff bus timetables – the latest copy of The Week – an A4 notepad filled with German prepositions – notes for a seminar I taught on Thomas Gray’s An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church-Yard – a postcard I bought in Florence and never sent – and a letter of complaint to Cardiff Council about the loud and intrusive ‘security announcement’ they insist on playing in the Central Library. On the far edge of my desk, a small heap of letters from my mother, my uncle Michael and my friend Suzannah, currently convalescing from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Dresden, form the foothills to these mountains. Other notable geographical features are a pair of obsolete hearing aids (mine) in a black felt pouch, the Penguin selected essays of George Orwell and a fearfully leaky collapsible travel cup that once belonged to my grandfather.
All in all, it’s not a bad showing – but if I’m honest with myself, I know my desk could be much more untidy with only a little more effort.