Brendan Behan famously carried his typewriter to McDaid’s Public House in Dublin, where he would write with a glass of Guinness beside him. I once finished the first draft of a novel amid the roar of a shopping mall, although it was not my ideal writing space.
I have a desk, two desks, come to that – a chunky table with a view over the city at the University of Adelaide, and another wedged into a corner of my study at home. Each has its drawbacks, mostly in the form of people. I can write when others are about, but only if I have no idea who they are.
In the past I have grown a novel as I roamed the city with my laptop, searching each day for a quiet place to write. I have written on my knee in the car, and in cafes; I have written in a spare bedroom at my mother’s house, on planes, trains, and buses. Once, I rented a rustic cottage and found that, with four rooms to choose from, I could only write in the back bedroom where light slanting through white shutters fell in a way that pleased me, even though I barely looked up from the computer screen.
It was the desperate dash to finish my second novel by the agreed deadline that reduced me to writing in the shopping mall. I toiled there at a table screened by a pillar, and the illuminated letter P, in an Italian restaurant by the name of Spargos. The characteristic roar produced by people engaged in aimless spending was a background noise I learned to tune out. Everything within reach was plastic, wood-veneer, stainless steel. The staff ignored me, unless I was unlucky enough to catch someone’s eye.
Looking at the writing rooms of famous writers on the Guardian website, I am surprised how many of them have red walls. A.L. Kennedy writes while reclining on a black chair in a room with walls the colour of blood, or as she describes it, ‘roughly the colour you see when you close your eyes’. Edna O’Brien’s red wall includes a fireplace presided over by portraits of Joyce and Beckett. Siri Hustvedt claims writers don’t notice their surroundings, but is nevertheless the lucky owner of a luminous room at the top of a tall house, a white room filled with carefully managed memorabilia. Will Self writes in a room that, frankly, would give me nightmares; I think there is a map of London stapled to the blind behind his utilitarian desk. The late Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly glowing room in Camden features a model of the Titanic.
My favourite writing room belongs to the Irish writer Colm Toibin, a book-lined cave in a house in Dublin that is entered via a narrow opening. With its blue-green colour scheme, his study might almost be under the sea. Toibin insists he wants to be interred there among his books, and I don’t blame him. If I owned that space, the family would find it difficult to prise me away.
Red is the colour of fast food outlets; the juices it stirs are gastric rather than creative and, far from inspiring prose, would send me foraging in the biscuit tin. But there is a shade of blue that calms the spirit; it merges with the mind’s eye and opens without effort into memory and dreams. Blue is the colour of pure imagination, or that is how it strikes me. One day I might paint my study blue, but in the meantime I can still be found in various cracks and crevices of the city, although thankfully not behind the P in Spargos.