Here’s what I hate about Writers’ Houses: the basic mistakes. That art can be understood by examining the chewed pencils of the writer. That visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work. That real estate, including our own envious attachments to houses that are better, or cuter, or more inspiring than our own, is a worthy preoccupation. That writers can or should be sanctified. That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.
In the New York Review of Books blog, April Bernard engages with a conundrum that I often worry away at, the role of the writer’s house as shrine, or more accurately,, the role of some writers’ houses as shrines. I’m trying to remember the last time I visited the house of a ‘famous’, that is to say, ‘dead’ writer, simply because it was a writer’s house. Other things might come into play; architectural design perhaps, or a really lovely garden, but would I honestly visit a writer’s house just because I admired that particular writer?
One answer would be possibly, in exceptional circumstances – a really good example of why I might would be Hemingford Grey Manor House, owned by Lucy M. Boston, and instantly familiar to anyone who has read the Green Knowe books. Her house was pretty much her only subject and visiting it might help me visualise the layout of the house more clearly. Yet, although I live a two-hour drive away, I’ve never yet felt a strong enough compulsion to make a booking and go. For that matter, I also live about an hour and half’s drive from Kipling’s home, Bateman’s, a Jacobean manor house. I’m told it’s lovely and I’m interested in seeing it for the architecture. The association with Kipling would be, I suppose, a bonus, but I can’t think that I’d want to visit purely for that association unless I was a Kipling obsessive. It is interesting though, if you look at the website, that the first selling-point is ‘Soak up the atmosphere in Kipling’s book-lined study’. Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to let me take the books down and look at them, which might tell me something useful about Kipling. I suppose there is a chance that by soaking up the atmosphere, I might inhale a stray passing scrap of Kipling’s DNA but I doubt that is going to provide me with much insight into Kipling’s approach to writing. Better, if I must, to go out and tour some of the places he wrote about in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, to get a sense of the landscape and the history on which he drew for those stories.
Instead, people make a pilgrimage to see a desk that hasn’t been used in however many years, and is almost certainly not laid out quite the way the writer would have had it but instead to look like a writer’s desk (because who among us has not tidied our desk or study before taking photos of it?), in a room that may have been ‘restored’ to how it was when the writer used it, or rather, to how it was when someone took a photograph of it. In the end, this tells us nothing while deceiving us into believing that we have learned something valuable about an author’s writing practice.
I used to feel rather the same about the Guardian’ feature on ‘writers’ rooms’ which, every week, showed the place where a writer worked. Or rather, I never quite knew what to do with the feature. Some writers, particularly the ones with very old houses, seemed to me to be showing off, while others, and Simon Armitage was a case in point, seemed to know perfectly well that the whole thing was ridiculous yet they still did it (though I remember being intensely amused that I could at a glance identify the provenance of his shelving as I have quite a lot of it myself). Throughout, there was that peculiar coupling of voyeurism and aspirational shopping for real estate that Bernard captures and which, I think, is a gigantic expansion of ‘what kind of pen and notebook do you use’, as though using the same tools, recreating the same space, will ever make you write like a particular person.
Of all the rooms I saw, the one I most identified with was Seamus Heaney’s, because it was in some ways not so far from my own working space, but I couldn’t have worked in it – too white, too bright, and too many surfaces with ‘things’ on them. Even if I had recreated it, it wouldn’t let me work like Seamus Heaney, any more than my working space would turn Seamus Heaney into Maureen Kincaid Speller. And looking at it tells me little about how Heaney works and thinks.
Paul Kincaid is a great admirer of Graham Swift’s work, and got quite excited when he saw the photograph of Swift’s working space, mostly because it provided a solution to getting the best out of his own office space. The point is, of course, that Paul’s working space still looks nothing like Swift’s, and that’s the way it should be, because he isn’t Graham Swift.
And having said all this, I should record my own working space for posterity, so here it is. No visitors, except by appointment.