Monthly Archives: March 2013

A desk of one’s own

Writer Erinna Mettler sparked my interest this week with her post on ‘Desk Envy’. A desk is such a fundamental part of a writer’s equipment, yet so difficult to perfect, it is no wonder that there are thousands of pictures like the ones of famous writers’ workplaces in the post which can inspire the green-eyed-monster. Space in the home is at such a premium – certainly in the UK, even more so in Japan – that for most of us the dream of a quiet room with a huge desk covered with piles of essential writerly clutter and (crucially!) all of one’s own must remain unindulged.

Still, we can dream. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Lake District recently, with hints of spring breaking through the winter gloom all around. The hotel had this lovely number sitting in a corridor seemingly unused and unloved, except by the chambermaids for heaps of fresh linen mid-change.

hotel desk

Contemplating all that space for half-scrawled notes and pages torn out of newspapers could give me palpitations. Drawers overloaded with notebooks, both filled and still to be used, cartridges and half-full bottles of ink, because this desk would go so well with my favourite pens… until my thoughts crash into the likely shipping costs to get the thing to Tokyo and realise it isn’t to be.

The reality for most of us is that writing space has to exist wherever we find it. When I lived in London I would write sitting on the bed, a cushion behind me and one under the knees, laptop finely balanced, in a pose that would strike dread into the heart of any physiotherapist or yoga teacher. Although it did keep me paying the bills to have my poor spine straightened out again. Having to clear away the detritus which somehow accumulates around any working writer – take the picture of Einstein ‘s desk for evidence – before I could go to sleep was always such a disheartening thought that writing into the early hours became the norm.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I came into possession of a dedicated writing desk. A low wooden table acquired from a neighbour who was moving on, it was the first piece of furniture that I owned after arriving and all the more loved for that. Writing in bed continued, of course, as well as curled up in a chair, but owning a desk was a step up and great things were sure to follow, I was convinced. This is my first Japanese desk, looking far too neat, which means it was probably tidied for the picture:

first writing desk in Japan

Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be the perfect writing desk, otherwise this post would end here. The difficulty, entirely of my own creation, was that there was so much of Japan to explore beyond those walls that I barely spent any time within range of the desk. Writing again became something to do in cafés, on trains, at work, or in the park. Anywhere, it seemed, but at the dedicated space that had so fortuitously been granted.

For my next apartment, things would have to change. After coming into possession of another donated desk and chair, then finding a wonderful place to locate them – overlooking a neighbour’s well-stocked garden – combined with living closer to the distractions of the city, suddenly writing time was almost abundant. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their free days here:

Tokyo desk

It is summer, hence the mosquito coil kept close to hand, but the air conditioning unit was right above the window and the fridge a short hop away. ten minutes hate became an unneglected website again, letters were penned and the following spring my book, The Teas That Bind, was written here. All punctuated with essential breaks for pots of tea and staring out of the window. The way the butterflies would dance through the sunshine as it dappled between the trees will stay with me forever.

But life moves on, time intrudes and I find myself between desks again. As ever, my reserve writing haunts are cafés and there is fun to be had attempting to track down a new favourite. Here is where Erinna Mettler surprises me a little, as she writes:

The words don’t really flow in public cafés. For a start off I usually bump into someone I know and then there’s the hovering waiting staff asking if I want a refill, or babies crying and if I drink too much coffee it costs a fortune and I keep needing the loo. The café has to be just right, it has to be big enough to hide in from friends and waiters, with tall ceilings and no piped music, and I prefer diverting decoration and real-fire cosiness.

Although it has been a long while since I was a resident of the same town,  my memories of it being full of serviceable writing cafés would be shattered if they had all been conquered by the big chains. In the same way that we fetishise desks, most writers probably have a picture in their head of the perfect writing café experience, my own heavily influenced by a visit to the actual table in Paris once used by this lady:

Simone de Beauvoir writing cafe

It is doubtful if she would be as prolific today, however, if she were attempting to write in the 21st century version of her home-from-home café, surrounded by loudly obnoxious tourists and gawping fan-girls such as myself.

Perhaps this is the lesson to learn from all this desk adulation: that the space itself is irrelevant. Make it the best, comfiest, happiest place it can be but don’t get too caught up with perfection. While perfection on the page should always be the goal, sometimes the means and the location of production will have to fall far short of the ideal. Sitting at the dream desk racked with writer’s block and indecision would be a far worse fate than that of being jammed into a tiny table at a terrible café with a mug of bad coffee scrawling note after note on napkins because there is no more space in your notebook.

As Hemingway knew,

the great thing is to last and get your work done

because what is created when your backside is in the chair is far more important than the quality leather cushion or cracked plastic that it rests upon. So even if you are lucky enough to achieve perfection in your surroundings, be sure to recall this advice from Stephen King:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

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The Assault by Harry Mulisch

harry mulisch the assault

I am not quite sure by what happy chance Harry Mulisch’s novel The Assault arrived on my ‘to read’ list, but I am profoundly glad that it did. If it was via your recommendation then please accept my unending gratitude. Although it seems premature to crown ‘the best work of fiction I have read all year’, so it must be.

Anton Steenwijk is an ordinary boy – keen on planes and cars, arguing with his older brother – living in the extraordinary time and place of Occupied Holland at the tail-end of the Second World War. Perhaps slightly more thoughtful than some of his peers, with a love of and keen eye for nature which will later see him publish poems on the subject. He is happy to spend time watching the wave patterns created by the motorboats on the canal outside his Haarlem home. He recalls ‘branches… bleached by the sun’, notices ‘bare, ice-coated, impassive trees that were totally unaware of what wartime was all about’, while damaged railway lines stand ‘upright like the horns of a snail’.

The War’s major intrusion into his life is via the hunger of a growing lad, although he also takes a stand for a classmate – perhaps saving a life as he does so – but he acts impulsively, without too much reflection on his motives. The incident remains unrecalled and unremarked upon until one winter’s night, when he is engulfed by terrible events that he neither fully witnesses nor understands, yet which leave him – the only survivor – with the revelation:

Fire and this steel – that was the War.

Despite this knowledge, as he matures he is successful in pushing away his memories in order to survive, before a series of chance encounters force him into unravelling the fate of his family. The secrets of one night of Resistance assassination and SS reprisal are imparted to him throughout his life, in a series of episodes from young student to middle-aged father, shocking Anton out of his attempt to live as passive a life as possible.

It is difficult not to think, on reading this book as we reach the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, of the consequences for the innocent caught up in war; the apparently small events sparked by unseen actors which rapidly take on greater significance. Chasing the tangled stories leads Anton to a semblance of an answer to the question why? as well as a realisation that the answer is both more and less important than he could have guessed. In the end, as the Resistance fighter Takes tells him:

everyone gets killed by whoever kills them, and by no-one else.

Mulisch’s book is a clever blend of taut thriller, historical mystery and psychological study, with plenty to show the reader about reactions to traumatic events experienced by the young. We see how assumptions about the past can colour someone’s thinking so completely, yet later be exploded as resting on a false or misunderstood reading of those events. What appear to be key conversations and actions slip out of the memory, making a nonsense of any attempt to create patterns out of random events. This failure recalling Anton’s doomed attempts to figure out the complexity of the crossing, interlaced waves created by the motorboats passing him by on the canal.

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Sex crime

John Maguire reports on an insightful lecture on an often-overlooked piece of recent history.

A surge of creative electricity charged up the University of Liverpool last week.

To conclude LGBT History Month for 2013, the academic institution invited celebrated author John Sam Jones to deliver a lecture as part of their Flagship series. The talks are created by LGBT staff and the postgraduate student network, designed to facilitate dialogue with the local LGBT community and advocates. To provide enjoyable yet thought-provoking activities that engage people with LGBT issues.

LGBT Flagship logo

The discourse titled, ‘Don’t compromise yourself, you are all you’ve got’, saw the author read from his autobiographical/fiction novel describing the therapy in use in one North Wales asylum in 1975, to help cure him and unlock his heterosexual potential.

John Sam Jones opened with abstracts taken from newspaper articles and journals from the Sixties discussing the contagion of homosexuality. A blatant derogatory rhetoric embedded deeply in the social-scape. Themes of moral corruption, mental illness, abnormality, destruction to morals and public health, echoed around the theatre and seemed almost antiquated. The not so complimentary extracts were from diverse sources ranging from The Church Times, psychiatric periodicals and even The Guardian.

John Sam Jones Sam Heath LGBT History Month

Aversion therapy and behavioural disorder was to cure and assist to ‘repress the deviance’. In the 1930’s this type of ‘help’ started to be used to treat and cure male homosexuals with chemical and electrical treatments. Jones highlighted how in the nature of experimentation the Nazi’s kindly assisted with surgical castrations and injecting individuals with female hormones. The depiction of a penis transducer sounded like something out of a sadistic sci-fi movie, straight out of the stills from a darker version of the flick, Barbarella. This nifty device was used to measure penile erections, to gain so-called objective data, patients would receive painful electric shocks in fifty-second blocks, with a maximum of five shots given to assist with the cure.

The novel Crawling Through Thorns, describes his personal testimony with a very graphic, yet not sensationalist approach; literature that shocks the reader with its raw honesty, making it at times an uncomfortable read.  The descriptions could have been catapulted from the pages of a gothic horror or trickling straight out of the medieval history books detailing barbaric torture.  Behaviour not expected in a democratic society. The doctor’s insistence that ‘We need to see your responses’, sends a shudder down the spine and the details of the sessions depict an almost sexual ballet with the learned medical monsters in the role of sadomasochistic voyeurs, probing and observing the patient. The irony is that the therapy requires the individual to be ‘turned on’ to be ‘turned off’, to execute the homosexual identity.

John Sam Jones started his writing career with a series of short stories, Welsh Boys Too and has published Fisherboys of Vernazza and a novel, Of Angels and Furies. His gay characters are presented in a non-stereotypical way. They are gay, yes, but this is not the principle factor that defines them, they are quintessentially all journeying through life, experiencing what it means to be a homosapien, not just a homosexual.

His tales flow with a passion for nature that enriches the reader’s mind’s eye. He paints a canvas of rural Wales illustrating a sheer beauty, his palette of literary paints cramming with adoration. His subtle, yet evocative sentences employ brush strokes that reveal a storytelling genius. Where Armistead Maupin uses his to pen tales from the city, John Sam Jones’ could be dubbed tales from the country.

It took Jones time to heal before he could face penning Crawling Through Thorns. He wanted to write HIS story to preserve history and act as a stark reminder to this black period of pink history that is somewhat hazy. Many people have not had the courage to discuss the humiliation of this form of therapy. We have advances in equality, fostering and adoption and soon marriage, but we must not forget the lollapalooza of trying to find an elusive antidote to not being you.

Nor should we forget that even in a world now populated with LGBT role models who are out and proud, Gareth Thomas and Clare Balding to name just two, there are still many parts of the world where a lack of deeper understanding is blazingly obvious.

In Barbados same-sex relations can land an individual a lifetime in prison and in the United Arab Emirates in some cases it can bring the death penalty. Closer to home, problems still arise, such as the  cases of Michael Causer and Justin Fashanu. The day before the lecture, Cardinal Keith O’Brien was forced to quit the Church amidst allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards priests. The same chap who claimed that same-sex marriage was the ‘thin end of the wedge’ and would lead to the ‘further degeneration of society into immorality’.

John Sam Jones’ brave and revealing novel will serve to fit a piece in the LGBT History jigsaw and ensure we do not obnubilate the past.

We must be proud of who we are and we cannot be proud if we hide.

Photographs courtesy of Sam Heath

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