Reflections from my Writing Room December 2022

12/15/2022

According to Virginia Woolf A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.

Times haven’t changed since she made this assertion. Neither for women nor for swathes of other would-be-writers disadvantaged by poverty, long working hours, family duties, prejudice, ill health, being too young or too old, too working class or not working class enough, coming from the wrong country or racial origin or sexuality.

I count myself among the luckiest of writers. Too late getting properly started, perhaps, but otherwise I have all the advantages. No coffee shop for me. No hunched over a laptop in a noisy flatshare  with concentration disrupted by house mates working from home, bellowing into the phone or at the zoom screen.

Now my nest is empty and my young have flown, I have more than one room to choose from. I like to spread out and briefly occupy a space, then move on leaving minimal footprint like a Bedouin tribe. I’m a restless soul, sometimes seeking clarity and calm in blank walls, other times a view to lift my spirits. I’ll set up author base camp in whichever room takes my fancy on that day. In summer, it might be outdoors, thinking green thoughts in a green shade if I can angle a sun umbrella to protect my screen from glare.

A room I rarely work in now is the study though that’s where I wrote numerous articles and my first two novels back in the days when a static PC workstation tethered me to a single room. On the uninspiring green carpet, I laid out sheets of A4 paper, sellotaped together to make A1 or A0 and stuck yellow post-it notes onto it, moving them around to convert the ideas in my head into plot points. The desks in the study are still used but rarely by me, except when I add paperwork for my tax return to the tower of filing.

Lately, the energy crisis has forced me to pick a room. With sky-rocketing energy costs we’ve turned off most of the radiators and the house is freezing. I settled on the only room with a working chimney where I can light an open fire.  Originally this was the dining room but who can appreciate  a log fire when you’re already sweating through a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding? This room has some original Georgian features: functioning wooden shutters, a bell pull to summon the servants (!), decorative fireplace and traditional plaster mouldings. In the window I’ve put an old school desk. From here I can look out at queuing traffic on the main road and watch dog walkers taking their lives in their hands as they try to cross. When it’s raining heavily, I watch our gravel drive transform into a lake with a shingle beach and judge how long until water pours through the air bricks into our cellar.

But the best thing about this room is its links to the past. The plaster mouldings were hand-crafted and installed by French prisoners at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. These captured soldiers and seamen were housed in cottages in a disused chalk pit in nearby Odiham. Many of the detainees, presumably conscripts, would have been skilled craftspeople in another life and were allowed out during the day to ply their trade. We don’t know the exact date our house was built but it’s contemporary with the Napoleonic Wars because it appears on the map of 1812 but not 1797.

Reflecting on the relatively humane treatment of those PoWs of two hundred years ago, I can’t help drawing gloomy comparisons with today. In the 21st century, captured soldiers and civilians aren’t given cottages and jobs but are routinely tortured, abused and executed for no reason. How can it be that in a world where education, technology, wealth and human advancement are supposedly so much more sophisticated than in the early 19th century, ‘soldiers’ in inverted commas abuse and torment innocent victims of conflict, fail to abide by established rules of war and abase themselves, and the nations they represent, committing horrific war crimes?

These 18th century French prisoners of war were housed, fed and given an allowance by the British government, after the French revolutionary government refused to pay for their subsistence. (Apparently, the Ancien Regime had higher standards of honour and did pay!) Officers were sometimes billeted with families; negotiations for officer exchanges took place and sometimes they were freed and allowed to go home simply by signing a document saying they wouldn’t fight again!

While held in Odiham, and other Hampshire towns, prisoners were allowed to hold markets to sell or exchange their crafts and earn a few bob. Under a system called parole, they were permitted to walk freely for exercise through the village of Odiham for a distance of about one mile along the turnpike road to a boundary post that still exists. Imagine that happening today in Ukraine or Yemen or Syria.

I love that the footsteps of generations of people who have worked, lived, loved and died in this house are imprinted in my writing room. But the room’s not entirely my own. I share it with rescue dog, Homer. And as he would tell you this is his room. He’s been sleeping and hanging out in it, and generally ruling the household roost, since we brought him home from No Boundaries dog rescue in December 2020.

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