Writing, I find, can be the most exhilarating and frustrating of professions. I was fascinated to read a feature by the delightfully named Maria Popover recently about writers’ working habits and habitats; the superstitions and rituals that help one endure a day essentially alone with one’s thoughts. Truman Capote would never have more than three cigarette stubs in an ashtray before emptying it and refused to start or finish a piece of prose on a Friday.
Virginia Woolf stood at an upright, angled clerk’s desk to write which may explain the stream of consciousness structure. Raymond Chandler would average 5000 words per day while Anthony Trollope timed himself to write 250 words every fifteen minutes. My favourite quote in the story comes from the divine Dorothy Parker: ‘I can’t write five words but I change seven’.
Though I can produce 5000 words in a day – and will probably have to for James Sherwood’s Discriminating Guide to London considering the count is 100,000 – I like most writers have my idiosyncrasies. I learned long ago that writing in a room full of people was death for me. I need the solitude, the soporific lullaby of Radio 3 and (calling Dr Freud) the reassurance that no one is looking over my shoulder. A view is also mandatory hence my taking a matchbox in Bloomsbury in exchange for views that would inspire Fragonard.
London is loud, increasingly aggressive and frantically hyperactive. So the view from Bloomsbury Towers over what was formerly the gardens of Bedford House is soothing. Nobody except for the gardeners and the bee keeper are allowed access to this hidden quadrangle between Bloomsbury and Russell Square. Sometimes I wish I could step out into the meadow-planted lawn but the view itself is I think unique in WC1.
The hazard of living in a ‘compact and bijou’ apartment is that one occasionally feels claustrophobic but a daily drift around the British Museum distracts from the business in hand and gives the gift of vast gallery spaces. My ideal writing room would be by the sea – Rye perhaps or Broadstairs – but when your books are so London centric this is an unrealistic pipe dream. Because my work is fact-based and always connected to London’s past, I do feel that Bloomsbury is the most appropriate writing room.
But one can always dream and, as it happens, do while staring out of the sash chord window of Bloomsbury Towers. I have flirted with fiction writing on a few occasions. The first was a few semi-autobiographical chapters of a novel when I was on the MA course at Central St Martins. I read it and rather cringe. The second was the draft of the Corfu Novel loosely based on Mapp & Lucia that I started a couple of years ago. The response from my designated readers was positive but also critical that the tone – arch and hopefully humorous – was relentless and the characters needed developing.
My agent said the Corfu Novel was self-indulgent. Perhaps it was; written as it was to entertain me and hopefully other people. I think you need immense confidence and belief (not to mention time and a war chest of savings) to develop a novel. Doesn’t matter if it is self-indulgent but it does matter that you have a story others will thrill to read. I had high hopes of a short story I entered into the Jane Austin Short Story competition this year. It was a sequel to Persuasion and I was amazed to find how swiftly I wrote. I loved the story and – not that I told any one – made it onto the first shortlist. But I didn’t win the prize.
I’m not sure that I have the fiction writer’s talent to invent so convincing a world as Philip Pullman or Joanna Rowling. Though I couldn’t compare my writing to an Austin or E. F. Benson, their style of gently mocking social observation is the genre of fiction I’d like to follow. For various reasons, I have been spending a lot of time looking at the National Newspaper Archive online at late Victorian court circulars and police reports. The true stories percolating from the streets of London in the 1880s and 90s are absolutely sensational and could, I think, form the basis of a work of fiction.
A biography would be a natural progression from my previous three Thames & Hudson books and I did research the history of one of England’s Ducal dynasties. But without access to family papers where new primary source material can be discovered, there is no point. I popped in to Waterstones Piccadilly to see whether Savile Row and The Perfect Gent were still getting prime display space (they are) and couldn’t help but notice that historical writers seem to running out of subjects. Unless Anne Boleyn’s diaries are discovered in a locked box at Hever Castle I don’t think there’s anything further to add to the avalanche of books about the Tudors.
Of course the Holy Grail for historical biography is access to papers. I suspect the trick is to find a curious incident in a particularly rich historical period that will bring together all aspects of said society. I think I’ve found one in the late Victorian era but need the time and of course the money to research further. No publisher will take a punt on such a work with the vast advance necessary. I wonder whether it wouldn’t be smart to propose the synopsis as a TV documentary first and the book can follow. But first I’d better stop staring out of the window and crack on with the Discriminating Guide.