Friday, June 22, 2007


The world -- the cinematic world, especially -- gets a lot of wonderful mileage out of the fantasy of the places where thinking types work. A professor of Something That Somehow Advances The Plot, peeping out from among the teetering piles of leather-bound tomes fortressing his enormous mahogany desk, not quite hiding the bookshelves behind containing thousands of wilting files bound up with string, a bakelite telephone and an astrolabe. Something Persian about the rugs. A tweediness about the place. A glass full of pens with a feather, some pebbles and a battered felt hat. Prospero hiding somewhere about. Or perhaps something more 2001ish -- serried ranks of learned writings flanking the L-shaped steel workstation sprouting seven flat screens, three keyboards, an artlessly stacked pile of papers and a sticky note with a circuit diagram on it. Matching boxfiles, a Miró half-obscured, something made of Goretex hanging on the door.

These places really exist. Dr X's office is a tiny galley, both lined and carpeted with books, hardbound theses shelved uneasily against seminal works in cultural history and Greek translation. Several desks make muted rainbows of sun-bleached coloured cardboard folders stuffed with paper, typically stacked high on a book smaller than themselves and constantly threatening to topple and reveal their contents like a croupier spreading the deck. A mile of white pinboard faces the window, curling postcards hairdressing photocopies of cartoons and family photographs from a decade ago. On the windowsill there is an ostrich egg perched in an Edward Bawden cup for the Orient Express. I could say that on the door, there is a battered navy linen coat with the pockets blown out, but actually, he never takes it off.

Dr X really works here. And so do many, doors both real and metaphorical shut carefully against the world that might disturb their thinking, feet safely planted in a lovingly created compost of paper and book, talismans and habit.

But I am part of a nomadic academic community. Not one that travels far -- just one that works everywhere. Anywhere. Around. Moving.

We work in cafés, usually. But I've heard of other, stranger places.

Some nomads I know do this because they seek exile. They can never be at home anywhere. They are like the blues singer who can never find happiness, for their art would be forfeit. They move around a lot, on a constant search for the Perfect Place to Work. They often report, bright-eyed, on the discovery of such a place. A certain coffee shop! Amazing! It has this brilliant basement bit, with these fantastic tables, and they have really exceptional pain au chocolat, and I wrote two thousand words ...

It never lasts -- soon familiarity destroys the magic. The horrifyingly homely prospect of becoming a regular presses on the exile-seeking nomad's heart and he moves on. The exile's own work spaces typically look as if someone has just moved into them, or just moved out of them, or as if ten people share the space. Nowhere can be the mind's home for them. In my favourite exile's case, I think this is because that would be to suppose that his mind lives here -- and he longs to believe that it does not.

I am not this kind of nomad. I am a nomad with a den of my own, like many nomads -- work places where our minds are stacked up in just the way we like, where seminar schedules happily pile up with snapshots, where everything is just so, or just completely not so, in just the right way. I love my desk, small under its giant pinboard with a feather and a tiny stuffed rabbit in a bee costume and the academic calendar. My weird, utterly unDewey arrangement of books.

But, heavens, how I prefer the clash and wobbly tables of my coffee haunt. The narrow, sticky line of dust that runs along the inside edge of the window as it meets the window sill. The just-a-bit-too-small table, already sporting a coffee ring this early in the morning, although I know it was wiped yesterday because I can smell the lemony surface spray they use. A crumpled paper sugar sachet getting grains of brown sucrose into my books. A woman at the next table drinking a latte with cinnamon who seems to have arranged her hairs individually because nothing else could explain the existence of her hairdo, discussing the merits of a certain Hindmarsh bag with another woman. Who, if the memetics of hair count for anything, must be her mother.

Sometimes they run out of ordinary teaspoons and they give me a long sundae-style one to stir my coffee. There's a businessman who comes in every morning. Sometimes he looks over PowerPoint presentations, and other times he reads books on things like Emotional Intelligence or One-Minute Managing. The girls from the posh optician's across the street take turns in buying coffee for the office -- only one has glasses, but they all like hazelnut latte. On birthdays, they get muffins too -- six raspberry and cranberry, and a chocolate twist, which if a croissant was a rubber band is what it would look like stretched out. With chocolate chips. For some reason, I like to think that the twist is for the optician.

It might be because the coffee place has everything. A table for my laptop, a chair for my papers and books -- not the entire library I like to believe I always need, but just the couple I can actually deal with today -- an endless supply of coffee, a parade of interesting things outside the window and going on everywhere.

But it is not that it is multipurpose -- it is that it is antipurpose. My desk reeks of obligation. It is so god-almighty fit-for-purpose I am an imposter just sitting at it. Science fiction is always filled with computers or libraries that talk to the protagonists, but I don't need that particular innovation, for mine already do. Ready? says the desk. Educated? say the ranked books, some with the rather fatigued tone of a person to whom no-one has spoken in a while. Critical faculties all a go?

They quiver with anticipatory super-functionality.

I have to run away. Who can stand it?

In my coffee place, I might not be working. I might just be having a coffee. And sometimes, I am. But if I am writing, if I am having a thought, if I am puzzling over something, it is all right. It's just a casual thing. No-one is watching. Just, you know, something to while away the minutes. While you're eating your toasted ham-and-cheese panini. It's a coffee shop! We're all here to drink our coffee and watch the world go by, obviously.

Even if everyone at every table is deep inside their laptop.


Tom Bozzo said...

How times change. When I Was A Grad Student, the magic of free or free-ish Wi-Fi didn't yet exist to attract working coffee fiends to cafés and take away from the purity of smoking cigarettes and watching undergraduates go about their business.

Re the office, (two flat screens when the MBP is in, and one model X-wing fighter for when I need non-intertube distraction, among other contents, FYI), I find that not avoiding the obligations of my desk here keeps various surfaces at home relatively obligation-free (or, at least, allows more time for child-related obligations).

Xtin said...

In my own defence, I would like to note that my preferred coffee location has no wifi.

Scrivener said...

I don't have anything insightful or witty to say in response to this post. Just wanted to say that it was an absolute pleasure to read it.

Xtin said...

Thanks Scriv.