Virginia Woolf specified “a room of her own and five hundred a year” as the basic circumstances by which womankind might be freed from domestic and financial constraints, and so be able to write fiction.
It is a fine sentiment and one that makes me faintly ashamed to admit to my own, more baroque, longings: namely for a south-facing office with three windows, several evenly distributed electric sockets, 15 metres of bookshelves, and a glittering night-time view of London’s Canary Wharf. If that all sounds rather specific, then that would be because for the past two years I have been coveting a particular office in my department building, tenderly stroking the scuffed patina of its door every time I walk past, sometimes taking the long route back from the kitchen, if only to peer longingly through its glass panels (technically you have to squint because they are the cloudy sort designed precisely to prevent people peering in). Once, I even splashed some coffee across the threshold in an impromptu baptism ceremony (read: I tripped over my own feet on my way back from Costa). That room is destined for me, I feverishly whisper to myself as I turn the key in the door of my ratty cubbyhole opposite.
I know that this delusion makes me the equivalent of those dewy-eyed, Boden cardigan-wearing, hand-on-heart clasping, wretchedly bourgeois and often unhinged homebuyers whom Kirstie Allsopp brusquely brings down to earth on Location, Location, Location. But I won’t be shoved into a one-bed flat with a view of the motorway. I, like many of us, continue to cling to my dreams of the perfect workspace. And this is because, jokes aside, it seems to matter more than is reasonably explicable.
Perhaps this prizing of a private space has something to do with our not-so-distant memories of being hard pressed and hustled graduate students, the elbow-jostling experiences of various flat-shares, graduate study centres and the British Library in the summer. At some point in our lives, an office of one’s own, liberal bookshelf space and (say it) sole access to a crotchety printer, form the apex of ambition. There is no romance in the kind of office-less itinerancy to which teaching assistants and temporary lecturers are consigned. It is understandable that long-suffering lecturers might seek a place to lay down their Levinas/Locke/law textbooks. But, to many of my non-academic friends too, the privileged possession of a private workspace remains something of a novelty, a charming remnant of an archaic world without “hot desks” and “plug-in pods”, where we (universities) still belong.
Perhaps we forget how remarkable it is to be able to go to work, close a door and take a breath; how, in an era of shared open office spaces, many academics can still claim for themselves a room of their own, a realm outside their homes in which they might make themselves at home. This is, of course, something to do with the nature of our work, the private sort of engagement that teaching sometimes asks for, and which research almost always demands.
Many of us, I suspect, can recall various academic offices in which we have been taught, the precise moments when we came to some small understanding – hard won in the exchanges between student and teacher – that set us off on some course of enquiry without end.
But the upshot of the idea that the pursuit of such kinds of enquiry are our business, is that the activities of reading, writing and reflection take place not only in libraries and laboratories but in our workplaces, and that they require quiet and privacy. These are moments in the day when you might be permitted to hear yourself think, over and above the demands of teaching and administration. Some of us seek out our offices for the solitude from which study springs, and this is a sentiment that seems curiously out of keeping with the common patter of “teamwork” and “transparency” so familiarly peddled in other kinds of workplace.
But perhaps this means that academic offices are strange places (and perhaps academics are strange people)? In The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes, rather romantically, of houses as sanctuaries for fantasy, and domestic rooms as the “sites of our intimate lives”. “The house”, he muses, “protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”
But academic offices, too, can be the site of a kind of intimacy, crowded as they are with books we have variously loved, abandoned or forgotten; the papers we have written, accumulated or have yet still to read; the laptops, memory sticks and lever-arch folders in which our entire worlds are haphazardly contained. There is a kind of candour in the way in which we lay out our life’s work in the expanse of our bookshelves, and a precariousness to a world that telescopes to a screen on a desk patiently awaiting the sentences we have still to rattle out. I am conscious, too, of how easily betrayed we are by the disarray in which we leave our desks when in the thick of things, or the obsessiveness that can be read into a thematically arranged collection of journals. We frown disapprovingly at notions of “ivory towers” detached from the real world, but there is a case to be made for being able to close a door from time to time.
We talk reverentially about the life of the mind, but my mind’s life is an open book with a halfwritten sentence and four Post-it notes jammed in it, falling off a shelf in a ramshackle office that anyone can visit. But next year, I’m pretty sure I’ll be moving…