A popular magazine for writers has a regular feature on the personal work spaces of published authors. Each month, subscribers are treated to photographs from a variety of writerly locations which range from kitchen tables to suspiciously tidy desks in contemporary fitted studies; from cleaned up attics to outdoor-office-cum-log cabin constructions— formerly known as Big Sheds. Some authors also confirm a fondness for writing in coffee shops.
Though a writer should always carry a notebook and be ready to jot down those tiny details of human behaviour, foibles that bring characters to life, I never find coffee shops conducive to concentration. I’m also afraid that if I linger too long, I’ll be hogging table space and denying the proprietor income. And if I stare at customers, jotting down mannerisms and conversations, I’ll be invading privacy too. (Or maybe I am more interested in a decaff latte and a toasted tea cake).
A friend of mine was once sitting in a posh Yorkshire tea room frequented by an illustrious Yorkshire born writer; indeed the celebrity himself was seated at the next table that day, sipping from a china cup and scribbling into a notebook. Now, my friend has enviable, classic pre-Raphaelite looks: a lion’s mane of red curly hair, peachy complexion, blue eyes, freckles. Classic beauty. She told me she began to feel uncomfortable when she realised the writer was glancing up from his notes, observing her, then returning to his jottings. I pointed out that had he been Dante Gabriel Rossetti and this the 19th century, the artist would probably have asked if she would model for one of his paintings. But my friend said she was not flattered, simply unnerved by the attention.
A few months ago, I was in an unremarkable ‘chain’ coffee shop on a busy midweek morning. Babies were wailing, toddlers were tearing around leaving trails of crumbled flapjack, and several frustrated customers, balancing trays and shopping bags, were searching in vain for vacant seats. Seated at the table to my right and opposite was a man writing directly onto a laptop. Every couple of minutes he stopped, gawped at me then continued to type. Since I am no pre-Raphaelite beauty I began to wonder what he found so interesting. Did I have latte-foam dangling from my nostrils—or something more suspect—or crumbs on my lips; had I dribbled down my jumper? Whatever the answer, I drank up in haste and headed for the exit. If only I’d had a notebook, I thought, I could have returned the stare and made copious notes on the man himself.
Perhaps somewhere in a fashionable bohemian café, maybe in Bloomsbury or that capital of literary festivals Hay-on Wye, there are crowds of authors gathered around tables, glugging cappuccinos and observing each other, before typing frantically onto laptops.
Writers watching writers.
Meanwhile, I am sticking to my study in a spare bedroom, a cluttered desk and an overworked Nespresso machine.
And eavesdropping, of course, on the bus.