A Room of One’s Own

I realize I have a very rare privilege in that I possess a room of my own in which to work. When I first became a Fellow at a Cambridge college, I was thrilled to think I would finally have a room like those I visited so frequently in my undergraduate days. Fellow’s rooms were glorious hideyholes, in which academics barricaded themselves from the world by means of books and papers. They contained hard, elderly sofas and old-fashioned standard lamps and the kind of low, stealthy coffee table on which you would bark your shins if you weren’t terribly careful when you sat down. It’s not often in life that reality lives up to clichés, but you’ll find a Cambridge college settles comfortably down into its classic representations and, in many cases, often betters them.

But this was not the case with my first taste of professional accommodation. In my first job as a Junior Research Fellow, I was assigned a cupboard with a window at the top of the building that had once housed Pepys. It’s probable that his servant kept his linen in it. All it contained in my day was a battered wooden table and three plastic chairs. The ceiling sloped precariously beyond the final chair and ended in a tiny back wall containing a minuscule four-pane window. There was no space even for a bookcase or a decent table lamp. I trailed back down the stairs behind the porter, bitterly disappointed, while he joked that it was fit only for a toilet and hand basin. Alas it was to be my teaching abode for the next year. At the bottom of the staircase, an elderly man was attempting to lock his door behind him. The porter introduced me to one of those venerable ancient types all colleges possess: he had a gammy leg and a skin disease and a collection of harpsichords in his rooms. I thought he was my Nemesis: they were going to lock me up in that tiny attic room for the next thirty years and when I came down, I would look like him, too.

Uncertain of my rights, I wrote to the President at the end of the year, wondering if I could possibly have something a little larger? I often taught two students at a time and we had to remember to keep the door open or run out of oxygen. The President was kind and the next year saw me installed in a much more spacious room in the Lutyens building, a long, rather lovely red brick domain that backed right up against the river. This made for gorgeous sparkling patterns of light on my ceiling, and a creeping, bitter cold in winter. I remember writing an article about the Algerian novelist, Assia Djebar there, dreaming of North African heat with a blanket over my knees and a hot water bottle tucked underneath.

After that, I switched colleges and began a proper teaching post. The rooms I had assigned to me were romantically placed up the top of a gatehouse tower. A rickety spiral staircase led up several dizzying flights, slivers of bright light glancing through cracks in the wood. If I had leaned out of my leaded windows I would have looked down on the head of the statue recessed into the wall. It was one of many images of the college’s founder, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who had been something of an It girl in the middle ages and made herself a tidy fortune through marriage. The room’s other claim to fame was that William Herschel was supposed to have discovered Uranus from it. I liked this room, but it was very small again. It held a desk, two armchairs and a bed, and that was it. I did have a decent bookcase on the wall and at the far end a door led to a strange shaped space that contained a teeny kitchen and bathroom. But squeezing ten students in for a revision supervision was quite the game, and eventually I moved again.

When the college removal men turned up for my belongings they all wanted to see one thing: my inflatable alien. My son had won him for me at a fair, and not quite sure where best to house a lime green blow-up alien wearing a delightful football shirt, I placed him up against my windows, behind the curtains. There he had become something of a tourist attraction, the combination of his suave alien good looks and the bird-dropping encrusted head of Lady Margaret proving an unbeatable combination for photographers. Several times a day brilliant flares echoed around my white walls as the alien was snapped. When I looked out of my windows there was invariably a small child in its father’s arms, pointing. The alien was quite a fixture and I did feel guilty transporting him to the back of college, away from his tenuous fame. The removal men were insistent that I should outline his eyes in luminous paint and prop him up against the windows of my new abode, where he could freak drunken students out for a nighttime punt on the river. In fact, he didn’t survive the transition at all, having tragically suffered a puncture en route.

My new rooms weren’t alien friendly in any case. They were large and glamourous, with (finally!) over twenty metres of bookshelves, a separate bedroom, kitchen and bathroom and a lovely view over the Master’s garden. Located on the corner of a building, and plate glass from the waist up, it was rather like living in an especially nice greenhouse. My husband is particularly keen on them and regularly makes jokey noises of the you-could-always-take-me-up-on-this kind, suggesting we rent out our house and move in. The building is one of the ugliest in Cambrige, though, a concrete monstrosity from the sixties that won lots of architectural awards but leaked from the moment it started to house students. The reason I know this is that I get to listen to the commentary of the river tour guides, who pass below my windows every ten minutes or so in the summer months, infuriatingly repeating the same spiel. The river is in fact an incredibly noisy place to be; you wouldn’t believe the number of choirs who hire a punt, or the number of bossy teenage girls telling their dads what to do, or the number of people who scream and jump, or get pushed, overboard. In the winter, it’s blissfully quiet, if you discount the wind howling around the steel reinforced corners of the building.

And now it’s time for me to move on again. Typically enough, the biggest rooms I had coincided with a three-year break from work, and after a year of student support, it’s clear I don’t need such grand accommodation. Last week I saw my new room, located right at the front of college, overlooking the library and the chapel. ‘It’s got a lot of paneling,’ the accommodation officer told me, ‘but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised’. It has indeed got a lot of paneling, but not the kind that I was expecting, not the kind that screams eighteenth century gentlemen’s club. Instead it’s like a mahogany cave in there, flat dark wood boarding on the floor, walls and ceiling, and two narrow cylindrical bulbs above a boarded up fireplace, giving it the look of a New York speakeasy in the Jazz Era. The staircase has been recently renovated so there are nice shared facilities nearby. I find I am ready for a change of scene; spaces are like states of mind to me and it’s good to have a life laundry every so often and chuck all those old files and fittings out. Things accumulate, I find, relentlessly, and now I want to feel sleek and unencumbered again. At present the room is completely empty, and I’m rather hoping I might get to visit college’s legendary furniture store, which sounds like a cross between the Salvation Army and Aladdin’s Cave, to seek out a desk and some sofas. Hopefully I can move in before the end of the month. I’ll do so with a little salute to Virginia Woolf. A room all of one’s own is a necessity and yet still a delightful treat.

18 thoughts on “A Room of One’s Own

  1. Can you post a picture of your new room, or just a little bit of it? I agree, that having a room of one’s own is essential to sanity. I have an office, but next-door to my husband’s and across the hall from the laundry it doesn’t feel too private or conducive to creativity (though I manage). I dream of a room of my own separate from my house.

  2. Lol! What a lovely post. At least in your colleges, there was some history behind the tiny spaces–Pepys and the discovery of a planet–my, my! I love the alien–I’m sure many were sad to see him go! And maybe the New York speakeasy will be inspiring in some way? I hope so! I love your descriptions (as usual), and I agree with you and Virginia Woolf, we all need that little place we can call our own🙂

  3. My daughter Helen who is a junior fellow at St Johns must have struck lucky. She and her husband have been given a lovely recently redecorated flat just 5 mins walk aay from the college. it is small but immaculate and rent can best be described as peppercorn.. I turned green when she told me. I am coming to Cambridge tomorrow – not for any intellectual purpose you understand. I am visiting Bravissimo to buy some new bras!!

  4. What a fun post. I think it should now be a rule that all rooms such as yours should come with an alien, historical personage or ghost, crazy furnishings or something individualising – or at least the right to add your own odd features. I never got beyond a departmental office – never big enough!

  5. As a postgraduate student in French, I can but dream! Coming to the end of my first year of a PhD, I fantasize (constantly) of a room of my own. The fact that my desk is less than half a metre from my pillow is beginning to drive me mad! I love your posts – thank you.

  6. The alien story had me laughing! Your new digs sound like they have some funky decorating potential. I think beaded drapery might be in keeping with the speakeasy feeling😉 A photo or two–before and after?–is also in order.

  7. I have to echo others…please post a photo. I just loved this post – I felt as though I was right there at Cambridge. I must say, there is nothing I would love more than to spend my days in such an atmosphere…and to get paid for it to boot!

  8. This concept of ‘rooms’ is very foreign to me! Right now, my car is my office, so every time I open a door, papers fly out.
    The descriptions of your rooms was so much fun to read – I think I would have become much more attached to your last digs, were they mine, and would have been pulled out kicking and screaming.
    I hope you enjoy the new space🙂 and thanks for the fun read, Litlove.

  9. So much enjoyed the description! My current office is white and institutional, with white, institutional shelving and a white, institutional desk (now is the time for you to ask if I am teaching French in a mental institution! don’t worry, nothing’s padded.) I am hoping to have it painted, as there is no sign I will ever move from here. Much love to Cambridge, where I have spent some wonderful time.

  10. I adore this post! Not only is it wonderfully transporting – even in an extraterrestrial way – it takes my mind into matters of space and its relationship to what we do… and the importance of change, too. Just the best post, Litlove, I love it.

  11. Charlotte – I promise a photo! I’m hoping to move in before the end of the month and as soon as I get into it again, I’ll take my camera along. I must say that a certain distance from family chores does help. Barricade the door or sound proof it – being unable to hear the wails of children is advisable.

    Lilian – you are very welcome! I do recall your own post in which you described your writing places in the house and I enjoyed that very much, too!

    Gentle reader – history is something that no space in Cambridge is lacking!🙂 A decent sofa or a working radiator is another matter altogether… Thank you for the kind words – it was fun to remember all my different rooms and I’m hoping my little speakeasy will become a cozy hidey-hole in time.

    Elaine – I’ve always lived in my own house outside college, and so have never needed more than a study room. People who need married accomodation already have a leg up the ladder! But John’s generally has very nice living spaces, so I’m sure Helen is very comfortable. One day our paths will cross, I’m sure. I hope you had a lovely shopping trip!

    Bookboxed – I absolutely agree – ALL rooms should have such a feature, to make up for the draughts and the uncertain plumbing and all the disadvantages of 400 years worth of history! Mind you, you should see the dirty battles that commence when a new building has gone up and everyone’s fighting for the clean, well-furnished, well-facilitated office spaces!

    Hannah – oh good luck to you! I recall my own days in such places. When you first leave home even that tiny space is an adventure, but once the books start to accumulate, something needs to be done. Bon courage for finishing your dissertation, here’s hoping it leads you straight to a lovely, cushy academic post.🙂

    Emily – I will post a photo – I won’t get back in the room for a bit, but I’ll take my camera when I do.

    David – thank you, how kind! My now flat and defunct alien thanks you.

  12. Stefanie – I will certainly post a photo in the near future and beads… hmm, I hadn’t thought of that, but why not? I’m sure the room will be lovely when it’s done and I should really take my son to the fair again. I wouldn’t say no to more alien offspring…😉

    Grad – it is a lovely atmosphere and the problem is that years of working in it have dulled my senses. But I do appreciate it still, and a change of scene helps. I’m glad you enjoyed it – it was fun to recall all the places I’ve lived.

    Qugrainne – I am very glad my husband never moved into my current rooms, because I think he would have agreed with you! They have been delightful, but somehow I am ready to move on. As for the car, well, I have a tendency to do some filing in it myself, and it gets called ‘the gerbil’s cage’ for this reason!😉

    Jenny – well now I am hugely curious as to your time in Cambridge. I assure you it sends love back! White sounds clean and tidy and serene, although I can understand the urge for a little colour. I am collecting together my posters in the hope of breaking up the mahogany a little!

    Doctordi – hugs to you! Thank you – I had a lot of fun remembering all my rooms. You would have liked the alien, I think. He had a lot of pizzazz.

    Verbivore – I can’t quite believe it but at the moment it doesn’t even have a single book shelf – outrageous! Books on the shelves and food in the fridge make a home, they say, and I am looking forward to the day I can make that come good!

  13. This was fun to read! What IS it with the dark paneling? I’ve lived in too many places where the former owners just loved dark paneling. Yikes. I hope you have fun decorating your new space and that you enjoy all the work you do there!

  14. I love all your descriptions of each space (am especially fond of the alien), and yes, a room of one’s own is a wonderful thing. I’ve begun to get greedy, though, and wish I could be like Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a whole house of her own. Oh, and aren’t empty spaces so wonderful, presenting so many possibilities? I could probably be quite happy living in a house full of empty or almost-empty rooms — except for one. It would be the nice cozy one with big comfy chairs, an old secretary filled with lovely pens and paper for writing, and a huge fireplace (and maybe someone to deliver chocolates and tea and keep the fire going when I ring a bell).

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