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.