A room with a view

Posted on August 8, 2020

We all know that writing isn’t just the process of sitting staring at a screen and hoping great thoughts will appear. My allotment plays quite an important part in the creative process; the rhythm of planting, watering, weeding, pruning and harvesting and the calm it brings, all enable creative thoughts to emerge from the subconscious.  I love the produce, but I also love the sense of solitude in a busy urban setting. The site is tucked away off Cowley Road in amongst the medieval buildings of Bartlemas hamlet. It was the site of Oxford’s leper hospital in the 12C, and right up to 1864, when the workhouse on Cowley Road was completed and they were transferred, it housed almsmen who cultivated 15 acres. The fact that the site has been in continuous cultivation for almost 900 years was one of the inspirations for my Cowley Road Cookbook.

While creative thought often happens there, and for decades I’ve carried pen and paper in my pocket so as not to lose those moments of inspiration, the real donkey work nonetheless is carried out at home. I have a small study lined with too many books and a number of original photographs by photographers who inspire me, including Bill Brandt, Lee Miller and Edward Burtynsky.  The view is actually pretty unusual for urban east Oxford, because there is no parallel road behind; instead a view  of the central Oxford Mosque and the former workhouse chapel.  It is a distinctly urban view but the combination of sacred buildings and trees provides an unusual level of tranquility augmented by my garden; pond, crab apple tree and the gentle clucking of my hens. Just as well really as my desk, and the floor immediately around me look like a bit of a war zone, as I grapple with several projects at once, first drafts of articles, page proofs to get back to the publisher for my contribution to ‘The Routledge Companion to William Morris’ due out in October, and the paraphernalia of research on the next project…

This article first appeared in The Oxford Writer, No 79, Summer 2020.