I’m writing this at my desk, in my flat, overlooking a stretch of north London road I now see as my own. Behind me, there are shelves filled with my books. The walls are hung with my pictures – an oil painting done by my grandmother, a charcoal sunset I bought with my first book advance.
If I overuse the possessive pronoun, it’s because I haven’t been able to say those things for a while. For more than a year, I’ve led a somewhat nomadic existence, living out of suitcases in different cities, varied countries and a range of other people’s houses. My desk has been in storage; so have my pictures, books and most of my clothes.
When I moved into this rented flat last weekend, the first thing I did was to put my desk in front of the bay window, take out my laptop and imagine myself writing there. I experienced a surge of lightness, which I later realised was relief – relief to have claimed a space which was mine. It was, as Virginia Woolf said in 1929, a room of one’s own.
Woolf was talking metaphorically about female authors staking their territory in a male-dominated literary canon. But she was also being literal about the need for us to have a place to create, separate from the domestic drudgery of the family home.
Of course, I knew about Woolf’s dictum growing up. It was quoted so often it might as well have been a T-shirt slogan. I always thought of it as something eminently wise and sensible, but not necessarily applicable to me. I was an author and a journalist, but I was lucky enough to have been born in an era when some major gender-equality battles had already been fought. No one was questioning my right to express myself.
But the truth was I never really had a permanent desk at home. After university, I went straight into a houseshare in Clapham. When I eventually got my own flat, there wasn’t room for anything other than a fold-away Ikea kitchen table, so I wrote my first novel sitting in cafés, nursing strong Americanos and hoping not to get thrown out. When I moved in with my long-term partner, my desk finally had a spot in the spare room, but was often purloined by weekend visitors. I still went to cafés to write.
When that relationship ended last year, I moved out and put everything, apart from a few wheeled cases and my laptop, into a storage unit in Croydon (and, yes, that is one of the most depressing sentences I’ve ever written). I stayed with my mother for a while. I moved in with one of my best friends for several months. Then I booked a flight and lived in an Airbnb in Los Angeles from August to December. On my return, some exceptionally generous friends lent me their house in Cambridge for another three.
The changing scenery was exactly what I needed at the time. I was in my mid-thirties: emotionally fragile and questioning what I was going to do with the rest of my life. After decades of perceived certainty about the future, I suddenly had no anchors. The parameters had dissolved.
I had no home, no partner, no children. There was no terraced house waiting to be populated by babies who I would watch grow into adults, before retiring and deciding to extend the kitchen
I had no home, no partner, no children. There was no terraced house waiting to be populated by babies who I would watch grow into adults, before retiring and deciding to extend the kitchen. I had always thought things would turn out that way. But they weren’t going to.
So I needed to be shown that there were other ways to live. I needed not to have the responsibility of fixing the boiler or buying pillows. I needed shelter in other people’s houses and I was fortunate enough to find it.
I had always been someone who hated moving and packing, but now I found that I was getting pretty good at it. I had far too much stuff. With every move, I tried to strip away that sentimental, hoarding instinct (no one really needs a birthday card from your godmother, postmarked 1998) and throw out everything but the things I would save in a fire.
It was liberating, being disencumbered. I had fewer clothes and therefore came to realise what suited me best, rediscovering my own style in the process. There were a few items I took everywhere with me: my grandfather’s cigarette case; a lucky horseshoe; a word-cloud made for my hen do, featuring the adjectives my friends most associated with me. These three objects reminded me that I had a personal history. I had people who loved me.
But, at every turn, I was living in someone else’s space. I never entirely relaxed in case I broke anything. I was aware of the need to be a good guest and not to take up too much space or make my presence too visible (this was a pressure I placed on myself – none of my extremely generous hosts would have dreamed of asking the same).
It wasn’t until last Saturday that I realised how much I had been craving my own home. As I unpacked my boxes and hung up clothes I hadn’t seen for months, I was aware of a calm blooming in the pit of my stomach. I could arrange everything the way I wanted without worrying about someone else’s taste. I could put things on shelves without being anxious that I would have to take them down in a matter of weeks. I was no longer living according to the rules of another person’s territory. That was what Virginia Woolf was talking about, all those years ago.
And, when I sat at my desk for the first time in over a year, looking out at the spring blossom and the ginger cat arching its back on a sun-dappled spot of pavement, I knew, without doubt, that I could write here. That I was myself again.