I began my fascination with writers as a boy, particularly during the period when I lived in Borth, on the west coast of mid-Wales. For no reason that I can think of, I found photographs of authors at work thrilling. Invariably in black and white, theirs was a mysterious, magical world – where make believe began. An old desk. Usually a typewriter, but sometimes just paper and an elegant fountain pen. Perhaps a pipe. And in my favourite ones – a panama hat.
But the photos that really appealed to me were those of writers bathed in sunlight. Sometimes on a verandah, or under a shady tree with olive groves in the background. Sometimes indoors but in a room with slatted wooden blinds and pale or white walls, bright daylight bouncing from ceiling to floor. These would be the types such as Graham Greene, or PG Wodehouse in his exile, countless Hollywood screenwriters, or Ian Fleming (below) in his Jamaican hideaway.
Natural light is so important for our well-being, and the brighter the better. I’ve lived, and tried to write, in a wide variety of natural environments, from arid semi-desert, sub-tropical greenery, flat, flaaa-aaat landscapes, towns, the seaside, and oppressively green countryside. And, however much it shouldn’t make a difference, it does make a difference.
A true pro should be able to write and work anywhere, of course, oblivious to everything. In an ideal world we would all be the same. We don’t live in an ideal world. Perhaps, if we did a straw poll, we’d find that peace and quiet was more beneficial to a writer than a spectacular view. Spectacular views can be distracting. Beautiful sunny days can be distracting, too. They make the writer want to get out amongst it. It’s far too beautiful a day to waste it indoors. But a writer spends a lot of time in anguished turmoil, scratching around in despair because that word on the tip of the tongue – that perfect word – it just won’t come out. And then there are those moments of calmer reflection, a little Zen-like moment while a scene is allowed to unfold organically, as if watching a film at the cinema. These, and others, are those occasions when what the mind needs is to be bathed in light and positive energy. I found it so much more difficult when all you can stare at is a grim, damp piece of suburbia; or the back end of Tesco’s car park on bonfire night.
I think we need peace and tranquility to work at our best – writing or otherwise. And here we are all different beasts. For me, I always think back to those photos of writers in the south of France. Beautiful but simple ramshackle house. Verandah and gardens with dappled shade. And the knowledge that it’s but a brisk walk to the town and human company.
And of course, it’s just a fantasy. If you’re not ready to get the job done, it won’t matter where you go – you’ll always come up with some excuse. If you’re not right in the head, a nice environment won’t fix it by itself, though it will help for a while. But once you are ready to get stuck in, then I will always say: let there be light!