Have Olive Oil, Will Travel

In The Guardian this weekend there was a ‘free pullout supplement’ on how to write fiction, including articles by various novelists, in addition to a series of writing exercises to spark different creative processes.  The question of why the newspaper is delving into the burgeoning market of creative writing courses is a discussion for another day, but reading some of the exercises made me think of that old chestnut of writing a shopping list for a character, or describing the contents of her handbag, to provide insights into her background or preoccupations.

I’ve written before about the portrait that we can draw of ourselves from observing the things we have in our homes, on our desks and stuffed in the backs of our closets; how these things provide a narrative of our history and the things we value.

So, I scanned the Cube here at Cove in which I’ve been living for the last couple of weeks; it contains an edited version of me, a sort of essence of what I regard as necessary for comfort in order to write, eat and sleep, in a pared down world.  An odd little narrative emerges.

First, of course, is the laptop which is essential for the writing, but also vital for DVD playing (‘Engrenages’ season 2, rationed for this trip) as well as the occasional download from the BBC iPlayer; but that’s not the limit of entertainment technology, as there’s also the radio (short wave, a veteran of my time in Moscow), the iPod (bought when I was still working, to make the twice monthly return journeys on the Eurostar tolerable, by tuning out all the self important and pointless shouting into mobile phones around me), iPod speaker (also bought when still working, so I could listen to Radio 4 podcasts, to make foreign hotel rooms tolerable), and last but not least, books (because they are essential, and after a series of stinkers, I’m pleased to be on a run of enjoyable ones).

Clothes have to be suitable to withstand driving rain, mud and puddles underfoot, so they tend to be the outdoor garments I’ve accumulated for various trekking holidays, which look perfectly reasonable as I’m trudging up the hill, or hopping in and out of the car to open the field gates where the mud puddles are particularly spectacular, but which mark me out as slightly odd on my occasional forays into Helensburgh.  I know if my teenage self had observed me wandering through Tesco Metro in my waterproof and walking boots, I’d have thought me very peculiar.  Even though it is on the edge of all of this countryside, Helensburgh is determinedly suburban, and what were then called ‘fashion shoes’ were the only acceptable footwear even on the worst of days.

But when I’m in the comfort of my cosy cube, I’m broadly dressed by British Airways.  My pyjamas, slippers, and some of my double layer of socks date from those serendipitous, lucky incidences of the ‘upgrade’ on business flights.  I wonder how many other pairs of BA PJs have made it to a writing retreat.

Cove Park is self catering, so I have my own little kitchenette complete with two hot plates, toaster, microwave, kettle and fridge.  It doesn’t suit everyone, I know, but I quite enjoy thinking of things I can cook in one pan on the hob….

After a couple of visits here I realised that each time I was buying new small bottles of olive oil, black pepper with built in grinder and little pots of salt.  What a waste.  So now, rather like my collection of miniatures to transport shampoo and assorted toiletries, I now have my ‘writing’ condiments, which I topped up at home…….  How did this happen?!

What of the bags in which it is all transported?  The suitcase came from Stanley Market in Hong Kong, when the handle came off the case I’d arrived with; and perhaps my favourite is my laptop bag which dates from a conference I attended in New York in 2006.  I only know the date because it’s embroidered on the pocket, celebrating the Silver Anniversary of an Annual International Tax Conference.  I don’t really know how it got so battered and spattered in mud, but something about the incongruity of it really pleases me.

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