Where I Write
I work after work. For the most part my daytime existence is taken up by a humdrum office job in central Manchester, after which I take a short walk to Piccadilly Railway Station in which can be found the branch of Starbucks where I get most of my writing done. I tend to write for 2-3 hours. When I'm done there, I have a twenty-minute bus journey home. By the time I return home I’ve been sat in front of a computer screen for almost 11 hours, the most intensive part of which has come at the end of this period. Understandably, I associate my branch of Starbucks of choice with tiredness as well as writing.
There are, it's true, plenty of other nicer cafés nearer to my home, but I can't go to those. I simply can't. I've tried it. The first problem is that a strong and friendly community spirit prevails over where I live: no bad thing, but it does mean that, aside from the ubiquitous crying of neighbourhood infants, I also face the risk of running into people I know. I am a good deal more predisposed to wiling away the evenings in pleasant conversation rather than the dispiriting grind that is getting words down on the page. Starbucks, despite the promise of its shiny wooden floors, comfortable seating and folksy promotional posters, eliminates the possibility of any such friendliness. Also, it's the only café I know of which stays open till 10pm.
Alternately, I'd love to have a quiet, private office of my own in which to work but, at the moment, I don't. So instead I opt for the next best thing. Here (I am currently in Starbucks) I am surrounded by noise and movement: the conversations, movements and all-round hustle and bustle of commuters, holidaymakers and passers-by that comes with a large railway station. Here, the presence of others, although unavoidable, is also so ubiquitous and so fleeting and so irritating that it leaves the mind with little opportunity to latch onto anything enormously distracting.
Here's what I do when I get to Starbucks. I buy a tea, usually a Grande although sometimes a Venti, find an unoccupied table and drink slowly whilst I work. Once my cup's empty I usually need to go to the bathroom.
Let's begin with my bathroom activity. As there's no bathroom in the Manchester Piccadilly branch of Starbucks itself I instead have to save whatever document it is I'm working on, gather my things together and leave to use the railway station's toilets. These toilets charge 30p to access and there is a pair of machines near their turnstiles which provide the necessary denominations of change if one only has pound coins or fifty-pence pieces on oneself. If, as happens, I haven't got any change at all on me my only option is to queue for the cash machine, withdraw £10 (£5 if I’m lucky, £20 if I’m not) and then go into the neighbouring branch of Sainsbury’s to buy something with which I'll hopefully be given change. I use the bathroom and, if I'm still feeling awake enough and in a positive enough mood, return to my writing. I'm at a stage where I and a number of staff members at the Piccadilly branch of Starbucks now recognise one another on sight but not the stage where we acknowledge as much, so I often find the prospect of returning there to buy another tea and again unpack all my things and begin writing far too awkward and embarrassing to countenance, and instead decamp to Pret a Manger (which is next door) or to the Hourglass Bar (which is upstairs) or, if necessary, even one of the general seats around the station itself. I then repeat the beverage-work-bathroom cycle, a microcosm of the writing life, until it's time for me to go home.
Clearly this is all very inconvenient, but rest assured there are a number of aspects to working in a busy city centre café which are much less conducive to getting work done. First of all, there's the music. I spend a couple of hours in Starbucks nearly every day and the music is nearly always the factor which determines when it is time for me to leave. Have you ever sat in a branch of Starbucks for a protracted length of time? The music itself is fine - the sort of beige, acoustic-jazz songs with which the company has come to be associated – but these songs, in the branch of Starbucks I frequent at least, are played on a rota. The twinkly lounge jazz song followed by the upbeat Elbow-type song followed by the toothlessly amicable cover of a Nina Simone song followed by The Rembrandts' 'I'll Be There For You' followed by another twinkly lounge jazz song followed by a song which sounds like it's going to be by Eels but isn't. And so on. There's only so much of the stuff the human mind can withstand. I mean, it's all fine – boring, obviously, but fine – but no-one would ever choose to listen to them every single day. And certainly not more than once. If you've spent enough time in a room for 'I'll Be There For You' to be played twice, it is time to leave that room. A motto with which I'm sure we can all agree.
Another factor is the dilemma of where to sit. When I arrive it's usually just after 5:30pm, prime time for exhausted commuters to pack themselves in for an Espresso and muffin. I rarely have the pick of the choice writing seats (the ones to the rear), and often find myself sitting down to write with someone at a neighbouring table peering over my shoulder whilst munching away on their apple fritter donut. This used to bother me, but I've grown less self-conscious simply by daily exposure to their beady eyes and wet chewing. I quite like the idea that there's a handful of knackered office workers who return home throughout the week, each with a scrap of my work-in-progress floating about somewhere in the consciousness.
By far the worst thing about where I work however - something I've grown to dread - is the seemingly unending procession of people who come into the place who I can only describe as insane. There is not a week that passes without me being singled out from the rest of the later-afternoon customers for an encounter with someone who has, to a varying and often unsettling degree, lost their mind. Before I go any further let me say that I'm sure these people have their problems and that, yes, I'm perhaps coming across as unkind but, believe me, their intrusion into what I try to think of as my place of work is so comprehensive, so routine, so terrifying that it's difficult to remain as sympathetic as I'd like to be. These mad people can be very unpredictable, the hues of their madness far more numerous, its wide spectrum far wider than you'd probably suppose. The only common factor amongst them appears to be their desire for a conversation with me, usually a one-sided one. There's been the man who wanted to detail the minutiae of his Polish ancestry; the man who explained how he sewed his coat together with scraps of material he'd found here and there; the woman who asked me to look after a carrier bag full of litter whilst she went for a walk around the station, swiftly followed by her aggressive husband who appeared demanding to know what I was doing with the bag, having spotted and recognised it from the Starbucks window; the man who sat down opposite me at the table I'd chosen and glared at me, not breaking eye-contact once, even whilst slowly and, I thought, deliberately spilling his hot drink down his front; the man who told me he had 'a dead arm' and asked me if he could 'have a go' on my laptop; the young South African man who handed me a seemingly ceaseless range of flyers about an alarming sounding branch of Christianity; the woman who told me about the hoover she'd recently bought, how it wasn't working even though her son had come around to look at it and he worked as an engineer, or at least he did before he lost his job in Blackpool where she had once visited him and got lost looking for an Italian restaurant; the endless drunks. I don't know why they single me out. Maybe they see something in me, some weakness, some chink in the armour of uninterested hostility I try my hardest to maintain.
On a number of times I've found it necessary to leave, to simply pack up my stuff, mutter some sort of excuse and decamp to Pret a Manger. Here I often find myself beset by yet another mad person intent on striking up a conversation and - a one-man Suite Française - find I must gather my things and flee once again. The thing I'm working on at the moment, Ark, is a novel I like to think of as being serious quality literature, a delusion it's difficult to maintain once one is faced with this sort of activity. I can't imagine, for instance, that Seamus Heaney finds himself jogging up an escalator to escape an elderly man who really wants to talk to him about changes to a local bus route, at least not with the same regularity as I seem to.
Does the place have an influence on what I write? Not in any way that I’ve not noticed. It's a place of necessity. I write tired. This, I think, has a much bigger impact on my writing. And in a good way: keeping my writing interesting is crucial. If I try to embark on a passage for which I've little enthusiasm or which I think of simply as 'filler' my mind starts to wander. The content and style I find myself drawn to are, in part, attempts at keeping myself awake.
It's important to just get a reasonable amount of words down on the screen in a reasonable order, particularly when the project I'm working on is in an early-to-midway phase. I don't have the luxury of energy. With plenty of time and desk of my own I'm fairly sure I'd become entirely preoccupied with trying to ensure the whole thing was coming together perfectly as I worked, each scene well-written and fully-fledged. Of course, this is never the way things actually work. Also, the act of writing itself can be a woozy activity to give your mind over to – pulling every-increasing structures of meaning out of nothing but the 26 characters of the alphabet and a few dots and dashes. All very frightening if you allow yourself to think about it too much. A place like Piccadilly Starbucks helps you forget about all of this. Here, the process of putting together a story is a lot more openly ad-hoc and chaotic, something which is matched by the bustling populace swarming around me. You have to get your head down, throw some slabs of text together and hope for the best.
So I suppose that's what I do and will continue to do for as long as it takes. I don't have any inspirational quotes from favourite books or photographs of great novelists surrounding me, like the people you read about in the 'Writers' Rooms' feature in the Guardian's Review section, but noisy strangers drinking coffee. And that's fine: you play the hand you've been dealt. I'll remain here, locked unthinkingly into my routine of drinking tea, pressing buttons on a keyboard and then going to the bathroom, like a character in a Beckett play, all the time hoping for (but trying not to think about) an end product which proves the whole of it – the intrusive madmen, the constant chatter, the terrible terrible music - to have been worthwhile all along.