‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.
Today's guest is Hungarian-born, UK-based poet and translator George Szirtes. George is the author of nineteen books of poetry, including his most recent The Burning of the Books and Other Poems, which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. He won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2005 for Reel. George has translated numerous works of poetry, written regular criticism for The Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and New Statesman, amongst others, and written for radio and the stage.
I didn’t think I had any particular fetish until I realised my desk-light was on. It is always on when I am at the desk, whatever the light conditions. Let me describe it.
It is an old anglepoise. It’s clamped to the windowsill in front of me and whenever I look the clamp seems to have slipped a little further off the sill so the lamp’s hold on it appears precarious. I tighten the clamp a little and push the lamp back again
I once thought I wanted a more atmospheric lamp, not one of those giggly Tiffany things, but something more austere and altogether more classy, a banker’s lamp with a green shade, such as my friend has in Budapest. I think of his desk swimming with papers, books and notes. It seems unworkable, close-to-chaotic, but the banker’s lamp somehow authorises the mess, lending it a genuine gravitas. My desk isn’t as dignified, and the lamp is the reason.
Perhaps the banker’s lamp is just too much the thing for me. Perhaps its invitation is too Edwardian, too stylish. Perhaps the old anglepoise, always on the edge of calamity, is more my style, both as a man and as a writer. Who are the ideal banker’s-lamp men? (I think they are more likely to be men than women). Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Anthony Hecht, Julian Barnes: that imagined range.
But then there is something ramshackle about my whole desk, in fact about the entire room. Common apocryphal objects, like misplaced footnotes, have been adapted to different purposes. It’s not chaotic, just scrappy. It is not the room of a man of letters, not a meditative room. It’s an in-a-hurry, strike-now kind of room.
And the light is on, as it always is. The first thing I do on entering the room is switch on the anglepoise. The light is a focus that partly, but not entirely, shuts the room out. I don’t want to get fancy about this – you wouldn’t want me to – but it is, now I come to think of it, a kind of drama. The finest performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I have ever seen was in a tin hut where the lighting board was in view at the back and creaked every time a light was brought up or down. The consciousness of the circumstances somehow made the performance in the lit circle all the more autumnal, more powerful. I wondered afterwards whether this wasn’t a perversity on my part, like listening to old scratchy records of O parigi O cara sung by John McCormack and Lucrezia Bori, or Fats Waller performing Cinders. The scratches were mortality clearing its throat in the background, I grandly thought.
I hate fluorescent lighting, I hate any light too general and bright. Bright focus, dark corner with some not-too-arty clutter suits me better. It isn’t classy and it can’t afford to get carried away with itself. It reminds me of a sweet joke.
- Help me doctor, I think I am a moth!
- I am a doctor of medicine, the psychiatrist is next door.
- I know, but your light was on.