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Writing Space

By pauldodgson, Mar 10 2015 12:16PM

I am sitting at a table in the Boston Tea Party, a café in the middle of Bristol. Outside, on this overcast morning, traffic rumbles up the steep hill in low gear, while inside the dark walls of the first floor salon there is a wash of muted conversation. In front of me are a coffee cup, notebooks and a computer atop an old wooden table. Without the electronics, when I am writing by hand, I can pretend I am a clerk in a Charles Dickens novel, but look up and this is the modern world: laptops, smartphones and tablets abound. Importantly, there is no music.

I can write freely here when I can’t write anywhere else. When I am at home I am too easily overwhelmed by looming piles of tasks undone, but here the murmur of other lives wraps me in an aural security blanket. I feel comfortably connected to the world, but disconnected enough to lose myself.

I have been coming here for a long time. I wrote much of my first commissioned play in this room in the summer of 1999, when I discovered that a latte would kick start my brain and give me half an hour of intense writing time, during which I could generate enough ideas to see me though the day. There were a few years when it became very busy and I migrated to another branch up the road, but then that got busy too, but by then, this café had taken over the offices above the shop next door, so I came back.

Of course the conditions are not always perfect. Sometimes there will be a meeting going on, led by someone lacking a volume control and it is impossible not to be dragged out of my reverie by indecipherable jargon. A visit to the loo means either packing everything up or trusting my hard drive to strangers. Then there are the storytellers. Just before Christmas, four men sat at a table next to me and one related the tale of the previous day, during which he had been out for a Sunday drive with a friend, was stopped by the police, breathalysed, arrested, driven far away to a police station, held in captivity then released without charge. The account was so vivid, and I felt so outraged, that for days afterwards I relayed the story to everyone I met.

When I received my first commission to create an episode of Eastenders, I hadn’t done enough writing to know how hard it would be and I decided to write the first draft on holiday with my parents and family in Dorset. We had rented a lovely cottage next to the sea with its own office. The plan was to write for a couple of hours every morning and the thing would be done by the end of the week. What could possibly go wrong? After breakfast I would saunter into the office, open the window and fire up the laptop. As I stared at the blank screen I would hear sounds from the beach and the holiday voices of my children playing in the garden. I had all the physical space I needed and couldn’t think of anything to say. After the holiday, during which I had become increasingly tense, I went back home and wrote the episode in a single night in the utility room, then was back here in the cafe early the next morning for corrections: Kat Slater shouting in my head as a couple on the next table tucked into a West Country Breakfast.

In December 2013 I rented a space in an office just down the road from the cafe. Three months after a painful break up I woke to another grey morning and decided I needed a more permanent base outside home. I looked on Gumtree and within half an hour was on my way to view a shared office. I took it and it was great: a spacious desk in a light room behind a converted Georgian house. There was endless coffee, table football and a few guys with a great sense of humour. It was like one of those jobs where you turn up and muck about all day, take the money and go home, except we were all self-employed so we didn’t get paid. Added to which, two of the guys worked in recruitment, so when they weren’t mucking about they were on the phone recruiting, which is a very noisy business. Or at least one of them was: the other had spent six months setting up a financial recruitment company, printing letterheads, building a website and so forth. As the time came to actually start on the job he became increasingly distracted, keeping up a running commentary as he shopped for trousers on the Internet, and collaring anyone who passed by and persuading them to play table football. He even set up a complicated league system and bought a giant trophy. So I found myself going there for the laughs and coming up here to work. Eventually the office had to go.

I just did the sums and worked out that as I have been here for an average of three days a week for forty-five weeks a year, then at today’s prices I have spent £8100 on coffee alone. But then I have probably written five plays and the lyrics to thirty songs, so perhaps it all works out in the end.

Now the lunchtime rush begins and the room starts to fill. The conversations are louder, for the first time there is pressure on space and it is time to go. I pack up and head for the reference library down the hill, which is a whole different experience. But that is a story for another day.

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