Gladstone’s Library and the discipline of writing…..

Cheshire, England – October, 2014

I’ve decided I’m going to write. I have been talking about it for months and now I’m actually doing it. Well I’m trying to – it’s actually very hard. You have to set aside time to write. You have to decide what you are going to write about. You have to decide on your style, format and message. You have to exercise discipline. In fact that is the key – discipline.

Take this morning for example – I got up early and decided I’d be at The Gladstone Library, my preferred writing venue at 9.00 am. I pottered around achieving not very much. I got in the car and arrived at the library at 10.10 am. I know it’s not much different – I’d only wasted just over an hour. An hour wasted all the same. As I walked into the library I realised, to my horror that someone was sitting in my seat. My seat, someone was sitting in my seat. I nearly went home. Really, I did. I felt like Mr Bean when he is confronted with something and he doesn’t quite know what to do. The cogs in my brain began to turn. Suddenly I understood the Sheldon character in ‘Big Bang Theory’ he has to have a certain spot on the sofa. I looked around the library to identify another suitable seat. There were plenty. Not quite as perfect as mine, but adequate I was forced to admit.

I should explain that Gladstone’s Library is a beautiful sandstone building, built in the early 20th century to house the personal library of The Rt Hon WE Gladstone, former Prime Minister of Great Britain. In his twilight years the great man gave his book collection to the people of Hawarden, with the intention of providing a comfortable, peaceful place for people to read, write and think. I love this place, it reminds me of Oxford – but without the pressure.

The library has two floors, the upper floor is a gallery, and reading desks are located between the book shelves. Effectively each reading desk is like a small private study area. Downstairs there is a desk and reception area and comfortable arm chairs. The library takes all the quality papers and numerous periodicals. Endless opportunity to procrastinate further. Down the corridor is the canteen – which is brilliant, great food, good prices and nice staff. There is also a wonderful sitting room. It’s big and grand, with a huge fireplace and very comfortable chairs.

Upstairs there are bedrooms. You can actually stay here. In fact they claim to be the only residential library in the country. I have no idea if this is true or not. In fact come to think of it I don’t even know what country they mean. Wales of course, you idiot (talking to myself here), we are in Wales. But I digress. I’m always digressing, veering here and there, chaotic. So to return to my original theme, writing, I want to write.

So, what do I want to write about? Good question – what do I want to write about? Well, I do know the answer to this one. I want to write about the experiences I’ve had travelling the world over the last thirty odd years. Too boring? Too vague? Next question, what do you mean exactly when you say ‘the experiences you’ve had travelling the world over the last thirty years’. Well, I’d like to capture the atmosphere, people, climate, smells, vegetation, history and culture of different places. I’d like to create a series of short vignettes, each dedicated to a place, a group of people, a particular memory. Now that’s good, this is getting better.

Years ago when I was studying for a Master’s in the History of Art my tutor Suzie Butters used to encourage us to interview ourselves, to figure out exactly what we wanted our dissertation to be about. Interview yourselves in a rigorous and demanding fashion she declared in the style of Mary Poppins. Here I am years later doing that very thing. I didn’t really understand Professor Suzie Butters, she specialised in Renaissance Italian Gardens, whilst teaching at Manchester University. Her office was a pokey ten foot square cupboard in a horrible sixties-style concrete building that had been flung up just off the Oxford Road. This wonderful woman spent her days in this odious little cubicle, contemplating magnificent garden schemes of the 17th century. Each afternoon she would return from the vending machine with her cup of coffee and continue her consideration of terraced gardens, allegorical themes and Medici country houses. The irony of her situation and her chosen field of study had a profound impact on me. Quite how profound is hard to say given that my own MA dissertation, carefully selected by me, was on the subject of ‘Portrait Busts of the 19th century’. In fact to give my ‘opus magnus’ its full title I was considering ‘A Reappraisal of the portrait bust in 18th century England”. This has to be the truth – it would be impossible to make it up! To what extent I followed Ms Butters advice to interview myself rigorously when selecting my dissertation topic is a very good question indeed. Not very rigorously it would appear. That of course is in the past.

And as my friend Alison, who is big into ‘Mindfulness’ would say, we only have the present, so why not focus on that. Sound advice, always sound advice from Alison. Did you know that Elvis Costello had a huge hit with a song called ‘Alison’ in the late 70s, or was it the early 80s. Oh no here I go again. Now that was a hit too, but I have no idea who for. Now stop it, stop it. No, I don’t know that one.

Back to the interview………..So, what is it you want to write about Ms Simmonds? Focus girl, focus. I want to write about people and places that have amused and influenced me over the years. Now that’s more like it. A little more refined, a little more personal. Can I go now? Do you feel you have made some progress? If I say yes – does it mean I can go? Well that all depends, you are arguing with yourself here. What are you trying to achieve? I’m trying to write short, interesting pieces about people and places that I have come across or encountered on my travels, ideally with some wry observation and a bit of wit thrown in. I think we can leave it at that for today. Well that’s much better, much more clearly thought through.

I just need to get on with it now, build up a body of work. Work on my style, develop my ideas. Wish me luck – I think I’ll need it. Now first I’ll just have a nice cup of tea.


  • I should explain that the photograph of the Vintage Penguin paperbacks was taken at an amazing charity shop in Shaftesbury, Dorset. It is not part of the collection at Gladstone’s Library.
  • All opinions expressed are my own!

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