a pod of one’s own

We live in a typical, late-Victorian, Edinburgh tenement. It has high ceilings, and the rooms are reasonably sized, but there are not many of them. Most of the other flats in our building have an extra room which has been created by the division of the kitchen into two. But we kept the large kitchen, and took the unusual step of making a room in what most folk would regard as a cupboard. This room – known as ‘the pod’ – is the size of a single bed. Above head height is a stash of yarn and fabric and half of my (seasonally-rotating) wardrobe. Down below there are print-covered walls and book-covered shelves, a desk, a chair, and a computer. As it is small and windowless, there are no distractions: the pod has seen the thrashing out of many ideas and is a really good thinking space. It is also posessed of mysterious tardis-like properties — we have actually managed to fit a (small) sleeping guest in it, and, if there is something that we want to to watch on the iplayer, Tom and I and my knitting all get in it together (though things become tight when the animals want to join in). I wrote a book in the pod, and this blog, as well as all of my knitting designs are produced from inside it. It probably sounds a little peculiar to say that this tiny, windowless box is my favorite room–but it really is.

The pod has been a sort of faded-mid-blue colour for several years (we did what everyone does when they buy their first place, and painted every room a different shade). You can get a reasonable sense of the colour of the walls (as well as of the teetering terror of the upper shelves) from the picture in this post. (Were marvelous Messy Tuesdays really three years ago? Perhaps it is time to revive them.) Anyway, I have wanted to freshen up the pod up for a while, and particularly so now that my change of employment circumstances is imminent. My delayed birthday present was some paint from Farrow and Ball and we have spent the past couple of days sorting things out, and redecorating.

Sorting through things one has gathered generally prompts reflection, and this was certainly the case yesterday as I rearranged my shelves. As you might imagine, I am an inveterate buyer and hoarder of books. Now, in my mind, there has not been much buying and hoarding over the past couple of years, because I have had a stroke, but the contents of my bookcases show how far this is from being the case. Imperceptibly, a change has taken place. Rather than lots of books about eighteenth-century American politics, there is now a whole shelf of books about Scotland, and another one dedicated to the history and representation of the Scottish fishing industry. The woollen trade has its own area, and who knew that I had acquired so many of the pleasingingly idiosyncratic volumes published under the Shire imprint? I also seem to own everything that came off the Dryad or Odhams presses, and there are a disturbing number of gigantic tomes about fashion illustration and design. On another shelf, there are neuroscience textbooks, alongside memoirs of those who have suffered stroke, Parkinsons, and other conditions. Oliver Sacks has his own space, too, as I have, with increasing distaste, been working my way through his annoying essays with a view to writing about him at some point. (I regard Sacks in much the same way as my former colleague, Tom Shakespeare, memorably describes him: “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”)

I wrote a little glumly not so long ago about facing the fact that I was no longer an academic. But what my bookshelves reveal is that — as many of you pointed out in your comments at the time — I clearly couldn’t stop being one if I tried. I have many interests, and I love transforming the things that I am interested in into other things — words, photographs, sweaters. I no longer have an institutional context, and I am also considerably poorer than I was. Donuts are not everything, though: I still have a brain that works, a whole lot of ideas, and a pod of my own in which these ideas can take whatever shape I choose. I will never be happy about having had a stroke; about having to deal with its debilitating, chronic consequences; or about having to leave a job that, despite the many horrors of the ‘current climate’, I genuinely enjoyed. Yet I very much doubt that the working environment of UK Universities PLC was what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she wrote about the hopeful prospect of women’s intellectual and creative independence in 1929. Perhaps, with a couple of years hindsight, I will be glad that I no longer have to implement national and institutional policy decisions with which I do not agree, and produce research ‘outputs’ so formally, always with an eye to the next assessment deadline.

In any case, re-painting the pod was an extremely good move. We are still working on the finishing touches (prints need hanging, the computer is not set up and, most unusually, I am writing this from the living room). Perhaps I’ll show you some photographs tomorrow.

31 responses

  1. I hope you will be very cosy in your pod.
    By the way, I’ve been reading Textisles n° 1 with great pleasure. I have yet to look up a few words in my dictionnary, but it is beautifully written and I appreciated the pictures very much.

    Have a good day

  2. As I am so fond of saying: you can take the woman out of university, but you cannot take the university out of the woman. I find that I have broaden my horizons considerably – not to say that I was narrow in my interests before, but I was certainly more .. streamlined or focused – and that my whims now take me down paths I would never have considered relevant before. Just that word: “relevant” .. I am sure I use it less frequently nowadays.

    Incidentally I too have a pod in my Victorian tenement flat and it too houses bookshelves and a tiny office space. It is not really a partitioned-off pod, though, and I do have a view.

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one regarding Sachs with suspicion. Maybe it’s my old ways: if it is too populist, it cannot be all that worthwhile (I nearly wrote relevant).

    • A pod with a view! Paradise, surely.

      Though I know just what you mean about academics and the ‘popular’, I don’t think that this is behind my issue with Sacks; its the way that he exploits other people’s ‘interesting’ disabilities in the service of his own creativity.

    • What a great insight into your work. Reminded me of my ‘pod’ – windowless with bookshelves that are messily crammed with books about mathematics, theology, knitting and fiber and yarn. I always felt bad about having no windows (no natural light) but you have given me a new perspective. I, too, mourn the loss of a job with a paycheck (mine due to budget cuts in the school system) but am working at my knitting craft as though it were a job! Your writing really inspires me.

      So, carry on, Kate.

  3. I look forward to the pictures! We have a pod too! It is called the box though. When my boyfriend and I moved in together, we decided to keep going on dates, to avoid our life together getting taken over by mundane tediousness. We have been on clearing-out-the-box dates. Exciting times! Sounds like you had a great date too.

  4. I miss my old tenement flat- I had a similar arrangement in the cupboard/ study. The balance was somewhat different though and I was clearly more dedicated to my knitting than my studies!

    (I was excited to read that you know Tom Shakespeare- I have met a couple of times and heard him speak. He is, I think, a really interesting writer in disability studies. He seems to have done ok as a freelance academic…)

  5. Your pod reminds me of my favorite place in my parents house, my closet. I shared a room with my sister, but it had a walk in closet, so when I needed to get away, that’s where you’d find me. I had a chair, some old pillows and a blanket and that was my reading nook. What’s strange is that nowadays you couldn’t pay me enough to be in a room without a window for any length of time. Somewhere along the way I seem to have developed claustrophobia. But my workroom at home is still a nice small room, with a window.

  6. Your thoughts about the changes in your life are so well put, and I love your viewpoint. Realistic and optimistic at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing pictures of your completed pod space!

  7. I can’t wait for the pictures! I am a massive Farrow & Ball fan – having recently moved back into a teeny Victorian terrace from a more modern property, I’m glad to be able to crack open the paint again. My spare room/craft room is painted in Yellow Ground and I’m planning a few other colours for the rest of the house (Caluna and Teresa’s Green so far!).

    What did you choose? I’m glad you have a little nook that you can retreat to!

  8. I’m with you all the way on this one. And a few years ahead of you. Ill health has put paid to my formal academic career, it has not stopped me reading, researching, writing and designing … and now I get to do those things without having to concern myself with agendas other than my own. Enjoy your freedom Kate, and hopefully you’ll discover, as I have done, that’s it not so small a compensation for the things that you’ve lost..

  9. Years ago, I went out with a chap who, through the week, stayed with his sister. Despite the fact that she had a two-bedroom flat, his ‘room’ was actually a large walk-in cupboard …. big enough for bunk beds, the top one of which acted as his wardrobe – and like your pod, no window.

  10. Ditto the pics, look forward to seeing them. We are huge Farrow and Ball fans too, wonderful colours and traditionally made paints, our living room is Cooking Apple Green, Hall is Blue Green, Kitchen is a mix of Savage Ground and Light Blue, etc etc, such depth of colour and the flat texture is excellent.

  11. Shire books are great! I work at a museum and we seem to have most of the series – there really are some fascinating and unusual subjects. I was delighted to find Helen Bennett’s ‘Scottish Knitting’ for just 25p at a charity shop recently too, and am planning to include some knitting history posts on my own blog in the near future, inspired by this book and others.

  12. For some reason this post reminded me of the account in Thea Holme’s book “The Carlyles At Home” of the endless re-modeling of Thomas Carlyle’s study, trying to get it just right. Hope your re-modelled pod is just right, enjoy it!

  13. I do love pictures of work spaces, so I would love to see yours! It’s so rare to see one that’s spare and completely tide; it seems a a bit of mess represents the creative mind (or at least I like to think so…). And oh, how I envy you your shelves of academic books. I have academic leanings and university tiltings, but if I announced (after 13 years as a university student) that I was going to seek a PhD, my family might actually try to commit me!

    I come to your blog over my first cup of tea in the mornings, knowing that it will make me think and look at my world in a different way. Your words are so valued, Kate. Thank you.

  14. I have often felt that way about Saks, but never put my finger on it quite the way you have. I was always angry at him when I finished the book and felt he had used the person he was speaking about somehow, and was a bit too smug in his evaluations and summaries, even if he did in a few places have some interesting points to make. That you for clearing this up. I have not purchased or read his material in quite some time, possibly because he has not been writing much, having made enough money and retired to the south of France or wherever one goes when one is a literary success, or perhaps his kind of reportage has just gone out of style, I don’t know. It is nice to see that a few others have the same problem with his analysis though. I thought for years I was the only one.

  15. OH WOW !!! I *so* want a pod ! You , but of course, would make something of a little shoebox into a library, writers’ nook, & knit studio. Cherish those little things, because they are only, and will ever only be, what you make them. Happy belated birthday too :)

  16. Hi, Kate. I’m prompted to de-lurk (again) by similar sentiments about Oliver Sacks (felt resentful about subject matter but could never say why; it looks like many might be in agreement about this) but I also have a pod! When I wasn’t working I filled it up with books on my widely varying scholarly interests, and now that I am teaching geology and in grad school it is full of clothes and shoes.

    I am very much enjoying the first issue and I’m about to cast on for Warriston tonight!

  17. This lovely post got me thinking about my own cherished space – a little pod (a linen closet, really) that was on the landing of the front staircase in my parents’ home. It was about 1.5′ off the ground and full of sheets and towels (and first aid supplies for some reason). I rarely think of that space – but it was the home of some imaginative, creative times. When I return to the parents I cannot imagine being tiny enough to sneak away in there… thanks for bringing this memory to mind. Enjoy your space!

  18. I do think that ‘true’ academics are born, not made. I wish I could have figured out earlier that I could be one of them, but still, I am enjoying my PhD even though I am too old for an academic career. The joy of *really thinking* is like no other I’ve ever known. I wish you many happy thinking hours in your pod.

  19. I have fond memories too of a den I made in the storage space of a built-in wardrobe! I must have been pretty desperate. I feel the need for a pod on a regular basis nowadays, though it takes the form in my daydreams of a private summer house/library/yarn den at the bottom of an orchard (not going to happen in Leith any time soon!).

    I read a lot of Sacks when I was about 17/18, so emerging from the notoriously unempathetic and narrow teenage years, and he definitely opened the eyes while he exploited. I don’t regret reading him, even if I wouldn’t bother now.

  20. The rejuvenation of the pod sounds like an excellent idea, and I am glad you have the fancy Farrow & Ball paint and are enjoying brightening up the space. Your thoughts on your books, studies, and shifts in focus are very heartening and I love the value of the pod and its place in this blog and in all your work. Huzzah for its new colourz and for the fresh new perspectives which shifting it around brings! x

  21. Sometimes less is more.
    I live in the states out in the suburbs of Atlanta. My house has large rooms but my favorite spot is an attic room on my upper floor that is my small space to surround myself with books and crafts. The curves of a small round window and angles in all directions from the roof line creates great niches that brings great comfort and inspiration. My little Victorian getaway in a traditional home. Must be my English roots :-)

  22. Thank you Kate, for echoing so many of my own thoughts! As someone who has spent the majority of my life working to be an academic, and now finding that the current climate has created a dearth of actual posts, deciding to go my own way (I am not ‘relevant’), I have spent much of the last year gradually realising that seventeenth-century writing women might be thinking about textiles, that guilds are fascinating structures, and that I want to design, write and teach outside institutions that seem to place emphasis on particular types of teaching, thinking and writing. I’ve been thinking about sorting through all my research notes, and wondering if I should have a post-A-Level-esque bonfire, but I think you’re right – a clearout, but not a bonfire, is on the cards! The context might change, but the training sticks!

  23. Oh, I did enjoy reading this, the way you have claimed that small space and made it your own, and the thoughts that inspired in your readers. And do you know, it reminded me of a”club” we used to have when we were ten year olds. Our meeting place was a pram shed, those little sheds on council estates tin which massive prams were housed because women could not lug them up to their flats (pre-lift days, our buildings). We had one miniature armchair, orange boxes to sit on and store our books in, and it was here in the semi-darkness that we girls crammed in, planned money making schemes (our own jumble sale and raffle), a pop group (my cousin and I can still sing together the song we wrote, outings and run-outs.

    • Hmmm, lichen, Ireland, rocks, skree, foggy seas and and stone-colored blue eyes and sky, very serene and strong. You have such a great way of writing about delight!!!

  24. Once an academic, always an academic.
    Without knowing it at the time, I gave up my academic career when we moved to the UK so my husband could pursue his. We planned to go Home, I would get my PhD, and so forth; it didn’t happen. For several years I cried myself to sleep as I felt my hard-won knowledge and skills drifting out of my head like sand through a sieve. Thirty years later I know – and others have told me, laughing – that I am still an academic. I may have lost the facts I learned, you may not have your position, but the mindset, the drive to research, acquire information, analyse it and reveal the stories it can tell – these things will be with us until we die.

  25. What a delight to read this! I have less of a pod than a living room with a grand view of sunsets (!) that has been transformed into a studio (for drawing, painting, knitting, and sewing). As someone who has some health concerns – not as serious as a stroke, but still somewhat limiting – I have been thinking of leaving my job, or at least attempting to transform the configuration of my life in relation to it. This is all to say that the way that you have reshaped your life’s work, and the way that you write about this process, is wonderfully inspiring. Thank you so very much for the gift of your blog!

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