Tuesday, 12 October 2010

People and their desks

I am indebted to Alan Fricker of the Health Informaticist for alerting me to a fascinating and well-made film, People and their Desks.
The desks may not be typical; all the subjects interviewed in the six minutes are designers of one sort or another.
At the end, one asks what the future of the desk might be, and postulates that it will become a 'state of mind'.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

My father's desk

Freud, in popular belief, taught that every son wishes to kill his father and sleep with his mother. He forgot to mention desks. I've told in an earlier post how I use my father's desk, which stood in his surgery. In this morning's Guardian the poet Simon Rae explores his father's desk.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

A summer desk

Summer is over, I suppose, but I thought I should show my summer desk. I have to say that, delightful as it sounds to sit in the sun, working away, in reality I spend little time working outdoors.

The chief reason is the wind. In Seaford we have a great deal, so only massively bound books will stay put on the table. The short route to despair is to try to take anything on individual sheets of paper outside. The Mac's screen is more or less invisible in bright sunlight, so computer-based work is ruled out. Nevertheless, how many other offices have passion-flowers?

I have been workless since the end of July, but I hope to be able to tell you of a new office before long.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Cows, croissants and chili plants - Sascha's desk in summer

It's summer, it's busy and the office desk reflects that. Mini Jaffa-cakes AND a croissant (the second one this morning) show that I am desperately in need of a holiday. Elsewhere there is book on Schopenhauer which was up for grabs in one of the academic corridors yesterday. This is what I like about working at a university. You go to the ladies and come back with a biography of Schopenhauer, most likely signed by the author or translator. I am growing chili plants in my office, there is a small cow on my computer and a picture of my dear colleague Robin, who died last month. I feel very privileged to have inherited his office mug (by the telephone), from Glyndebourne season 2009. In a post-modern twist the very blog you are reading right now can be seen on the monitor.

Monday, 10 May 2010

A desk in Brighton's Kremlin

Not much activity on the Desk Diaries blog recently, so I thought I'd get things started again.
I am very happy because for this whole week I have that fabulous office at the north end of the Royal Pavilion at my disposal again where I spent the strange but very inspiring first year of my doctoral research. It is the old director's office and still houses the main Pavilion reference library. Many of the books have the names of previous directors of the Pavilion in them. They are the ghosts of people who worked and researched in the building.

I love the spaciousness of the room, the mild chaos, its relative timelessness. In the absence of a director I had unlimited use of the office and the old wooden desk (now no longer there) for over a year,  and spent it working my way through the archives and library and gazing through the large windows a lot of the time. The person who now works there is away for a week and I can use it again. Utter bliss. I didn't bring my camera today, so this picture is from the time when I was based there in 2008.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

At last

Here, at last, is Virginia Woolf's desk, behind glass, so I fear the photograph is not the best. I bet that Eamonn McCabe was allowed the other side of the glass. Note the objects on the desk: some files, some pencils, daffodils, a pair of spectacles. Would that my own desk looked like this. I should like to dedicate this afternoon's performance to Sascha Loske.

For more photographs taken at Monk's House this afternoon, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomroper/tags/monkshouseapril2010/. I made friends with the cat.


Sunday, 4 April 2010


I promised Sascha Loske I would be at Rodmell to take a photograph of Virginia Woolf's desk the day Monk's House opened for the spring, that is yesterday. So I was, but I turned up to find it doesn't open till 2 pm. I should have known something was wrong: there were no crowds of Woolfians thronging the village and I could park nearby easily. I couldn't stay to wait for 2, so I shall have to return on Wednesday. Until then I offer you the Guardian's description of that famous shed, text by Hermione Lee and illustrated with a photograph by Eamonn McCabe.

A footnote: Hermione Lee writes prose many thousand times more elegant, intelligent and clear than I could ever manage, but don't you think when she writes 'store' she means 'stove'?

Sunday, 28 March 2010

My life in desks: the years of adolesence

Now I have started, I think I probably have to go on till I finish. But I have no photograph of the next desk to play a part in my life, an old and monumental Victorian roll-top. After a bout of pneumonia caused me to miss most of a summer term, and removed me, providentially, from some considerable unpleasantness at school, I moved bedrooms at the age of 13 into a new and larger one sited above my father's waiting room (he was a Cambridge GP), at about the age of 13. Here I had an upright piano, a record player, a gas fire and small leaded windows looking out, in one direction onto Lensfield Road, and in the other onto Tennis Court Road and the back of Addenbrooke's hospital.

The desk stood at the Tennis Court Road end. It had a lock, but I was not trusted with the key, so, to stop it locking by accident I made stoppers of paper which I put in the grooves to prevent it closing fully. It had a patina, and marks of heavy use, ink-stains to which I added and gouges from pen-sharpening and envelope opening. It even had a secret compartment. What could be more agreeable?

As I used it, so it acquired more marks of ownership. I began smoking and kept my cigarettes in the desk, which gave it a strong scent of tobacco. As I was lucky enough to have a school friend who worked in an exotic tobacconist, long closed, I was able to go beyond the usual cigarettes favoured by early seventies schoolboys, No 6, and Embassy Gold, and enjoy such brands as Fribourg and Treyer, Sullivan Powell's Turkish, Sobranie and Passing Clouds. These last were oval and came in a pink box, which would cause a stir behind the bike sheds or the scout hut. It also held, for such were the times, the odd consciousness-expanding substance, though I was scrupulous in removing any traces of these.

The desk was sold when my parents moved after my father retired from full-time practice and no longer needed a house with room for surgery, waiting-room and dispensary. I would have liked to have kept it, but at that stage in my life I had nowhere to put something so large.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Leila McKellar's desk on 16th March 2010.

Only joking. This is from a series called Bureaucratics by Dutch photographer Jan Banning, who has photographed bureaucrats at their desks all over the world.

Desk aficionados can view the whole series on his website.

Found via India Knight.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

A la recherche du Tom perdu

This desk was in my childhood bedroom. I cannot remember the precise age at which I was moved in here from the nursery I shared with my brother. Was I four or five? I was certainly in here by the time I was at infants school, for I remember its orange and black striped tie hanging in the small cupboard, to be replaced at seven by the bright-red tie of a prep school where I was bullied and beaten by both masters and boys. I was sent to a child psychiatrist, odd because my dislike of this school seemed to me a sign of sanity; too scared to ask for the lavatory, I accidentally pissed on his waiting room carpet. He advised that I should be moved to another school. And so I was to a school with a purple and black tie.


But this blog is not about ties, or psychiatrists, or cupboards, but about desks. And at this desk I would do my homework, or sort my stamp collection. I found mathematics difficult. My mother tried to help me, but concepts that seemed obvious to her remained quite obscure to me. She had done the first year of a mathematics degree at University College London in the early thirties, only to be removed; in those years of economic crisis my grandfather thought university education for a girl a luxury, though her brother was allowed to continue. My mother had a low opinion of her brother's intellectual prowess, and believed that he spent the university years she was denied in dissipated living; she had in truth resented him since birth for when he was born my grandfather ordered the village church bells to be rung, an ceremony no one thought of bothering with when his eldest child, a girl, my mother, was born.

So here I would sit before some geometrical proposition which simply made no sense to me, and she would sit beside me, her frustration growing as the extent of my incomprehension became clear. It was only when I went to the upper school, and began logarithms and calculus, that mathematics became clearer.

The desk has travelled with me, to Canterbury, to London and to Seaford. It is not strictly a desk. I think it might have been a washstand originally. I now use it for a scanner and some wires.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

A 17th century Dutch desk drenched in light and silence

Vermeer: A Lady Writing (Schrijvend meisje) (detail)
c. 1665-1666, oil on canvas, The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

I am widening the field a bit here; I hope that's acceptable. Here is one of several desks that have fascinated me. Virgina Woolf's in her writing shed in Rodmell will probably follow soon, but I shall leave that gem to Sir Arthur (Streeb-Greebling).
This is Vermeer's Lady in Yellow Writing a Letter from c.1657. The sujet of the writing or letter reading female is prominent in 17th c Dutch and Flemish painting, but I always loved this particular one because the girl is looking up at the viewer with the most mysterious facial expression. The golden light coming from the invisible window strikes not just her face and the expensive clothes she is wearing but also her hands. The desk is covered with a thick, sumptuous throw, there is a heavily decorated wooden casket, a band of pearls with a yellow ribbon, writing paper, a quill and, most importantly, utter silence. I always wanted to know what the letter says. The painting also makes me want to put away the computer and make way for old-fashioned letter writing...

Full view.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Claire W's desk at home

This is my desk at home on a surprisingly tidy day ( Feb 4 2010 ). I am obliged to say, it is usually much more cluttered than this, but I must have had a bit of fit the day before this image was taken, as I was inspired to clear up the piles of papers which tend to mask every square inch of the IKEA plank. Anyway… on this special day, we’re left with my laptop, some lovely picture books on Indian and Oriental art (I’m loving being an art historian at the moment), and only one plastic wallet with miscellaneous papers in it. Elsewhere, we have a selection of photos (mainly still wedding dominated) and some cards, including one from my sister - Picasso’s Girl with Dove, a poster of which we had on our shared bedroom wall as children.

There is also a random selection of ‘tourist art’ (my latest project) - a Zulu beaded mug, a mini bicycle from Zimbabwe, and a terracotta cha pot which I upgraded from its status as a throw-away disposable cup when I was in India two years ago. They are crude, rough vessels, meant for only one use, but I was quite struck by the effort that must go into making them, just for them to be discarded into the gutter in their thousands, so I kept it. There is also a carved wooden head crouching behind the flowers which I was sold as ‘authentic’ indigenous craft by some cheeky museum shop sales assistant when I was in the Andaman Islands . It was made by a Bengali settler, for sure, but I keep it as a sober reminder of my general silliness. There is also a plastic chicken that my dad put in my Christmas stocking this year. Weird.

Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot the B&Q ear defenders (nicely contrasting with the bone china tea-cup, non?): what is a girl to do if some chap decides to build a house next to yours when you’re trying to finish your PhD? Ear-plugs didn’t cut it and the habit has stuck. Silence is golden…

Sascha Loske: Royal College of Art, Colour Reference Library

Yes, there is such a thing as a specialist colour reference library. It is small but beautiful and I feel very privileged that I can use one of the two or three workspaces every now and again. I was there yesterday, for the second time. The library is in the modern RCA in Jay Mews, next to the Royal Albert Hall. The archivist/librarian is immensly helpful and knowledgeable, the space is small but has all you need, including a Mac, and at a pinch you can see Kensington Gardens from where I was sitting. Below is a mid-18th century copy of Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty, with the fabulous fold-out prints. I do cherish those days spent in libraries and archives in London.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Sarah Maddox's Desk on 18th February 2010

Another location for my desk in my house is here. This room is warm and sunny. There is also a handy armchair in here and TV in case work gets a bit too trying. I don't really like Flaming June (top left) but she was left over from the bric-a-brac stall I was manning at the Church Christmas Fair and had a nice frame.

Leila McKellar's desk on 18th February 2010

Like Sarah's, my desk often assumes the form of a bed. Like all good offices, mine is equipped with computer, phone, tea and choccy biccies. There is nothing nicer than doing a bit of work, then gradually sinking down into the pillows until one reaches a horizontal angle and drifts into sleep. Ah, the joys of the mid-afternoon doze...

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The British Library desk

I cheat slightly here. This is not a desk in one of the reading rooms, where I think photography is forbidden, but in the café, run, as are the refreshment facilities in nearly every London cultural institution, by Peyton and Byrne.

They serve espresso in a huge mug. A waiter tried to remove mine before I had even half-drunk it. The wifi signal was feeble and the café full of people who did not look like scholars to me. But as I was composing a blog post on castrating cats, perhaps I should not be too censorious.

When I was made redundant the first time, in 1991, I used to frequent the British Museum Reading Room. My membership of the Library Association entitled me to a reader's pass, then hard to come by. I would read in the morning and then go to the pub. The British Council ended this idyll by offering me a job.

Sacha Loske: Two owls and a pussycat

My partner has a habit of giving me owls. His children also give them to him, so there is a high decorative owl population in our house. My classic Wade owl (left) was last week joined by a near twin in a shade I have never seen before in a Wade owl. They make a nice pair on my Swedish desk and oversee my work. Also visible here my late uncle's 1960s wind-up watch, a vintage holepunch and lots of DUST. Below a picture of the same desk in 1998, complete with pussycat and sans computer.

My Swedish desk in February 2010, with the new Wade owl in a strange shade.

The Swedish desk in Brighton, ca. 1998, when my fat white cat was small and fluffy. Note that there is no computer on it. I recognise a fountain pen and a silver pocket watch a friend once gave me, as well as two odd volumes of a late 18th century edition of Joshua Reynolds' Seven Discourses of Art.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

A desk entrained

Once one starts looking, one finds desks everywhere. I spend at least three hours every working day at this one, the sumptuously appointed table in a Southern Railways carriage. This picture was shot early in the morning, about 6.45, as I sat down at my accustomed place and waited for the arrival of my fellow passengers. There's a man who brings his breakfast with him to eat on the train, muesli in a tupperware box, and a plastic container of milk. He always raises the tupperware to his lips to propel the last drops of milk into his mouth, belching thereafter. He leaves the half-finished milk behind when he gets off the train. I don't know whethere I'm more irritated by the mess or the waste.

I work here, blog posts, some idle writing and reading, some Greek study, even sometimes work connected to the day job. The days of jolly sociable commuters belong to a past time, when trains had compartments. We all hate one another


There's a post in gestation on the definition of a desk.

I wish I had a cool user name, like cockatrice or vir beatum (Psalm 112, set by Monteverdi perhaps?). I long to be known as gratindauphinoisboy or archaeopteryx but every time I'm confronted by a web page that wants me to choose a username, originality deserts me and I end up using my real name. My best attempt in these matters is the persona of Sir Anthony Streeb-Greebling, as Sascha Loske sometimes knows me, but that I stole from Peter Cook

Sarah Maddox's Desk in her office 10th February 2010

And this is my final desk - a real one this time where I have to remain upright. Strangely enough I always thought I was really tidy at work...

Notice just visible on the noticeboard my 'Hot Priests' calendar bought in Rome when on a study trip with the first year students. Also on the corner of my desk beneath purse and make-up bag poster for our next Swish on campus put on as part of diversity week. Hooray for free clothes.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Vir Beatum's Desks Away from Home, Feb. 8, 2010

The life of the itinerant academic has many advantages, but one significant downside is not having a proper office to call one's own. I therefore present my two desks away from home, one a darkened corner in a rare-books reading room, the other an inadequate bookshelf with a ledge. Still, the pages of beingmanly get produced from these poky spaces, as well as a lot more besides.

Countway Library for the History of Medicine

Home 'comforts'

Tom Roper's work desk 8 February 2010

By way of contrast, here's my desk at work.

It's bleak and ugly. The computer tyrannises the space, and squats between me and whoever might be unfortunate enough to have to sit opposite. If I had the imagination, I might think of ways to make this space more human, but it's beyond me. The difference between this and disorder of my desk at home, my view of garden and sea, are a large part of the discontent I feel at the moment.

It's part of a new building, opened this autumn. As with all new buildings, we tell the world breathlessly how 'state-of-the-art' it is. In truth, it's a shed, with furniture.

Sarah Maddox's Desk (in alternative location) 08th February

As you can see my desk is not static.

Any bed can easily become my desk. The location of my desk usually depends on the weather. If very cold like today (snow) then it is necessary to move to the spare room which is a couple of degrees warmer than my usual room which today is like a fridge. The method of working at a moveable desk merely involves being a. flexible (although not in a yoga type way) and b. happy to strew required items on any available surface that is within arm's reach of laptop and then hunkering down with laptop on lap (funnily enough.)

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Tom Roper's desk, evening, 4 February (Jacques Prévert's birthday)

I take no pride in the state of my desk. This disorder doesn't encourage creativity, but impedes it. Nevertheless...

In the centre is my MacBookPro, downloading an update to iTunes. To the left, an old hard disk that used to be used for back-ups which I can't bear to throw out, and a copy of George Thomson's Aeschylus and Athens which I'm reading before I go to the Kings College London Greek Play, the Persians, next week. There's my running watch, and my iPhone. The red object to the rear was my mother's writing case. She was a great letter-writer. I wish I could emulate her.

To the right is an old pestle and mortar, in case I need to grind any drugs in the night, and a pile of books, Robert Darnton's The Case for Books at the top of the pile. Now I type this up there's a wine glass there too, but that wasn't there when I took the picture.

And as for the desk itself, it was my father's.


He was a doctor, a Cambridge GP, and this desk was in the surgery. He sat on one side, with stethoscope, ophthalmoscope and prescription pad. On the other side, patients would listen to diagnoses and prognoses. I have no idea how old it is.

Sarah Maddox's Desk on 04th February 2010

This is my desk with me at it (in it perhaps). I always work from bed, mainly because my house is so bloody cold, but also because it is the most comfortable place in the house and I am cleverer when lying down, maybe because I don't have to concentrate on being upright. There is a very useful blanket box at the end of the bed which is a lovely height for my laptop and elbows and for this little girl to use as a work surface too.

Leila McKellar's desk on 4th February 2010

Click on piccy to enlarge.  

Completely uncensored: my sitting room table - which I have only just realised actually IS a writing desk. This reflects the maxim by which I live my life: a place for everything and everything in random piles that I have to rifle though and swear at on a regular basis.

Notable items among the clutter include the fabulous shoe calendar (a Christmas present from my aunt. Open on the wrong day, natch); the button bracelet made by my lovely friend Rachael; silk poppies, a pressie from Mrs H; Tour Eiffel earrings.

My favourite item on this table is the pencil drawing of me, which was drawn by my mum last week. I love the way the big sleeves of my cardigan make me look like a Victorian lady.

The pile of random stuff including obsolete mouse and hands-free is waiting to be freecycled. Any takers?

Sascha Loske's desk on 24 January 2009 and 2010

My desk on 24 January 2009 (top) and 24 January 2010 (bottom).

As usual a complete mess. Note the bright red calfskin gloves, an heirloom from Auntie Traudel. I lost my black gloves in Morrison's last week, so now it's red gloves for the rest of the ice-age. Propped up on the desk a print from 1850 called "Winter" by a little known artist/engraver. It i...s in a terrible state but for £10 at a flea market you cannot complain, and I think the lady is worth saving. I have since cleaned her up a little bit and decided to leave her in her original frame, despite its battered state. The morbidity is quite fitting for a high-Victorian artwork.