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.