Bruce in the Packet

73. The Desk Invites

"She told me the hardest job she had was with his writing-desk. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed the one there is in his study now. It’s a very good period piece; I wouldn’t mind having it myself. Well, he had a horrible American roll-top desk. He’d had it for years and he’d written a dozen books on it and he simply wouldn’t part with it, he had no feeling for things like that; he just happened to be attached to it because he’d had it so long. You must get Amy to tell you the story how she managed to get rid of it in the end. It’s really priceless. She’s a remarkable woman, you know; she generally gets her own way.”
- Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham

I have long wanted a roll-top desk, probably since reading Henry Miller’s mention of the roll-top desk in his father’s tailor shop. Or maybe it was seeing the important part such a desk played in Howard Hawks's screwball comedy His Girl Friday, where it conceals a convicted killer. I never got my roll-top desk.

His girl Friday

My taste in desks has changed. In recent years, any flat surface cleared of debris would do. Every desk is inviting and just to see one that looks functional can be compelling. This is best expressed in David Lean’s film Doctor Zhivago.

The scene is a frozen mansion with onion domes in Varykino where Zhivago and Lara take refuge. It is buried beneath snow (made from crushed marble). The interior is also buried in snow (made from wax). There is a room the snow has not breached, where the roof did not leak, where there is only dust. With a gloved hand, Zhivago wipes the thick layer of dust off the edge of the desk and becomes aware of its potential. Zhivago opens the center drawer and there is ink and paper at the ready. The desk invites!


Desks can be special. Another desk, the desk where Boris Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago, has been preserved in his house in Peredelkino, now a museum. In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I used to live, Pearl S. Buck’s desk can be viewed at her estate, now a museum. James A. Michener’s desk is preserved in the art museum named for him. In London, Charles Dickens’ mahogany pedestal desk, with its clever slanting writing surface in the middle, made famous in paintings, is featured at the Charles Dickens Museum. Dickens had designed it himself. Many a writer and student of my generation designed desks for themselves back in the poverty of youth. We built them of planks on cinder blocks purloined from construction sites. (Cinder blocks are what the British call breeze blocks and in Australia Besser blocks.) That was before Ikea came along, providing impermanent furniture commercially.

It was also still true in my youth when you went to a hotel and opened the desk drawer, there would be sheets of fine paper imprinted with the hotel’s letterhead. Now you get a small pad of memo paper, if you’re lucky, but, of course, Wi-Fi is ubiquitous.

I had a desk in the States, but no furniture came with us when we moved to Cardiff. We arrived with only what we could carry. The desk was built of solid wood and veneer with a leather inlay. Storage was limited to three flat draws. It sat on four fat columns and presently resides in our daughter’s house. I do not miss it.

The first apartment we rented in Cardiff came furnished, but lacked a desk. The Ikea desk we bought for that apartment had a raspy surface of wood painted black. It didn’t accompany us to the second apartment we now rent in Cardiff. This apartment came much better furnished than the last. There is a desk, but it is curiously fixed to the adjacent armoire in the bedroom. It held my pens, inks, and papers, but because it was in the bedroom, I rarely was able to use it. I am a night owl and my habits interfered with Ms Keogh, my cherished companion, when she wanted to sleep. I therefore usually worked at the dining table. When Ms Keogh is not asleep, I still work at the dining table so we can be in each other’s company.

Then, last week, I was evicted from the bedroom desk as Ms Keogh felt she urgently needed it for her accumulation of important papers. My pens, inks, and papers have been moved to the cabinet (sideboard with hutch) near our dining table. Luckily, the table being seven feet eleven inches long, it serves as partner desk, workbench, drawing board, and dining for two, sometimes all at once. This would suffice for me, but not Ms Keogh.

She wants the dining table to be presentable for when we have guests, so I am to have a desk after all. To that purpose, I have been assigned a small alcove at the far end of the living room. It is a space only 41 inches wide (104.5cm), which doesn’t lend itself to many desk designs. I have happily agreed to the idea because such a desk would place me next to our east facing windows overlooking the Hayes.

So the quest has begun for the ideal desk; affordable, functional, sturdy, and attractive enough to fit with the décor. The likelihood is a slant-top desk; what they call in the USA a secretary desk and in Great Britain a bureau desk or writing bureau.

Traditionally, the secretary desk included a book hutch on top and is better known as a secretaire desk or escritoire, but these labels are often casually applied. In the USA, it can also be called a Governor Winthrop desk. Another desk, the Davenport desk, resembles a slant-top, but the drawers are on the side and the slanted surface is for writing, like on Dickens’ desk, and doesn’t open to become a flat desk. Well, if you have read this far and are still fascinated by desks, you should see the Wooton desk.
A Wooton desk
The prospect of a new desk excites me. But where I am slow and cautious in my search, Ms Keogh expresses an urgency to free the dining table for socializing, especially since it is close to the holidays. This might be the last essay composed at the dining table. She’s a remarkable woman and generally gets her own way.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions,
he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.