Wednesday, July 12, 2023
When my mother died, I couldn't work out what to do with the desk she had. It was rather like the one here, and it had been part of the family home as we grew up. About five foot in height, the hinged front pulled down for a writing surface revealing a series of small cubby holes that could be used to store things like envelopes, tape, pencil sharpeners and so on. I say five foot in height, but I can still remember it towering over me, not being able to reach the flat surface of the desk top, and having to be warned not to bang my head on it. I've kept hold of it all these years, although if anything it's a bit low to work at as a stand up desk. It's become clear to me that this one is a rather cheap affair - my mother referred to it as 'post-war utility furniture' - and I know that's probably true because a friend of mine's got a posher version. Better cubbyholes and drawers and even a couple of pop-out lopers that support the work surface from underneath. My parents could never quite agree on what to call it. It was one of a number of things that seemed to index their different backgrounds. My dad just called it the desk and was even known to deride my mother for calling it a bureau. For her it was a bureau, and for me because I'm interested in writing and all its appurtenances it's come to be known as the 'secretaire' which could be thought of as it's official classification in the world of furniture - 'secretaire' or 'secretary desk', although I note, in passing that in The Luminaries Eleanor Catton simply refers to is as a 'secretary' (and she can do no wrong in my opinion). And there's an alternative, too, that I rather like - the escritoire. Somehow that seems to be far too sophisticated a word to describe my dad's desk, but doesn't that just show the way we value a little bit of French? Secretaire is good because of its connection with the word secretary - originally someone who was privy to private and confidential matters (including correspondence), but escritoire appealing because of its etymological connection with scribing, with writing, with mark-making. I suppose there's a book to be done on writing furniture - desks, tables, study rests, lecterns and not to mention all those rather ugly computer tables. I'd like to read something that really grapples with the peripheral material paraphernalia of writing. Maybe not just furniture, why not venture into stationery as well? Its inventive, technological and - well, material.