Why I don’t have a tidy desk

Many years ago, the editor of a newspaper I worked for sent out an instruction – we were all, please, to tidy our desks because the company’s head honcho was coming to town and might deign to walk among the actual workers.

We all made desultory attempts to tidy up, but our hearts weren’t in it.

That’s because the messy desk is many a journalist’s refuge from the world. Piles of paper are a sign of industry – or perhaps just a signal that one is far too busy getting the news to worry about tidying up.

The most famous messy desk in my years in print journalism belonged to Willem Steenkamp, a large and genial man who was the Cape Times’s military reporter. He in fact had covered two (or was it three?) desks with piles of paper – and when he retired, he discovered several uncashed cheques and some fossilised sandwiches in the depths.

Now that’s a journalist!

I was a fan of the tidy-ish desk and the cluttered noticeboard – and still am. But one of the joys of running your own business is the possibility of expanding the boundaries of what’s allowed to be on a desk – and in fact, to expand the possibilities of what a desk is.

A desk for everything

My desk is a long table, made of recycled wood. When I knew I was leaving the corporate world, I asked a local business to make me a desk. The wonderfully named (and now sadly closed) Guys of Design did exactly what I wanted and more. When I said it would double as a table on which I made quilts, one of the guys said: “My mother is a quilter, I know what you need.” And so my table is not highly varnished – instead it’s got a soft satin feel to it, perfect for moving fabric along as I sew.

On this much-loved piece of furniture, I have the following:

My computer, obviously – but it is propped up on an old telephone directory. To the right, is my older computer, which I switch on once a week to make sure it still works.

An old-fashioned perpetual calendar, which I can manually change every day. It was given to me by my husband, and I love the completely un-needed ritual of changing the date every morning.

A selection of coasters – some of which are computer disks which belonged to my late father. He was a man who loved a gadget and had a computer before they were even invented (a Sinclair ZX80). I think of him every time I put a cup of coffee on a coaster. Another coaster is a round wooden chopping board, which belonged to my maternal grandmother, and then was passed down to my mother, and then to me.

Various chipped and handle-less coffee mugs with a large selection of pens, crayons, pencils and kokis, all courtesy of my stationery addiction

A sickly pot plant – it just doesn’t get enough light but it is in a pretty china container given to me as a birthday present by my sister

Some hand cream and lip balm given to me by a friend – self-care right there on my desk

A mystery blue box with some sort of construction toy in it – put there by my son Jack, or his friend Lance (who sometimes uses my desk when they are gaming, one in my office and the other in his bedroom)

An old pen holder made of Lego – done by Jack for my desk when I was still in the corporate world

My diary, clipboard and a flip file of strategy and planning documents (yes, some actual work things)

A dark red blanket, for Sponge the cat who likes to nap on my desk in the morning.

A set of photos in a wooden stand given to me by son’s girlfriend and taken on a family holiday – there’s sea and beach and sunsets and young people surfing and talking and making vetkoek.

A pretty bowl with a clutter of mystery objects – the office equivalent of that drawer in the kitchen with a tangle of wires and old curtain hooks in it.

One chair to rule them all

To sit at the desk, I have a proper office chair, currently adorned with an electric blanket. Load shedding permitting, this is the single best way to keep warm in the early mornings.

Every now and then, I think I ought to cut down of some of these non-work things. But then I look at them and think of the people and memories they represent and am glad to be in a place in my working life now where all the things I love can be together in one big happy mess.

I do draw the line at fossilised sandwiches though.

 Main picture: Anya Sunica Cloete

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