It was a long tradition of my school, and probably elsewhere besides, to carve your initials into your desk. The especially brave would write their entire name. Obviously this is easier if you are James Bond rather than say Aristotle Fotheringay. Many of the desks were extremely old, with some of the set-up-and-beg examples dating from the turn-of-the-century. That’s the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. With comic good humour, these ancient specimens were largely bequeathed to New Block. Constructed of cast iron and British dark oak, they were the very model of Victorian inflexibility. Whereas modern desks amount to little more than a space to put your laptop, these Victorian behemoths, with grooved rest for quill and ink well, were designed to last as long as the Empire. And largely they did.
Many of the desks were so old that new inscriptions were made over existing handiwork. Some seemed to speak angrily, vicious carvings deep into the surface. Others barely ghosted the years at Marlborough, with timid diaphanous markings, delicate and effete scripture. When I was an inmate, sorry I mean pupil, there was a clear gender divide. I don’t recall Persephone or Camilla ever feeling the need to mark their presence. Nor can one imagine Kate Middleton, our future queen and Old Marlburienne, taking the compass point or dividers, the favoured means of inscription, to virgin oak. Inscribing ones desk was a male province alone. Some even dated their handiwork. Since the punishment for such inscriptions was often beating, this was ill considered.
Maybe it says something about our need to mark our passing. And many of those desks in New Block, inscribed by the future young officers of The Great War, were to be exactly that. Leaving school, 18 years old, freshfaced and innocent to Sandhurst and then on to the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambrai, as young lieutenants, to die a thousand different anonymous deaths on foreign soil in that most dehumanising conflict. Marlborough produced more than its fair share of war poets – Brooke and Sorley to name two – but none more famous and impactful than Siegfried Sassoon, author of, inter alia, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.
Or perhaps I should say ‘infamous’. It was Sassoon’s published ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’ of August 1917 that raised a voice of protest against the continuation of the mechanised slaughter of Passchendaele and beyond. Leaked to the press and even read out in Parliament, it was enough to have Sassoon ‘sectioned’ in modern parlance and sent to Craiglochart War Hospital, a treatment centre for psychiatric and neuropsychiatric cases where he met fellow dissident Wilfred Owen.
But Sassoon, despite the heavy-handed approach of the British Army’s top brass, was taken seriously. He was no angry, inexperienced neophyte, no desk pilot shirking front line action, but the recipient, on 27th of July 1916, of the Military Cross and later even recommended for the Victoria Cross. A courageous and well respected officer.
For much of my third year at Marlborough, I sat, for Tuesday double Geography in NB2, at Sassoon’s former desk. Angry inch high letters, deep chiselled capitals, and his name in its entirety. No coy initials. No time wasted on needless truncations. SIEGFRIED SASSOON, bold as brass. But Sassoon, as was to become apparent soon enough in Flanders, was not the kind to hide.
At the time, it meant little to me – another former pupil at what was, for that year, my desk. The depth of Sassoon’s inscription making writing neatly in my exercise book over that bumpy rutted trench surface nigh on impossible.
Did I inscribe my initials? No. And therein lies the mark of the man. Sassoon – bold, courageous and outspoken. Stamford – timid, anxious and reticent.