Gentlemen, gentlewomen and scholars — the Burns Fellows

Kathryn van Beek at the Burns Fellow desk. PHOTO: TIM ARMSTRONG
Kathryn van Beek at the Burns Fellow desk. PHOTO: TIM ARMSTRONG
As Kathryn van Beek’s time as the University of Otago’s Robert Burns Fellow comes to an end, she contemplates the literary greats who have preceded her.

On the first day of the Robert Burns fellowship I sat at the wooden desk inked with the names of past fellows and thought: "I’m going to do a better job of signing this desk than those graffiti amateurs".

I’d heard about the legendary desk, but instead of boasting an autograph book’s worth of carefully preserved signatures, it’s a palimpsest of ghostly scribbles half-dissolved by coffee smears.

I resolved not to let my name disappear as easily. I would scratch my name into the desk like a territorial cat, gnaw it in like a demented beaver, chew it in like a plague of termites if I had to.

But first, I had a year in which to write.

During my tenure the signatures intimidated and inspired me - and filled me with guilt.

Had my light misting of Ecostore cleaning spray faded any remaining scrawls? Was the adhesive from the Post-It notes I arranged and rearranged as I structured a novel absorbing any crucial ink molecules?

I consulted 2017 fellow Craig Cliff, who had been similarly tormented.

"I was acutely aware of the other signatures during the whole year," he said.

"Was I wearing away anyone’s mark with my daily habits, my mug placement, the oil stain from an exasperated elbow? When the time came, I signed the desk well away from the keyboard zone, so as not to shout my presence daily at future fellows and to hopefully last a good while."

At the end of my fellowship year I knelt before the desk, a drawing pin and a Vivid in my hands. As I contemplated my own moment of sanctioned defacement I studied each signature, wondering what graffiti skills I could pick up.

But not every Burns fellow has been a competent tagger. So, in the interests of upskilling future fellows, I’ve captured my impressions in that beloved literary form: the "top 10" listicle.

The top 10 signatures on the Robert Burns desk are ...

10: Albert Belz (2022)

Smack bang in the middle of the desk, the 2022 signature is, unsurprisingly, still fresh and inky black. It also has the word ‘BOOMSHANKAAAAH!’ scrawled beneath it (complete with googly eyes drawn in the Os).

I asked Albert if he could provide some context for the extraordinary autograph. "Oh, that’s a Young Ones quote," he said. "According to Neil from the Young Ones it means, ‘May your seed flow forth’ (or something like that)."

Nine: Cilla McQueen (1985, 1986)

Some wear, as one would expect from a signature left in 1986 (or was it?). It’s also a very pretty signature, although Cilla McQueen does have the advantage of having a very pretty name. Extra points for not using the word "BOOMSHANKAAAAH!"

Eight: Emma Neale (2012)

Already badly faded, its inclusion in the top 10 is mostly due to the scarcity effect: knowing I’ve enjoyed a signature that will likely not exist much longer.

Emma left her mark at the beginning of her year: "In case I forgot, or got knocked over by a milk truck before the fellowship ended," she said.

"It helped to focus me on the fact that the fellowship means being part of a community of voices, while it also sharpened the sense of wanting to knuckle down and write something substantial."

Seven: Majella Cullinane (2014)

A girly swot myself, I appreciate the way Majella clearly made an under-drawing of her signature in pen before committing to Vivid.

"It felt pretty momentous to be adding my name to such a prestigious fellowship with some amazing Kiwi writers, one of my favourites being Janet Frame," Majella said.

(I couldn’t find Janet’s signature on the desk, but I suppose it’s possible that the ancient spilt coffee on one of the pull-out writing boards was hers.)

Six: Roger Hall (1977, 1978)

The earliest fellowship holder to have signed the desk - in barely visible, but still-elegant loops - appears to be Roger Hall. Did he begin the tradition?

I sat down and did something I hadn’t previously done at the desk: maths.

There have been 63 fellows since the fellowship’s inception in 1959, so if in 1978 Roger was the first person to sign the desk, there could be up to 45 signatures on it. Some are now so faint as to be illegible, so it’s possible others have vanished completely, but I only found definitive evidence of 21.

This raised a question. Had some fellows ... not signed the desk? Did some writers ... not want to leave a lasting physical impression like a cat/beaver/termite?

Five: Emily Duncan (2019)

During my investigations I checked the legs, back and sides of the desk, inside the drawers, the tops and bottoms of the pull-out writing boards, and the underside of the desk ... where I found a signature by Emily (who had also signed the top of the desk).

Emily didn’t remember signing the desk twice.

"Maybe it was because the underside of the desk would be less likely to fade?" she surmised.

Ah yes. Someone else who doesn’t wish to be forgotten. Welcome to the top five, Emily.

Four: Becky Manawatu (2021)

Legible and aesthetically pleasing.

Extra points for the addition of the words "mauri ora", which filled me with a sense of encouragement each time I read them, and provided a calming counterpoint to ‘BOOMSHANKAAAAH!’

(Becky also left a couch in the office. The addition of the couch had little impact on this ranking.)

Three: Catherine Chidgey (2005, 2006)

I gasped when I spotted Catherine Chidgey’s name scrawled audaciously on the far corner of the underside of the desk. Had she lifted it on to its end so she could reach the inaccessible spot? Had she called Property Services to come and help her, or had she wrestled the desk herself like the Incredible Hulk? I had to ask.

Catherine wrote back with a bombshell revelation: "I didn’t sign it during my tenure - from memory, nobody had at that stage. One of the former fellows had the excellent idea of signing it when a lot of us were there for the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2008, so I squeezed myself under the desk and signed it then. I think I’d had quite a lot of commemorative wine at the time."

There’s a lot to unpack here.

Firstly, having squeezed under the desk myself in order to read Catherine’s signature, I want to know who her yoga instructor is.

And while the 2008 signing clears up some mysteries, it raises a new question: who came up with the idea to sign the desk in the first place?

A conversation with national treasure Owen Marshall was little help.

"To be honest I have no memory of any old wooden desk in the room I had as Burns Fellow in 1992," he confessed in a charming email.

So, I turned to LinkedIn so I could "reach out" to 2003 fellow Nick Ascroft. Nick, who in coverage of the 2008 commemorations was accused of "bizarre convulsions of language", said Catherine’s recollections seemed accurate.

"There was no desk signing event that I attended at the 2008 whatsit, but it may have just been a spur-of-the-moment thing. The desk had no signatures when I was a half-fellow in 2003. We had a tradition of passing on a mug and orienting the new fellow.

"Sarah Quigley wasn’t around for more than a day during her second-half-of-2003, so I believe I passed this on to 2004’s Kate Duignan."

A mug? Another bombshell! And another mystery: what happened to it?

Two: Louise Wallace (2015)

I was growing increasingly smug about my plan to carve my name into the desk when I came across Louise’s signature. It’s located on the side of the desk, where it’s unlikely to be subjected to cleaning spray or oily elbows. It’s also satisfyingly curvy, with a voluptuous "W".

As I admired it, I noticed something. Some kind of texture. Was it - scratched into the wood? I ran my hand over the indented name, wondering what a psychologist would say about me and Louise, and our shared compulsion to scar an innocent desk.

One: Rawiri Paratene (1983)

Only one signature can beat Louise’s, and that’s Rawiri’s. As the 1983 fellow, he must have signed the desk during the 2008 reunion. The legibility is still excellent, and it’s preceded by a cheerful "kia ora".

But what makes this signature No 1 is its location. Scrawled as it is in the very top left corner of the desk, my guess is that Rawiri created the legend of the desk by being the first person to sign it.

What happened to the missing mug remains unclear: however, a replacement has been procured for future fellows.

And there’s a new signature tucked under the lip of the desk. It may have been scratched in with the finesse of an inebriated possum, but it’s not going anywhere.


 - Kathryn van Beek was the 2023 Robert Burns Fellow. She is about to launch her new secret path adventure The ManyEnding Story.