There being an English teacher absent, I was called upon to cover a Year 11 English lesson.
English is not my subject and Year 11 students have their GCSE examinations next summer, so it was a relief to discover that the lesson was about discussing the topic of graffiti as art and then writing a letter to an imaginary council to support or condemn the appearance of graffiti in the town.
An eight minute video introduced the subject, explaining that graffiti had been around since classical times. It might be pale in comparison with the graffiti that now appears, but the habit of small boys writing their name on surfaces has certainly been around for much longer than we might imagine.
E. Despard was someone who wrote his name in public places.
Perhaps E. Despard and his companions were subjected to lengthy sermons, perhaps they could imagine many more exciting things than sitting in a lonely church on a Sunday morning. A solitary building, standing at a crossroads, four miles from the nearest town, and it only a small place, attendance there did not offer much by way of diversion to the boys taken there by their families. The shelf on which people rested their copies of the black Book of Common Prayer became an outlet for the boys, for their name writing.
The years of the Edwardian era recorded against the boys’ names are from a world very different from that which would exist twenty years later.
E. Despard seems to have been bolder than his companions in recording his presence in the church. His name is scratched into the surface of the wood with a black pen, but also set forth in a series of dots.
Were it a school desk, one would assume that the name had been written with compass points (the compasses from geometry sets were far more often used for such activities than for drawing arcs for mathematical exercises), as it is, it remains a mystery how young Despard manged to twice record his name, without a heavy parental hand coming down across his ear.
Perhaps his father was as bored as young Despard was by the rector’s Sunday homilies, perhaps the boys were left in peace as long as they sat quietly. It seems odd that such obvious defacement of the pews seemed to have passed unnoticed, wasn’t the Edwardian era meant to be a golden age? Weren’t former times supposed to be days when transgressions were virtually unknown?
When young E. Despard wrote his name on the pew, in 1904, a decade before the old world ended, could he ever have imagined what might lie ahead? Could anyone who sat in the church Sunday by Sunday have imagined the horrors of the times to come?
When the old clergyman finished his exposition of Scripture and the last hymn was sung and the congregation dispersed for another week, would he ever have thought that his name would be remembered a century later?
Within feet of young E. Despard’s inscriptions in wood, his name was recorded on a brass plaque by someone else. Perhaps in Flanders fields, he thought about those mornings in church.
No Year 11 schoolboy now faces such a nightmarish future.