The office. R.I.P.

Lucy Kellaway wrote about the death of the office recently. I should say ‘peacefully, at home, after a long illness,’ but my recollection of offices was that they were anything but peaceful and the sooner they died the better. Except I don’t think they will.

I’m about the same age as Lucy Kellaway, so I remember the same kind of London offices she does. I worked in the same office with, and thankfully not for, her husband. I won’t call him a total arse, but when a grown man gives meaningless, single-word answers to office questions and someone else later explains ‘he was being Michael Caine today’ then my first thought isn’t ‘wotalarf.’ I’d have cheerfully blown his bloody doors off.

Like her (and I don’t know if I would, having only met her husband when he was, for reasons of his own, pretending to be a Cockney actor in a 1960s film, as any grown office worker might do), I first knew offices in the 1980s. I don’t know if it was the end of the golden age, but it was a different time altogether, where behaviour that would get you sacked today was just well, normal office behaviour.

Office technology was a computer room, where no mortal was allowed to tread. There was a Telex machine, which admittedly did look like something from a Michael Caine spy film and ties and jackets were expected. Your cuffs might be brown with dirt, but so long as they were on a butcher-striped shirt and fastened with links then you were fine. Smoking helped too. I nearly typed that it wasn’t compulsory, but obviously it was; whether you bought cigaretttes or not you got to smoke everybody else’s in an office where air conditioning didn’t exist. In the best office I worked in, long gone in Kingly Street now, the windows were never opened because of the mite-infested pigeons roosting outside in the light well. You could chain your bicycle to the railings on the stairs though, at least.

And the drinking. Drinking was, at all intents and purposes, compulsory. Two pints at lunchtime was fairly standard unless it was a Monday, when you could say you’d had a heavy weekend. And Fridays, when you could probably do three without anyone saying anything at all. If you were really on form then Gilbey’s gin and tonic mixer cans could be passed off as healthy sparkling water, especially if you got rid of the can and poured the contents into a cup from the coffee machine. And put it in your desk drawer if your boss’s boss’s boss was around.

I missed, by maybe only a couple of months, tea-ladies with a trolley and a staff canteen. We still had Mom & Pop Italian sandwich bars where you could get proper fresh mozzarella sliced with tomato on panini before Pret deliberately bought the premises next door and put a family out of work, something I’ve never forgiven them or their pretendy artisan-food-fan customers for.

As for high-functioning alcoholics – the manager who used to trade sex for cocaine on her boss’s wife’s desk, the one who got arrested for over £1,000 worth of parking tickets in the office, the one who flagged down a cab for 100 yards because she couldn’t walk that far? The girl who was so enraged at being mugged of her week’s wages that when the police arrived they arrested her for a breach of the peace? That kind of functioning alcoholic? Yep. Been there.

When I say been there, only with the latter in fact. I mean that in a loving and caring way, obviously. Ye gods were we drunk. And that was the deal. London floated on alcohol. The office was the interruption between pub at lunch and pub autopsy in the evening, before you maybe went on somewhere for dinner and more alcohol. Maybe a gin and Noilly Prat, something light as an aperitif. Maybe the older guy at the next desk would mumble ‘chemist’ and stumble out of the office to be back in about. fifteen minutes, refreshed from the off-licence and the bookies next door. If you mentioned it then you’d better be prepared to be called a sanctimonious prig at full volume and in one way, those people were right: the problem was the people who couldn’t cope, the ones who had a drink and their work suffered. Nobody had much time for them, as I remember.

And the sex thing, of course. I never did in the office. Not actually in the office, although like most people I knew, spent some time setting up things for after the office. But not your own office. Not on your own doorstep. That was a firm rule – only the week and foolish did that. For when you stop, you see? What do you say to them then?

You really got me

The thing that really got me in Ms Kellaway’s article was the bit about loyalty.

Without an office, without a body of people beavering away at the same place and time, it is hard to know how a company could ever create any sort of culture or any fellow feeling — let alone anything resembling loyalty.

For all the alcohol, and possibly because of all the alcohol, the cigarettes, the jangling, cuff-linked cigaretty posturing and preening of 1980s Soho, where after-work meant playing backgammon in the bar down the street (not for money. I didn’t have enough money to lose. Even though a Sociology degree had given me pretty decent backgammon skills) there actually was a kind of culture and camaraderie. It was hard to tell. We were mostly half-drunk and it’s easy to confuse trying to look down someone’s shirt on your fourth drink with a fine fellow-feeling, despite that it was only fellow-ettes I intended doing that with.

It was when the drinking stopped that all that fell apart. I was working at CACI. By 1990 the most career-damning insult was to be called frivolous. As in ‘that’s a frivolous argument.’ Now, you might say that a company that distinguished itself most by running Abu Ghraib prison in occupied Iraq probably wouldn’t rate frivolity that highly. Which would be to miss the point. Back then we just thought the accusation of frivolity meant the person saying it didn’t have the wit to riposte. Maybe they just hadn’t drunk enough, but by then they didn’t have office competitions on who could rack-up the biggest lunch-bill in a week. Wierdly, that was when loyalty was found to be a one-way street, too. Employees would get speeches about it, just like the ones about how great open-plan offices were, while they saw their boss’s promotion measured in how opaque their office door was. And how people usually got sacked pretty soon after the loyalty speech.

I worked for myself soon after the rot set in. The internet came. There was a place nearby that re-sold the contents of bankrupt businesses, which there were a lot of back then. I remember walking across a field clutching the future in the shape of a US Robotics modem, thinking this was the future. Everyone could work from home now. You wouldn’t have to commute. You wouldn’t have to spend three-quarters of your life within 200 yards of your office. And I totally missed the point, the way UK infrastructure totally missed the bus, to coin a PC-related phrase.

When I moved out to Suffolk I read the local papers to get a feel for the place. It’s amazing what you find. I’d been in Cannock Chase one day, stopping for petrol, when I read about a murder almost exactly a hundred years to the day from another murder there, with enough similarities to make at least a six-episode TV series. I didn’t find two murders a hundred years apart, guv. I found the mayor of Leiston who gave the best and worst UK business quote ever:

How can we have more jobs without more heavy lorries?

Eastern Daily Press.

That was 2001. Then and now I thought it was pathetic. It wasn’t just the lack of vision; it was the total failure of ambition, the ‘it’ll never change round here’ forelock-tugging nimbyism of it all that makes me cringe. Forget embarrassment: I’m talking about shame.

The Suffolk village where I lived then was one of the very last to get broadband. A decade after we’d started using the web in our office we were still paying for every single minute of dial-up time. The internet took off so much faster in the USA because the technology meant it was only ever a local phone call. It was in the UK too. The difference is and was that in the US, local calls were free.

Suffolk has a lot. Beautiful landscape. Peace. Tranquility. Big skies. It could have been the most miraculous creative hub. If it had had decent connectivity. As it is, it didn’t even have proper offices staffed by lecherous semi-pro alcoholics reeking of lust, sweat and cigarettes. It’s a different world.

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Guns, bombs and toilet bowls

A teacher in America was shot by her own gun when she went to the loo, according to the BBC. But the BBC isn’t what it used to be when Val and John and Bill & Ben ruled the airwaves. Right at the end of the tabloid story the BBC says basically, everything you just read was bullshit. We made it up. Yes, there was a teacher. Yes, she had a gun and went to the loo, or as she was American, the bayathrum. Yes, the gun went off when she didn’t mean it to. But it didn’t shoot her. It shot the toilet bowl. That’s what put her in hospital.

If that sounds unlikely, believe. And I know, because I was that soldier. Well, if not that soldier, certainly another toilet bowl victim.

And Scalextrix

It didn't have all that fancy digital stuff when I were a lad.
It didn’t have all that fancy digital stuff when I were a lad.

It was all a long time ago. I was living in London and had a job I hated and I’d been to some business exhibition down in Earls Court or somewhere. They were interchangeable. The only reason anyone went was because they had to and in those days they were full of free drinks. Maybe they still are.

Apart from alcohol one of the stalls had a Scalextrix track. If you don’t know it, it was plastic track with metal strips in that carried 12 volt current that worked electric racing cars, until they usually spun across the room on the corners because you’d been going too fast down the straight. Eeeh, we had proper toys in them days. Every male child was obliged by law to own a set, even though nobody really knew whether you pronounced the first X or not. The deal on the stall was simple. Win the race, win a bottle of champagne. With the cunning of the truly drunk I remembered the tortoise and the hare. Thinking that you’d lose more time retrieving the car and putting it back on the track if it spun off I just drove it sedately around the track. Which worked. Free champagne. Result. All I needed was someone negotiable to drink it with and there was one of those at home so I put the bottle in the big inside pocket of my covert coat and got the Tube.

Back then Finsbury Park overground had loos. It didn’t for a while after this episode, when the IRA blew it up. That stuff happened then, too. A friend walked past Liberty’s a few minutes before the windows blew out. I was close enough to hear the bang and see the smoke from somewhere in Fulham that was blown up. I thought the IRA blew up the loos anyway.

Pretty much like the Finsbury Park station Gents.
Pretty much like the Finsbury Park station Gents.

I was a bit tired. I was so tired I had to lean my head on the cool, welcoming wall tiles while I used the loo and without boasting or anything, they were quite a way away. I closed my eyes, because I was really, no I mean really tired. And the tiles were cool on my forehead even though I had to bend a bit to get my head on the wall and I wasn’t needing to find a bathroom really quite quickly anymore and I had free champagne and everything was really quite ok when the whole bathroom exploded.

There was a huge bang and I heard stuff pinging and ricochet off the walls just like on Saving Private Ryan and things hit me in the leg and my feet were wet with blood. Except when I opened my eyes I couldn’t see any blood and so far as I could make out the walls of the bathroom were still intact and there wasn’t any smoke and it wasn’t making any sense. Then I saw the champagne bottle in the stub of porcelain sticking out of the floor and suddenly it did. I didn’t mean for the bottle to fall out of my pocket and blow up the toilet bowl, but life is full of unintended things. Or it was then, anyway, but the bottle was intact so I went home and drank it.

Extremely dangerous.
Extremely dangerous.

Again according to the BBC another American professor shot himself in the foot when he was fiddling with his gun in his pocket while he was supposed to be talking to people. I had to flail desperately at my own trousers once when a Susy Lamplugh rape alarm went off in my pocket and I couldn’t turn it off while I was on the phone.

It was the ’80s. That’s what happened in offices. I’d been to a Lamplugh Trust event the night before and got one of the aerosol-powered alarms mainly because it was free but also because I liked stuff like that (wanna see my baton, baby?) and because I was a bit bored I was fiddling with the alarm in my pocket while I was talking to someone on the phone when it went off. Luckily it didn’t shoot a hole in my foot or explode a toilet bowl. That all came later. We all drank too much and had unprotected sex and bought flats we couldn’t afford with money we didn’t have for the price of a deposit on one now. It was brilliant. We had a BBC we could believe in, too. Mostly.




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One Day Only

This Sunday, Not Your Heart Away is FREE on Kindle, Love, big houses, fast cars and naivety one country summer.

This special promotion is to celebrate the paperback finally being published. That’s not free.

So do yourself a favour, get a drink. Sit down. Open the book and be back there, in the best summer of your life. You might need some tissues at the end though.

Sorry about that.

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Out Now In Paperback




Well, it’s finally out in paperback.

I got four review copies nearly a month ago and sent them off to people who’d been involved with the book. Two of them haven’t bothered to read it yet. Thanks guys, glad I bothered sending it. One is still reading it. One I don’t know whether they’ve read it or not because they’ve stopped talking to me. I think they’ve read it and believed it to be a true story. It isn’t. It employs a literary technique what we artists call ‘making things up.’

It’s got three very good reviews so far and it’s also done a strange thing. Two people started sobbing after they read it. They told me it wasn’t because it was so utterly bad that they were weeping out of grief at wasting their time reading it, but neither one can tell me exactly what they were sobbing about. Times past, maybe.

Anyway, if your nose is blocked and you fancy having red eyes you can now go and get your own paperback copy, just like a real book, on paper and everything, thanks to the wonders of Amazon. Just click on the picture and the interweb will take you straight back in time. Sobbing.



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