Groping for standards

Image of Susie Boyt

Writing at home alone, I often long for colleagues. If a high-handed soul sent me out for complex coffees, it would be a bit of a thrill. The office politics of the lone home worker can be taxing when you are boss, underling, chief bottle-washer, stick, carrot and complaints department, all rolled into one. The ancient laptop gives off a bit of warmth, so that’s something.

Yet when I worked in an office it was so extreme I still don’t see how anyone could stand it. My boss’s breakfast – brandy – was kept in bottles in the bottom left-hand drawer of our shared desk. If you have never seen someone applying thick make-up while crying, the salt water forming little globules in the foundation that then slip and slide and have to be blotted and fixed with loose powder, like home-made migrating beige acne, it’s something to behold.

This was an ordinary Monday morning routine. The weekend woes poured out in great number. It was like managing a very glamorous hurt baby lion. My boss’s mood swings were some of the best I have ever seen: monumental, operatic.

The company wasn’t officially rooted in crisis management, oh no; in theory, we promoted things, made them fashionable, matched products to events, tried to get our goods into the headlines. The various brands of drinks we worked for had to be shoved into the hands of the thirsty famous at parties, photographs quickly taken, and when the stars, cottoning on, faced us with fury, we would scarper down an alley or dart into a doorway. The next day startled celebrity faces would glower at us from tabloid newspapers, clutching our products and sometimes an elbow or bit of one of our ears could actually be spotted in the edge of the shot. The clients would ring in their congratulations. Corks would pop. Then it would begin again. It was a Beryl the Peril existence heavily scented by Calvin Klein’s Obsession.

I was 18 and green, but sometimes you get a whiff that things are not quite right. “It’s just till you get to university,” I baby-talked myself; “stiff upper lip, stout fella.” People will know how to behave there, I thought – you know, all those high-minded, scholarly types, with dignity and respect for others. Ha ha ha ha ha.

The disregard and hostility with which we were met at university was a scandal, the codes of behaviour lower than anything I saw in the harum scarum of the late 1980s world of London PR. There were the ordinary discourtesies: the tutor who insisted you have your tutorial perched on his bed, the fact that he sometimes took 40-minute phone calls while you were sitting there, or disappeared for long periods with no explanation. The excessive yawning, the lack of engagement with what you said, the excuses for not having read your essay (my dog ate your homework), and the passing remarks that teaching was an occupational hazard, a sort of penance and a nightmare – it was all very demoralising.

Of course, we thought it our fault. We swallowed the belief that no undergraduate ever had had anything interesting to say. When we were kept waiting, or arrived for a thrice-cancelled tutorial to find another note on the door, we apologised. How bad was Oxford meant to be?

Much has been written lately about the “octopus” culture prevalent in the second half of the last century, where men of note (and not of note) considered a friendly grope a reasonable manner of communicating. We all know now that these kinds of practices are a squalid way of wielding power. Of course this went on too.

I had a friend, 18, very highly strung, never been away from home before, who wore his aunty-knitted green woolly cardigan with pride. Can you imagine how he felt when our flamboyant tutor came to his room at midnight with bowls of molten brown-bread ice-cream, saying, “Let’s take off our shoes and socks and read some Marvell?”

Eccentrics are like that, we tried to tell ourselves. Important men will always bend the rules. Maybe we just have no sense of humour.

Whenever we raised our eyebrows at the stray hands, the missed appointments, there was always that famous: “Oh, I see. Gosh, we do think highly of ourselves, don’t we? Silly little thing, run along.”

When more and more people felt dissatisfied with all this discouragement and late night man-handling, a complaints framework was introduced. Guess who was at the helm of it: Mr Brown-Bread Ice-Cream himself.

The year before, as my London boss’s business had faltered, I remember her taking me to a bank near Berkeley Square where she had opened her childhood account and withdrawing what was in it, and giving the notes to me. As the ship went down, she made it clear, her first duty was to her employee. In a funny way, in her hustling, alcohol-fuelled world, she had standards.

In my little home office, staring out of the window, I must try to have them too.

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