August 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Office: A Hardworking History' by Gideon Haigh

By Robyn Annear
'The Office: A Hardworking History' by Gideon Haigh, Miegunyah Press; $45.00

At my workplace not long ago, an elderly poet inadvertently hung his walking stick on the photocopier’s keypad and, instead of one copy of his mint-new poem, ended up with 413 of them. Gideon Haigh’s latest book is a bit like that.

The success of TV shows like Mad Men and The Office supplied the ostensible inspiration for the book, which is ripe with popular culture references – novels, plays, comic strips, film – ranging back to Dickens and beyond. The breadth of Haigh’s research is astonishing, spanning from the pharaohs to Helen Gurley Brown via Herbert Spencer, Kafka, business manuals, political memoirs, the Starr Report, and entertainments like I Lost My Girlish Laughter.

It’s a big subject that Haigh has set himself – bigger than he realised, you suspect – and he tackles it with vim. The Office encompasses the history of office work, technology, relationships, commuting, furnishings, hierarchies, and the buildings that offices are housed in. In fact, Haigh’s typically exhaustive treatment of the glass box and its evolution serves as a distraction from the book’s real point of interest: what goes on inside the glass box.

If I felt disappointed by The Office outside-in, sociocultural view of office life, it’s because I began my working life as an office-dweller in the dying days of manual typewriters, plug-and-cord switchboards (beautiful beasts to operate: like milking a mechanical cow) and telex machines. In my desk’s top drawer was a bottle of neon-pink Gestetner correction fluid from which I’d sniff whenever the working day dragged. And as for being an “office wife”… well, the tacit power-sharing agreement between boss and secretary was more respectful than most marriages I knew.

The Office draws on the encyclo­pae­dic bent manifested earlier in Haigh’s publishing career in The Uncyclopedia and its quirkmeister sequel, The Tencyclopedia. If this tendency towards exhaustiveness sometimes brings an element of ‘and then … and then …’ to the narrative, Haigh’s inquisitiveness and erudition also set many marvels before the reader’s eye – as when Balzac particularises the cloistered universe of a government clerk: “his sky is the ceiling toward which he yawns; his element is dust.”

Haigh and his publishers could have made The Office more beckoning to the Mad Men generation had they trimmed its length and format. Running to 624 pages on creamy paper, it’s as classy a production as you’d expect of Miegunyah. Fat margins accommodate matchbook-sized illustrations, but stretch the book into a chunky, squarish format, making it near impossible to read The Office on your way to the office.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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