August 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Office: A Hardworking History' by Gideon Haigh

By Robyn Annear

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.

'The Office: A Hardworking History' by Gideon Haigh, Miegunyah Press; $45.00
August 2012

August 2012

From the front page

Six years and counting

There is no hope in sight for hundreds of people on Manus Island and Nauru

The Djab Wurrung Birthing Tree

The highway construction causing irredeemable cultural and environmental damage

Detail of 'Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Two Eagles', by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘The Transient Landscape’ and the Terracotta Warriors at the National Gallery of Victoria

The incendiary Chinese artist connects contemporary concerns with cultural history

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and CFMEU Victoria secretary John Setka

Judge stymies Albanese’s plans to expel Setka from ALP

A protracted battle is the last thing the Opposition needs


In This Issue

Word: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Hubert Opperman & Bruce Small

Small Fry

The story of a people smuggler

'The Sapphires' by Wayne Blair (director), In national release from 9 August

'The Sapphires' by Wayne Blair (director)

A young boy in Dalworth Children's Home at Seaforth, NSW, in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW. Photograph: Sam Hood

The Forgotten Ones

Half a million lost childhoods


More in Noted

Detail of 'Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Two Eagles', by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘The Transient Landscape’ and the Terracotta Warriors at the National Gallery of Victoria

The incendiary Chinese artist connects contemporary concerns with cultural history

Cover image of ‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

An accidental death in a tale of immigrant generations highlights fractures in the promise of America

Still image from ‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti

‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti at Venice Biennale

The democratic ideal is explored in the Australian Pavilion’s video installation

Cover image of 'Animalia' by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

‘Animalia’ by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

The French author delivers a pastoral that turns on human cruelty


Read on

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and CFMEU Victoria secretary John Setka

Judge stymies Albanese’s plans to expel Setka from ALP

A protracted battle is the last thing the Opposition needs

Image from ‘Booksmart’

Meritocracy rules in ‘Booksmart’

Those who work hard learn to play hard in Olivia Wilde’s high-school comedy

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

The government’s perverse pursuit of surplus

Aiming to be back in black in the current climate is bad economics

Image of Blixa Bargeld at Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo 2019: Blixa Bargeld

The German musician presides over a suitably unpredictable evening


×
×