What was life like before total quality management, customer care, downsizing, outsourcing, the corporate mission statement and the evolution of the flip-chart as an essential aid to executive thought? For those too young to remember - or so old that they've forgotten - Jeremy Lewis has put together an anthology of fictional and factual descriptions of office life and "the reactions of articulate but pleasingly run-of-the-mill nine-to-fivers".
"Run-of-the-mill nine-to-fivers" is a curious way of describing the likes of Samuel Pepys, who pretty well singlehandedly founded the Royal Navy; or of Anthony Trollope who did much the same for the Post Office in between writing 47 novels. But let's not quibble. All the contributors have done time behind the office desk, even P G Wodehouse who survived a two-year stint with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.
Pepys, for instance, confides to his diary: "13 January 1660: To my office, where nothing to do. 14 January: Nothing to do at our office ... 23 January: To my office and there did nothing ..." But worse, when Pepys did find some work to do his motives were not always straightforward: "7 November 1668: Up, and at the office all morning; and so to it again after dinner and there busy late, choosing to imploy myself rather than go home to trouble with my wife ..."
Work, it seems, does not play the lead role in Office Life. Only one section tackles the sordid business of getting down to it. The other 20 deal with topics such as the difficulty of getting to work, the problem of dealing with the boss and the insoluble complexities of office politics. Office parties, office gossip and life among the filing cabinets all provide necessary distractions.
So far, so light-hearted. But Lewis also deals very well with the more demanding rites of passage from the first day in the office to the last. He chooses quotations which strikingly convey the sense of bewilderment in being hired, the sense of inevitability in being fired and the sense of emptiness in being retired.
Nicholson Baker's contributions are especially good at evoking the unreal process of settling into a job.
David Morton is a freelance writer.