I have no idea how a modern office functions but I do know that many people have their own work stations. I retired before the advent of computers and correspondence by email. Office work then was a more collaborative endeavour. There was no email, correspondence was by letter or in emergency by telex. Few of us typed, indeed were able to type, our own letters, reports or minutes. We wrote the first draft long-hand or dictated it to tape. In the larger offices our scribbles were sent to a typing pool, a room the size of a classroom full of young women sitting behind typewriters and presided over by an older woman who distributed the work. Only the bravest of males entered this sanctum.
Thankfully most of my career I spent overseas in smaller offices. Even at a junior grade I had my own secretary. Indeed, before open plan became the norm, we shared a room with our secretary, usually a woman as young or younger than ourselves. If it went well the secretary did more than type, copy and file your work. She would help find reports and files, make appointments, advise you on local customs, locations and personalities and sometimes there was even time to talk about one another’s lives. For you spent almost as many hours cloistered with your secretary as you did at home with your wife. Usually, though, there was a degree of reserve in your relationship and certainly of mutual respect.
My first secretary in Madras (now Chenai) was Brenda, an Anglo-Indian. She was young, neat and pretty. Like all Anglo-Indian staff, but but unlike the other office staff, she wore western dress, usually a tight, knee-length skirt and white blouse. Her husband, who worked on the railways dropped her off and picked her up on his scooter, but she always looked immaculate. I wrote the staff newsletter, I reviewed visiting plays and music performances for HQ as well as doing the more run of the mill office business. Never once did Brenda comment, offer any opinion of her own, dissent or agree. She faithfully copied my work, uncomplaining if drafts had to be retyped three or four times, spelling mistakes tippexed and typed over. For there were no word processors.
In Norway, Rigmor was another kettle of fish. In a land of social and gender equality most of our small team were friends inside and outside the office. We socialized together, knew one another’s family; once I went on a four day hike in the mountains with Rosalind, the boss’s secretary and her son and other friends. Rigmor was a little different. Very reserved at first and from a poor suburb of Oslo, she had strong views. We had a small waiting room with a limited selection of magazines for visitors. One of Rigmor’s first suggestions was to subscribe to Spare Rib. To his credit our boss ordered it right away and I noticed that its most fervent reader was Rigmor. She and I also helped one another with language since to begin with her English was little better than my Norwegian.
Otherwise her job was as much as before, typing letters, fixing appointments and filing and finding. I did often ask her her opinion about our professional contacts and the institutions we worked with. She was not backward in giving it, but she remained reserved. We worked on friendly terms but neither I nor my colleagues gleaned much about her personal life. I do not know whether she had a boy or girl friend or how she spent her leisure. She remained an outsider.
My next move was to the Commission of the European Commission in Brussels and as regards Belgian social attitudes it felt like going back a century in time. The commission, though, was like a chaotic, anarchic and multilingual version of my London HQ. The secretaries were incredibly lazy to the point of taking offence if you asked them to type a letter quickly or to do anything slightly unusual. Correspondence was in many languages. Most secretaries could use the qwerty and the asiop keyboards since we wrote mainly in English or French. Some of them nevertheless had to be cajoled to typing in English. Some reckoned my Anglo-Saxon handwriting was indecipherable whatever language I used. In my time there were no native speaking English typists, except perhaps in the “cabinets” of the top officials.
From Brussels I went to Juba to open an office from scratch. I had no staff to begin with but was offered an empty room at the University of Juba. I had my own portable typewriter and a packing case that I used as a desk. I found a chair in another room of the deserted university and paper was sent down to me from Khartoum. In due course I rented an office, recruited staff but there was no electricity in the town. Typewriters had to be manual and I discovered that the Olympia was still being made in Kenya. Months later I had one of these heavy, solid machines delivered, along with a supply of ribbons. By then I had recruited Vashti as secretary, a confident young woman with a sense of humour. She was rather taken with her own appearance and dressed provocatively, but her English and her typing skills were acceptable. She found my western concern with time keeping a bit alien but she usually got her work done. She stood no nonsense from the other staff, an accountant and ex school teacher, a staid, middle-aged man I had later to sack for fraud, an office manager, a driver and the various expatriate experts reliant on my office who came and went between their various projects.
The problems began when Vashti became pregnant. She had a difficult birth and one morning I got the message that she needed a blood transfusion. She had a rare blood type matched by none of us in the office. There were no doctors in Juba and the hospital was the place you went to die, not to be saved. All of us in the office tried desperately to find a blood donor from the right group. Eventually I found that among a group of French engineers building the new airport there was a driver of one of the earth movers who fell into the same blood group as Vashti. I tracked him down and asked this ruddy faced, fat French workman whether he could spare some of his blood for my secretary.
“Now. It is urgent.”
“Is she English? French?”
“No, she is African.”
The driver hid his feelings. He said he would think about it, but now it was his lunch time. He told me to come back in three hours. I did not need to. Vashti died that afternoon.
By my next posting the British Council was introducing computers. In Ghana we vacated a huge space beneath the office and installed a computer the size of a small car. It had to be permanently air-conditioned. This was more than we had in our own rooms.
Some of the secretaries were given monitors so they could word process their work. This was before Windows came along. Every bit of punctuation, space, line change etc had its own code. I never bothered to learn it. Some of the women got to operate it fairly quickly but it was hardly the time saver we had expected. In fact it provided the common excuse for delay: sorry, the computer is down. Computers as we now know them, along with email and the internet did not appear until well after my retirement. Patricia, my last secretary was in the old tradition. She was efficient and reliable but left suddenly to live with an “uncle” in Sheffield. The beautiful Felicia made great strides through the office and moved on to an administrative job with the United Nations. We remained friends long after we had both left the Council and she came to visit me and my wife in UK on several occasions revealing an unsuspected weakness: she loved chocolate cake.
Typists hardly exist any more. All men and women do their own typing. A few conventional secretaries have become P. As to senior managers. I am glad I retired when I did. Today I should miss the companionship of sharing office space with a secretary and gaining a small insight into another culture and another life.