Book review: In Office Hours by Lucy Kellaway
Winston Fletcher undresses the office affair
Are office dalliances different from any other kind? Definitely, according to Financial Times journalist Lucy Kellaway. She erects her case in a new novel, In Office Hours, a genteel saga of horny office life set in the fictitious headquarters of a London oil company. “London is the global capital of office affairs,” Kellaway patriotically claims. Secretary-seducers, leaving-party Lotharios and randy office Romeos around the world may find this hard to swallow. But Kellaway carried out copious copulation research before penning her novel – group discussions, louche interviews and who knows what else? Market researchers would say such data is soft, not to say flaccid, and I’m unsure what its standard deviation would be, but Kellaway insists that one in four office workers has had a relationship with a colleague. Whether this relationship comprised a peck on the cheek or full blown rumpy-pumpy on the firm’s photocopier, she omits to clarify.
If the legovers in In Office Hours are the juiciest her research respondents could come up with, then either they kept their lips resolutely buttoned – or their blouses and flies. They admitted to canoodling in taxis, nipping off for a swift snog in the lift or a tryst on the office roof, and regularly rutting in local hotels. They send each other countless billets-doux (English: texts and emails) which they draft and redraft ad nauseam (English: somewhat tediously). But Kellaway claims her description of the couple who have it away on the boardroom table is pure invention.
Or maybe they just protested too much. After all, Coco Chanel is said to have gobbled up the formula for Chanel No 5 by pleasuring parfumier Francois Coty on his office desk, and not so long ago the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England’s squeeze publicly admitted she had engaged in Ugandan practices with him on the Governor’s own office carpet. The tabloids promptly christened her The Bonk of England. So surely bonking in the boardroom must be fairly commonplace. What else is the point of working late?
Kellaway’s keener on the stresses and strains of office liaisons. Her two main characters are female, one a high-flying executive, the other a low-flying worker-bee. Both get their knickers off for blokes whom Kellaway deems deeply unsuitable. “What,” wails her blurb, “possesses both women to embark on pole-axing, heart-wrenching affairs with men they wouldn’t have looked at twice outside the office?”
Not that the blokes’ lack of huge cheque books or hard career trajectories is at all vital to the plot. The only thing vital to the plot is secrecy. One of the women and one of the men is married (not to each other). Consequently their need for secrecy is as normal as it is in old bedroom farces. They worry that their workmates may disapprove or, even worse, may sneak to their spouses. They also fear their antics could damage their career prospects: indiscreet shafting can get you shafted. If you want to get it made, don’t get laid.
Apart from one wonderfully comic cock-up, In Office Hours is no bundle of laughs. It’s more like a prim parable: office screwing screws you up. But it doesn’t. For many, sex at work can be life-enhancing, spicing up dreary office tedium. I have a naughty friend who has been locked into offices twice while on the job, with two different partners, and once had to call a locksmith. Careless, certainly. But effing funny.
What is truly strange about office affairs is that secrecy matters even when there’s no real reason for it. My own surreptitious office affair continued for four long years, during which we both behaved bizarrely to evade being found out, until we got married. We reckon the old Hollywood moguls got it right: when workmates mate the employer gets terrific value, because they pillow-talk about work. And that’s the really good thing about office nooky. It provides the participants with two shared interests.