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Where are the faxes of yesteryear?

I get a lot of my social history from novels and second- and third-rate novels can unintentionally tell interesting stories about the customs of their age. So when I listened to Lucy Kellaway’s lively History of Office Life (sorry deadline passed – memo got lost in the internal mail/you must have accidentally deleted my message) I was reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, which is set in an advertising agency, Pym’s Publicity.


Murder Must Advertise is not much of a detective story, as the plot is elaborate rather than ingenious and Lord Peter Wimsey the most annoying of the amateur sleuths from the golden age of detective fiction. But it does pick up the atmosphere of the office – those daytime villages with their feuds, friendships, gossip, rumours, the management being the squires alternatively disciplining and giving the villagers treats.

On the first page we are taken to the typists’ room, which is the social hub. The workers are “frivoling” and arranging a sweepstake. Enter one of the managers.

“Mr Ingleby, can you spare me a moment?”

At Mr Hankin’s mildly sarcastic accents, the scene dislimned as by magic. .. Mr Willis, rising hurriedly with the tray of carbons in his hand, picked a paper out at random and frowned furiously at it. Miss Parton’s cigarette dropped unostentatiously to the floor, Mr Garrett, unable to get rid of his coffee-cup, smiled vaguely and tried to look as though he had picked it up accident and didn’t know it was there, Miss Meteyard, with great presence of mind, put the sweep counterfoils on a chair and sat on them. Miss Rossiter, clutching Mr Armstrong’s carbons in her hand, was able to look businesslike, and did so. Mr Ingleby alone, disdaining pretence, set down his cup with a slightly impudent smile and advanced to obey his chief’s command.

“This,” said Mr Hankin, tactfully blind to all evidences of disturbance, “is Mr Bredon.”

When the city took over from the tribe or clan human beings created a neighbourhood or a guild or a political group or a blog-with-commenters or some other small community. The office workers travel to populate the daily office village and instead of the blood tie it’s the work that pulls the group together – the work and the profit if it is a money-making concern. In the early nineteenth century Charles Lamb returned to his East India Office after he had retired and found that he was now a ghost, as colleagues are when estranged from the business of the office and have become merely part of its history and folklore at best.

Sayers herself worked in an advertising agency in the 1920s.* Middle-class women started working in offices around the late nineteenth century. They were first of all kept segregated in case they distracted the men and for fear of corrupting their own morals. In Sayers’ office a mild gallantry and a little flirting are allowable but the women were still supposed to stay chaste.

He went and told Hankie once that he’d seen me at the dog-races with a gentleman friend. As if it was any business of his what a girl does out of business hours. … Just because anybody’s a mere typist it doesn’t mean one’s a heathen slave.

And Miss Meteyard, the only woman copywriter, can be blackmailed because “of some man or other”, which the strait-laced owner of the company would take a dim view of.

Later on offices became more raunchy until the 1960s when the secretaries were pinchable bottoms, which preceded our own time of appropriate behaviour and sexual harassment.

The business in Murder Must Advertise is the new profession of advertising which was less hide-bound than, say, law. So it is possible for Miss Meteyard a Somerville graduate, to be a copy writer as Sayers was (she worked on the Guinness Toucan campaign).* The rest of the women are secretaries, typists, facilities managers and cleaners, as they tend to be today.

The typists tapping rhythms on their percussive typewriting machines are the female heart of the office, and they have feminised it, buying the cakes for tea and organising collections for wedding presents – still pretty much part of the secretarial job. This feminisation makes the atmosphere of Sayers’ office so different from Trollope’s all male clerks outfits where social life was at the chop-house. Many secretaries and PAs take on the matriarchal and social oiling role – buying flowers, offering tissues and concern and handing round the giant Sorry You’re Going farewell card for everyone to sign.


From the 1973 television adaptation. They had cups and saucers those days.

The internal telephone is not used as it would have been in an American office of the same vintage. The British stuck to their messengers for a long time, and in Sayers’ novel the office boys have an important part in the plot as the eyes and ears. A modern counterpart would be the IT support person who accesses everyone’s computer in person or digitally and can snoop. In the Golden Age of detective fiction the murders were usually done in a country house or village or some other limited community so everyone could be accounted for and alibis concocted. Sayers got round the problem of a hubbub of employees through the office boy’s tenacious memory and sharp observation to narrow down the pool of suspects. (Later on P D James stuck to outfits like a publisher’s or research unit to keep the number of likely murderers down.)

Sayers’ office workers have proper tea breaks and a woman with a tea trolley – something I’m old enough to remember from a few decades ago, a time when you went out for lunch with a beer or two chucked in, instead of the sparkling water, a sandwich and a browse of the internet at the desk. They are still Misters and Misses and will be until the 1960s until there is only one ancient scary bloke who everyone calls Mr (as in my place) and email address lists are organised by first names rather than last.

Lucy Kellaway now has a new series The Joy of 9-5.  It was unionised factory workers who won the 9-5 and the paid holidays which spilled over to the office workers. These days though many paper-pushers and email-copyees work punishing hours. However the maternalism still remains in that although the hours hurt, HR and the management hand out pain-killers in the form of stress counselling. Admonitions are wrapped up in praise. Rather than being nosy about our sexual morals the management worries about our personal problems which they investigate with psychometric tests finding out whether you are a Dominant Influencer Steady or Compliant (DISC) . The many courses we are offered on work management, self-realisation, know yourself, how to be more effective – it is a blurring of lines between office and home, along with the other blurrings. So work steals more and more time. Sayers’ characters below top management level had to sign the time register; these days it’s moral pressure of not wanting to be seen to be the first to leave.

So we are mostly doomed to work and if we can we find something interesting to do among congenial colleagues. Sayers’ advertising agency in spite of murder and blaackmail is more fun than than the paper suppliers of Ricky Gervais’s The Office.

Miss Meteyard,:- “Sopo Day is Cinema Day.” “Leave the Laundry to ruin itself while you addle your brains at the Talkies.” Muck! Dope! And they pay me £10 a week for that sort of thing. And yet, if we didn’t do it, what would happen to the trade of this country? You’ve got to advertise.’

And everyone smokes as they did to about the beginning of this millennium. I remember when the accounts room was blue with haze.

The big campaign Sayers’ advertising agency works on is cigarettes.. “This scheme should carry a strong appeal to women.. We want to get women down to serious smoking. Too many of them play about with it…. You can smoke a lot more of them in the day without killing yourself. And they’re cheaper. If we increase women’s smokes by 500 percent – there’s plenty of room for it-”

That is what really makes this novel show its age. Also, the newspaper that runs the advertisements is the Morning Star.  It’s a fictitious paper. The Commie rag with that name was then called the Daily Worker.

*She came up with the Toucan rhyme for Guinness:-