Ah, the modern working environment – uh, sorry, I meant: ach, the modern working environment. A few years ago – eight or nine years ago, come to think of it – I did some temping work for a while for the Royal Bank of Scotland (or just the Bank of Scotland – I don’t remember, or care) in Team Valley, Gateshead. My job description was ‘data entry’. Too boring to describe. The people there were nice, but mostly dull – nice, you understand – I received a bewildering amount of Christmas cards after only having worked there six weeks- but dull, it must be admitted. Probably they weren’t so dull at home – the office made them dull, as it made me dull too. The office was arranged in carousels, thought at the time to be conducive to sociable and cooperative working groups, but since proven to make workers paranoid, defensive and less productive. I took carefully timed toilet and cigarette breaks (I delayed quitting smoking until the post there was finished) and spent my lunch breaks outside reading the newspaper and listening to my portable CD player. After a few weeks the first kind of data entry was running low, so I was moved to another, equally tedious, kind of data entry in another office, also arranged in carousels, but with a window overlooking the eastern side of the valley. At this latitude winter sunsets are well within the working hours even of lowly temps. A refreshing sight, a sunset, after staring at a computer screen all day; but for the sake of worker efficiency the office was fitted with anti-glare windows, a dark purple, not letting the slanting light of the sun interfere with the regulated light of the office environment.
The modern working environment is for many a barren, bland place. The American poet Theodore Roethke evokes the spirit-crushing banality of such environments brilliantly in the poem Dolor:
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplicaton of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.
Roethke, listing the contents of a typical modern office, finds a language that is precise and technical, but, surprisingly, poetic and evocative, capturing the stultifying atmosphere of the office. The effect of invoking such emotions as sadness and desolation in conjunction with such mundane objects is humorous, but I think he really means it too – he really does find these places desolate and barren. Perhaps he had a few boring jobs to pay the bills before he made it as a poet.
The image at the end of the poem – of dust, representing this deadening of life, settling on the faces of the office’s inhabitants – is a tad predictable, but very well rendered. It is the beginning of the poem that really sticks in the head though – I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils / Neat in their boxes… And haven’t so many of us felt that too?
Still, in 2013 perhaps we feel a little differently. Just as we now find the back-breaking labour of old rural life irresistibly picturesque, we are starting to feel nostalgic about the boring office spaces of yesteryear – ou est les crayonnes de antan? The office spaces of the mid- Twentieth Century seem to have a lot more personality to them – and television producers go to a lot of trouble to recreate them for such programmes as Madmen. Paper weights and manila envelopes get us all nostalgic; mucilage and multiform graphs sound positively exotic. And the workers of the modern office feel the inexorable sadness of Windows 10, dolour in Excel spread-sheets, desolation in immaculate power point presentations…