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Memory Lane: The Office - a 1944 episode

Blog | Feb 27, 2024

In 1944 I started work aged 15 as a junior shorthand typist in a solicitors’ office. I am now 94 and in a very different world. The following is a satirical evocation of office life in 1944.

What I want to say to the boss (but don’t):

• Don’t telephone when you want to dictate; just press the bell beneath your roll-top desk. Makes me feel important.

• When dictating, hold a cigarette in your mouth as you mutter. This calls for my specialised form of lip-reading and the haze of smoke has an amazing effect on my sinuses.

• Never make a list of the letters or deeds you wish to dictate before you send for me: erratic stabs at the shoals of letters on your desk will keep me in your office longer, ensuring I have a rush getting the post ready for six o’clock.

• I can doze while you make numerous phone calls, but please don’t wake me suddenly to ask for the last thing you said.

• When the weather is freezing and we’re down to burning old books and bits of wood from elderly desks, please don’t lean on the mantle, screening me from the fire. (I felt no sympathy when you scorched your trousers.)

• Did you ever consider, when I was a junior, that each day I was last to leave this narrow, high, Dickensian building, having to carry all the post and parcels down a long flight of steps in unrelieved blackness, with responsibility to lock up the premises before racing through the town to catch the post?

• It was almost as much fun to visit the archives kept in an old barn, where dead flies lay in their dozens, and I needed to wave away the cobwebs and blow off the dust to find a file.

• I was only the third female allowed (because of man shortage) to join the staff of this legal office. The desks were designed for deeds to be written by hand. With the desk too high and the chair too low for speed typing, I sat perched atop two cushions, each about a foot deep. Not good for the spine.

• But I respected you and you respected me. You, who drove ambulances in the First World War, lost your wife in childbirth and your daughter in a fire. Your humanity and sense of humour remained firm.

In those days, we still had a ‘stiff upper lip’ and we knew what really mattered in life.