My word, Miss Perkins

Jenny Diski

  • Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture edited by Leah Price and Pamela Thurschwell
    Ashgate, 168 pp, £40.00, January 2005, ISBN 0 7546 3804 9

Just after the beginning of the first Gulf War I arrived at Toronto airport to take part in a literary festival. Along with a couple of dozen others (mostly dark-skinned or from Islamic countries) I was sent to wait in a queue for special questioning when I presented my passport. After about an hour I was taken to a cubicle by a short but perfectly square woman in uniform who lolled behind a desk and looked at me long and mean. I had been on a seven-hour flight and no one had mentioned before I got to Heathrow that Air Canada was all non-smoking. I was not cheerful.

‘What’s your job?’

‘I’m a writer.’

‘Why are you here?’

I showed her my letter from the festival. She glanced at it.

‘What are you doing at this here festival?’

‘I’ve come to do a reading.’

Nothing up to this point had got a reaction. Her eyes had remained blank as mirror shades. Now, though, her eyebrows hit her hairline and she lunged forward across the desk, her face all lit up in a smirk of triumph. She knew how to winkle out the bad guys all right.

‘Oh yeah? You just said you were a writer! Now you tell me you’re reading.’ She drew out the last word in proper third-degree style. ‘So which is it, huh?’

She sat back hard in her seat and waited to see how I would wriggle out of that one. I lost the will to live at this point. I also sat back in my chair. I put my hands up. All I wanted was a cigarette.

‘Officer, you got me. You’d better send me back to the UK. Deport me. I want to go home. By BA, preferably.’ They still had a smoking section.

She’d hoped for better. She narrowed her eyes and gave me another mean look, then told me to wait while she left to make a phone call. Twenty minutes later she returned and grudgingly dismissed me from the cubicle and her life. I was allowed to stay in spite of the wild discrepancy in my story.

If I hadn’t been so addicted to nicotine, I might have been less sullen about it. These category errors happen. What’s the most frequent question writers get asked? ‘Do you use a pen or do you type?’ Readers read; writers write, right? Well no. For those who think academically about that sort of thing, like the contributors to this book of essays, authors create, and typists write. Some authors apparently split themselves in two and do both. Just ten minutes ago I heard Alexander McCall Smith, a writer of feel-good detective novels, tell an interviewer how his work comes to him through his ‘unconscious’: plots, characters, everything bubbles up from the murky depths and tells him its story. He just types it out. Now this I envy. My unconscious, if I have one, which I doubt, is so unconscious that it doesn’t tell me anything, not consciously, anyway, and I have to manage all on my own. I write as I type, or I type as I write (do cats eat bats or do bats eat cats?).

‘Whatever they may do,’ the bibliographer Roger Stoddard has noted, ‘authors do not write books.’ Leah Price and Pamela Thurschwell take up the distinction and declare that their volume will focus ‘on the representation, self-representation and non-representation, in literature, film and other cultural forms, of those who do write – manuscripts and memos, forms and faxes’. In these days of computers, with authors emailing finished manuscripts to publishers (and for all I know publishers sending them directly on to the printers) the distinction can’t be quite so clear. There’s talk in these essays of Henry James dictating to Mary Weld (she records that it took 194 days to dictate The Wings of the Dove but makes no mention of content or quality) and of Erle Stanley Gardner’s fiction factory, with his suite of Della Streets banging out the latest Perry Mason case. U.A. Fanthorpe is quoted on

the saddest dedication: lastly my wife,
Who did the typing.

But mostly I imagine these days the author and writer are one and the same. (Obviously we have to make an exception for industrial novelists like the late Robert Ludlum, who have a team who write the books as well as others who type them before they add their authorial name, so that there are three layers to the finished manuscript – or possibly four if you include the ‘ideas’ officer.) There was a brief period some time ago when it all sort of came together (for the bosses at least) when the word for the machine and the person working it was one and the same: typewriter; enabling hilarious jokes about the boss telling his wife: ‘I’ve had a terrible time, dear, I had to spend the day working with the typewriter on my knees.’ I imagine some similar jest might be devised for the laptop computer, but I can’t be bothered.

Roland Barthes anguished over the problem of the literary division of labour before word processors arrived and solved it for the rest of us with equally uneasy social consciences. In an interview for Le Monde, he was asked the everlastingly interesting question – whether he did all his writing by hand. He explained that he had bought an electric typewriter:

Since I’m often very busy, I have sometimes been obliged to have things typed for me by others . . . When I thought about this, it bothered me. Without going into a big demagogical speech, I’ll just say that to me this represented an alienated social relationship: a person, the typist, is confined by the master in an activity I would almost call an enslavement, when writing is precisely the field of liberty and desire! In short, I said to myself: ‘There’s only one solution. I really must learn to type.’

Well, I don’t like capitalism any more than the next man, and I do hope that when he made them redundant, Barthes’s typists set to and wrote of liberty and desire themselves; but assuming they hadn’t been doing his typing for the sheer joy of helping the world receive the thoughts of Roland Barthes, they surely weren’t exactly enslaved so much as employed.

Naturally, with the invention of the typewriter all manner of doom was predicted by Luddites and moralists for the future of writing, just as it has been with word-processors. Typewriting tears writing from ‘the essential realm of the hand, i.e. the realm of the word’, Heidegger warned, perhaps sitting in his little wooden hut. Some contemporary critics agree (at least I think they do): according to Mark Seltzer, quoted by Victoria Olwell, the ‘linking of hand, eye and letter in the act of writing by hand intimates the translation from mind to hand to eye and hence from the inward and invisible and spiritual to the outward and visible and physical’, whereas the typewriter ‘replaces, or pressures, that fantasy of continuous transition with recalcitrantly visible and material systems of difference’. It seems to me the job is to get the thought down onto paper as directly as possible and you might think that the automatic nature of typing enables a smoother transfer of thoughts to sentences, from mind to hand. Additionally, although handwriting as a guide to character is usually the realm of graphologists rather than philosophers, Heidegger insisted that the worst aspect of typewriting was that it ‘conceals the handwriting and thereby the character. The typewriter makes everyone look the same.’ Odd then that in printed books it’s possible to distinguish Henry James from Charles Dickens.

Nonetheless, most authors have ignored the warnings, bought electronic typewriters and taught themselves to type, and so have those in the world of commerce, with the result that the vast increase of women taking over the clerical work of men that occurred in the early years of the 20th century (having comprised 2 per cent of the clerical workforce in 1850, they accounted for 20 per cent in 1914) has gone into a severe decline. Where have all the secretaries gone? To CEOs every one? Maybe; or perhaps, liberated as Barthes hoped, they’re at home tapping out novels about marriage and childbirth and the hell of the job/family equation demanded by mortgage and credit-card lenders. Most likely they are now called PAs or work in call centres or as data-entry operatives in vast, industrial keyboard factories never dreamed of in the deep end of the typing pool in the 1950s.

The genius v. typist (he creates/she types) dichotomy is a subset of the much broader distinction between who dictates and who takes dictation. Were the multitudes of women secretaries with male bosses drudges in training for marriage – a domesticated version of looking after men at work – or did they establish a place for themselves in the world of employment that allowed them independence and a degree of power? Learning shorthand and typing was once a way for a young man to have an exciting career as a journalist, or, like Dickens and his shadow David Copperfield, to become a parliamentary reporter. When the First World War and the economics of differential wages for male and female employees enabled or forced women to take over the shorthand typing, the value of the expertise fell (as well as the wages). An army of clerks went to war and an army of women took over in the office. Did the same skills offer them the same possibilities? According to Chesterton, ‘twenty million young women rose to their feet and said: “We will not be dictated to,” and immediately became shorthand typists.’ But they had also found a skill that afforded them a better wage than factory work, improved conditions, and, if they were so inclined, the opportunity to wield influence. By the 1980s, there were movies such as Nine to Five and Working Girl, in which Lily Tomlin and Melanie Griffith use body and brain to supplant their bosses, though I suppose these have to be classed as fairytales about the fantasy secretaries who got away, just as Pretty Woman can’t be said to have been depicting the actual upside of prostitution.

Over time, two tiers of women’s office work evolved: personal secretaries, who looked after the needs of men and their office environments, and typists, who were collected together in massed ranks, each at a desk, obeying the disembodied voices of men through the headphones of their dictating machines. Clearly, for some secretaries, taking dictation from an influential man was addictive enough to make them prolong their working relations after their boss had died. A secretary acting as mediator between a mover and shaker and the world he moved and shook during his lifetime could become his medium after he died, as did Louise Owen, secretary to the newspaper owner Lord Northcliffe. In her essay on this early and oddly literal version of the ‘secretary to the stars’ phenomenon, Bette London describes how Owen tried to appropriate the immense popular power of her late employer. ‘You know I am as active here as on earth . . . I shall work very hard, as there is much to do,’ the dead Northcliffe dictated to his living secretary. ‘I am not supplying the daisies with nutriment, but supplying the man and woman of today with hope . . . The League of Nations is the only way to bring happiness,’ he (or she) informed the listening world via Owen’s sensitive antennae and flying fingers.

But Louise Owen was supplanted by a man, Hannan Swaffer, a former reporter and editor, who claimed he was only following orders when Northcliffe, fed up with Owen taking his dictation too slowly and misspelling it, authorised Swaffer as his master’s voice. The secretary was put in her place. Later she tried to sue the Northcliffe estate and lost her legacy, left in her boss’s will, to lawyers. It wasn’t only Northcliffe; Franklin Roosevelt and Henry James, among others, were also ghosted by their secretaries after their death. We can count ourselves lucky that Robert Maxwell has stayed schtum; and let us pray that Rupert Murdoch’s private secretary finds emotionally satisfying employment after he goes to the great red-top in the sky.

On the other side of the power quotient, Douglas Brooks writes about a young woman who is taking an exam in Gurgaon, India, in order to get a job transcribing dictation from doctors in the United States. As part of her training, Richa Singh has ‘sat through a lecture on cardiology, a video on heart disease and a rerun of ER’. The exam requires her to take dictation from an American voice coming from a tape recorder, but Ms Singh isn’t quite ready; she misspells ‘aorta’ and ‘cerebral’. She is doing this because she would rather be a typist than a dentist – which is what she is at present. The career prospects are better, it seems. It is cheaper for highly paid American medics to dictate their medical notes and send them to scribes in India than for them to spend their time typing them up themselves, or to pay high Western wages for someone else to do it. This is known as ‘India’s new knowledge economy’. A cross-continental physical dissociation of the logos from the graphos which is of a different order from the author who types.

But aside from the absence of the body, it is not essentially different from Mina Harker’s role as secretarial mediator taking shorthand notes for the vampire hunters, and mental dictation from the toothy Count Dracula himself; or the real Jean Bethell (reader, Erle Stanley Gardner married her, though only two years before he died) inspiring or trying to live up to (Daniel Karlin can’t be sure) Perry Mason’s perfect secretary, Della Street. Both women (and the Indian transcribers) are conduits of knowledge and expertise. They don’t have to know what they are writing of, they just have to do it accurately and fast. What the on-site secretaries have in addition to the distant transcribers are bodies, available for penetrating with vampire teeth, eyes or flesh; even for marrying. Dictaphones, except in very rare textbook cases, do not arouse desire. But the transcription factories, Brooks tells us, are nothing more than a short-term solution to the inconvenience of bodies wasting time and getting in the way of work. It is only a matter of time before voice recognition software becomes subtle enough not to require any human keyboarder to put word on paper. No body will be necessary and the short-lived but intense narrative of the secretary, her boss and his ever naive wife will be gone for ever, as historical a device in film and literature as the telephone that had to stay in one place. The decorative function remains at receptionist level, where young women without business degrees greet visitors and answer the phone, keeping up a front. Perhaps they also do some typing and tidy things away in files. They probably also know as much about what is going on in the office as anyone. I don’t know if there is a typical receptionist’s daydream of being spotted and whisked up the career ladder; but certainly the films about them have been slow in coming.

I doubt that we should be mourning the demise of the shorthand typist. It was once a possible route to a business career: the secretary who is so efficient and innovative that she gets plucked from her typing, filing and tea-making duties into an office of her own with a secretary of her own is not entirely mythological. Alternatively, she married her boss and persuaded him to put her in charge of the publicity department. But all this suggests is that women could only surprise men into giving them a job: ‘My word, Miss Perkins, you work beautifully even without your typewriter.’ The exceptions must have been vanishingly few compared to the numbers of competent women who kept on keeping offices running smoothly, corrected their bosses’ solecisms before typing up their letters, fended off unwanted callers, renewed the water in the flower vase and wore nylons to the office in even the most sweltering of summers.

On the other hand, secretaries can’t all have disappeared since at the moment two are in the headlines causing havoc. They do seem to have changed their demeanour, however. While Faria Alam is earning hundreds of thousands – and employing Max Clifford to earn her more – by having had affairs with who knows who at the Football Association and telling all, Jenny Amner sent an email, which was eventually forwarded to millions of computers across the world, from her lawyer boss asking for £4 to dry-clean his trousers, over which she had spilt some ketchup. Her reply suggests that something is stirring in the world of the office angel:

From: Amner, Jenny
Sent: 03 June 2005 10.25
To: Phillips, Richard
Cc:*Lon – all users 3rd floor
Subject: Ketchup trousers

With reference to the email below, I must apologise for not getting back to you straight away but due to my mother’s sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your £4.

I apologise again for accidentally getting a few splashes of ketchup on your trousers. Obviously your financial need as a senior associate is greater than mine as a mere secretary. Having already spoken to and shown your email and Anne-Marie’s note to various partners, lawyers and trainees in ECC&T and IP/IT, they kindly offered to do a collection to raise the £4. I however declined their kind offer but should you feel the urgent need for the £4, it will be on my desk this afternoon.