In the Stationery Cupboard
Jenny Diski’s piece about office life will bring back many memories for pen pushers of past eras (LRB, 31 July). When the Observer first went ‘open plan’ in the 1970s, cubicle offices were provided for ‘senior’ staff. Privacy was the means used to maintain crucial hierarchical discrimination. Some cubicles had doors, and some didn’t; there was a gap above the partition wall of each cubicle; some had glass above the partition, some had no glass; some had clear glass, others had frosted glass. Some people in the open space endeavoured to create their own partitions (hence, status); one political correspondent used stacks of telephone directories, which routinely collapsed.
In an earlier era, when I was working for Rupert Murdoch at the London offices of News Ltd of Australia, the managing editor called me into her office: she had the contents of my wastepaper basket spread over her desk. ‘Why are you throwing away perfectly useable sheets of paper, and that pencil stub has at least another week’s life in it. Are you trying to make the firm go bust!’
At the age of thirty I found myself with a desk at work for the first time. I was childishly thrilled to have drawers and pens and a hole punch to play with. The thrill waned rapidly. I escaped. Some years later I got a job with my local authority. I am still not sure what we were supposed to be doing. I sat beside a locked stationery cupboard. Inside the cupboard was a full provision of all the items so deliciously listed by Jenny Diski. There was also a full inventory of every item and a series of columns for signatures should any item need to be removed and put into action. Other than completing my timesheet and checking the inventory I was often without much to fill my time. I spent it creating elaborate doodles and writing ditties. Here is one of them.
Filling up filing cabinets
Filling up time
Primly preserving public service performance
Bums on seats
10 o’clock, tea o’clock, two o’clock, brew a lot.
Squeeze in a quick break before the next round of tea.
Filling and filing and fooling around
A perpetual paper-go-round.
Chewing gum chit chat
We’re slowly losing our minds.
Security shredded to protect against originality
An indefinite sentence for the
Night release prisoners of the non-working class
Jenny Diski suggests that white-collar workers used to be too busy grovelling to the boss to be trade unionists and that nowadays the flexible nature of such work produces an un-unionised precariat. Not really. The origins of white-collar trade unionism go back to the early years of the 20th century, but it really took off in the late 1960s. The lawyer, the computer programmer, the accountant, the human resources manager: all are likely to be trade unionists. Certainly the nature of office work is changing. But employers find that workers who are outsourced, off-shored and otherwise not on the books are often hard to track down and it can be difficult to tell what they may or may not be doing. At least in their view. There is a significant trend towards insourcing office work and the terms and conditions on which all this takes place are often negotiated by unions.
Jenny Diski’s review of my book Cubed contains two errors of fact, partly attributable to misstatements of my own. The first is her reference to Henry-Russell Hitchcock as an architect of the International Style. In Cubed I mistakenly refer to Hitchcock as an architect, when he was an architectural historian. With Philip Johnson, Hitchcock mounted the Museum of Modern Art exhibit that showcased the architects of what came to be called the International Style.
Second: it’s not the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that projects an increase in the number of contractors and freelancers to 40 per cent of the workforce, but rather a software company, Intuit. This was a misattribution from the uncorrected proofs that was fixed by the time of publication.
A Bung at Delphi
As Mark Martin rightly says while discussing the rarity of Delphic fraudulence, ‘an absence of punishment is not the same as an absence of crime’ (Letters, 31 July). True, but an accusation isn’t a guarantee of guilt either. Both Athens and Sparta, like their modern equivalents, exchanged such accusations as part of the political game. Similarly, all Delphi’s consultants made lavish offerings in the hope, inter alia, that the god would further their plans; but that hope in no sense constituted a done deal, as Croesus for one learned the hard way. What distinguished Kleomenes’ action from the rest was that it made no claim to be anything other than a bribe and was, uniquely, accepted as such. Hence the degree of scandal. Apollo’s favours were very far from being measurable by the generosity of the favoured (again, take Croesus), and historians are still trying to sort out how much of the anti-Alcmaeonid propaganda had any basis in fact. There was thus no inevitable point at which an offering, on an assumed post hoc, propter hoc basis, became a bung: the god’s response was thought to depend, in the last resort, on divine assessment of its actual worth. How far this was true in any given instance is, of course, another matter.
Colin Burrow’s piece about Cain and Connolly’s new edition of Robert Herrick showed the centrality of echoes and allusions to the Roman poets, but I was struck by the omission of Catullus, one of Herrick’s favourites (LRB, 31 July). Too often overlooked, Catullus shone out for me in two of Burrow’s examples. First when Herrick toasts Ovid (‘Naso’) in ‘To Live Merrily’, writing that in his honour the world would have one nose. Here, as well as punning on Ovid’s olfactory cognomen, he was, I think, gesturing towards Catullus’ 13th poem, in which the poet tells his friend Fabullus that if he comes to dinner (bringing everything required since Catullus was broke) he will repay him not only with ‘meros amores’ (‘unmixed loves’) but also by letting him ‘smell the perfume’ of his girl, which will, he says, make him pray to the gods to transform him ‘totum nasum’ (‘all nose’). The allusion is mixed, but the next verse shows that Catullus wasn’t far from Herrick’s mind: ‘Then this immensive cup/Of aromatic wine,/Catullus, I quaff up/To that terse muse of thine.’
The next and more obvious allusion to Catullus comes in ‘Upon Shark’, where Herrick tells of a man, Shark, who swipes napkins (and a silver spoon) at feasts, hiding them in his ‘wide codpiece’. In Catullus’ 12th poem he shames a fellow diner, Asinius Marrucinus, for stealing an especially precious napkin. In the poem he tells Asinius that if he doesn’t give the napkin back, he’ll be the victim of another three hundred abusive poems. The absence/presence of Catullus alongside the more familiar names of Horace, Virgil and Ovid is important because his poetry (alongside that of the Roman elegists he inspired) might help contextualise the odd marriage of restraint and excess which Burrow identifies in Herrick’s eroticism – as well as partly explaining his nasal fixation.
King’s College London, WC2
I’m not sure Diarmaid MacCulloch is right to say that from the 16th to the 18th century, ‘English organ-builders remained resolutely uninterested in the growing variety of sounds their mainland competitors were adding to their instruments’ (LRB, 31 July). There were many builders from the Low Countries active in London in the 16th century, although it’s hard to know what ideas they brought with them. When in 1660 Robert Dallam and his family returned from Brittany, and when Bernard Smith arrived from Germany via Holland, they were certainly ready to produce many innovations both in sound and construction which would have been a puzzle to Byrd. It is true that Byrd and other organists do not seem to have been inspired by technical innovation. It has been observed that the splendid organs of 18th-century Holland or the late 18th-century South German abbeys produced little in the way of masterpieces, while Sweelinck and Bach played for the most part on old, outdated instruments.
All Part of the Fun
Adam Shatz suggests the possibility of reading Un Roman sentimental as ‘a return to literary terrorism’, only to discard it (LRB, 31 July). Yet there is authorial support avant la lettre for that reading, coming from a talk Robbe-Grillet gave thirty years before the novel appeared. In October 1976 he spoke at the University of Chicago, and towards the end of his remarks (later published in translation in Critical Inquiry) discussed what he would do if he were to become a member of the Académie Française. He concluded that he might ‘publish a perfectly scandalous text – even a pornographic one – and sign it “Alain Robbe-Grillet of the French Academy”’, thus creating a scandal as a means of removing what he goes on to call ‘that beautiful mask of innocence’. With his election to the academy, doing that became a possibility. It’s true that ‘of the French Academy’ doesn’t appear on the title page – maybe because having it there would state the obvious – but everything else is in place. I don’t mean to suggest that the book is solely or even primarily a contribution to the subversion of the establishment, but that it’s necessary to keep this aspect of it in mind. (Seen this way, perhaps Fayard’s uncut pages and shrinkwrap and warning label become less an exercise in lawyerly caution than part of the fun.) We have Robbe-Grillet’s word for it.
Falls Church, Virginia
A Lot of Poems
Thomas Jones is right to doubt what the ‘programmers say’ (LRB, 5 June). The first constraint on Balestrini’s Tristano is that a chapter must consist of ‘twenty out of a possible thirty paragraphs … shuffled to appear in random order’. The number of ways twenty things can be selected from a group of thirty things and arranged in different orders is 30!/(30-20)!, which is a number with 25 digits: about 73.1 septillion, or just over 240 times the number of stars in the observable universe. And that’s before we take into account that there are ten such chapters, themselves ordered randomly.
I was pleased to see the mention of the star-nosed mole in Nick Richardson’s review of Ned Beauman’s latest novel (LRB, 17 July). Richardson informs us that this marvellous creature ‘can smell underwater’. True, but not thanks to the ‘nose’ that gives it its name. The 22 fleshy appendages that protrude from the mole’s face are not an olfactory organ at all, but a skin surface containing more than 100,000 sensory neurons – it’s the most acute touch organ of any mammal on the planet and about six times more sensitive than the human hand. In order to ‘smell’ underwater – a phenomenon long thought impossible in mammals – the mole exhales air bubbles over objects then reinhales them, allowing odorant molecules in the bubbles to pass over the olfactory receptors.