Saturday, 28 February 2015

Swimming towards the jammy doughnuts

I post here about books I’ve read each month. There are other titles that I have on the go, that I pick up and put down and don't necessarily finish the month I started – books of short stories that can be dipped into and non-fiction books where there’s no narrative and I can read a chapter every so often without losing the thread.

Currently these are:

The Penguin Book of Contemporary Women’s Short Stories, selected and introduced by Susan Hill
Contemporary in 1995, that is. Authors include Maeve Binchy (a darker than usual story from her), Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Janice Galloway, Sylvia Plath and Grace Paley. My favourite so far is by a writer I hadn’t heard of before, Judy Corbalis. Her story, The Bridesmaid, is a tale of childhood friendship and betrayal set in rural New Zealand.

Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making it in the Office by Lynn Peril
I bought this when I was in America, as you can tell from the ‘steno’. This is an eye-popping history of the secretary, from 150 years ago to the present day but mostly concentrating on the mid-twentieth century – think Mad Men, but ten times madder.

There were many secretarial schools as well as books and articles telling girls how they could be the ideal secretary, all emphasising in various ways that she should combine ‘the best features of an executive’s wife, his mother and his best friend – without any of their faults.’

A novel published in 1960 indicated that some bosses might have another role in mind:

Helen Gurley Brown, the first editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, does not come out of Swimming in the Steno Pool too well, looked at from a 21st-century perspective. In her book Sex and the Office (1964), she chided another author for advising secretaries to make themselves look ‘as inconspicuous as possible’; in HGB’s opinion ‘a bit of lace peeking out below a slender sheath skirt’ during dictation was ‘fascinating’. 

And when, almost thirty years of feminism later, a newspaper called her in 1991 to ask if there was any ‘sexual harassment’ in the offices of Cosmo, she replied, ‘I certainly hope so … the problem is that we don’t have enough men to go around for the harassing.’

She advocated throwing impromptu office parties and gave a recipe to make them go with a swing: ‘Simply mix a gallon of white wine with three or more bottles of vodka (an inexpensive brand will do), along with fruit punch and maraschino cherries.’

Can you sieve the maraschino cherries out of mine, please? Thanks. Hic.

But that’s New York for you. I temped over a summer in Glasgow, in the early 70s, and one assignment was in the typing pool of the South of Scotland Electricity Board. Disappointingly, punch was not served, at least not the week I was there; it would have livened up the days no end. Instead, and a welcome sight she was, there was a cheery lady who came round with a tea-trolley and jammy doughnuts.


  1. A reminder of how times have changed!

  2. Indeed. Although it's not that long ago it seems like light years.