Love and lust behind the filing cabinet
Published 01/05/2010 | 05:00
Lucy Kellaway's new book In Office Hours is a fast-moving novel about office affairs, but the story is truer than you might imagine. Set in the London offices of Atlantic Energy, an oil giant with a marble atrium, it tracks the affairs of two women led by lust and love to have crazed, but doomed, affairs: Stella with Rhys, a fast-track trainee; Bella with James, her married boss.
They risk careers, reputations and families and end up having sex in all sorts of places: on the office floor (Stella gets a terrible carpet burn); hotel bedrooms at lunchtime (Rhys negotiates a day rate); and on the dark and gleaming boardroom table (Bella was meant to be writing up a report on investor feedback).
Offices have been a huge part of Lucy Kellaway's life. She has worked at the Financial Times for 25 years, where she is a prolific columnist and brilliant observer of corporate life.
She exposed the ridiculousness of business jargon and management fads in the book Who Moved My BlackBerry? (2005). And now she has turned her forensic gaze to office affairs. "We know that the office is the commonest place for people to meet their partners. And surveys say that one in four office workers has had an affair with a colleague at some point," she says.
"But, I think that's crap, because you walk into a big office and everybody has got their work clothes on and they're going tap, tap...," she mimics someone typing primly at a computer, "And you have no idea what hideous turmoil is actually going on. The affairs we find out about are political ones, and the reason we find out about them is that every gutter journalist is after them. But don't you think, when you read those stories, how could they have been so stupid? Everybody is stupid. It's vulnerability."
We meet at her home in Highbury, north London, where Kellaway, 50, lives with her husband, David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect magazine, and her four children, Rosie (19), Maud (17), Arthur (15) and Stan (12). The house is exceedingly large and handsome. She is tiny -- size eight -- but forceful, with very strong views on just about everything.
She says she had the idea for a novel on office affairs four years ago. "I thought, I want to write about women in offices and the big things -- love and sex and power." She could also see a 'massive' gap in the market: there are very few chick-lit type novels set in the office," she explains, "because the sort of women who write this sort of book don't work in offices." So she started asking around (she is very good at gossiping, long-serving colleagues say) and got very excited by the results.
"My notebook was open and every time anybody said anything about so and so having an office affair I would immediately go, 'Really? Who?' And the amount of stuff you pick up is unbelievable'.
And now it's all in the novel: sex on rooftops; being caught out by a camera in a bus lane; taping over a security camera so as not to be discovered; being identified by your lover's child at a family-friendly work function. Sex on the boardroom table, however, is made up. "But a lot of men did admit they found that idea incredibly exciting whereas all the woman thought, Yuck! Horrible!"
She interviewed everyone from junior PAs to senior executives. "By the end I had a focus group of about eight men and women [unfaithful bankers, lawyers, accountants] who were fact-checking the book as I went along." She says some were one-offs, others serial philanderers. She spoke to one man who works in advertising who was known as a womaniser, he was unhappily married and had had lots of affairs.
"A female colleague, also married, hated him when they started working together because he was so sarcastic. But out of proximity a sort of interest grew. He pursued her shamelessly and she got drawn in, knowing it would be a disaster." But not before spending a fortune sneaking off to hotels at lunchtime. "She got more and more unhappy because he spent all his time flirting with other colleagues. She found this intolerable, and got transferred to another company, but the affair continued off and on. His wife found out; he left the company blaming her."
But, Kellaway is convinced "there isn't a type" who has affairs; it can happen to anyone. And she says women are typically led by love, not sex. "It's the opposite of an opportunistic way," she explains. "I don't know any married women who shagged someone at work by mistake." But, she also believes, senior women have affairs with younger men for the same reasons senior men go for younger women: "Because the temptation is there, because they can, and it makes them feel younger. To have a young colleague think you're amazing is very seductive if you're a middle-aged woman," Kellaway says, "because, mostly, if you're a middle-aged woman, in my experience people don't think you're very amazing."
One woman she knows, a corporate lawyer, married with three children, became 'enraptured' with a younger, unmarried colleague, who had fallen for her heavily. The affair lasted two years during which she "lost a lot of weight and seemed to have lost her mind". Her husband found out, and she broke it off. Almost immediately her lover married someone else.
But men, too, can be drawn in and left heartbroken. She says she spoke to one banker in a City firm, who was not the philandering sort at all. "He was seriously religious and seriously married."
And yet a platonic love for his assistant turned into a full-blown affair. He kept on being overcome with guilt and would break it off. The assistant got herself posted abroad but continued to email him.
A year later she returned to Britain and he went to meet her at the airport, with the news that he had left his wife. "Suddenly the thought of having him ... meant she lost interest," Kellaway says. "She called it off."
That's the thing about office affairs: they're not like any other relationship. (She divides the narrative in her novel into three sections to reflect their distinct trajectories: Temptation; Addiction; Withdrawal.)
"In a normal relationship you might meet someone in a pub, you start going out and you split up. But with an office affair, you're not looking for it, it creeps up on you -- and that seemed to be the really interesting thing about it. There is this long, exciting, dangerous, flirtation phase, then there's the actually having the affair phase, and that's interesting because how do you conduct yourself while the affair is going on?
"Do you start ignoring the person so as not to be suspicious? I know a journalist who had an affair with a married man and they would sneak off and be intimate and then come back into the office and he would behave as if he barely knew her, and she found that really chilling."
Then there is the aftermath, which is 'absolutely appalling -- this theme was repeated again and again by many of the women I spoke to. It's not like the affair is over so one person leaves the company, because quite often you can't just leave the company. If you've got a job you really like, why would you throw it in?
"I spoke to one woman who'd had an affair with her boss, who said you never recover because you keep on having relapses, he says, 'I can't ... my family ... ' but she is the temptation on a plate and so the affair restarts, and in her case it went on for 10 years and it was excruciating.
You put yourself in more and more risky situations -- you're so out of control -- and that total loss of judgment is so interesting. With one throw of the dice you're risking your career and your marriage -- everything. The only analogy that works is with the addictive drug -- the highs and lows are so great. And that is what the book is about: your personal life and professional life being on a collision course."
So why do they happen? And moreover, why do women risk everything with men they wouldn't look at twice outside the office? Stella is clever and controlled, and yet completely undone by Rhys, who has red eyelashes and bad taste in suits. Bella is pretty and could have the pick of Atlantic Energy and yet falls for James, who has a paunch, a bald spot and the emotional intelligence of a block of wood -- he gives Bella and his wife the same pearl necklace.
Is it power? Yes, Kellaway says, "but also people look more attractive at work. There is an element of play-acting, posturing around the office. I think that's quite sexy." Her theory is that sexual tension is heightened in more formal offices. It's in the professionalism, hierarchy, boardroom tables; the trappings of power.
"If you're in a rigid structure, the temptation to subvert it is overwhelming," she explains. And the vogue for open-plan offices only adds to the allure. "If there is someone you are lusting over -- to be able to see glimpses of them all day adds to it hugely."
Other factors are shared interests -- "working on things together is incredibly bonding"; boredom -- "somewhere to go in your head"; and new technology. Rhys breaks through Stella's professional shell with a jokey text. James thinks he is being discreet by filing Bella as 'Bill' on his mobile phone.
"What is so interesting about email is the false feeling that it's completely private and secret because it's just you at your screen, but it's absolutely not." Technology -- emails and mobiles -- is invariably how people get caught.
So, can affairs be good for careers? Rhys and Bella end up doing rather well out of their flings in the book. "They can be," Kellaway says. One newspaper editor she spoke to certainly thought so -- at least in the short term.
"He said, 'I always encourage my staff to have affairs with each other. I think it's completely brilliant because when the affair is on they want to be at work the whole time and it just seems to give them this massive boost. But God, when the affair is over, what a nightmare! You've got all these collapsed soufflés completely incapable of writing a basic news story'."
In 1985, Kellaway joined the FT where she says she had an affair, but he later became her husband. Neither was attached, but they still tried to keep it quiet.
"It was still very embarrassing. You don't know how long it's going to last and you feel foolish, and I remember some days when David came into the office wearing the same clothes he'd been wearing the day before and Alice Rawsthorne [then a colleague] who has eyes like a hawk [and suspected the relationship] immediately had the whole thing worked out."
These days, she has rejected offers of her own high-status glass office in favour of sitting on the more lowly features desk. Here she has a photograph of her children, a few pot plants, and three 'office spouses' -- close male friends with whom she does a lot of flirty emailing. "I'm quite polygamous," she explains.
"If you fall in love with your office spouse, then that is a catastrophe," Kellaway continues. "If you're vaguely flirty, that is just heaven."
And with that she picks up another biscuit, throws back her head and laughs very loudly.
In Office Hours by Lucy Kellaway is published by Penguin, E16