by Rowan Pelling
I don’t expect much of politicians. Even so, Matt Hancock failed my most dismal expectations. But I must thank him for one thing – reminding us all that the highlight of working life pre-Covid, pre-#MeToo and pre-Internet was the office love affair. Ok, I really mean in the 1990s when the world was a different place; instead of waiting for the new series of Stranger Things to hit Netflix you pinned all your hopes for fun on the faint chance of kissing Victor from IT.
Young people think it’s gross when I say this, but I point out that in the neolithic days before Hinge, Bumble and their inventors were invented, you either met sexual partners at work or in the pub. And if you met them at work you knew there was a fair chance they weren’t a psycho (although that didn’t always work out), unemployable, or going to “ghost” you. It’s hard to vanish into thin air if you and your co-shag are both in next morning’s strategic planning meeting. Mind you, that’s also the downside of office love affairs. Sometimes the only way of extracting yourself is being fired, or faking your own death.
You may well argue that your average office doesn’t offer much choice in terms of leg-tremblers, but I’d reply too much choice makes most humans miserable. When I spy on twenty-somethings scrolling through Tinder they keep searching for hours, eternally believing the next profile will be golden. It reminds me of perusing goods in Fortnum and Mason’s food hall, growing ever more dissatisfied because, if you buy the rose petal truffles, you might miss out on Turkish delight.
We all think we know our own desires, but actually they tend to be hidden from us. So, when you jot down a dating profile for an app you’ll express a fervent wish to meet an attractive, well-heeled professional who’s witty, kind, good with children and animals, and handy with a flame-thrower in the event of a zombie apocalypse. And yet in real life you go to a party and feel strangely drawn to a penniless poet with a huge nose who hates kids and couldn’t kill a mouse, let alone a sabre-toothed zombie.
How much better to simply have the choice of the office’s three single employees – or, if you like that kind of thing, your workplace’s least scrupulous spouse (come on down, Mr Hancock!). It’s fascinating how, when you’re working in close proximity to someone over a number of months, you can suddenly find yourself enraptured by the strangest things – like a colleague’s propensity for doodling owls all over the minutes of a dull meeting. Or their ability to look your boss in the eye, agree with every word they’re saying, and still make it sound like a polite, “fuck you”.
This was pretty much my experience when I joined GQ magazine in the autumn of 1993 as the editor’s PA. At first, I didn’t feel attracted to any of my colleagues, who mostly seemed laddish or foppish. I especially wasn’t drawn to the high-minded deputy editor, who I’d seen being po-faced on a documentary about the joys of sexual abstinence. Furthermore, he was the only person in the office who didn’t seem to get blind drunk every Friday. What a killjoy.
And yet somehow, slowly, inexplicably, I found myself intrigued by this borderline Calvinistic personality. A couple of intense conversations over the photocopier revealed he was passionate about dreadnoughts, David Bowie (whom he’d interviewed over two days in Chicago), anything with feathers, Paul Nash’s paintings, herb gardens, and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (whom he’d interviewed on the island of Gotland during the filming of The Sacrifice).
The clincher came as he lingered by my desk one day and I said, “I wish I could bunk off tomorrow, A Matter of Life and Death is on TV.” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s my favourite film; I’ve only ever gone out with girls who love it too.” I was surprised the building’s fire alarms didn’t go off at that second – a tiny spark had suddenly gone BOOM.
The rest is a familiar tale: eyes continually catching across the room, furtive lunches, tactile dancing at the office party, then, finally, taking the same day off work so I could travel to Cambridge for “a walk”, which turned into supper, then a missed train and a viewing of John Boorman’s violent thriller Point Blank (not a classic date movie). Finally, a swooning kiss on the sofa. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Two years later we were married.
Mind you, our sexual shenanigans were nothing on those of GQ’s then editor, who first met his soon-to-be official girlfriend when she temped as his assistant and accused him of sexual harassment. He had two unofficial paramours, too. One Valentine’s Day I had to send out three identical bunches of flowers to three different addresses. He always said he wouldn’t make 40 and he died aged 39 after a night of epic excess. At his funeral four more women (none of whom I’d previously identified as girlfriends) said he’d proposed to them in recent months.
It’s not that I wish a return to those times. They enabled the Harvey Weinsteins as much as the true romantics. But – dear God – office life was a lot less boring.
Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review