lifestyle

Memories of office life: I demanded a decent cup of tea – and sparked a workplace feud


For the past five years, I’ve been “working from boat”, sailing in a crystal Mediterranean sea, with turtles nibbling at my anchor. Sounds fun. It’s not. I miss the office.

There are problems with working in paradise. Imagine spending your tea breaks checking the anchor isn’t dragging your workspace towards treacherous rocks, stupid jet skiers swerving by while you type. Imagine wondering if the sun has provided enough power to charge your laptop, or assessing whether a storm is likely to hit before deadline – should I sail 20 miles to shelter before I file?

It makes me realise office life is a luxury: the reassuringly stable desk and chair, reliable wifi and power. Besides, in my experience, offices can be great fun. I managed to turn employment into play, right from the start of my working life. My first “proper job” was at 19, in a London branch of a bank. It was the most boring environment ever, aside from the time I got raided by a woman with a fake gun. I livened it up when I could, affixing a basketball net above the counter to shoot in between serving customers.

A lobster creel on Susan Smillie’s desk
Fish out of water … Susan’s lobster creel. Photograph: Courtesy of Susan Smillie

My final proper job was as an editor on a newspaper, this very newspaper you’re reading now, which was put together by serious grownups in an open-plan, modern media environment. Undaunted by the deadline-focused adults surrounding me, I managed to undermine the professional atmosphere by keeping a lobster creel on my desk and smacking a well-known food critic in the face with a freshly caught mackerel. (I was transitioning to a life at sea at this point. The critic took it well.)

I ran food features and decided that this gave me carte blanche to be “enterprising”. Cue an ill-judged attempt to make “Guardian cider”. All my worry about the Guardian lacking a liquor licence was unnecessary; it didn’t make it that far. The feature writers started to notice the musty aroma of fermentation emanating from a bucket of rotting apples in a cupboard. Neither security nor workplace management found out about this, which was just as well, as I had already aroused security’s suspicions after an illicit meat exchange in the office’s underground car park (goat legs). I also sneaked a dog in once, having faked a photoshoot for the purpose.

My relationship with workplace management got worse. They had installed one of those hot taps for drinks: an abomination. Its temperature didn’t remotely approach boiling and, as everyone knows, decent tea is impossible to make in such circumstances. It seemed like a suitable hill for a food editor to die on. I waged war for months, in email exchanges, in meetings, in confiscated kettles. In the end I went underground, with a travel kettle. Perhaps this kind of behaviour is why the security staff, who greeted everyone with a respectful tone, used to shout: “Oi, Smillie!” when I came to work. It’s probably just as well I left when I did.



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