Matthew Norman: The sweet revenges of the secretarial class

These twin manifestations of secretarial Nemesis will have a profound impact on male executives
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Everyone knows that revenge is a dish best eaten cold, but it has taken legal secretary Jenny Amner to teach us that it's even more delicious with a dollop of tomato ketchup. Precisely how she came to garnish her boss's trousers with Heinz's finest, thus creating the most vexatious workplace stain since the Lewinsky dress, is unclear. But in a historic week for secretarial vengeance, the consequence has been dramatic.

Everyone knows that revenge is a dish best eaten cold, but it has taken legal secretary Jenny Amner to teach us that it's even more delicious with a dollop of tomato ketchup. Precisely how she came to garnish her boss's trousers with Heinz's finest, thus creating the most vexatious workplace stain since the Lewinsky dress, is unclear. But in a historic week for secretarial vengeance, the consequence has been dramatic.

Go to the web site of Baker & McKenzie (which bashfully describes itself as "the world's leading global law firm"), type Richard Phillips into a search box, and the ensuing message has a piquant, 1984 non-person flavour. "We're sorry," it reads, "but the page you selected no longer exists". What this means is that Mr Phillips no longer exists, at least as a senior associate earning anything up to £300,000 per annum. He resigned his post earlier this week not long after Ms Amner brought the ketchup incident to the attention of other staff.

Whether his behaviour warranted such a brutal outcome I'm not quite sure, but sensitive timing is hardly his strong suit. "Hi Jenny," was the casual opening to the e-mail that was to change his life, "I went to a dry cleaners at lunch and they said it would cost £4 to remove the ketchup stains. If you cd let me have the cash today, that would be much appreciated."

For the saddest of reasons, it was another 10 days before she responded in crushingly mordant fashion. "I must apologise for not getting back to you straight away, but due to my mother's sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your £4."

Ouch, ouch and thrice ouch. I blush and sweat imagining how Mr Phillips, who for all his commercial law background may yet have a conscience, felt on reading these words. The soppy might think the shame was punishment enough, but understandably Ms Amner e-mailed the exchange to colleagues, the news spread through the legal and wider worlds like wild fire, and soon Mr Phillips was leaving the building with the black bin liner, insisting he'd been planning to leave for other challenges all along.

Ms Amner is now "considering her position" as well. If she too has to go, the case could well come before an employment tribunal of the kind currently considering the claims of Faria Alam against the Football Association, for whom she spent a year as a secretary. The intimate details are too ribald for readers of a quality newspaper, but it seems apt that both parties in this battle have the same initials - two letters Ms Alam appeared to interpret, in their vernacular sense and as an injunction. And she certainly did her best to obey it: in her 12 months in Soho Square, she F'd if not All, then at least two of the senior bods, Sven Goran Eriksson and then chief executive Mark Palios.

She has told the tribunal that another senior figure, David Davies, who denies the allegation, wanted very much to F her too, and groped her in the (unrealised) ambition of helping her complete the greatest hat-trick English football has known since Michael Owen's in that 5-1 win over Germany in Munich. Or possibly even Sir Geoffrey's in 1966.

At first glance, these two women seem very different. Ms Amner, who won't be earning £300,000 for selling her story, lacks Ms Alam's rapacious desire for the sort of transient celebrity that earns one the chance to pleasure farmyard animals, à la Rebecca Loos with a pig, on a Channel 4 reality show. Ms Amner may be built more on the lines of Alan Partridge's Lynn, who also suffered grotesque insensitivity from her boss after the death of her mother, Alan honking his horn to hurry her along after she'd been stood by the grave for about 30 seconds.

Yet, however much separates them, and however distinct their motives, the two are now conjoined as neo-feminist heroines to all women who fantasise hourly about humiliating the thoughtless oafs for whom they type. What is so offensive about Mr Phillips demand for compensation isn't the meanness or even the timing (he might not have known about the mother, after all); but the certainty that, had it been a fellow partner or even a humble articled clerk who spilt the ketchup, he'd have laughed it off. The peremptory, contemptuous tone to his e-mail could only have been used toward someone he regarded as a serf.

As for Ms Alam, why the hell shouldn't she bed these middle- aged alpha males, and then parlay it up into a small fortune and her slice of fame? How much more equal a relationship she had with them than the archetypal lovelorn secretary/mistress who sacrifices the remnants of her youth in the fruitless expectation that one day he will leave the missus who no longer understands him. She used them for sex as brazenly as they used her, but she was the only one with the post-coital game plan. If it strikes you as odd that the Football Association finds her mastery of tactics so distasteful, please remember that it was that same FA that employed Graham Taylor as England manager.

My own experience as a temporary secretary was temporary in the extreme - six hours at the publisher Methuen, the first four spent mistyping the same three- line letter 37 times, and the next two demoted to filing before I was invited to go home and not return. But even those six hours were enough to convey the enshrivelling sense of irrelevance that breeds despair among my more durable colleagues.

"Nine To five, what a way to make a living/Barely getting by, it's all taking and no giving," was how Dolly Parton put it in the title song of that movie about how she and two work-mates kidnapped and humiliated their Neanderthal boss. "They just use you and you never get the credit/It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it." As that most hellish of bosses David Brent rightly observed: "Dolly Parton ... and people say she's just a great big pair of tits."

"Nine to five, they've got you where they want you/There's a better life, and you dream about it don't you?/It's a rich man's game, no matter what they call it/And you spend your life putting money in his pocket."

Here, for once, Dolly was off beam. Quite the reverse, it was Ms Alam who had Messrs Palios and Eriksson where she wanted them, manipulating their complacent lust to secure herself her version of a better life. Meanwhile, Ms Amner, far from putting any money (apart from the £4) in Mr Phillips's pocket, removed £300,000 a year from it.

In tandem, these twin manifestations of secretarial Nemesis will have a profound impact on the male executive class. At the very least, the next time some randy old goat takes his PA out to a cheap lunch, he will think hard before squeezing anything except a bottle of tomato ketchup.

Comments