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Friday, 16 November 2018

Melbourne Cup day at work

Every Australian workplace probably has people who can tell stories like the one you are about to read. This is a horse race unlike most horse races in a world where wagering is widespread, and the cup is a prize that attracts fierce competition with horses travelling from countries around the world. This year’s race was the 158th time it had been run and they say, as we all know if we are born here, that it’s the “race that stops a nation”. But its popularity has always perplexed me, not that I haven’t had plenty of opportunities to participate in social events built around it.

Like when I worked in the IT department of a university – as technical writer, a role I occupied with varying degrees of enjoyment for a period of just less than six years: every year the whole office would get together after lunch on the first Tuesday of November so that people could watch the race on a TV projected on a screen at the front of the meeting room, which had been built for people to use during their workdays. As the race starts sometime after 2pm, what this meant in practice was that people in the office would for the most part only work half the day, up until lunchtime. After lunch they might sit at their desks answering emails for an hour or so then get up and gravitate to the meeting room to mix with their colleagues.

Office admin staff had visited each cubicle earlier in the day with a bag full of slips of paper with the names of the horses who were to run printed on them. The lists were published by the local daily newspaper and were cut out of the paper with scissors. You paid a couple of dollars to enter the sweep, then put your hand in the bag and searched around for a horse to back. You kept the slip of paper in case your horse ended up winning the race or securing a place among the first finishers. If it did, you took home some of the money collected.

The meeting room had a long table in it with a pale wood surface and rows of metal armchairs lined up down its sides, and people gathered in groups that conformed to their work units. Programmers stood around holding bottles of beer talking with other programmers. Testers with other testers. Business analysts with other business analysts. At the back of the room, at the point farthest away from the screen, the senior managers congregated and socialised loudly, as they were wont to do; a big voice being seemingly part of the suite of skills that enabled you to qualify for a desk on what was called “mahogany row”, the row of cubicles set up in front of the director’s office, where a series of windows were set in the floor’s north-facing wall.

There was not much socialising that might not normally take place when colleagues went for lunch in Newtown to eat some Thai food. When I worked in the department people at Melbourne Cup events largely stayed with their own kind and attempts at breaking into their circles were fraught with the kind of danger that offices specialise in: of being frozen out by people who weren’t sure if your current status would reward their being friendly with you, which would either be something that was to their advantage or to their detriment. If you were out of favour and tried to get into a group to chat with the people in it, the conversation would slow and trickle to a stop, before people would studiously ignore you and then underscore your unenviable status by sparking up the conversation again, this time focusing on some topic they shared but that you would have no ability to engage with. You would then most likely look around for another suitable refuge in the busy room.

People skirted around the groups of chatterers seeking out the eyes of people they knew, shy and afraid of disappointment. Being seen to talk with someone who was out of favour politically could result in some of that person’s shame being rubbed off on you, so people at workplace social gatherings were always wary of being too candid with people from outside their work units. People inside the work unit knew implicitly who was “in” and who was “out” and could without risk to their reputations talk with people who fit their image of themselves. Such is the ruthless politics of the modern workplace but at least running the gamut in the meeting room was better than being at your desk doing work.

Once the race started, people would all dutifully turn to face the screen at the front of the room. They would watch the beasts with their tack linked to their human burdens clamber round the brilliant green track, spurred on with whips and working through every sinew to get to the finish line as fast as possible. As the race caller spat out an unremitting rollcall of names and places and tactics, the people in the room stood like statues, beers in their hands, their eyes glued to the flickering images in the screen, entranced by the action that was taking place, they knew, some 800 kilometres away in another city. Excited cries erupted from time to time as the horses came closer to the goal, with people in the meeting room mindful of the horses they had chosen in the sweepstake. As the leading horses ran over the finish line, there would be a general cry of jubilation that tailed off into an indistinct hubbub as people turned back to face each other and made appropriate comments about the spectacle they had just witnessed. The names of the horses they had chosen in the sweep punctuated these exchanges as people got ready to filter back, in ones and twos and threes, to their desks, where they would see out the workday in comfort and complacency, their duty as self-respecting Australians complete for another year.

Now, they could relax and life would return to what they had become accustomed by habit to treating as normal: earning a fortnightly wage, paying tax in instalments, and servicing a mortgage. During their office lives very few people ever talked about their real goals in life or displayed the truer parts of their personalities. What ideas and aspirations animated people were mostly unknown to their colleagues. Honesty was a risk. Too much information would constitute a threat to the cohesion of the office community, one obeying an uncompromising hierarchy with rules like iron controlling the ways people in it relate to one another. Iron rules, too, control the Melbourne Cup, with this year one horse that broke a shoulder during the race ending up being put down.

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