Status anxiety

The subtle art of showing off at work

9 December 2017

9:00 AM

9 December 2017

9:00 AM

This has been an interesting year for me. Back in January, I took up a full-time job as director of New Schools Network, the free schools charity, and it’s the first time I’ve worked in an office since parting company with Vanity Fair 20 years ago. It has taken a bit of getting used to.

Until I took this job, I used to work out of a shed at the bottom of my garden. It is not so much a ‘man cave’ as a ‘Toby cave’. The walls are covered with egocentric tat — framed newspaper cartoons, posters of plays I’ve written, pictures of me with famous people, etc. It’s all pretty dog-eared and mildewed, but it serves its purpose which is to let visitors know, in a way which isn’t too obviously vainglorious, what a Big Swinging Dick I am.

When I first arrived at NSN I discovered that my predecessor, Nick Timothy, had based himself at the end of a row of desks — that is, he didn’t even have his own office. That wouldn’t do at all. There were two self-enclosed cubicles overlooking the open-plan space, but one was occupied by the finance director and the other by a separate education charity. I say ‘education charity’ but, in fact, it was just a bloke called Mike with a laptop and a phone. When I discovered he wasn’t paying any rent I switched places with him and took possession of it. It wasn’t much of an improvement. This cubicle had become a dumping ground for unwanted office furniture, not to mention cardboard boxes full of things like envelopes and sticky labels. For the first three months I was too timid to ask anyone to clear it out.

Eventually, the office manager took pity on me and arranged for ‘maintenance’ to remove it, leaving a desk, a swivel chair, a table and a bookshelf. Oh, and a huge black cabinet full of computer equipment that makes a loud humming noise. This cubicle is also known as ‘the server room’, which is why no NSN employee had sought to occupy it before now.

OK, so I had managed to commandeer an office, which means I could start decorating it with some high-status indicators. But what? I consulted Caroline and she suggested I put a framed picture of my children on my desk. ‘It’ll make you look human,’ she said.

All well and good, but not up there with the picture of Jim Carrey and me at the 1996 Vanity Fair Oscars party that has pride of place in my shed. So I also put up a photograph of the first 240 pupils admitted to the West London Free School, which seemed appropriate and not too boastful. The problem is, you need a magnifying glass to spot me beaming proudly in the front row. Did I dare put up any of my other trophies?

The stuffed deer’s head probably wasn’t a good idea, what with most NSN employees being female, under 30 and unlikely to be impressed by my stalking exploits. And I didn’t fancy schlepping across London with my grandfather’s first world war cavalry sword from his posh regiment. I know the Met Police have been ordered by Sadiq Khan to abandon stop-and-search and concentrate on stamping out ‘racist hate crimes’, such as waving a Union Jack, but it’s 2ft long.

At first, I confined myself to just having a ‘trophy row’ on the bookshelf rather than a ‘trophy wall’. This contained a few copies of my books, the DVD of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, the last four issues of Spectator Life, etc. But the drawback was that visitors to my office had to crane their necks to see it. It didn’t jump out at them and say, ‘This guy is a SUCCESS.’ And after a few awkward attempts I realised I couldn’t emerge from behind my desk, stroll casually over to the bookshelf and pull out one of my books to look something up without seeming like a total plonker. (Come to think of it, that’s probably unavoidable.)

In the end, I settled on a giant movie poster of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. It covers almost an entire wall, so you really can’t miss it. The fact that it bears the legend ‘The true story of a real idiot’ is perfect because it enables me to pretend it’s self-deprecating. ‘Oh yes,’ I chuckle, when people ask about it. ‘It’s the movie that got made about my failure to take Manhattan. Bit embarrassing really.’ They’re not fooled, obviously, and nor do I intend them to be.

But, ultimately, it’s not quite enough. My ego is so gargantuan it won’t be satisfied until every last scrap of self-aggrandising memorabilia has been transferred to my new office.

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