Mostly misery and tedium

The Oxford Book of Work

June 11, 1999

Work has never been a subject that has held great attraction for writers. Their own attitudes to earning a living are as varied as those of any other group of workers. For instance, we learn from Keith Thomas's Oxford Book of Work that Anthony Trollope would sit at his desk with his watch before him, turning out 250 words every quarter of an hour from 5.30am until breakfast. By contrast, Mark Twain, also quoted by Thomas, confesses to having worked "not diligently, not willingly, but fretfully, lazily, repiningly, complainingly, disgustedly, and always shirking the work when I was not watched". Yet when it comes to selecting a subject for their arts, the poet, the playwright and the author have tended to neglect the world of work and turned their attentions instead to matters of love and war, crime and even cookery.

And the creative artists are not alone. I have long held that, were visitors from another planet asked to paint a picture of life in Britain today based only on reports in the popular press, they would portray a world of politics, crime, sport, sex and television with the only obvious signs of work coming from business pages in which companies are bought and sold rather than seen as the means of production.

Yet work is making a comeback. Television programme makers have recently discovered a market in docu-soaps about work. The hotel, the department store and the traffic warden's lair are just a few of the venues to be subject to the fly on the wall treatment. More significantly, the new Labour government displays a very different attitude towards work than its Conservative predecessors.

While the Tories tended to regard unemployment as one of a number of economic indicators to be balanced against each other in pursuit of low inflation and growth, Labour has made the move from welfare into work a core feature of its economic and welfare programmes. The role of work in giving dignity and a meaning to existence is also emphasised by the government as being at least as important as the wages it generates.

How timely then that Thomas should produce a volume that examines the nature of work as seen in a wide range of ancient and modern writing and, in part, seeks to show that, far from being literature's neglected area, work is well represented in both prose and poetry, from antiquity to the modern day.

Yet the truth is that, in many of the pieces cited, work is but a sideshow to the main action. D. H. Lawrence, Jerome K. Jerome and Tom Wolfe all write perceptively about the world of work in their very different ways, but neither they nor their readers would regard Women in Love , Three Men in a Boat or The Bonfire of the Vanities - all quoted here - as being novels exclusively or even largely about work.

But it is the variety of sources, and the fact that many of them are so unexpected that gives this volume its strength. The introductory essay by Thomas himself sets the tone, examining the nature of work - whether primal curse or sacred duty. There can be no doubt that for most people at most times, work has been at best tedious and at worst pure misery. Some of the most evocative pieces in the book are those describing the horrors of forced labour. From ancient Egypt, through the cotton fields of the Old South, to the Gulag archipelago, runs a single thread of lives lived in a state of despair.

Bertolt Brecht and George Orwell note the anonymity of those who did the real work. Brecht in his "Questions from a worker who reads" puts it this way: "The young Alexander conquered India. Was he alone?" And Orwell in an extract from "Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War" notes that the hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilisation rested generation after generation have "gone down into utter silence".

Orwell too provides one of the most stunning accounts of life in the mining industry. He concludes memorably: "You and I and the editor of the Times Lit Supp , and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X author of Marxism for Infants - all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel." Fifty years earlier Emile Zola's Germinal too described work in which "Ghostly figures could be seen gesticulating, as a stray gleam revealed at random an arched hip, a muscular arm, or a grim face, camouflaged as if for some crime".

But as Oscar Wilde, who is also much quoted by Thomas, might have said: if there is one thing worse than working it is not working. And the pain of unemployment is also given proper attention. The joys of work and the sense of satisfaction from a job well done find their place alongside the argument that it is work which distinguishes human-kind from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Humour too has its place. Parkinson's Law is given a fresh airing and there are few funnier contributions than Keith Waterhouse's exchange between God and Noah in which Noah provides a familiar list of excuses as to why the Ark has not been constructed on time - "And God said in his wrath, Noah, do not thou muckest me about".

As with any compilation, the omissions are as interesting as the works that are included: Jack London and Robert Tressell would certainly have been in my first team, as would some of J. K. Galbraith's thoughts after The Affluent Society of 1958. I am no great fan of much of the modern writing on portfolio working but I do find the exclusion of virtually all recent writing on the changing nature of work a little curious.

On the central question, my view is that work can only be lifted out of drudgery when the workers themselves are able to exert some form of control over method and speed of the work and its organisation.

Thomas has provided an intelligent structure to guide the reader through his selection. His notes at the start of each section are as rewarding as many of the quotes. Thomas can take pride in a job well done. I trust he enjoyed his work. I did.

John Monks is general secretary, Trades Union Congress.

The Oxford Book of Work

Editor - Keith Thomas
ISBN - 0 19 214217 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 618

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