Saturday, 27 June 2015

A Proper Job?

"Virtually everyone on the front benches has never had a proper job in their lives" - Nigel Farage MEP, on "Any Questions" on R4 last night.

It's been said a lot about the present generation of politicians, as an explanation of their seeming unawareness of the ways of the world, and the lives of ordinary people (whether "hard-working" or not, although obviously only the hard-working matter). They leave the grander universities, get internships doing spin for their chosen party, get selected by Central Office, and off they pop, to represent the great unwashed without ever having visiting their bathrooms. Of course, there's nothing to stop them visiting the great unwashed, and seeing if they are actually welcome in the front room, let alone the bathroom, and they could exercise perhaps a little imagination, if they have it, about other lives than their own. Maybe some do it. Economic policy in recent years has suggested that they don't.

The phrase "a proper job" has a resonance for me. I grew up with a father who was very fond of "real work". Not "hard work" - although it was a necessary quality of real work that it should be hard too - but the reality was not to be found in the money it made, the hours put in, the skills, the concentration, the effort, the focus, the social usefulness. I've thought over the years it might be any of those things, but now I sit down to type about it (not itself real work, obviously) I realise it's a more elusive quality than I thought I knew.

It's easier to know what was NOT real work. Generally, thieving and trickery wasn't (although there were blurred boundaries here if the people tricked were either much richer or entirely undeserving). Art, music, literature, likewise. Teaching in a difficult school possibly would qualify, but a school like the one he worked his socks off to send me to, no, teaching there wouldn't be. University teaching certainly wouldn't. Managing wasn't real work - whether money, or farms, or people. No, it had somehow to involve your own hands - not just the finger tips - and it had to involve sweat. It had to make you fitter. Not just physically - going to the gym was most definitely not real work - but morally too. He genuinely dwelt under the Genesis Curse that Adam would live by the sweat of his brow - would live, and must live.

Then there was "women's work". You don't often hear that these days, although it's a category we can all instantly recognise - anything involving babies, small children, nursing, cleaning, or catering. This was real work, but only if done by a woman. He believed strongly that a mother should stay at home and look after her children every hour of the day - at the very least while they are small - although the corollary was that a father should work every hour of the day to pay for them all. That the father might therefore see very little of them was of relatively little consequence to him. This was "duty". Duty was like real work, and if anything, on higher plane, so that derelictions of duty were grave sins in his catechism, but the thing about duty was to get the job done. So, although to have a nanny, or send a child away to boarding school, or to have made enough money not to have to work, was cheating, nonetheless duty was still being done, so that was OK.

What was odder still in this irrational, but not uncommon, moral universe was that he also believed in education - in the hope that his son and daughter would never have to work as hard as he had. Turn that round, and it's a colossal investment in perpetual moral superiority. His scheme - certainly for me - was that I should be entirely unfitted for practical work of any sort, because it didn't pay enough. And I should one day live the life of Riley as a lawyer or (better - because you choose whether to buy newspapers) a journalist, and he would be able to lord it over me as someone who'd "never done a day's work in his life". When I went to Oxford, I could change a lightbulb, but I'd never wired a plug. I did ask, but his idea of "teaching" was to do it for you, then so "there, it's easy" and walk away. Maybe that's why he had such a low opinion of the teachers whose private-sector wages he was paying? If my teachers had taught me like that, I'd never have got to Oxford.

The experiment went wrong, alas, and my sister left school early, and I wasted my Oxford degree on footling about teaching for crammers (trying to educate the failures who didn't, in his view, deserve another chance) and then threw it away completely by becoming a priest. For all that, my sister was redeemed by motherhood, at which she is very good, and he'd even sometimes grudgingly admit that her drawing skills are far above and beyond the ordinary; and there was one job he admitted I did better than him - planting chrysanthemum cuttings by the thousand - and one he couldn't do at all - taking the funeral for Auntie Margaret, my godfather's widow, someone we all loved immensely.

Eventually the family sold up their business in London - taking advantage of the property price boom, and selling their scrap yard for what turned out to be, for once, the top of the market price. After that he never really made a living. The nursery where I planted all those chrysanthemums never engaged his attention in the way that metal, and building, making, breaking, dismantling, things did. He was angry that though he continued to toil, he was barely rewarded financially. He never quite accepted that the glory days of paying off mortgages, buying freeholds, having children in private schools, were all paid for by brains, not brawn. He was the smartest accountant I have ever known; the taxman would have been most surprised to learn about our education. He knew how to load a skip so that however it was unloaded, the good stuff, for testing, would be on the top (and he'd taught himself the testing, too). There could be a 1000% mark-up in that. He could have done all that from a wheelchair. And yet, it was never real work.

And here I am, a "Jobseeker". Am I looking for "a proper job"? No, I'm looking for money. I don't want any more life experience - frankly I've had more than enough - I just want freedom from the fear of bills and debt and the insecurity of living in someone else's house.

Have I ever done a "real day's work in my life"? Since planting all those chrysanthemums for him, quite possibly not. But I've had work, as a priest. Work that made me feel completely alive. From time to time I have bursts of it still. And when I get lost in my genealogical researches, sometimes I remember sitting next to my father in Canterbury Cathedral library, looking at the bishop's transcripts of parish registers, trying to find his ancestors, and I still have the meticulous notes he took, utter attention to detail, just like his accounts, totally absorbed. And I wonder if we were so very different.

Would Mr Farage think I, an Oxbridge twit, and worse still, a failed vicar, had ever done a proper job? Maybe not. But if he'd asked me to bury his granny, he might change his tune.

Some work is not a curse.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2015


  1. An interesting correlation that I can think off is my own Father - son relationship. His work was always real work in the sense of labouring for a living in a range of jobs from driving through builders labourer, bus driver, delivery driver, washing up in a cafe and back to the buildings. I joined the Army, after a brief sojourn as a Telegram Boy in Central London, and for the next 43 years worked on two different contracts as a soldier and latterly an Officer, having been commissioned at age 50. Somehow, while this might be described as NOT real work, but I can assure you that it was hard, at times risky and outright dangerous. But it was work that was fulfilling and using hands, the whole body and the mind in many ways. I can't explain why it's different to my father, apart from the fact that he also spent 7 years in uniform before, through and after WW2, which changed him I believe from someone full of life and mischief, into an introverted, grump, grudge and bully. Only if you shared a life with him could you know how if affected us children.

    His real work was to make life hell for everyone around him, spending money on things we didn't need and neglecting those that we did need. Such as love and nurture.

    So, different from your relationship, which despite your ups and downs was full of loving relationships, while ours (as children) was spent in lonely, with poverty of spirit and physical poverty and deprivation.

    The real work for me was recovering from that childhood, building relationships to last (some have, some haven't) and giving my own children a decent childhood not filled with fear and uncertainty. Which I managed to do until they were young adults, when their parents split, but they've managed despite this, to be relatively well adjusted, worked continuously in lower class, but reasonably well paid occupations. So, as good as it can be, I hope.

  2. To me, ‘proper’ work, whether it’s in employment, self-employment, a voluntary field, or running a home, is that which invents, makes, maintains, mends, sells - or serves. There was a time remembered by many readers of this blog when most of the Commons and a fair chunk of the Lords had spent years in proper work, not to mention serving during at least one war. On its own, work’s not necessarily enough to make a politician useful. Someone who learns the desires and aims of people from all walks of life through mixing with them, observing and listening, as well as working alongside them is the sort I’d respect as a politician.
    I’ve encountered working men whose days involved going to a factory where they carried out labouring or skilled work without talking to anyone and whose evenings were taken up with overtime or dozing off on a settee in front of a TV. They knew as much of what went on in getting their meals put in front of them as how to negotiate with the clean-shirt fairies and sock-pairing elves. ‘Proper’ as their jobs might have been, their jobs would not have fitted such blokes for politics. So far as understanding the needs of the general public were concerned, these workers might as well have been 18th century homeschooled aristocrats. Much as I’d understand their exhaustion and respect their desire to work and provide, I’d expect them to be less capable of representing me at the town hall or on the world stage than an old-Etonian who’d been required to make his own bed during term-time from the age of eight and had spent his shockingly lengthy school holidays making himself useful on the family farm
    Men and women who talk to one another during breaks at work, who spend time in bus queues , go to parents’ meetings, join amateur drama groups, who meet colleagues after work and go out for lunch or diinner, who take part in the office or shopfloor sweep for the Grand National, who mingle at retirement parties and sign the big congratulations card for a colleague on maternity leave, who cheer on the firm’s football team in a match against the local newspaper, who attend leisure classes or hobby groups, take part in church social events, play an instrument in a band or orchestra, read books and newspapers, have friends from work round for a meal or do things in the home and garden with spouses and children, all have the chance, regardless of their occupation, to pick up things about other people.
    Someone wishing to represent me at Westminster, Brussels, or the local council, needs to have mixed with me and mine, learning our opinions and aspirations.
    Whether a man or woman is the architect who designed a building or the factory worker who made the door handles, the electrician who put in the wiring, or the artist-engineer who drew the light-switch, the accountant who arranged the financing, the royal who opened the building, the bishop who blessed it, or the hairdresser who made sure everybody looked nice on the big day, if they’re going to sit where they legislate about me I want them to know something about the world I live (and vote ) in.