Big fish: a Hackney market trader. Photo: Ridley Rd Portrait Project, © Kate Peters
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What do you do? From financiers to fishmongers, a new book shows Britain at work

Work is now something we are supposed to be "passionate" about. But Joanna Biggs' portraits of the British workforce show that cant and hypocrisy are as resilient as ever.

All Day Long: a Portrait of Britain at Work
Joanna Biggs
Serpent’s Tail, 287pp, £14.99

“This boundless region, the region of le boulot, the job, il rusco – of daily work, in other words – is less known than the Antarctic,” wrote Primo Levi in his novel The Wrench. And yet, as Joanna Biggs shows eloquently in All Day Long, this underexplored territory is the most significant place in our lives. The workplace is not just where we earn our livelihood but “where we make friends, exert power, pass the time, fall in love, give back, puff ourselves up, get bored, play, backstab, bully and resist”.

Biggs has travelled the UK asking people, from Stoke-on-Trent pot glazers to Belfast fishmongers, about the jobs they do. Under her careful eye, every profession, even the most apparently unskilled or menial, turns out to have arcane codes and rituals, its unique aptitudes. Everyone – the Bulgarian sex worker in Kentish Town and the “giggle doctor” visiting children’s wards in Rhyl included – is somehow immersed in and marked by what they do all day.

Biggs’s muse is the oral historian Studs Terkel who, between 1971 and 1974, travelled across America talking to janitors, truck drivers, stockbrokers and gravediggers about their lives. Terkel’s subsequent book Working (1974) was divided into nine parts themed according to different types of work. Biggs arranges her book likewise in nine sections (“Making”, “Selling”, “Serving”, “Leading”, and so on). As well as echoing Terkel, her work owes something to that British tradition of popular oral history that began when it became easy to collect voices on compact cassette recorders and is exemplified by writers such as Ronald Blythe, Tony Parker, Mary Loudon and Craig Taylor.

Unlike Terkel and these other authors, Biggs eschews the montage technique of transcribing and tidying up interviews and turning them into long, dramatic monologues. Instead, she intersperses excerpts from her interviews with her own cool prose, including nuggets from the cultural history of work and social theory from the likes of E P Thompson and Betty Friedan.

Work, Biggs suggests, is becoming ever more a part of our identities. For instance, as the term “housewife” falls into disuse, the identity-consuming “stay-at-home mum” or “mum” has taken its place. A Pret a Manger barista is engaged in “precision-tuned customer feeling”, which seems to involve always asking, “How was your weekend?” with a perma-smile while serving customers. The lesson of Biggs’s foray into our working lives is that open-plan offices and relaxed dress codes may have flattened out formal work hierarchies but they also ensure that rewards are fluid and uneven and no one quite knows where work begins and ends. In our modern cult of sincerity, work has been reinvented not simply as the exchange of labour for money and status but as something we are supposed to be “passionate” about, a source of existential meaning.

The problem is that workplace inequalities, cant and hypocrisy are as resilient as ever. I liked the quietness of this book, the way its argument emerges organically out of the material rather than in polemic. But there is a restrained anger in its most powerful passages about how work has changed since the 2008 financial crisis. For the unique characteristic of the subsequent downturn has been relatively high employment combined with the casualisation of work in the form of freelance consultancy, unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts.

Some of those Biggs interviews around this theme have become minor public figures, such as Rochelle Monte, a care worker interviewed on Channel 4 News, whose work seems to encompass the responsibilities that a district nurse might have had a generation ago but with lower pay and zero job security. Biggs finds cause for optimism in the interns at the London Symphony Orchestra who inspired a successful protest against unpaid work and Henry Lopez, a cleaner at the University of London who led a campaign for the London living wage. Her description of cleaners as serving “a sort of psychic function for the rest of society by taking away the dark, dusty, imperfect results of living, like the navvies making a channel for our shit to flow underground”, could be said to apply to all the low-paid caring and serving professions she explores.

It is a measure of the winning self-effacement of this book that we find out very little about Joanna Biggs – other than that at five she wanted to be an actor and at nine a dancer and that she considers herself lucky that, before the debt bubble burst, she managed to parlay her unpaid internships into an entry-level job at a literary magazine. There was, back then, she writes, “a general sense that the work we were beginning would fulfil us for a long time”. One of her last case studies is of a 24-year-old unemployed man from Basildon who graduated from a Russell Group university a few years after Biggs with a first-class degree.

All Day Long ends at Biggs’s former primary school, Connaught Junior in Bagshot, Surrey, where she interviews a class of eight-year-olds about what they want to be when they grow up. None of them wants to be a banker, a politician or, perhaps surprisingly, a celebrity. After all that has gone before, it is hard to know whether to feel uplifted or anxious about their doggedly old-fashioned, analogue ambitions: they want to be police officers, teachers, pilots and, most commonly, footballers.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.