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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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war