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23 April 2015

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.

By Joe Moran

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.

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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.

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