The Pleasures of Work

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One problem with writing about work is its invisibility. Its ordinariness makes it unseeable to ourselves but also in novels, in film, in the culture more widely. There aren’t many books that tell us about how we spend our days – Studs Terkel’s Working and Barbara Garson’s All the Livelong Day are exceptions – and so as I thought about the encounters I’d had with workers across the country for All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, I found myself returning to two essays: the first by the photographer Lee Miller and the second by the historian E.P. Thompson.

Lee Miller normally brought gravity to Vogue – she had been one of the first photographers at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen – but ‘Working Guests’, her last photo-essay for the magazine about the friends she’d roped into helping her on her Sussex farm, is a tease. ‘I've devoted four years of research and practice to getting my friends to do all the work,’ writes Miller, who we see overleaf, napping bare-legged on the sofa in afternoon light. ‘The visitors’ book is flanked by a photo album of grim significance,’ she continues. ‘Everyone is busy doing a job: Joy through Work.’ (You imagine Miller allowing herself a bitter sort of laugh.) Here are the workers: Saul Steinberg with the garden hose; Max Ernst planting borders and his wife rewiring a table lamp; Henry Moore installing his own statue in the garden. So much of writing about work doesn’t address its pleasures – the purposeful camaraderie of three women chatting as they shell beans, which Miller captures – but it’s rarer still to suggest pleasure while swerving away from pastoral idealisations of work. Steinberg doesn’t look entirely happy to be wrestling with the garden hose.

Thompson’s essay reconstructs a time when work was pleasurable because it knew its place: a time before watches on wrists, when you might measure how long it took to cook an egg by the recitation of an Ave Maria. Before the Industrial Revolution, potters might let their weekends run into Tuesday or leave off work if it was slow. Thompson wonders if this pattern – intense bouts of work balanced by equally intense idleness – is a ‘“natural” human work rhythm’, and I started to wonder too. ‘In mature capitalist society,’ Thompson observes towards the end of the essay, ‘all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to “pass the time”.’ We hear endlessly from politicians about ‘hardworking families’; my friends, at least, mostly answer the question ‘How are you?’ with ‘busy’; work seeps into evenings and weekends and breaks our nights. Miller and Thompson remind us to resist: with laughter and with the knowledge it wasn’t always this way.

Joanna Biggs' All Day Long is our Book of the Week this week, and available from the Bookshop – click here to reserve your copy.