It’s certainly easier to take criticism and absorb advice if it comes from someone who knows what they’re talking about, someone whose knowledge of the subject under discussion inspires respect for their opinion. On the odd unfortunate occasion when I’ve been exposed to Simon Cowell passing judgement, I’ve wondered if the wannabe about to burst into tears ever thinks – ‘But this twat gave us Robson and Jerome! And bloody Westlife!’ Similarly, being lectured as to what constitutes Hard Work by graduates of a cosseted conveyor belt that has precluded them ever having to choose between cutting down on beer or the kids’ new gear, as someone once said, is not an experience that generates gratitude.
We’ve heard a great deal of talk lately (from certain quarters) of job creation, sold to those who will be encouraged to participate in it by those who are exempt from it. The nature of the jobs in question is not specified, but it’s pretty safe to say they probably won’t be in the Beverly Hills branch of the gynaecology industry. Ours is not to reason why or to play Oliver Twist and ask for more. We should be grateful for what we are given and be indebted to our saviours for being spared the fate of the state scrounger.
At the height of the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, my seventeen-year-old self used to wonder why the miners fought so passionately for a job that nobody in their right mind would surely want to endure day-in and day-out. The only living creature that should spend that amount of time underground is a mole. Putting aside the input of self-aggrandising union leaders or agent provocateurs, the same could be said of those working in all the other old industries that were in terminal decline at that time and who also ended up striking in a final futile throw of the dice to reverse the inevitable.
When I was about eleven, there was a foundry opposite the school I attended, and my form teacher once took the whole class across the road to be given a guided tour; we had to don goggles to protect our precious little eyes, and were then escorted through a location my memory evokes whenever I see Philip James de Loutherbourg’s ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’. The heat was akin to the interior of a greenhouse housing tropical plants; the noise was like a dinosaur’s claws scraping down a giant blackboard; the smell was a sickly metallic aroma that one could taste in the manner of a tongue tickling a filling. It was horrible. I remember us standing beside a vat of what looked like lava and the teacher turned to me and said – ‘This is where you’ll end up if you don’t improve your maths.’ She was wrong; but the foundry itself was gone within five years, anyway.
I knew I’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming into that kind of environment on a daily basis, but I can now see a kind of logic to the endurance of the men who went there voluntarily. Those traditional industries were hard and demanded a lot of their workers, both physically and mentally; but when the whistle blew, the workforce emerged imbued with satisfaction that they had done a good day’s work and had genuinely earned every penny of their wage-packet. They worked hard and they partied hard. But they didn’t turn city centres into war-zones on a Friday and Saturday night, staggering around in pissed-up packs and urinating on war memorials. The menial work they did gave them something that the menial work their counterparts engage in today are not given. A sense of dignity, perhaps?
About twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was signing-on was forced to spend a week in some draughty old office block in the middle of an industrial estate, attending what was then known as a ‘Restart Course’. He told me many of the lost causes surrounding him there were casualties of the economic downturn, middle-aged ex-miners and steel-workers being taught how to write CVs and address envelopes. Trained in professions that had been rendered as redundant as that of a chimney-sweep, their prospects were terminally bleak as they were repeatedly reminded that doing any old shit was a superior option to the dole, despite the fact that doing any old shit is not a great spur to getting out of bed on a morning, let alone leaving its employee overflowing with fulfilment at the end of the working day. Most probably ended-up pushing trolleys around a supermarket car-park.
The tedious mantra of ‘Hard Working Families’ that has spewed forth from both Tory and Labour mouths over the past few months is an advertising slogan bereft of the small print hidden beneath the main message. I’ve no doubt the post of Prime Minister can make unimaginably stressful demands upon the resident of No.10; the fact that so many of them conclude their term in office as basket cases isn’t really surprising. But, lest we forget, they weren’t there by accident; they had a choice and they went for it. The Hard Working Families they eulogise don’t all have the luxury of choice. They get what they’re given and they’re supposed to be eternally thankful for that.
One regular commentator on here once wrote eloquently of his spell entombed in a call-centre, an eye-opening account of desperate thirty-somethings blackmailed into making-do and twenty-something drones who had never known any different. With the exception of the odd Little Hitler such workplaces produce, it’s doubtful that anyone departed those premises at clocking-off time feeling as though the previous eight hours had contributed to their self-esteem and had provided their existence with much in the way of worth. The solution to this dilemma was to get so blitzed that all memories of it were erased or to embark upon endless bed-hopping devoid of any meaning bar base animalistic gratification in order to try and feel something. And I suspect that one dispiriting example of the modern workplace is far-from unique.
Because the alternative has been depicted as beyond the pale for any self-respecting human being, many members of the country’s so-called unskilled workforce have been encouraged to accept the premise that mental stimulation or physical fulfilment do not have to be necessary or obligatory elements of earning a living; to merely clock on and clock off are enough. What happens in the hours in between can be as soul-destroying and numbing as being a flesh-and-blood chair for Eric Pickles to sit on all day, but at least there’s a carrot manifested as the minimum wage and David Cameron can pat you on the head for being a good boy or a good girl. It helps balance the books, even if it doesn’t solve the spiralling drug and drink problems plaguing that workforce when they are released from captivity at the weekend.
‘Factory Fodder’ was once the phrase used to describe the destinies of the Easter Leavers, those who exited school without sitting summer exams. I don’t know what the equivalent would be today. ‘Service Industry Fodder’ doesn’t have quite the same catchy ring to it. Besides, one doesn’t have to be an Easter Leaver to qualify for that title these days. The supermarket shelf-stackers of the nation have a string of degrees up their sleeves, ones they were told would save them from the frozen food aisle.
Starting at the bottom is no bad thing, as long as there’s something higher up to aim for. Part-time drudgery is no bad thing, as long as circumstances don’t render it permanent. Limitations should be acknowledged but not enforced. But to presume money in the bank at the end of the month is enough to provide heavenly bread is a measure of the contempt in which the workforce are held by those who expect the kind of gratitude that, like respect, should be earned.