Saturday, 21 August 2010
Myths of work and money
I can't recall exactly where in our flat the saying was. I think there was a paperweight – perhaps in a multi-sided geometrical shape – with a number of catch-phrases and sayings. When I first read it, I was too young to work out what it meant. I spent ages puzzling over the words: “Work is the curse of the drinking class.” Apparently it was a joke that I couldn't understand.
I suppose the joke played on too many assumptions: that work is a good thing, that the working class are seen (especially by the rich) as idlers, that drunkenness is a working-class problem and that the working class live feckless lives dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. If someone had explained all that to me then, I'd have been politely incredulous. I could see that my parents worked hard and that they put the interests of others (including their children) first. They didn't even drink. My mother was fearful of pubs and drinkers and, although my father enjoyed beer, he gave it up for years for my mother's sake and, even now, finds a single can of lager turns a meal or an evening into a special occasion.
But there's one way in which the group of assumptions did chime with my parents' attitudes. They worked hard at their jobs and often found them rewarding. But they hadn't fallen for the idea so ingrained into many middle-class minds: that work is what gives meaning to people's lives. My parents put other things first: family, friends, neighbours, duty, social responsibility – and pleasure. They handed those values on to me.
Quite a lot came under that heading of “pleasure.” It could be a walk in Richmond Park, a trip to the theatre, a jazz concert, a TV programme, drawing, a maths puzzle, a cryptic crossword, a visit to a museum or a good book. We didn't make the usual distinction between high-brow and low-brow. I watched the London Transport Players perform Ivor Novello or Rogers & Hammerstein in a “proper” theatre and amateur Shakespeare in the London parks. I picked up whatever reading material was lying around: Tit-Bits magazine with its intriguing advertisements for Joan the Wad, poetry anthologies, Plato in translation. I learnt by watching that the aim of work was to live a good and enjoyable life.
My parents encouraged us to work hard at school but they didn't pretend that the aim of education was a career. Education was a means of expanding opportunities for pleasure – and might give us the chance to choose a job that was more enjoyable than those our parents did. I could see the point of that. In my early years my mum was a cleaner and a kitchen assistant. I didn't think I'd be much good at either and, given my incompetence in tidying my room, I didn't think I'd be much good at being a cleaner. I liked reading books and learning poems and plays by heart but I wasn't sure that many jobs would draw upon those skills. And I realised that I might want money so that I could buy books, travel to museums, go to the theatre and so on.
There's nothing in my parents' approach that seems wrong. The idea of devoting a life to work for its own sake seems ungenerous and mean-spirited. I'm lucky enough to enjoy much of my work – but not the bits involving form-filling, managerial jargon, the distress of others, or tidying my office. It's a good job but does it really shock you to learn that I do it for the money? After I've paid for the usual necessities of life, I spend that money on family, friends, duty, responsibility and – of course – on pleasure.