Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Curse of the Drinking Classes

This weekend I sent off a selection of poems to a publisher which might, just possibly, turn out to be my second pamphlet. If all goes well, said publication may see the light sometime in 2012, which would be exactly ten years after my first pamphlet was published. I like to keep to a tight, frenetic, some might even say punishing, publishing schedule. It's a curse.

The selection I put together - with the working title 'Singing Motorhead in the Voice of Dolores O'Riordan' (there's a story behind that which I'll explain some other day) - concentrates, naturally enough, on trans stuff, but, in the editing, I noticed that there are a lot of poems about work, too. Which had to be left out to preserve the thematic unity of the selection I came up with, and which now have me thinking along the lines of doing another selection taking work culture as a subject. Work and trans stuff tend to be the things I bang on about most on here and in my poetry, so that would make sense. Though I'd need to write a few more work poems to get a full selection together.

Maybe it's just that work culture is much on my mind lately. Only recently I finished reading Madeleine Bunting's Willing Slaves, which I can't recommend enough. And, of course, the BBC have recently done a series, 'The British at Work', telling a story about peoples' experiences of toiling for the man in this septic isle.

You'll notice that I say 'telling a story', and refuse to go quite so far as to call the show a documentary series. That's because documentaries, well, document something. And too often, The British at Work seemed less interested in documenting peoples' working lives than in shoehorning facts and events into a narrative which ends with everybody living fulfilled working lives in the happy-clappy new milennium. A narrative in which unions got in the way of social progress and the Thatcherite desolation of large parts of the UK was a historical inevitability. Watching the eighties episode, they did pay attention to joblessness (by showing a clip of Yosser Hughes) and they covered the Wapping Printers' Strike (though this segued into discussing how lovely the new newspaper offices, and indeed other office buildings, became in the eighties), but you could've blinked and missed one of the defining workplace conflicts of the eighties, the Miners' Strike. Too bad you couldn't say the same for the endless shots of yuppie fun and fawning interviews with post-downshifted yupsters about how much stress they'd been under, the poor dears.

There's a good dissection of what's wrong with the show's narrative about work at The Blog from 20,000 Fathoms, which says pretty much everything I'd've said if I'd found the time. But today, a week after the March for the Alternative, I find the BBC's dismissiveness about workplace organisation not just offensive but completely out of touch.

Last week I marched through the streets of London with 500,000 other people, most of them drawn from the trade unions, in a show of numbers organised by the TUC. The atmosphere, the noise, the numbers were incredible. But what was just as incredible was the fact that, for the first time in what seemed like ages, peoples jobs and livelihoods were the key political issue. The Tory-led government's cuts are having a massive impact on peoples' jobs, and, despite a few highly-publicised new projects, it seems highly unlikely that the private sector can provide enough jobs for highly-qualified people like librarians, teachers, nurses or social workers when their jobs are cut.

There's no economic justification for these cuts. The Tories are making them in furtherance of a mean-minded ideology which, in some respects, chimes all too easily with the dismissive, anti-union, anti-worker, 'we've never had it so good' attitude of The British at Work. The Tory approach is about 'making it easier for businesses' by getting rid of legislation which protects workers' rights. The British at Work bolsters this approach by saying that there's no need to protect workers' rights because we're all 'doing jobs we like' in beautiful, 'hotel-like' offices, feeling fulfilled and creative and self-actualising.

How could people in such utopian working environments begrudge making life easier for our new business overlords? Resistance to managerialism in The British at Work was associated, again and again, with negativity, in the form of closed shops, racism, or, at the top end of things, bowler-hatted bankers straight out of a Monty Python sketch. Whereas the workers who donated time free of charge to the risible 'I'm backing Britain' were presented as heroic, patriotic figures, though even Kirsty Young struggled not to laugh at the campaign's official single by the dodgily-moustached fame-chaser Bruce Forsyth. Y'know, Bruce Forsyth who thinks that people should 'get a sense of humour' about racial slurs. How could you object to a campaign fronted by a class act like that?

(Of course it's unfair to single out Brucie. The 'I'm Backing Britain' campaign was also supported by such moral stalwarts as Jimmy 'I invented zero tolerance' Saville, and Robert Maxwell. With people like that 'backing' the country, one does feel amazed that we actually still exist as a nation at all.)

The reality is that in the 21st century millions of people in Britain still toil at unfulfilling jobs for wages that are a joke. 'Gold-plated pensions' only exist for bankers like Fred Goodwin, and Tory MPs who can roll out of the House of Commons and straight into a do-nothing, fat-salaried executive directorship on a company they've helped out during their time in office. Where people do jobs that are above the McJob level, they constantly face an uphill battle to make their workplaces decent places to work and spend time in, and most of the things that are good about workplaces today were only won by scaring the bejesus out of bosses.

But of course if you think of things that way, then you might find yourself objecting to the Tory agenda. And we can't have that, can we?

1 comment:

  1. I wonder what you would say about "Made in Dagenham." I saw the film in an afternoon lull and have been butting my brain on it since, thirsting for a good deconstruction of what seems to be an idealistic piece of spun sugar, where striking and unions are a good excuse to dress up and flirt with men and once you have decided to do something it is as good as accomplished. My reaction is obviously a little too blunt to make for good analysis.