The party season is upon us soon, whether it be of the chat and Chablis or the daiquiri and dancing variety. Either way, at some point in the evening someone is bound to ask ‘What do you do?’
We often define ourselves by our work and there is a general supposition that somehow our work defines us. Of course this is cliché – accountants are boring (surely there must be some glamorous ones), which factory worker is a Nobel laureate in the making (who knows), how could theatre folk be dull ( ummm )? But the idea that most people could choose, when young, what they want to be and then go on to be it, is a very post-WWII idea, mainly brought about by the breaking down of the pre-war class system, increasing economic prosperity and better education¹. Before then this was the case for the middle classes, or at least some of them, but not for the majority (Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Work‘ left, depicts navvies at work in Hampstead).
Historically one followed one’s father into a profession, trade or job. More rarely, one followed one’s mother, into domestic service, for example. Your work was, to an extent, determined by your location, with dynasties of miners in pit towns or dockers/long-shore men in ports. The ‘company town’ offered employment to whole families. Many were towns of the industrial revolution but there were earlier local industries, like lace-making in Nottingham or iron in the Weald of Kent. It was a brave and lucky son or daughter who made their way in the world doing something different, something which they wanted to do.
One of the sub-themes of ‘Reconquista‘ is about fathers with sons who follow, or not, in their father’s footsteps. Nathan, one central character, does not want to follow his father, Simon. In contrast, Nathan’s friend, Atta, is already learning his father’s profession as a doctor and surgeon.
Simon is a silversmith, a well-paid artisan who owns his own smithy. In 1264 he would have assumed, as a matter of course, that his son would be his apprentice and eventually take over the business. That was what Simon himself would have done, as had several generations before him. There was a thriving community of silversmiths in Jerez of the thirteenth century and Plateros, the square of the silversmiths, still exists today.
Atta’s father, Don Reza, is a surgeon. Islamic Al Andalus contributed hugely to the development of the science of medicine, with treatises published during the Caliphate on, amongst other things, ophthalmology, pediatrics, optics, diet, gastric physiology and childbirth. The first tracheotomy was performed in Al Andalus and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) first explained the function of the retina and realised that immunisation against disease was possible. Some readers have suggested the existence of a hospital in ‘Reconquista‘ is anachronistic, but, in fact, hospitals, called bimaristans, were established in many major cities during that time (see above, sketch of Granada’s bimaristan).
It was important to me that work featured in ‘Reconquista‘ and made up a central part of the narrative, though both Simon and Don Reza are not, strictly, what we would call ‘working class’ today.
It has featured less often than one might think as a subject for art, though there is a tradition of the ‘pastoral’ in which ‘the shepherd’ or ‘the drover’ figures (see ‘The Hireling Shepherd‘ by Holman Hunt, right). Stanley Spencer’s wonderful Clydeside series of pictures, of ship-building mainly, but also including plumbers and riggers, is a glorious exception, but these works were commissioned during war-time and, it seems, war-time prompts governments towards this sort of art ( see Last Chance to See ).
In literature, there are Thomas Hardy’s working countrymen and women, Dickens’ cornucopia of urban working people and plenty of representatives of the working man and woman in the literature of the twentieth century. Indeed, one observer of labour, Henry Mayhew, founder of ‘Punch‘ and author of ‘London Labour and the London Poor‘ (1851) is rapidly becoming something of a character in works of fiction (from real life into art), his latest incarnation being in M.J.Carter’s ‘The Printer’s Coffin‘.
I shall leave the last word on this subject to Philip Larkin, with his ‘Toads‘ and ‘Toads Revisited‘². Going from the young man’s lament ‘Why do I let the toad, work, squat on my life?’ to the older man’s realisation ‘Give me your arm old toad, help me down Cemetary Road.’ Larkin may not have been above prejudice and misogyny himself, as we have learned, but he started out a council house boy and went on, through his family’s social mobility and his education, to become Librarian at Hull University and a famous poet. He was certainly someone who was able to decide what he wanted to be and then become it.
That may not be possible for many folk rom now on.
¹Social mobility studies have found a slowing down of social mobility in the UK in recent years. See Blanden, Gregg and Machin Sutton Report on Intergenerational Mobility. Thomas Piketty, in ‘Capital in the 21st Century‘ (2014) claims a return to “classic patrimonial” wealth-based societies of the 19th century wherein a minority lives off its wealth while the rest of the population works for subsistence living.
²Larkin 25 a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Larkin’s death used the toads in Hull ( see Guardian Report )