All Day Long; a portrait of Britain at work published this year by Serpent’s tail is one of a few books I have won on Twitter this year. I was instantly captivated by the idea, work is such an enormous part of all our lives – and this book sets out to show us what working lives are really like for a variety of British workers in the twenty-first century. I am often fairly hopeless at reading non-fiction, and this was a perfect book for a fickle non-fiction reader – as I was able to read it in small bit sized morsels.
“… what follows is a portrait – fragmentary, personal, fleeting – of the UK at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We may love our work, hate our work, find meaning in our work, or none, but it’s what we do all day long, and it shapes us.”
Joanna Biggs, an editor at the London Review of Books, travelled the length of Britain to uncover fascinating stories of workers from as far apart as the Outer-Hebrides, Wales, Westminster and the industrial midlands. I am sure that undertaking such a project was a daunting one for the author – which jobs to choose? Which leave out? All Day Long is divided into 11 main chapters: an introductory opening with workers in a charity shop sets the book in some context and describes briefly how the book came into being at all. Then, each chapter takes a different area of the working world, entitled simply: Making, Selling, Serving, Caring Leading etc. concluding with a chapter about the school Biggs herself attended as a child, to discover what the children today want to be when they grow up. In each chapter we meet the people Biggs spoke to, a variety of voices sharing their world with us, we hear about when they get up what they do each day, how they first started and what they think of their work. The book is very current, set against a back drop of the economic downturn, and the upcoming General Election of 2015, it gives voice to people who aren’t always heard.
We meet the pointe shoe makers of Hackney, and later the ballet dancer who might use shoes like them. I was surprisingly fascinated by these shoe makers; it’s a very specialised kind of shoe making, I had never considered ballet shoe makers – but of course someone must make them. In the Outer-Hebrides we meet Donald a crofter, part of a very traditional world, the ownership of his seven and half acres can be traced back through his family for 200 years. Hugh Crossley; hereditary Lord, talks about his work on the estate he runs with his wife, what it’s like having people walking around his house, and how he sees the future. We meet, amongst others, a Belfast fishmonger, a legal aid lawyer, a carer, nurses in an abortion clinic, a quiz show question writer, a scientist, a potter, an army major, a giggle doctor and premiership footballer.
“What we do for money may seem like the essential but dull part of our lives – in tired phrases such as ‘work-life balance’, work is set against life, as if it were life’s opposite – but it’s also where we make friends, exert power, pass the time, fall in love, give back, puff ourselves up, get bored, play, backstab, bully and resist. And as the days slide by, it changes us almost unobserved.”
Britain’s diversity is also brilliantly acknowledged in the stories of Ina a Bulgarian sex worker from London, Rakhshanda a British Muslim stay at home mum, Benjamin a rabbi from Manchester, and Henry Lopez an Ecuadorean cleaner from London.
All Day Long really is a brilliant portrait of Britain at work, and out of it, as we meet interns, apprentices and the unemployed including a 56 year old man on the coalition government’s workfare placement (workfare participants don’t show up in unemployment figures). The people I shall certainly remember every time I go to buy a sandwich or a cup of tea are the Barista’s of Pret A Manger who can only ever lose their tips and are subject to the vagaries of the mystery shopper, and can easily collect informal warnings or file notes and who feel the pressure of their position within the chain of a well ordered machine. On TV I always love those documentaries which shine a light into the working lives of people doing things that are very different to what I do all day, and so this book is very much the literary equivalent of that. Joanna Biggs shows us the good and the bad, while Baristas force their smiles, a carer on a zero hours contract – loves her work it’s what she always wanted to do – but her salary is meagre and she isn’t even paid for travelling time between clients. This is a Britain we will all recognise I think, the struggling high streets of pound shops, pawnbrokers and fast food outlets, the rich who like the 25 year old Aston Villa Footballer Biggs spoke to are very well rewarded, and those who work long hard hours without much time to stop and think about what it was they really wanted to do.