Books: Plenty of drudgery, not enough downsizing

D J Taylor is pleased to find that the suave committee-man can still turn in an honest day's toil - even if modern office life has passed him by

The Oxford

Book of Work

edited by Keith Thomas

Oxford University Press,

pounds 20, 618pp

QUITE WHAT happened to Sir Keith Thomas's career is one of the great mysteries of recent academic life. Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) and Man and the Natural World (1983) looked to have established him as one of the leading early-modern historians of the English-speaking world. Come the late 1980s, though, the books and the scholarly articles dried up. The man whom Mrs Thatcher had passed over for the Regius Professorship re-emerged as a zealous academic administrator cum common-room fixer - head of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, President of the British Academy, Knight Bachelor and the ornament of half-a-dozen high- profile committees.

From All Souls - where he started his academic life as a prize fellow back in 1955 - to the chairmanship of the Oxford University Press finance committee is not perhaps that long a journey. All the same, the transit from professional historian to the Oxford equivalent of Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House will have surprised anyone who remembers his early 1980s incarnation, stalking into the college library to check a reference first thing on a Sunday morning.

Did the forensic impulse simply dry up? Committee land suddenly look more alluring than the Bodleian stacks? We shall never know. In the meantime, Book of Work, the first volume to which Sir Keith has put his name for 16 years, is welcome evidence that there is life in the old boy - sorry, distinguished academic haut fonctionnaire - yet.

Any thought that this is an academic's vacation tour is swiftly dispelled by Thomas's introduction. Its interrogative suavity will be painfully familiar to anyone who ever had the misfortune to be interviewed by him. What exactly is work? And how do you do it? Is one allowed to enjoy it? How have our perceptions of it changed?

There were times in the course of this viva voce when I thought that work would be lucky to escape with a 2:2 and a lecture on the inadvisability of pursuing an academic career. Happily this bristling exercise in first principles soon yields up to the anthology proper. This is a tripartite assemblage on "The Nature of Work", "Kinds of Work" and "The Reform of Work" (the latter is filed under the single heading of "Dissatisfactions").

Taking the Thomas line, what does one look for in an anthology? Range of material? Eye for detail? The pertinent mixed with the impertinent? I wouldn't dream of patronising Sir Keith by saying that he has read widely, but the chief merit of Book of Work lies in its combination of the utterly predictable with the pleasantly surprising: on the one hand Mayhew on the fur-pullers of south London, Mr Pooter, and Orwell down the mine; on the other, deft selections from the Bible, the Graeco-Roman classics and Thomas's own specialist field (sample, an evocative 16th-century poem which unravels "The Tudor Housewife's Day").

Thomas's claim, made in his recent defence of the OUP's decision to scrap its poetry list, that he is an avid reader of modern poetry excited a certain amount of amusement in otherwise outraged literary circles. It turns out to be true, and his compilation is full of excellent postwar verse by the likes of Bunting, Rumens and John Fuller (oddly there's no sign of John's dad, Roy, who wrote many a poem touching on office life). He also emerges as a connoisseur of early 20th- century American realists of the Dreiser/Norris/Sinclair school, and there are several terrific extracts from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

If there's anything missing it is perhaps an absence of very much to illustrate the onset of the machine age and its effect on the people - often very young people - caught up in it: a story like Jack London's "The Apostate", for example, in which a teenage factory-hand, having calculated that he has moved the same piece of machinery 25 million times, simply gives up, tells his mother that she can look after the family that depends on him, and goes off to sleep. Working-class testimonies of the Robert Tressell/Alan Sillitoe type are also slightly under-represented.

Yet the book's most conspicuous failing (shared with Jeremy Lewis's earlier Chatto Book of Office Life) is its ignorance of the changes that have come over the average workplace since the efficiency drives of the early 1980s. "What is modern office life if not a matter of birthday cards, anniversaries and retirement parties, overheard telephone conversations, and encounters at the photocopier?" Thomas wonders rather whimsically in his introduction. In fact, for most of the inhabitants of the City of London, "work" means living in terror of the latest office restructuring or "downsizing".

Drudging for a particularly brutish firm of accountants in the mid-1980s, I once came back to my desk to discover that my boss had been sacked and removed from the premises in the 25 minutes it had taken me to eat a sandwich. The bare seven pages that Thomas devotes to "Job insecurity" are insufficient to convey the unease that such modern management techniques produce in the pre-millennial labour force - a solitary blemish on what is otherwise an exemplary piece of, well, work.

D J Taylor's biography of Thackeray will be published by Chatto & Windus in September

Office life in the machine age Peter Macdiarmid

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers