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

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