Beyond the coal-face

Is it clocking-off time for the working class? Sue Gaisford hears the evidence
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Talking Work: An Oral History by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook Faber, pounds 15.99

What do you call hard work? Toiling in a blast furnace, in blazing heat? Mining a seam three miles underground, bent double for 10-hour shifts? If you have, or once had a job like that, you are undoubtedly working class, and you belong to a rapidly shrinking group. And what if you work as a receptionist or a hairdresser, a prostitute or a housewife? What if you sit at home attached to a computer terminal, are you still working class? Ah, there the lines become blurry.

Mark Sheridan is unemployed: that is to say, he draws the dole. Yet he has made a tidy income driving a removal van, and further substantial amounts from flogging things stolen from customers en route: "That weren't there, love'', he tells them. He makes "hundred quid for this, a hundred and fifty for that. A good day's wages, plus we were getting paid". He considers himself to be middle-class, with the income he gets. Twice, people have knifed him, but they missed the jugular.

It's surprising he hasn't at least been shopped, or "bubbled'', or "spragged to the Welfare". The old working class hate people like Sheridan. His is the voice of the spiv, making a good living out of the collapse of industrial society. That collapse is what this book is about. Its two authors have collected much first-hand evidence to support their passionately- held belief that the working class is dying all around us, that the only people growing fat on it are the Sheridans of the shady alleys, the ones whose morals are as operational as Grimethorpe colliery - and even they think they've moved up a class.

The book begins with the real thing, the voice of Harry Price. Born in 1890, he saw a "Boy wanted" sign outside a large store and got a job driving dray horses round London markets. When he was recorded he was still working, as a doorman outside a furrier's in Regent Street: "I'm only nearly 87'', he declares, with the pride of the octogenarian who has outlived his contemporaries.

Price's career exemplifies the shift from heavy manual work to the service industries which is, claim Blackwell and Seabrook, as big a movement as the industrial revolution. The young people they interviewed, when asked about class, mostly shrugged the question off as irrelevant. The camaraderie that characterised the pit villages has gone, to be replaced only by the selfish Thatcherite doctrine of looking after number one. The old miners see a bleak future, where the only jobs are for women and girls.

It's true that women seem, on the whole, happier, perhaps because they are more adaptable. Celia Duerden, a community nurse, remarks that she's never been to a house where they didn't say they were glad to see her, and the P.A. who juggles job and children feels a sense of achievement. Speaking of her boss, she boasts "I'm not inferior to him. It's just that he earns twice as much as I do''.

Yet, when you finish this book, the people you remember are those who have really suffered; the child whose mother nearly gave her away because there were too many mouths to feed; the black girl who dares not go into the town centre for fear of racist attacks; the Scot who moved to Middlesbrough to find money for his family and instead lost his job, wife and children. He's the chap who defines an optimist as someone who says that things were bad in the past, are bad now, but can't get any worse: he's not an optimist.

Nor are Blackwell and Seabrook. In a long, impassioned essay, they argue that the working class has split: many have moved up into an uneasy and suspicious middle class, but a new, hopeless underclass has emerged, who are the real poor, sleeping rough on the streets, or labouring in the third world to make luxuries for the west. Yet human sympathy can offer shreds of comfort. Melissa, daughter of a Jamaican immigrant cleaner and a stranger to any kind of luxury, can still feel sorry for some people: "I know how Princess Di feels", she says, "Poor cow, she had a selfish sod like I have".