Howard Jacobson: Even the worst jobs have their benefits


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In an essay in praise of idleness, that cadaverous philosopher Bertrand Russell argued "that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work".

There was formerly, he went on, recalling some more wonderful time to have been alive, "a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency".

Leaving aside the embarrassment one invariably feels when a philosopher falls to discoursing about light-heartedness and play, the irrelevance of Russell's argument to our own times was made plain the other week when several thousand people of all ages took to kicking out shop windows and punching bystanders in the face for the reason, in many cases, that they had nothing else to do.

Why they refused the consolations open to a philosopher of filling their vacant hours with Xenophon or Protagoras is a question for another day. But this much we can say: it is not idleness that needs promoting right now, but work. Not punitive or virtuous or even wildly remunerative work, just work as a preferable alternative to no work, work as a source of interest and satisfaction in itself, or failing that, at least of boredom that has an object – there being more to put one's mind to, and certainly more opportunity for the camaraderie of amusement and annoyance, in stacking shelves in a supermarket than in hanging around the same strip of needle-strewn wasteland waiting to knife or be knifed.

Even the worst jobs have their consolations. Witness Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's exchange of views on the subject in their sublimely filthy Derek and Clive (Live) album. "The worst job I ever had," Clive recalls, "was with Jayne Mansfield. You know, she was a fantastic bird ... big tits, huge bum ... sweet, charming, shy, mysterious girl ... but I had the terrible job..." What the terrible job was I owe it to the feelings of readers of this column to say no more about, other than a) it involved lobsters and b) not everyone could have done it.

Not quite of the same order, but no less trying to the constitutions of the queasy, is being asked to do a spot of house painting for Jacqui Smith. Defending her actions in employing a couple of day-release prisoners from HMP Hewell – a facility conveniently situated just around the corner from her family home in Redditch – Smith noted that the prisoners were nearing the end of their sentences and "didn't have anything else on". Given how many people "didn't have anything else on" during the four nights of rioting, we might question the ex-Home Secretary's lack of enterprise in not bussing 100 or so of them over to help build a new roof extension for her husband's television room.

Lest there should be any suggestion that Ms Smith was trying to get something for nothing – though working the system is also work of sorts – she further let it be known that she had donated a number of plants to the prison the day before. When I first heard this I took her to mean that she had, at her own expense, installed snitches at HMP Hewell, but that just shows what a suspicious nature I have. In fact, by plants she meant no more than some potted geraniums.

Whether Russell would have considered making Jacqui Smith an example of the idleness he advocated I can't say, but in her defence I would argue that painting a wall when you've got nothing on beats not painting a wall when you've got nothing on. Only imagine what merry times those prisoners must have had between brush strokes, looking around, joking, wondering if any of those infamous videos, paid for by their taxes, were to hand. For mischief, too, is a reason to go to work.

There are few things more dispiriting than wanting work and not finding it. But we sentimentalise the jobless where joblessness is a career choice. No wonder they would rather claim benefits, we say, given what's on offer at the job centre. The unemployed themselves will sometimes argue further that it doesn't pay to take a job because they get more on the dole. A calculation for which the only word is suicidal. As is the case with much that can be dismissed as scrounging, the ultimate loser is the scrounger himself. Doing nothing because it pays more than doing something might offer a brief sensation of petty triumph, but it consigns the idle, especially the idle young, to a life of vacancy and pointlessness which is far removed from Russell's languorously well-educated lounging, exposing them to all the ailments and dangers of futility, in short, to the torpor from which stealing a pair of trainers is a blessed release. They might think they have cheated the system but they have cheated themselves more.

I was on the dole once. On the form describing the kind of work I was looking for I wrote "lecturing in English literature with special reference to the influence of Dr Johnson on Jane Austen – oh, and the late novels of Henry James". How I got away with that for several months I have no idea. But when the chance came to do some shelf-stacking, I took it. Later on, I plastered walls and grouted bathrooms. For a while I pushed a barrow of wet cement along a plank slung across a ravine.

Hateful work, all of it. But I talked to people I wouldn't otherwise have met. I acquired a few skills, both manual and sympathetic. And even when daydreaming was the only release, it was a different sort of daydreaming from that I'd known when hanging about doing nothing. My mind had something to adhere to, no matter that it was just the back-breaking repetitiveness of the task. Because better that, reader, than the brain-numbing solipsistic repetitiveness of the self cut loose from individual achievement or co-operative effort.

Russell's mistake was to oppose work and play. The enemy of light-heartedness is not labour but vacuity.

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