Essential workers

It’s taken me a while to figure out what it is that consistently annoys me about such a worthwhile provision as the BBC local TV news. In fact, it took my reaction to King Charles’s first Christmas broadcast to achieve the realisation that I’m not simply a jaded cynic. I am a jaded cynic, but not simply one.

The Christmas broadcast, as David Starkey has eloquently pointed out, was high on production values, but also high on rather formulaic scripting expressing bland goodwill. After some necessary stuff about the work the Royal Family does, there was reference to the self-sacrificial service of the armed forces and police, footage of self-sacrificial NHS doctors and nurses, and self-sacrificial care home workers, and then much praise of the self-sacrificial work of those who “volunteer” in our communities for the disadvantaged. In other words, it was all about the same “essential workers” who got saucepans banged for them during COVID under the banner of “service,” and come to think of it the same folks who get invited to Buckingham Palace to get ladies-in-waiting sacked.

And that’s all well and good, serving others being a core Christian principle, provided of course you forget about British armed forces illegally engaged in various war-zones, police focus on “hate non-crimes” despite a number of notorious injustices, the total collapse of the NHS amidst strikes as well as soaring excess deaths and waiting lists, and the mass-sacking of care workers unwilling to get vaccinated.

It occurred to me at that point that the nightly “South West News” here, after the usual homicides in Honiton and floods in Fowey, always seems to be about local theatre companies changing the lives of immigrants, or at least highlighting their oppression, farmers eliminating their carbon and methane footprints and still producing a bit of food for local chefs who are creating vegan restaurants, clubs doing local sport as long as it’s for the disabled, or some paddle-boarder of independent means circumnavigating the British Isles picking up pieces of plastic to save the planet.

The local Devon magazine too (and the Dorset one, because we get both), apart from historical features about Dorchester’s black history or Plymouth’s mediaeval gay community, does frequent articles on enterprising local people. These, though, are always from the categories of eco-food producers and mindful gardening club founders, the odd progressive head-teacher helping minority children to express their true identities, and so on. Craft skills are lauded, but apparently only if they are near-extinct, like thatching, hedging or rake-making, or else if they produce quirky objets d’art bought impulsively at craft-fairs and useful only to hide away in a cupboard. Bricklayers or fencers need not apply.

Don’t get me wrong – round here we need thatchers, and decent hedging would be an advantage over the tractor-flayed stumps round most fields – not so much traditional wooden rakes, perhaps. And the craft items look very nice in the upmarket homes illustrated in these lifestyle magazines (“Jill and Helena converted their Tudor pig-pen into a beautiful family home for their daughters and their house-trained alpacas…”).

But here’s the point – none of this has anything to do with the vast majority of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet by doing ordinary jobs to the best of their ability, and often in spite of the difficulties caused by green or woke bosses. Many of them have little time left over to save the planet. And I include among them doctors, nurses, policemen and careworkers – or at least some of them, because doing a good job is usually an individual trait, not a corporate one.

We hear a lot from sociologists about how for most people, work is no longer seen as fulfilling. And that’s very true – to work in a succession of call-centres for vast corporations, with little prospect of anything better, is not a satisfying way of life for too many of our young people. It’s even worse if you have to take that path after getting a PhD in astronomy, or if even call-centres are not employing white people on some equity principle.

But I wonder how much of our culture’s sense of alienation comes not from the jobs themselves – which may even be intrinsically valuable – but from being ignored by the media, the honours system and, particularly when only certain jobs are deemed “essential,” by the ruling class. Invisible, “inessential” workers tend not to be highly motivated.

Yet the truth is, and always has been, that the very nature of a society is the economy (= “household”) of all its people exchanging their various skills and labour for (usually) money. The existence of that exchange of work for remuneration demonstrates that a majority of these occupations, leaving aside the morally dubious trades like pimping or gain-of-function research, are of essential value to others. And so they should all be worthy of equal celebration with the work of charities of caring professions. When the organs of society ascribe little value to what people do day by day, then it is no surprise when they are dissatisfied with (nowadays) increasingly stingy remuneration and poor conditions – witness the proliferation of strikes here this winter.

Very few people choose a job to be a hero, unless they’ve been lied to about heroism. But even health workers of the well-paid sort are not just in it for the money – at least, this one wasn’t. The calculus for doing it was always a mixture of, “Am I any good at this? Will it pay me enough to make the hassle worthwhile? Am I doing my patients any good?” And in my case, “Is this where God has put me?”

Even the founders of charities collect a salary, and just as small businessmen working all hours on a shoestring legitimately may eventually get to live in mansions and drive big cars, whilst still making good vacuum cleaners or whatever, so the salaries of big charity CEOs show that the principle of good work for remuneration still applies… hmm, I’m open to correction on that last point.

So I’m trying to get into the habit, when I drive behind some truck with some firm in Hartlepool blazoned on the back, of not only appreciating the poor driver separated from his family for days at a time and living on sandwiches in lay-bys, but of the guys making and despatching whatever it is that’s in the truck. Three cheers for aggregate quarriers, for bed manufacturers and – dare I say it – for suppliers of LPG for rural home heating systems!

Let’s have the local news celebrating refuse collectors who not only do their recycling round at the insane rate their bosses dictate, but don’t drop stuff all over the road, and leave the bins neat and tidy. They don’t have to be re-using their plastic gloves or employing one-legged people in order to be praiseworthy.

Let’s have a few MBEs handed out to helicopter engineers or post-office counter workers just for doing that well, even if they don’t run a scout-troop too. And maybe they could give a few to farmers who see feeding the people affordably as their key role, rather than creating mediaeval habitats for re-introduced wildlife.

My own awards over the last couple of years would include the e-Bay trader who went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure the radio parts I bought did the job, even if that would mean sending it to him to fix; the guy who “merely” fitted our fake-wood-strip kitchen floor, but took such pride in doing it well that he photographed it for his own album; the tree surgeon whose knowledge of local wildlife was encyclopaedic, and who gave advance warning of a problem with a tree he wasn’t paid to fix; the music group director who needs our subscriptions to live, but for whom “music for the people” is her reason to live.

I could go on, and I hope you could too, if you don’t take the work of tradesmen, labourers and call-takers for granted. Maybe we’d have fewer jobsworths to contend with if we all remembered what ordinary jobs are actually worth to the world, and expressed appreciation more. That, after all, is congruent with the Puritan insight into the vocation of every believer, and not just pastors and missionaries. This can even be seen as an elixir of life for a dying nation, as George Herbert wrote:

The Elixir

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

To scorn the senses’ sway,
While still to Thee I tend,
In all I do be Thou the Way,
In all be Thou the End.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake;
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with this tincture—“for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

If done t’obey Thy laws,
E’en servile labors shine;
hallowed is toil, if this the cause,
The meanest work divine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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