THE nearest I ever came to hard work was picking potatoes when I was about eight, and stacking boxes in a factory at 17.
My brief spud-collecting career began around 1959, when my pals and I got a bus out of town one Saturday and found a farm needing casual workers. But, after only a few hours scrabbling in the furrows, I cried off. Being skinny and weak, I simply didn’t have the strength or stamina to keep filling those sacks.
I was in better physical nick when I got the stacking job nine summers later during the school holidays – 12-hour shifts lifting heavy boxes off a conveyor belt and piling them on to wooden pallets, something like five boxes wide and six high.
As soon as a pallet was stacked, a fork lift truck deposited an empty pallet nearby and took the full one away. Then you started all over again. The boxes rolled off the conveyor belt endlessly, day and night, and – with only an hour’s break during your shift – you had no choice but to keep on stacking.
I earned good money (around £17 a week) and after six weeks was probably fitter than I ever was, or ever would be again. But as I returned to school that autumn, of one thing I was sure: I never again wanted a job involving manual labour.
The thought went through my mind when I read Gail MacDonald’s TCW Defending Freedom blog on Monday, in which she asked why monuments were put up to working men, but not to women who stayed home looking after the house and children.
Gail’s article centred around a newly-installed 33ft sculpture near a Glasgow shipyard depicting two old-style workers hammering in red-hot rivets to secure a vessel’s steel plating. ‘My grandfather worked in those yards,’ she said. ‘But my grandmother cleaned up after him. He gets a sculpture. She doesn’t.’
I fully sympathise, because I know how tough it was for most working-class women at home, trying to make ends meet and trying to keep everyone warm, fed and clothed on an inadequate and often unreliable income. I saw how hard my own mother worked to bring up our family in circumstances that these days would be thought intolerable.
But I must echo the point made by many readers who commented on Gail’s article: That was simply the way life was back then.
When most non-professional jobs called for brawn and not brain power, only men were generally strong enough to do them. At the same time, there was little alternative but for women to stay home, care for the children, and do the housework.
My father had labouring jobs all his life, usually outdoors, always backbreaking, always poorly paid. When he was digging roads, he was out in all weathers. He particularly suffered during the bitter snowbound winter of 1962-1963, when it was below freezing for months on end.
I can still see him coming home each night chilled to the bone, crouching in front of the fire while my mother gave him cups of tea piled with sugar to try to get some energy back into his body.
However, it would have been no use Dad swopping roles with Mum. Wielding a pick and shovel for hours on end like he did was a job that few women would have been capable of doing. The physical demands were simply too much. By the same token, Dad wouldn’t have been much of a hand at baking and shopping.
But if riveting ships or excavating the roads was hard labour, it was by no means the toughest job for men. For that, I think you must turn to George Orwell’s remarkable account of a miner’s working day in The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937.
He tells how men first had to descend hundreds of feet by lift down the pit shaft. Then, bent double and sometimes crawling, they would shuffle and scramble their way through badly-lit, claustrophobically narrow tunnels for more than a mile – often much further – before reaching the coalface. Only there did their paid shift begin.
Amid swirling, choking black dust and often in sweltering heat, the miners – called ‘fillers’ – would then begin a seven and half hour stint, during which each man would shovel around 20 tons of newly-blasted coal over his shoulders … while on his knees.
‘It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person,’ wrote Orwell, who went down the mine himself. ‘For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing it in a position that doubles or trebles the work.
‘They have got to remain kneeling all the while – they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling – and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means.’
At the end of their shift, the miners would have to face the long crawl back out to the pithead, tired, dust-covered and aching. ‘It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before and after your day’s work,’ said Orwell.
Of course, like the shipyard riveters, those miners went home to meals cooked by women, in houses cleaned by women and to have their clothes washed by women.
As I said, I applaud the part played by women when it came to looking after their men. But if there are any more statues to be built (better than that laughable Glasgow effort, hopefully), on balance I’d dedicate them to the men.
Of physical necessity they did the dirty and dangerous jobs. They lifted and shifted, dug and delved, heaved, hauled and hammered as they strove to put bread on the table.
The captains of commerce and industry may have entered the history books, but Britain was built on the sweat of anonymous working men and all too often on their sacrifice. As someone who could hardly lift a potato, let alone a pick, shovel, or riveting hammer, I salute them.