A Christmas Carol is one of my all-time favourite books and certainly my favourite Christmas story. Although, like many of Dickens’s works, it is often criticised for being oversentimental, even mawkish, and ties up all the loose ends just too neatly. To that I say: ‘Well, if you write something with such enduring appeal over such a long period which is capable of being adapted into so many different forms and come back in 180 years or so, then maybe I’ll take the criticism seriously!’
So many aspects of the story have a profundity that speaks across the years and the generations, and in the very different times which we live today compared with Victorian England. This is the first of two blogs I intend to write, inspired by this story, which speak to aspects that I think have so much relevance to wider society, and to my experience and thinking. The second, much more personal than this, will follow if I can to get around to writing or dictating it without sobbing, which has been the main difficulty so far!
In this first one, I wanted to reflect on the attitude to work and the part it plays in our lives and emotions, which forms such an important part of the story. Scrooge, the miserly, surviving partner in a small financial firm, sees Christmas – which he is expected to support through the payment for non work on Christmas Day of his clerk, Bob Cratchit – as an unwelcome interruption in the business of making money, and a tiresome imposition.
In fact, compared with the working experiences of the majority of those at that time in England, Cratchit’s working conditions are not so bad. He is lower-middle-class and at least has some say over his work and has a direct relationship with his employer. This was not the case for the majority of the working classes who, if not in service, were mostly working in fantastically dangerous, dirty and literally backbreaking industries, such as coalmines. They could expect to work in such conditions, at least 12 hours a day, six days a week, from before puberty until their bodies could no longer cope, with no welfare benefits and security offered by central government for when their ‘useful life’ ended.
Last Friday saw the last shift on the last deep coal mine in the UK. A moment in a day filled with poignancy; with some recriminations about the lack of government support and the consequences of free trade. There is still plenty of need for coal in these islands, but it will now come from imports – and there was much comment and wider reflection on the changing nature of work, indeed of working-class culture, of masculinity and self-respect. At one time 1.2 million men worked in that unforgiving, dark and dangerous subterranean world.
Going a down deep mine for a special programme when I worked at BBC Radio Sheffield (in a normal ‘sequence programme’ slot) was one the most memorable experiences of my life and, of course, now that it’s all gone I’m especially grateful that I had an experience that is now unrepeatable, at least in this country. This was in the very early ‘90s – after the miners’ strike, in which the coalfields of south Yorkshire had seen some of the most violent and bitter scenes of that pivotal moment in Britain’s post-war history, but only a year or so before the wave of massive pit closures, which were a prelude to re-privatisation of the pits.
The young, energetic, and forward-looking management at Maltby Colliery were keen to promote a better image of the industry – one with a good future, which used the latest technology, and approached the station to see if one of the mainstream presenters would like to go on a shift and do a whole programme from there.
I did the programme in what is called ‘as live’ mode: that is, I recorded all the introductions and links, from the start at the surface of the pit; into the ’cage’ as we plunged deep underground, clutching on to my tape machine; doing interviews there and at the end the shift, and then mixing all the other elements of the programme ‘live’ in the studio on the day of broadcast.
The machine I used was one of just two supposedly portable reel-to-reel tape recorders that the BBC especially adapted for such a purpose. It had a special outer case and insulation to prevent even the slightest, potentially explosion-causing spark from an electrical action being emitted. I remember it arrived with some fanfare at the radio station from ‘that London’ and it was quite an awesome responsibility to look after it, to use it in such difficult conditions and then return it undamaged. This I managed, although I did slightly stumble a couple of times as I was bent double in the seam, wearing my overalls, helmet with light, boots and not much else (I was supplied with underpants – “don’t use your own, you’ll never get the muck out”- I was advised by the young manager who fixed it all up).
Trying to keep up a conversation/interview and refer to my clipboard, using the light from my helmet to introduce the next predetermined song to be played on the day of the broadcast, was something of achievement and I will say immodestly that I was very proud of the overall result. In fact, it was so authentic sounding that, when I was playing in the recordings, someone in the newsroom ‘buzzed up’ to the studio and asked who they thought was the technical operator to relate some information to me at the pit. They were amazed to hear me respond and find that I was sitting just a floor above them in the studio! They didn’t seem to realise that you cannot have a ‘live’ broadcast from that deep underground! I was so happy to come up in the cage, back into the fresh air: I was only down there a couple of hours but it was such a different world, so isolated from the rest of life, I felt that anything could have happened up in the surface and we’d have never known. A very strange, disorientating experience.
But, aside from these general impressions and the broadcasting side, the most interesting thing, and which stays in the memory, are the comments from the miners about their work – which varied enormously. Some had great satisfaction from both the work and the strong male bonds they formed; the comradeship, and indeed – though they didn’t state this specifically, it was not hard to decode – the status and respect they had in their communities.
For others, though, it was a dirty, dangerous job that they only did because they had no alternative and they certainly hoped their sons would not follow them down the mine.
It reminded me very much of when I talk to the General Infantrymen (or ‘Squaddies’ as they are usually termed), in the British Army in West Germany and West Berlin. They, too, loved the Band of Brothers aspect, and the fierce loyalty they felt for those in their own Battalion. For many of them, only mining or other heavy industries, provided any alternative. Going out with them on ‘the razz’ on a Saturday night gave me an insight into what is sometimes called ‘the biggest gang in the world’, or at least the country. And if some of them did think, as I’m sure did some of the miners, that I was a soft, middle-class ponce (and I couldn’t have blamed them if they did – I would probably have said that of me had I been in their boots!), they didn’t say so to my face, and in fact showed great respect, hidden amongst the usual ‘badinage’ (you only know you’re accepted, however fleetingly, if they take the p**s).
The thing that interested me was the lack of resentment towards, or even much curiosity about my (it seemed to me) much more congenial life, or of any of those outside their own situation. Both the army and coal mining produced a very insular world (literally in the case of mining) and set of assumptions about life and their own prospects and abilities.
As with those who leave the army, the miners who have suddenly found themselves unemployed will find life outside very hard. They’ve lost their employment, like many before them, but they’ve also lost their status and self-respect. The jobs that supposedly replaced those of the old industries on which Britain built its great, wealthy empire (which, of course, was of great benefit only to a tiny number) provide neither the security nor the status or self-respect.
At the beginning of last week came The Guardian’s investigation into the working conditions at Sports Direct. In some respects it was like reading about the working conditions of old. The employment may not be as dangerous, but the attitude of the employer to the employees is something that Dickens, along with Marks and Engels and numerous other agitators and reformers of the period, would have recognised. Or, for conditions between the world wars, you can’t beat Orwell for clarity of prose and clear-eyed judgement.
As in the classic capitalist mould, it appears the workers are treated just as units of production. There is no care, consideration or compassion, it seems. They are virtually chained to their work area and their every move is monitored. If they do not reach their targets they are shamed through loudspeaker announcements. If they have to take time off to cater for sick children their card is marked as being unreliable, so children are at home alone.
It took decades and numerous strikes and disputes for miners to have the right for their bath/shower clean-up time at the end of their shift to be classed as working time and paid as such. The modern equivalent is the search – intrusive and degrading to many– at the end of the Sports Direct shift. Up to an hour a half of waiting to have proven that they are not sneaking off the premises with company goods.
After the report was published, the company first blustered and denied the journalists’ findings and criticisms, but is now supposedly looking into its work practices. But it seems that all the rights gained over decades after so much hardship and sacrifice of those in the mines and steelworks and many other industries, will have to be won all over again in the modern service industries.
Now, once again, heartless bureaucrats – themselves under a harsh regime with targeted sanctions, privatised out from a direct government department – decide whether you are fit for work and entitled to some kinds of benefits, often with humiliating and degrading tests, leading many, especially those with mental health problems, to suicide. A heartless, harsh world – without now even the comradeship and solidarity of close, work-related communities to fall back on. An individualistic, consumerist culture that excludes many and, I think, diminishes us all.
Tiny Tim’s survival chances today would surely be much greater that at the time of Dickens’s novel but many would still find Bob Cratchit’s working conditions and relationship with his employer enviable.
Well okay, let’s look on the bright side. Many children in Dickens’s time were brought up in institutions, often because they were dammed and cast aside as infants due to their illegitimacy. That, at least, is one stigma that has been all but eliminated. Today, those who are shunned and despised are those that arrive on our shores, seeking refuge and asylum, after experiencing unspeakable scenes and events in their home country. Now, they are the ones who have to throw themselves at the mercy of charity, with the state reducing its support even for unaccompanied children, and local authorities increasingly having to turn their backs on them, due to the public spending cuts, forced on them by central government. Just as with illegitimate children of old, these youngsters are blamed and sneered at for their own misfortune: but rather than being born ‘the wrong side of the blanket’, now it is for having been born in the wrong tribe, the wrong sect, the wrong religion in the wrong country at the wrong time. Friendless, highly vulnerable and homeless, they now live on the streets and sleep rough.
I’m no theologian and indeed have never been baptised in any faith, but I think that those who think themselves even nominally Christian should pause for a moment – at this time of year if no other – and think that, if there is a Second Coming, another Christ child, from where would they come and in what circumstances. I’ve a notion that he (or she!) would not be born into a comfortable family, set up with a trust fund and put into one of the top private schools from birth, but rather would be an abandoned, orphaned child refugee.
How the Dickens did we let this happen? And on that, rhetorical question bombshell….
Next Time – The Ghost of Christmas – and other times