What I did on my Holidays
In his last two Christmas breaks my schoolboy son tramped the town looking for casual work. Nothing. Not a sniff.
How work has changed since I sallied bravely forth, not all that many years ago, in search of my own first paid employment. How ironic, I thought, as my dispirited son returned from a fruitless beat along Sandy Bay Road, that in a time when casualisation is the name of the game there is no casual work to be had. At a time when workplace flexibility is all the rhetorical rage, no business house in Hobart has the flexibility to find a job for a bright and eager boy on his holidays.
What have we lost? Well, we have lost, or are losing, some things that are not to be lamented. Repetitive, single-process, spirit-crushing, assembly lines. The dark and dreary work of remnant nineteenth century industrialism, work demanding such desperate fortitude that it bred a perverse pride in the capacity to ‘stick’ what most would find too tough, or, worse, too mindless for the enduring. It bred a pathological adherence to dirty, destructive work as the work that a ‘real’ man does. Oh yes, it is not to be lamented that those days have passed. Or are passing - we get a dying echo of this culture in the occasional letter-to-the-editor that sneers at ‘greenie dreamers’ who ‘would turn real men into basket weavers’.
It is a cheap and facile shot. And what the hell is wrong with basket weaving anyway? It is surely to be preferred to my first job.
My home town’s most visible contribution to the war effort - apart from its boys - was the flax mill. When I was a boy it was a sad, derelict site on the edge of a doomed and wonderful swamp, and at some unknown adolescent moment I became aware that the last trace of the mill, like the swamp, was gone.
Near here, perhaps on the very spot, a Scotsman new to town set up a brickyard. Talk about dark, satanic mills. No union’s civilising presence here; no security of either work or limb. The contract filled, we all got the shove. No notice - it was ‘dinna coom in t’moora. Here’s y’peey. Coont it afoor y’gae.’ Come the next contract we might or might not get a call of ‘cn y’steert t’moora?’ I did not.
Ah, the brickyard - long gone. It lasted less time and it certainly made less of an imprint upon the town’s soul than the flax mill.
There are three jobs in the brickyard, not counting the envied ‘plum’ that is the defended monopoly of my old schoolmate, Kerry. A prince among peasants, Kerry drives the forklift. Under a hot tin roof set the two dark, satanic machines. It’s literally true: they would absolutely have to be relics from the industrial revolution’s brute pioneering past. High up on the top of the machine stands a large box full of dense, dry, clayish earth that is destined for brickhood. Perhaps it is clay. I stand half in the box, half out, my outer foot wedged against a narrow iron tube, shovelling this infernal, spade-resistant stuff out of the box and into the maw of the machine. Only that round and narrow tube stands between my foot and, three inches away, the enormous cogwheel that mixes the dry stuff with water to produce a wet brick. Of course, though, in these enlightened times there is a protective mechanism to cover the cogwheel. Oh no there is not. But there is no time to worry about this. The machine - a curse upon it - dictates a cracking, a back-cracking, pace, and if my flying shovel can’t keep up with it the bricks come out crumbly, half-formed and useless, and there is a detestable Scottish person threatening physical violence, and wondering aloud whether, if he sacks me on the spot, he can get someone in within the hour to replace me. That is the good job.
Down on the ground a conveyor belt brings forth a steady stream of wet bricks. These are to be taken from the belt and stacked on a palette for drying. They have to be placed in a certain complex way so that the drying is thorough and even. Bloody hell! I’ve stuffed it - now I have to pull the stack apart and rebuild it, contending the while with the uncaring machine’s unslowed output. A curse upon the machine. Back to ‘normal’ and I work doubled over. Take brick from belt, swivel, put brick on palette, swivel, take brick from belt, swivel... Luxury is a snatched upright stretch. There is little time for talk, except to say, as we two palette-stackers do, every five minutes, ‘me back aches like buggery.’ But here’s the worst of it. Before stacking, the brick has to be cleaned off - just a sweep of the hand to rid it of extraneous matter. But - the bricks have slivers of compressed stone embedded in them, razor-edged. They cut your hands to bloody strips. The caring, generous boss gives us gloves - but you need too much handling precision in this job and the gloves are useless. Pretty soon I am too. Employer intervention pends. After two days I will be sent back to the maw and the cogwheel so my hands can recover in the blistering grip of a shovel - oh, saintly paragon of capitalist compassion! But that is ahead of me. The palette grows. Comes Kerry with the forking truck to take it away, replace it with an empty - and I swap to the empty already there on the other side of the conveyor so there is no break in production. Kerry hurtles around with a huge grin on his face. He’s having a great time. A curse upon him, too.
We don’t know it, but the boss’s contractual obligations loom. The furnace roars. The yard fills with bricks. Comes a day the dark, satanic and cursed machines remain idle, and we are sent to load the trucks. Out in the sun, you beauty! I grab my hat. I climb onto the tray of the first truck. Farewell to the hat, sailing away there on the wind. And no ordinary wind - the furnace is as rapacious as the boss and its draft carries my good old hat straight down the flue, a good 15 yards away. But now I am looking up at a mountain of bricks, and up there sits Lofty. Lofty is a legend. He works like a threshing machine. He is every bit as tall as his name suggests, a long streak of knuckled bone and gristle, with a great crescent hooter in the middle of his face, lank hair, large expressive eyes, and today there is a signifying grin on his dial. ‘Put yr gloves on boy’, he says, ‘I kin promise you yr gunna need them.’
I put the gloves on. Down comes a brick. I catch it. Piece of cake. Another brick. Easy. But now Lofty looks down and he says, ‘we’ll have to speed her up. Kin y‘manage two?’ Give it a go. Sweating beside me on the truck, Jonah gasps out a word from the wise. ‘Grab the outside bricks and jam the others between them’, he says. ‘And make sure you get’em, else they’ll go straight through and land on yr foot.’ Well, okay. Thanks mate. But we’re only talking two bricks. Oh no we’re not. Lofty’s grin is now as satanic as the bloody machines, and just in time I see three bricks come sailing out of the vault of heaven. But I can do three! And now I know what I’m in for, that this is one of those break-the-kid-or-find-his-limit tests of masculine inclusivity, and I knuckle down to it. No-one speaks. I’m small-boned and skinny, but three is easy. Now four. I can do four. Five. I do it, but I know I’m at my limit. The muscles in my shoulders scream as I smack the outer bricks onto the three inners. If I pinch the skin of my hands through the gloves, and I do often, that hurts even more. Here comes six. I do it! But the next time I miss, and I twinkle my toes just in time to avoid the consequences. And suddenly it is back to four, and there it stays for the rest of the day. I can’t say they carry me triumphantly around the yard on their shoulders, but they don’t lock me out of the tea-room either. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m getting the hang of this job, I think. Then I get the sack.
Perhaps I was saved from myself. Perhaps I was about to become a card carrying member of that perverse and macho ‘dirty work’ elite, and who knows where my life would have gone if I had? But I did not, and the brutal first-wave industrialism of the brickyard is now no more. Its passing is not lamented by me, nor, I think, should any of us regret its demise.
There is some good to be taken from this, though. I have seen the worst side of machismo, but it has become apparent, too, that maleness is a more complex construct than can be contained within a stereotype. And even then I knew that this was a dinosaur of a worksite, a throwback to the ragged industrialism of the nineteenth century, and the triumph of the liberal virtues generally and the civilising hand of unionism in particular had meant that such places of employment, rare then, were destined for the past tense of history (at least in the West - let’s proceed in this discussion as if there is no rest of the world).
Ah, progress! Ah, the complacency with which we trust to the vector of history. It is the great modernist myth - the notion that history is an inevitable progression from a given state (today) to a superior state (tomorrow). It is the cornerstone myth of western civilisation. To not believe in progress is to be romantic, or nostalgic, both of which descriptors positively drip with connotations of wrong-headedness.
But the confident assumption of a progressive vector of history is a myth, and our unreflective assumption of its rightness is a structural flaw that greatly undermines our collective capacity to flexibly respond to technologically-freighted problems. ‘You can’t stop progress’ a big slug of a man, a rural municipal leader, would regularly intone at meetings of a government advisory body that it was my misfortune to chair. It was intended to be a discussion clincher; having so pronounced, he would fold his tree-trunk forearms across his massive chest, and survey the room in aggressive triumph. After a time it became apparent that by ‘progress’ he merely meant’ economic activity’: any form or scale or focus of economic ‘development’ (another loaded term that carries its ideology within its name) constitutes, in this simple calculus, ‘progress’. I recently saw an interview with a junior American officer in occupied Iraq. His mission is to bring ‘progress ‘ to the benighted Iraqis. Questioned about the rich legacy of cultural and artistic achievement of the Iraqi people he is all monosyllabic bewilderment. But then he gets a chance to enthuse over his vision of a McDonalds in every town square and a Wal-Mart on the skirts of every village, and it all becomes plain. Ah, progress.
But of course, this is a tragically misguided, if ideologically potent, notion of ‘progress’, and one in whose name all manner of violence is committed against the integrity of places and people. ‘Progress’ does not mean ‘economic activity’. It does mean a movement from a given state of affairs to one better. Some economic activity satisfies this definition - and some does not. Whether a proposed development constitutes ‘progress’ has to be determined anew on a case by case basis, and it will come as a surprise to government to hear this, but when it fails the test, that economic activity should not be allowed to proceed.
The brickyard constituted economic activity, but it nowise satisfied the criteria of ‘progress’. And as for that inevitably progressive vector of history - well, yes, the disappearance of the brickyard and of all workplaces that were characterised by early industrial brutalism - and that conduced to the very worst constructions of masculinity - is not to be regretted. But is ‘progress’ really a simple linear incline? No - it is something that has to be secured by people in political combination, often against the odds. Right now the ideas and arguments and hard-won rights that had consigned to history workplaces like the brickyards are under sustained attack. The new institutions of global quasi-government - the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund - have already successfully promoted a ‘right’ to the unfettered movement of goods and capital around the globe against the precedence claims of environmental, health and welfare protection. Theirs is a crusade; they are quite unencumbered by doubt. And they have government-backed workplace conditions in the gun.
These days my home has no dark satanic mill. But it is far from apparent that within a couple of decades time it will not again.
Summer on the North-West Coast changed shape when history caught up with the pea-viners. Those and the ‘straddle trucks’ - big hollow things like mobile entrance arches, drivers perched way up in the sky, and whether there was a load of sawn timber between their legs or not, they would tear along the road like demented, self-assembled mechano sets. But I only knew these contraptions as mad, exhilarating traffic, so I’ll stay with the peas. Which made their own distinctive contribution to those deadly summer roads - not only the flat-trays, peas spilling over open sides like long, lank hair from a bolting death-cart, but also the shapeless, mounding bulk of the mobile viners. Again, though, these were mere items within traffic to me - my experience ‘on the peas’ was confined to intermittent stints in the paddocks and the briefest of spells in the viner just beyond the town’s western boundary.
I might have been for one day, a six-brick catcher at the brickyard, but I’m still a kid with no confidence or muscle-tone. I am given the task that takes the least amount of explaining - keeping the space clear behind the steep, stuttering conveyor belts. Should be easy. Isn’t. The fun bits are the real stick-yr-card-in-th-slot timeclock, just like in the movies (though back then I’d have said ‘pictures’), and the exotic thrill of night-shift; working in the semi-open of a warm summer night. The vining process is what we might characterise as industrial-primitive. The machinery is old, simple and cumbersome, all of it housed in an unfloored, galvanised space, and it sets up a fearful clatter. It may be that there is memorable repartee on the belts, but I wouldn’t know - the space in which I work is in behind the action, and I have it all to myself. It is like being a one-person backstage crew at the theatre.
And so it is that no-one knows that the flying peastraw dust has me in its grip. I run from every facial orifice, coughing, sneezing, struggling to find some sustaining oxygen amid the summer’s thick and flying strew. I count down every minute to clock-off. The year is just two hours old when I punch my card for the last time, and through my misery I learn that half an hour earlier, 100 yards (it was then) closer to town, the island had chalked up its first road casualty for the new year. A bloke fatally charged for New Year’s Eve, foot flat to the floor, roars out of town and into cold clay. Tomorrow I discover that the young man who so randomly cancelled his future was the half-back whose full-blooded attack on the ball set up soft possessions for a country team’s young and skinny wingman - me. Back home mum takes one look at my bloated face and decrees this not the holiday job for me.
But over the next few years, when things are desperate, I am sometimes called on to make up a crew out on the trucks. I am inevitably visited by the selfsame affliction, but on the trucks I can manage it better. Here, for the first time, I encounter the politics of the shop floor. Well, it’s a long stretch to call the pea paddocks of the North-West Coast a shop floor, but let the metaphor stand. I learn here - and I vividly learn - the venerable industrial ploy of divide and rule. On the trucks there is a driver, not part of the crew. The crew consists of the men on the truck’s back, forking the peas up the tray to the cabin, working back down the tray until it is loaded. The mechanism that hauls ropes of peas from the ground and deposits them on the tray - it has a name, but I’ve forgotten it - works to the pace of the truck. The faster the truck moves the faster the peas flop onto the tray and the harder the crews have to work. The crew is paid by the hour. The driver is paid by the load. You get the picture.
Most fist fights are initiated by the driver, irate at the apparent refusal of perfectly hale young men to work to the pace that his greed dictates while the truck slips about on turf slicked by dew or recent rain on a slope that precludes any prospect of keeping your feet - because this is no plain, remember; this is the rolling red-earthed hills and gulleys of the North-West Coast. But too much ‘trouble-making’ and you go on a blacklist - well, the driver doesn’t - so now, from the safe vantage of the years I can say that the fist fights didn’t happen nearly as often as they should have. I have forgotten so many of the stories from these days, and I hope they will come visiting again in my looming dotage. There was one recurring story, apocryphal by now but always in the telling ‘as true as I’m standing here’, and perhaps in the beginning it was. A member of the truck crew, work finished, spears his long-handled fork into the ground beside the tray. His mate, not seeing the fork, leaps from the truck. legs a-straddle....
Enough of such unpleasantness. I loved this work. I loved its drama and passion, the life-affirming after-shift ache and weariness from hard and risky toil in the wind and the summer sun. I did it only when a crew was short - just a few times - but I would not put one second of it on the market. Not one.
I had learnt, on the peas, the sociality of working life - and the contrast with my single day alone and backstage at the viners was impressively stark. This was casual employment, so there was not a union in sight, but it was a small step from the sociality of the pea harvest to an appreciation of the great civilising good that was trade unionism. Unionism institutionalised the dignity of working life. It was the great educational presence in a working person’s life; a mechanism to develop and to nurture such satisfying sympathies of mind as camaraderie, fellow-feeling, and solidarity. And in giving people a stake in the maintenance of a civilised commonality, unionism acted as a bulwark against widespread anti-social alienation. Those who seek the final destruction of unionism know not what they do.
I had learnt, too, how work practices can be so devised as to structurally embed injustice. But there was resilience in opposition - inventiveness, and courage to resist discriminatory practice. My workmates, I can see now from the vantage of the years, were autonomous human beings, deeply individual, but possessing the skill to take charge of their lives that comes from pride in membership of a group. The ideologues of the new political correctness of the right have got it wrong - autonomy is not attainable through society-shunning ‘rugged’ individualism (the old but suddenly fashionable Ayn Rand paradigm). Human autonomy comes from the confidence of identity that membership of a group confers. That is why the compulsive privatisation of life that is so powerfully consequential upon technological change is such a dismaying development. As work, recreation and even neighbourhood life are individualised, sociality disappears, a public sphere of and for democratic interaction disappears, and we are left deeply dissatisfied, because we are, at base, social animals, and we cannot be denied sociality and remain content.
I bottomed with the brickyard. I bottomed with the viners. But on my third try I struck gold, a job that sustained me through all my uni vacs, and led to an offer of full-time work (‘not out here in the shed though, in the office’). I am in the ‘shed’ of Clements & Marshall, produce merchants, Burnie. Stacked bags of ‘super’, slumped and dumb-heavy. Laying pellets. Blood & bone. But it is fruit and vegetable wholesaling rather than steroids and poisons for the soil that is the mainstay here.
There times a week I go to Devonport in the big semi (never, in those days, a ‘rig’), offsiding for Arthur, who drives that International as if it’s a racing car and he’s Lex Davison. At the ferry terminal we wait while the good folk from the big land to the north, come down now to give our cutesy little island the once-over, drive their Cortinas, Holdens and Minis, their vans and their shaggin wagons, onto terra firma, mild ‘which way do we go now?’ concern plain upon their faces. Now we hook up to our container and head back to Burnie for three hard hours of unloading into the coolstore. And I go at it hard, lifting down and hoisting up banana crates a good test of sinew and endurance, but all in a day’s work to a six-brick catcher from the brickyard.
Between times I sit in the doorless panel of the delivery van that Casper scoots around with lettuces and onions and cabbages and oranges for the small and earnest retailers of Burnie. Casper’s artless converse is of nothing but cars, though he does know the name of every pedestrian in the street. Or I offside for Tiny on his deliveries to the neighbouring town, my own, and one where my own father once ran what I know now to have been, even then, an old-fashioned grocery shop of bins and scoops and scales.
But the great days arrive in January when handsome Tommy takes his holidays - because then I replace him as the ‘china plate’ of our West Coast man, loud, ribald, larger-than-life Ted Cox, a man deep in the affections of the folk of the wet wilds of the west. Now, two mornings a week, I’m at work in the pre-dawn dark, loading the almost-breathing monster that fills the shed. By late morning we are away, stopping Tullah, Renison Bell, Rosebery, and arriving at Queenstown in the late afternoon. A quick round of the plethora of dying pubs, and the sad cafes with their hardly-worth-it orders for some onions and a few lettuces and tomatoes (for the hamburgers) - and, perhaps, it if has been a good week, a couple of bananas to adorn the window for a day or two - and then it is off to check in at Thorn’s Queenstown Hotel. Here I face a humiliation - the young receptionist’s keen disappointment that I am not the anticipated Heart-throb Tommy - but I am young, and wounded pride vanishes over a mixed-grill tea and a night in the pub. Here is a pivotal time in a young man’s life - especially when closing time arrives and the bar is shut to non-guests, leaving us and the commercial travellers in privileged possession. I soak up yarns of the road. You think all that romance of the road is over-blown; the vacant stuff of myth? I can tell you that you are wrong. In the bar of Thorn’s Hotel I grow up fast - and I wish I could report other than that it, along with most of the Queenie pubs, has long since closed its doors.
We are much-valued people in Queenstown. In the denuded gravels of that nationally infamous lunarscape no vegies grow, no fresh fruit. The only fresh food that the hard working folk of the mines get is what we bring in. I have never in my life felt so vital to the scheme of things. In the puff of my pride I take to riding around town shirtless on the prime mover’s running board until the local constable quietly suggests to Ted that this really isn’t such a good idea.
The day after the night in the pub, repeated twice a week for four weeks for three years, is one of the best days of my life. Only the bigger retailers still await our wares - Evans, on the corner (still there), and the mining company’s own ‘shop’, Mount Lyell Stores. Then it is back on the road - but we’ve all day to get home, and it is a light and a boisterous progress we make. With one last delivery pending the nearly-empty Inter barrels into Zeehan, that once-thriving third town of the island, now clinging to life by its toenails. Would it be fair to call it a ghost town? The bored young bucks of Queenstown, needing some action, come to Zeehan in the night to fire its empty houses. Just now these are still in reasonable supply, but you can see there’ll come an end to it. I gaze upon the spent glory of the Gaiety, here where Lola Montez ‘performed’, and I wonder how it would have been to be a raw country miner, testosterone-charged yet perpetually denied, in that audience. Now the Gaiety looks like Lola might if she had spent her last days as an exhausted and impoverished washer-woman - and indeed, there is a string of laundry hanging in the top balcony of the huge old theatre - whilst downstairs that erstwhile lobby of clamour and excitement has been reduced to a row of sorry and flyblown shops. But we are roaring north again, and Ted is a riot of stories. They tumble endlessly from him, and his bright-eyed, life-loving face leans towards to me. His eyes spark in a joyous, inclusive conspiracy, and I am welcomed into the generous irreverent world of his camaraderie, not a kid working a holiday, but a paid-up member of the rough-edged, comradely world of adult men.
Ted, Tiny, Arthur, Casper and the other men and boys of the Clements & Marshall shed stand luminous in the eye of memory. They are strong and welcoming and they turn a knowing, sardonic face to the world. Giant among them - I am being entirely literal - stands Jim Fulton, shed boss, Burnie football legend, driver in the Desert Campaign with the Rats. He is stern, kind and wise and he looks the other way when I disappear into the coolstore - as long as it is not plain to the eye that this case or that case is a couple of apricots the lighter for my visit. After the 1967 bushfires the ritual arrival of the truckload of apricots from the southern orchards is no more - and apricots have never since tasted as full of the flavour of the sun as those red-hearted Moor Parks from the days before ‘The Fires’. I learn - and have never forgotten - to tell at a glance whether a peach still groans with its picked freight of juice or whether its liquid spring has up and gone, leaving it mere dry pulp. I could not tell you just how I do it, but I’ll bet I learnt it from Jim. I sit here now, with most that I will do with my life already in the ledger, and I try to calculate the debt I owe the men of the Clements & Marshall shed, and the brickyard, and the pea harvest, and I find the calculation beyond me.
Just half a dozen years on, armed with a Ph.D. and a job in Canberra, and home to visit family, on a whim I drive over to Jim’s garden-girt house. Mrs. Fulton answers the door. I can no longer recall what she looked like - but I recall her words exactly. ‘Oh he’s dead, dear’, she says. ‘Yes, Jim’s dead a while now.’
What constitutes ‘good work’? Not such a difficult question. There is a veritable mountain of writing on the subject, and I’ve read quite a bit of it. Good work confers dignity on the doer, both because the work is intrinsically diverse, interesting and challenging, and because the end product of the doer’s labour is a product or service that adds to the good of the world. In the words of James Robertson, good work is ‘activity which is purposeful and important’. And good work hones and satisfies the social life of a human. It conduces to autonomy, not dependence or disempowerment, and, as Fritz Schumacher has so nicely put it, good work encourages ‘the cultivation of a moral sensibility.’ Whether, as a species, we have an ingrained need to work, period, is a more difficult question. Are we homo faber, the tools-wielding species that is denied its essence if denied work? Or is work a necessity that we must endure, even at its most satisfying, in order that we may meet the basic needs of life preconditional to seeking the true development of our human potentialities within leisure and recreational realms? This is a more difficult question and it is not a front I intend to open here - though my sympathies, I think, lie with the former position.
You would think, from the rhetoric, that all would be well. Today’s buzzword, remember, is ‘flexibility’, and what comforting connotations of a fulfilling and creative workplace such a word evokes! Entirely illusory. Workplace ‘flexibility’ means insecure, casualised employment, with the heightened stress and anxiety that is the inevitable condition of an unsecured working future. No fulfilment in labour here, no enrichment of character, no responsibility, no joy in spontaneity, no development of a moral sensibility - because it’s dog eat dog on the shop floor now, and the traits of character so cultivated are suspicion, aggression and toe-ragging, not sociality and fellow-feeling. Humiliation where there should be dignity. And, instead of autonomous, self-directing, engaged individuals, there is the normlessness of a context-denying individualism. This is what you should read onto the page the next time you see such glib and facile slogans as ‘workplace flexibility’, or more specific synonyms for the same process like ‘individual work contracts’. (And I’m only talking here about the privileged West, you’ll remember - yet most of the world’s work is performed elsewhere and by women, and what Ariel Salley has brilliantly termed the ‘embodied materialism’ of women’s work is everywhere under assault - and from the same ideological aggressors that are making over the nature of work in the West.)
Earlier I used the phrase - muttered darkly - ‘they know not what they do’. And they don’t. Francis Fukuyama is far from my favourite thinker, but he has a timely warning for the ‘Nissan-chasers’ - those who would abolish labour protection and drive down workplace standards in dubious quest for investment. Fukuyama argues that capitalism can only work within a wider context of sociality. Market transactions, including those of the labour market, can never be effectively dehumanised. They depend crucially upon the maintenance of trust between people. And so it is that the desembodied capitalism envisioned by the fanatics of the new individualism will not work, because its dystopian wishfulness gets how people are, at core, dismayingly wrong.
Technological and other forces have swept away the jobs I did in my holidays - though I suppose some storemen are still to be found in the sheds of the fruit and vegie wholesalers. Good riddance to the brickyard. But not the peas, and not the storeroom at Clements & Marshall. There was much wrong with the way work was done there - on the pea harvest in particular. But they met many - even most - of the criteria for good work. I do not think most workplaces today could stand the comparison. Progress? You decide. I know what I think.
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