Useful work and useless ideas

The lives of most people are far removed from the concerns of the metropolitan coteries of influence, wealth and power. A good society would value useful work above the squandering of human and capital resources on meaningless schemes.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
30 January 2015

Flickr/LoopZilla. Some rights reserved.

Is it really five years since the departure of the great Ken Coates? His presence lingers, and is likely to do so for some time. A good way of remembering Ken is to look again at an essay for a Penguin Special of the Sixties. In his contribution to The Incompatibles he pictured the life of someone laggardly working in a routine job but spending his free time eagerly and industriously growing fruit and vegetables. It’s a powerful thought that has lost none of its effect to stimulate thinking on creative approaches to the idea of work. 

From this scenario one can imagine several people forming a co-operative that improves their lives and benefits society. The opportunities for such a transformation remain as necessary as ever in a post-industrial economy. But, of course, a squandering of human potential serves the interests of money-making, money that most people never see except as a statistic of a ‘healthy economy’ which ‘hardworking families’ must help create.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. William Morris once drew a distinction between useful work and useless toil. It is as relevant and radical to the problems of our times as it was to his, not least because the distinction is rarely drawn in the drive to ensure a compliant workforce. Personal ambition is encouraged at the cost of collective responses. Colleagues are not fellow workers: they are potential rivals. Promotion and a higher salary is a legitimate aim; collective bargaining for better conditions is subversive.

By contrast, Ken Coates exudes sensitivity, warmth and a thoughtfulness that accords with Tolstoy’s observation that we should not admire a harvested field without considering the work that went into the harvest. The alternative is a privileged expectation that cannot be fulfilled in a responsible society. You simply can’t get the staff these days, my dear, because your antipathy breeds discontent. Disdain for the lives of others is a raw and tasteless feast.

It is not easy reaching out to others. Sympathy for differences doesn’t come naturally. We’re not angelic beings. It is natural and easy to understand people similar to ourselves. It is easy to glide over the surface of life, to state the obvious and to commit oneself to the shared values of those about us. A characteristic of the conservative frame of mind is the tendency not to ask fundamental questions. Stability and continuity as the prior aims depend on a high degree of acceptance, complacency even. Indifference to others is an inevitable consequence.

Looking beyond the obvious and immediate is the beginning, but no more than the beginning, of creative thought. The rewards of an acceptance world are materially high while being spiritually meagre. There are better worlds out there waiting to be reached.

There are conversations that ought to be heard in place of the silent acceptance of political idioms that do not meet the actual needs of society. Where are those others out there? And where is out there? The truth is that people are everywhere without being seen. The conventional response is to refer vaguely to ‘the regions’, and to seek contrasts rather than areas of shared experience and value.

The conventional response is divisive. We do not live in a world where moral choices are determined by Manichean absolutes. It is easier to deal with absolutes, of course. The problems may seem, at a glance at least simple enough. Apartheid was a gift to the superficial because its definitions were clear and unambiguous. Its moral weakness and political folly were self-evident. Also, like the Berlin Wall, it had the advantage of being distant. It was someone else’s problem, but it could be taken to heart. The problem round the corner is less easy to identify, its resolution the less clearly determined.

There is a consensus that the South is rich and everywhere else is not so rich. That is true, but the London poor, and there are many, may live in sight of Parliament and the City towers, yet they are invisible. Northerners are told every day of their lives they are disadvantaged, and so they feel inconfidence and resentment that serve to reinforce the sense of disadvantage. Most Cornish do not live in quaint fishing villages: they live in depressed, post-industrial towns inland. Elderly country people bicycle for miles because there is no shop in the village, and no bus to the town. Townspeople walk, loaded with shopping, because bus fares are expensive. A London teenager taken to the Globe asks who is Shakespeare.

Media debates on the matter of executive glass ceilings pass by most people. Most people think they are lucky to get the supervisor’s job. Thatcher’s secret was that she understood this and was able to exploit it, downplaying her own background so that ordinary working people might think she was theirs and that they could be like her. Blair’s secret was to take this one step further by presenting personal advantage as social development. Cameron is less astute, but his experience in public relations has stood him well. He is metromedia to the core. He has the gift of conveying credible sincerity about transparent nonsense.

And what is that nonsense? That faster trains to ‘the regions’ will bring  prosperity. Journeys that once took eighty minutes will take only seventy, thereby encouraging financiers to go into the hinterland, their bags filled with gold for free distribution.  Those journeys will never be made.

And the journeys that are made do not take long on a small island. Euston to Lime Street is two hours now. Who cares about a few minutes? But the expense of the upgrade is colossal and needless. City money remains in the City until it is transferred in seconds across the globe. City money squanders national wealth on office blocks where no productive work is done. Prosperity everywhere is measured by such office blocks.

Money that could be spent on capital projects elsewhere is being drained into a train going nowhere except to the food banks. The conspicuous waste serves two purposes: it enriches the sort of companies that fund our major political parties; and it diverts resources from social housing and industrial regeneration.

There is a third possibility, but it is based on a confused and inadequate model. There’s a widespread feeling [it is one I shared for a long time] that most people live north of the Trent. There are other myths, of course, usually of a patronising kind. And there are uneasy truths. There is more industry and more deprivation in the North. It is generally a less sophisticated culture. But these things are relative conditions. Our society is not one of defined polarities in black and white with an ocean of difference between them.

There are, however, less marked and more subtle, differences, and these may apply generally beyond the metropolitan magnetic field. There is sincere talk now about developing the Pennine urban belt Leeds to Manchester by encouraging more commuting over relatively short distances. But this is South-East thinking which I share but people in Cumbria or Fife or Somerset don’t.

I was brought up not too far from Leeds. Access was quite easy. In the close of two dozen houses [and, no, it wasn’t exclusive, just middle-management] there was one Leeds family. There were three London families and a few other incomers from the South, whereas Leeds was another world. To commute there would have been quite easy, but almost no-one did. And the point of this? Out of touch decision-makers and their associates need to consider lived social experience. All else is hot air.

And talk of lived social experience takes us back to Ken Coates. I pictured a co-operative of market gardeners eagerly doing something personally and socially beneficial. Initially the co-operative needs backing from a benign and responsible state [that will be there for them at other times]. The co-operative prospers, paying back its low interest loan, and supporting its expanding workforce. No, they do not want to commute in business suits to meetings in flashily-converted warehouses. They want to do useful work of evident benefit and profit to their community and to society at large.

What a wicked thought. Here I am advocating insane, subversive policies fuelled by ingratitude and hatred and sure to result in monstrous tyranny. I must have spent too long staring at harvested fields.

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