Joanna Biggs: 'Work is where we make friends, exert power, fall in love'

In All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, Biggs interviewed everyone from footballers to shoemakers about the activity in which we spend a third of our lives. She discusses a demanding, rewarding process

I set myself an impossible task in trying to capture what it was like to work in post-crash Britain, so I would often find myself dreaming of an impossible book: an oral history of every person working in the UK in 2015. Over the two and a half years I researched and wrote All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, my recurring worry was about selection: why a footballer and not a cricketer? Why a mother and not a nanny? The artist Jenny Holzer put a slogan on an old-fashioned movie theatre hoarding once: “Everyone’s Work Is Equally Important”, and it seemed never more true than when I was preparing this book, and I was making everyone from my parents to my windowcleaner tell me about their working lives.

Some of the selection was straightforward: modern Britain wouldn’t be modern Britain without its bankers, its footballers, its politicians. But there are so many jobs we don’t know exist: what’s a giggle doctor, or a spad? And many more are ubiquitous but ill-understood: what is it like being a Premiership footballer, or a sex worker? I built my cast of characters slowly, and interviewed a third more people that I knew I would have room for in the book. I went to exclusive Oxford colleges and run-down factories in Bolton; rural Scottish islands and to No 10 Downing Street. I changed my mind until the last minute, interviewing my final worker a few weeks before I handed in the final manuscript.

The book was inspired by the oral history done by the great Studs Terkel, especially his 1974 book Working, as well as Joan Didion’s reporting in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. I wanted each interviewee to get to tell their own story in their own voice (which made for some challenging transcribing), but I also wanted the reader to be able to see the room we were in, the tea we were drinking, the shirt they were wearing, as well as the historical context of the job and the current state of shoemaking, ballet dancing, call answering, crofting and laboratory-researching.

And so I took a middle way: sometimes you hear me bristling at a PR person trying to speak for the footballer I’m interviewing, or see me eating the last few oysters of market day, or catch me asking a group of robot engineers whether they’ve given nicknames to the machines they work alongside. I think it’s both truer to the encounters I had with people to admit I was there, and nobler to let the interviewee hold the floor. I maintain both views at once, and each of the portraits in the book I hope does both.


"In the cold back room of a charity shop, a group of volunteers are working. Eve steams clothes with an orange hoover-like machine, eating sweets from a bag in her pocket as she goes. Every so often the steamer foghorns and she tops it up with water. It’s March 2014, and three times a week she works a morning shift; on the other days she goes to English and maths lessons. ‘I’ve done my ones, twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes – I’m on my seven times tables now.’ Eve’s 50 and grew up in a children’s home; her best job before this one was sorting potatoes on the back of a tractor. She’s shocked I have never eaten Kentish gypsy tart, and offers to make me one. Is it like Bakewell tart? ‘It’s more whipped,’ she says.

Eve’s paper bag of sweets came from Sarah, who she met at literacy classes. Sarah’s 23 and had just done a trial at a supermarket – ‘I couldn’t read the products’ – and one for a cleaning job – ‘They say I’m not suitable for doing the paperwork to be a cleaner. That is so … How do you need paperwork to work, to be a cleaner?’– but she wants to work in a nursery. ‘That’s why I’m doing my English.’ She receives Disability Living Allowance and comes here four times a week, brings sweets, makes cups of tea. Today she arranges an armful of plush cats and dogs on a shelf, after Karin, the shop’s manager, has pierced the ears with a price.

If you ask people why they work, most will say for money. Eve and Sarah work without getting paid; Karin gets the minimum wage of £6.50 an hour, but works so much overtime she earns £3.27 an hour. What we do for money seems like the essential but dull part of our lives – in tired phrases such as ‘work–life balance’, work is set against life, as if it were life’s opposite – but it’s also where we make friends, exert power, pass the time, fall in love, give back, puff ourselves up, get bored, play, backstab, bully and resist. And as the days slide by, it changes us almost unobserved. Jane Eyre goes to Thornfield Hall as a governess but by the end of the book, she’s its mistress. Brontë’s novel is on one hand a love story: a plain, far-seeing girl gets beneath the rough surface of her master. On the other it’s a Bildungsroman: a friendless orphan’s work gives her the confidence to brave the rattling attic."

More about All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work

“[Biggs] is both an acute listener and a fine writer, and the combination makes her book a consistent and informative joy. Reading it, reading about how the makers of ballet slippers feel about ballet (it gives them sore hands, rather than sore feet), or how a ‘giggle doctor’ on the children’s ward in Rhyl’s Glan Clwyd general hospital gets his laughs, is a bit like oral history as speed dating. You’ve no sooner empathised with one strange life than you are on to the next.” – Tim Adams
Read the full review.

Buy the book

All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work is published by John Murray at £14.99 and is available from the Guardian bookshop at £11.99.

Powered by article was written by Joanna Biggs, for on Tuesday 5th January 2016 14.00 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010