The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

When I first read the title of this book, I instantly concluded that its author had never done a day’s work in his life. Having now read it, I stick to my initial prejudice. Indeed, it reminds me of an early, privately published book of essays and reflections by the novelist, Marcel Proust: Pleasures and Days. Proust is permitted to sound like an aesthete as he is also a paid-up genius. Alain de Botton, (who, coincidentally, wrote an earlier work showing how reading Proust “can change your life”) has no such defence.

What do I mean by “a day’s work?” I mean that 9-5 daily grind that must be done to pay the mortgage, keep a roof over one’s head and avoid the workhouse. If you are very fortunate you enjoy it; often you don’t, but that is irrelevant; the bills must be paid. Writers are terrified at the thought and I don’t blame them. Brave souls, like the French philosopher, Simone Weil, or the English author, George Orwell, have tried to get alongside workers, Weill in a factory and Orwell as a plongeur in a Parisian restaurant; after several months they were forced to bail out.

Alain de Botton, who has set up a “School of Life” in London to help enrich the lives of others who yearn for fulfilment and meaning in their careers, attempts here to write “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace”. He alights on several random jobs, such as career counselling, biscuit-making, accountancy and aviation, and enjoys junketing to places like the Maldives, Los Angeles and French Guiana, trying to make sense of them.

Along the way he meets an enthusiast of the Pylon Appreciation Society, tuna fishermen, an entrepreneur from Scotland called “Sir Bob” and a mild-mannered painter called Stephen Taylor who has spent years studying and painting the same tree in a Suffolk field. De Botton writes with a beguiling and poetic fluency but, given his own privileged education and cultured background which includes a £200 million trust fund set up by his late father (to be fair to him he doesn’t touch it, determined to live solely by his pen) he also sounds a little patronising: “We should be wary of restricting the idea of meaningful work too tightly, of focusing only on the doctors, the nuns of Kolkata, or the Old Masters. There can be less exalted ways to contribute to the furtherance of the collective good.”

Again, like a traveller on Mars he betrays his outsider status, his detachment from ordinary lives, when he informs the reader, “The alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings are ... a reminder of the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order – and of the rage that silently accumulates beneath a uniquely law-abiding and compliant surface.”

Naturally enough he has some hilarious encounters; faced by this well-spoken toff poking about in their workplace, not all his interviewees can contain their accumulated emotions; a secretary runs away from him in fright and a man guarding defunct aeroplanes tells him to “get the hell out of here before I shoot you in the ass.” De Botton’s main problem is that throughout his book, with its many black and white un-captioned photos, carefully chosen for artistic effect – “I will anchor my journey round images” – he cannot avoid sounding ironic; the reader never knows if he is genuinely sympathetic to the people whose boring lives he is describing so wittily or simply laughing at them in his well-bred way; “the place smelt powerfully of freshly boiled cabbage or swede”, he notes of the career counsellor’s office. Perhaps he was piqued to learn from a print-out of his own pretensions that he was thought suited to a “middle-ranking administrative or commercial post”.

De Botton’s conclusions are predictable; having laboured to find the pleasures and more often encountered the sorrows of much human toil, he realises “how much of life was set to continue as it always had done, prey to the same...depressions as our cave-dwelling ancestors had known.” I rather think these depressions are more familiar to modern man than to cave-dwellers. While writing his book, the author admits to sometimes spending whole days in bed, wondering about the point of it all. I would recommend him to get acquainted with St Joseph the Worker.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.


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