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A job well done;Book of the week

In or out of it, it's central to most people's lives...

Aleks Sierz on the world of work

Mention the word "work" in the staffroom and you can guarantee a groan, a moan or a resigned sigh. And yet, since most of us spend at least a third of each day at work, there must be some pleasure in it. What about job satisfaction, or the social life many people enjoy at work?

Either way, argues Keith Thomas, work is central to most people's lives, even if they don't have a job. His magisterial tome, which is more than 600 pages long, is crammed with interesting snippets on every conceivable type of work, from salaried toil to slavery, from ancient tillers of the soil to modern pen-pushers, from Biblical writers solemnly pronouncing work to be a primal curse to French sewing-machine operators getting sexually aroused by their pedal-driven machines.

In the chapter on "Head Work", there's even a short section on teaching. Its first entry may strike a chord: "A schoolmaster's calling is usually but poor and very painful." So wrote the Puritan Richard Baxter in 1673, evidently unfamiliar with the job satisfaction noted by D H Lawrence 240 years later. His poem, "The Best of School", has pupils lost in concentration, "their round heads busily bowed". But his description of the desire to learn as "tendrils" that "reach out yearningly" seems overblown.

Luckily, the pious monster, Miss Monflathers, who humiliates Little Nell in front of two bitchy teachers in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop, is today as rare as the school Uriah Heep attended in David Copperfield, which taught "from nine o'clock to eleven, that labour is a curse; and from eleven o'clock to one, that it was a blessing." More common is the task of crowd control in the classroom, as described by Charlotte Bront in Villette.

Central to this anthology is the theme, repeated in a hundred variations, of the backbreaking agony of manual labour, whether performed in the factories or in the fields. And few jobs were as hard, or as symbolic of the difficulty of turning nature's bounty into social wealth, as that of the miners.

Thomas quotes from a 1701 poem which visualises the work of a brawny-armed "Cyclops" sweating in subterranean "gloomy realms" before moving on to more familiar material from Zola's Germinal (a vivid description of hewing coal) and Orwell's account of the "almost superhuman job" done by miners, bent double in low tunnels and working in atrocious conditions. As Karl Marx noted: "Labour produces works of wonder for the rich, but nakedness for the worker."

A renowned social historian, Thomas ignores neither the perils of retirement, nor the importance of women's work. His selections remind us that the unpaid labour of housework often took up more of the day than almost any other work. It was a 1629 ballad that first pointed out: "A woman's work is never done."

Nor is child labour forgotten. The selections about children range from a rather sentimental 1799 lament in verse by Mary Alcock called "The Chimney-Sweeper's Complaint" to a campaigning Victorian account of how the "lash of the slave driver" was cruelly applied to "bands of wretched children" in the mines.

Like all the best anthologies, this one is a browser's joy. Most of my favourites appear: Oscar Wilde's "Work is the curse of the drinking classes"; Jerome K Jerome's "I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours"; and C Northcote Parkinson's "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion".

But, although there's plenty here about the stress of work, there's more to this anthology than blood, sweat and tears. As well as toil, there's a lot about the pleasure of a job well done. Wonderful passages about laziness and visions of Cockaigne, a utopian land where plenty abounds and there's no need to labour, contrast with fearful warnings that if you don't keep busy, your mental and physical health will decline.

In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale warned that the "accumulation of nervous energy" by idle rich women kept them awake at night and eventually drove them mad. To this day, many people choose to work - even when they don't have to. Thomas mentions the case of Linda Hill, who in 1996 won nearly pound;32 million in the National Lottery, but decided to carry on with her pound;380-a-week job as a Butlin's chambermaid.

If for some people, in the words of Tolstoy's Tramp "Work bends your back, But fills no sack", for others it's a welcome way of getting out of the house and doing something useful. Some people, says Thomas in his introduction, even "prefer the orderliness, structure and companionship of working life to the chaos of domesticity". His well-organised volume is certainly not hard work to read.

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