Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Wisdom of Mark Twain

‘There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about “the working classes,” and satisfy themselves that a day’s hard intellectual toil is very much harder than a day’s hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they know all about the one, but haven’t tried the other. But I know all about both; and so far as I am concerned, there isn’t money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pick-axe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near to nothing as you can ciper it down – and I will be satisfied too.’

Mark Twain, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’.

As I am helpfully reminded at least eight times a day, the new series of ‘The Richard&Judy Show’ begins on Monday. That’s fine with me. I don’t use the word ‘work’ to describe the activity of chatting with interesting people on a sofa for an hour a day. It might be challenging, deeply intellectual and occasionally dangerous, but it also makes me happy. I’ll also be writing all the time, my laptop stuck under a cushion on the sofa, and often blogging from the set.

However, once the series comes to an end, I’m seriously considering taking up a new line of work. I know we’ve signed a contract to go over to satellite TV but I think I’d be much more suited to driving petrol tankers for a living. I know that I’ll certainly be better off.

If these underpaid souls can go on strike because they don’t earn over £41,000 a year, I think most of us are in the wrong jobs. When I heard of their demands on Sky News this morning, I thought at first that their unreasonable wage demands must relate to the danger of their jobs. These are the men and women who are behind the wheel when tankers roll over on motorways, go screeching down the crash barriers, sparks flying. It only takes one spark to ignite all that petrol and then BOOM! I’ve seen it happen so often in films. It must be dangerous work and at least twice as dangerous as that of any squaddie who goes into battle in Afghanistan for the princely sum of £18,000 a year.

I must admit, though. From personal experience, it’s a rare day when I see a petrol tanker go sidling on its side down the motorway. I don’t know about the relative dangers of the Afghan front line but I do see what nurses do each day and the same is true of teachers and the police. So, could somebody please explain to me why the driver of a petrol tanker earns twice the amount as my friend who works as a secondary school teacher, who is in school at eight in the morning and rarely finishes marking homework until ten o’clock at night?

Or is Twain right? Will we all do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near to nothing? Do we need to pay these people a fortune to tolerate the mind-numbing banality of following a map to petrol station forecourts? If so, then I should have earned £100,000 every time I head up to Manchester. And I should pay the same for the chance to do what I’m about to go and do. I’m going to write and I will be satisfied too.

9 comments:

elberry said...

i wrote a comment earlier but it disappeared - here goes again, with some variations -

the worst paid jobs are usually also the most boring and gruelling. The higher paid jobs tend to be more interesting. Though there's often more stress in higher-paid jobs, managers will abuse their position to put huge pressure on minimum wagers - it's just a different kind of pressure.

The rationale behind pay scales i think is that if only a small number of people are qualified to drive HGVs (i can drive a car but would probably crash a lorry straight off, if i even know how to make it set off in the first place), the pay will be higher, whereas if just about anyone can do data entry, the pay will be as low as possible.

While this makes sense, economically, when you're actually doing a data entry job for £5/hr, bored out of your mind, constantly exhausted, with a bullying manager on your back if you go to the water cooler more than once a day, it seems pretty unfair.

The problem is that the gifts you and i have, Dick, aren't really provable. If i were an expert linguist i could take an exam to prove i can read/write/speak fluent Finnish, and then get work translating Finnish documents into English. If i had done a 2-month HGV course, i could flash my diploma. But how can you prove you're intelligent, can use language well, and not merely well but brilliantly - especially given that the only people really equipped to appreciate that are not to be found in HR circles?

For example, the physiotherapists i type letters for often remark on how good i am but they can't really understand what's going on when i turn their rambling, ill-spelt, ungrammatical notes into a terse, simple letter. They just see that it LOOKS good, that i don't leave the 'yours sincerely' to the second page on its own, for example, but will change the font to fit it on page 1, or shuffle the last paragraph to accompany it onto page 2, so it doesn't look too bad. They can half-recognise that my letters are easy to read. But they couldn't judge between me and the average English graduate who will never read a book after graduation. And HR people are no more literate than physiotherapists.

So we're stuck with gifts that mean a lot to us, that are close to our hearts, but unprovable and useless. And you can't talk about these gifts to people, because they'll either think you're 'stuck up' or they'll offer 'advice' like "why don't you write a novel, then, like that JK Rowling? what's wrong with you?"

Swearing Mother said...

I don't see why tanker drivers can't earn a decent wage. Quite frankly I think it's quite a responsibility, not crashing headlong into a queue of school buses, or avoiding rampaging through a shopping centre because you are bad at your job but were hired because you are cheap. I don't expect anyone begrudges airline pilots their pay, but you are just as dead if a bus or tanker splatters you across the tarmac instead of a 747.

Who can say who is and who isn't worth the money? Nurses are regularly talked about as if they are all direct descendents of Florence Nightingale. Let me tell you from experience, as in every walk of life, there are lazy ones, useless ones, ones that don't give a damn, and downright dangerous ones. Yet everyone thinks they are heroes, and bleats on endlessly about them being worth any amount of money. Cobblers. Some are, and some definitely aren't. And don't even get me started on teachers.

My daughter used to work in a call-centre. She was timed in every morning to the second, timed out when she went to the loo, timed back in again and questioned if she took longer than the estimated time it took to pee. Heaven help the constipated. She was paid a pittance but needed the money. Frankly, those poor sods ought to be paid at least as much as professional footballers for the crap they take from the public.

It's all a matter of worth. What you think isn't worth paying for is someone else's idea of an essential service. There isn't enough money in the world to entice me to do some of the menial jobs that people do for bugger all, but I have the luxury of being able to choose.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Honestly, if we were only to pay pro rata for effort and intelligence, I guess most of the top floor offices in many corporatations would be completely empty.

Swearing Mother said...

BTW, I know how to spell "descendant" really, was just rendered typograpically stupid for a moment there.

Long time since I've had a rant on your blog Richard, quite like old times.

Glad to hear you're back on the tele soon.

x

Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention Mark Twain, Dick because I am presently and pleasantly reading his travel book...."The Innocents Abroad". Mark Twain ,did indeed, have experience of have experience of both intellectual and manual toil. Whilst working as a pilot on a Mississipi steam boat he heard the call to "mark twain" by the leadsman when sounding a depth of two fathoms. The expression so took his fancy that he adopted it as his pen-name. Thus inspired by the technical phraseology of Mississipi navigation, Samuel Langhorne Clemens became Mark Twain, a name which was to become famous the World over. That was way back in 1851. Now imagine if Sam Clemens was a present day lorry driver. What possible technical trucky phraseology might inspire him to a new pseudonym?.....Mark Twain would most possibly be known today by the poetic pen-name ....... "Move Over You Daft Bastasrd"....or....."Fuck the price of Petrol"

Richard Madeley said...

Swearing, I think we have to disagree on this one. Nurses, teachers, soldiers, the police: can you really say that they don't have to put up with more or require more skills that people who work in call centres or drive tankers? Since when is it harder to get a HGV license than study for a PhD and become a university lecturer, take a medical degree and become a hospital doctor, or even study for the bar? Their pay demands are ludicrous!

Naturally, we'd all like to be paid a decent wage (and I say this as one of the lowest earning people I know, despite my TV contracts) but as Elberry says, it's to do with the number of people qualified for any particular job. As miserable as office life is (or working in a call centre), there are plenty of us who are qualified to do it. Call me crazy, I just think we're living in a mixed-up world when a newly qualified tanker driver earns more than a newly qualified nurse. I take your point about people using nurses as an example but there will be bad tanker drivers too. That's not the point. And as for the teachers I know (and yes, there may be bad ones), I wouldn't want to swap places with them.

But £42,000 for driving a truck? Where do I sign?

Richard Madeley said...

Anonymous, I didn't know that. I think if he were a modern day tanker driver he'd probably be known as 'More Frois Gras With Your Caviare, Hector?' or possibly 'This Chianti is Quite Delicious!'

okbye said...

Purchasing human labor is the same as purchasing goods, the market is dictated by the balance of what people will pay and what people require as payment. If tanker drivers could be found for 24k a year that's what the job would pay. If you couldn't get a teacher for less than 75k, that's what teaching would pay. Unfortunately tanker drivers know this and teachers do not for some reason.

BTW, I spent over 10 months in the hospital once. Trust me, there are plenty of crap nurses.

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