In New Zealand, every fourth Monday in October is Labour Day, a public holiday that commemorates the introduction of the eight-hour working day. This achievement dates back to the 1840 campaign of Wellington carpenter Samuel Pickering. The public holiday dates from 1890, and was ‘Mondayised’ in 1910.
Work is extremely important to health and wellbeing (read a Corpus take on this by Matt Blackwood here). It can enrich a life, or grind a person into dust. As ever, balance is all, and Corpus is taking a mini-break for Labour Day (just one post this week), because…
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
Philip Larkin, from Toads
Labour Day is only for some a day off from the rat race (or should that be the toad road?). For many it’s a day of work like any other day of work. In healthcare, especially, the roster doesn’t stop for public holidays. For an appreciation of those performing these essential services, read Jillian Sullivan’s Corpus piece about the work of caring here, and read about Dr David Perez’s career in oncology here. Browse the memoir and essay categories of Corpus to read more stories by those who have made their living – and I use that phrase deliberately – in healthcare.
Retail workers don’t stop either, shopping being (evidently) an essential daily activity:
The wages of work is cash.
The wages of cash is want more cash.
The wages of want more cash is vicious competition.
The wages of vicious competition is – the world we live in.
D. H. Lawrence, from Wages
But D. H. Lawrence also wrote this about work:
Happy, intense absorption in any work, which is to be brought as near to perfection as possible, this is a state of being with God, and the men who have not known it have missed life itself.”
Lawrence is describing the ‘flow’ feeling of being deeply involved in creative work. Here’s part of the text of a sampler poem by 13 year old Hannah Hockey, from 1798, words that I hope were stitched in silk on linen in just such a state of happy absorption:
These lines I here present unto the Sight
Of you, my Friends, to shew how I can work
My Mrs unto me hath shewn her skill
And here’s the Product of the Hand and Needle
Very far, however, from happy absorption in his work is the young boy in William Blake’s poem, The Chimney Sweeper, first published in 1789 in Blake’s Songs of Innocence:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep ‘weep, ‘weep ‘weep!
so your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
Finally, a poem of my own, a product of an afternoon of happy absorption watching two bricklayers equally happily absorbed in building a wall outside my writing room:
The bricklayers come.
Two mute and muscular men
tall as sheds, built solid.
When the cigarette’s been
sucked dry by granite lips
and flicked into the gutter
they take up positions
at opposite ends
of a sight-line of string
squinting at each other,
they stand. One’s on
barrow, one’s on bricks –
the concrete mixer
strikes up a rumble
and the brickies
begin a duet.
the barrow round
the barrow back –
barrowman’s the bass
and brickman is melody:
easy swoop of forearm
working the loop
between hod and wall.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
- The poems cited here by Philip Larkin, D. H. Lawrence, Hannah Hockey and William Blake appear in the section titled ‘Work’ in Here to Eternity: An Anthology of Poetry. Selected by Andrew Motion. London: Faber, 2001.
- “The bricklayers” is from Hourglass, by Sue Wootton. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2005.