Monday, February 8, 2010

About Dustmen

There is much work to be done in the world, and this work is not always pleasant.

(D. Richardson)

This precious little book about garbage collectors popped into my hands at the Downtown Community Ministry Book Fair last year. I haven’t been able to find out very much about it, except that it dates back to the nineteen-thirties and that it was part of a series that included also information on policemen, firemen and postmen. The author, one D. Richardson, worked at the Froebel Education Institute’s demonstration school. He explains in the foreword the objective of the series, which went by the title of An Introduction to Citizenship:
We believe in democracy – in civil liberty, freedom of speech and movement, trial by jury, the right to choose our own representatives – in government by consent of the governed. It has taken hundreds of years to win us these things and we want to pass them on to our children.
But in these days, and in the days ahead, of social, economic, political, and international unrest, will our children be able to hold on to this precious legacy; will they enlarge it in terms of happiness and the “good life”, or, as we have seen elsewhere, will they allow it to slip from them?

The intent then was to teach civics as an antidote to totalitarianism, and to do so by telling young children about the work needed to ensure that the roads be clean and safe, and the mail be delivered. A curious choice, given that all these functions would have been carried out in very similar fashion in Italy or Russia at the time, and likely held in similar regard. Note too how the focus is on male professions only, and nothing is said for instance about nurses or teachers.

Nonetheless, and while I’d love to get hold of the other books in the series - especially the one on policing - About Dustmen holds plenty of interest, being replete not only of markers of the ideology and the spirit of its times but also of facts and pictures describing in extensive detail the life cycle of refuse and the daily routines of the people in charge of collecting and sorting it. Moral, upstanding men ('when a man is being chosen his manners are noticed carefully') who carry out essential and strenuous work for modest pay and whose only career prospect is to become inspectors and earn a more richly decorated uniform, as well of course as no longer having to lift bins.

The function of the inspector is not only to monitor the work of the dustmen but also the habits of householders, among whom one is bound to find a number of thoughtless, careless, lazy and wasteful people. An exemplary cautionary tale goes by the title of a thoughtless woman and her dog:
There is a true story of a woman who went running down the street after a dustcart. Hearing her shout, the driver thought that something serious had happened. Quite out of breath, she explained that her little dog's enamel food dish was amongst the rubbish in the cart.
The dustmen promised to look for it when the cart was emptied.
After raking through the piles of rubbish, they touched something hard and round. It was the little white dish. But many minutes of their time had been wasted.

Held in even greater contempt is the figure of the totter.
You have read that some dustbins are put on the edge of the pavement late at night and are left there until the dustman comes early in the morning.
Very often he finds the lids off the bins and the rubbish scattered about the street.
What a trouble that is for him and for the street sweepers!
It is the totters who have done it.
They are people who rake about in dustbins trying to find anything that will be useful to them or that they can sell. They do not care how much mess they make.
If the police see them, they stop them at once. But totters are very clever at doing their raking when no one is looking.

Original caption: 'Have you ever seen a totter?'

There are obviously unpleasant undercurrents here, ideas about what is orderly and good in society that deserve to be examined. But there are also useful reminders of what happens to our waste not solely in terms of the physical chain but also of the human landscape, the various categories of workers who oversee this traffic of stuff on its way to being buried, burnt, dumped or shipped overseas, or more rarely reused or recycled. And it reminds us that it is not only necessary work, but that it has positive value in terms of human ecology.

It is not so much that we don’t think about waste these days – we do. It’s the workers who have been made invisible. So I pick up About Dustmen and yes am struck by its paternalism and by the things it does not say, but I also note that it tells me about the working conditions and the hours and the pay of these men, about the gestures and the tools and the systems of their profession, about their few prospects and expectations. And it seems me that it wouldn't be a bad place where to start a conversation with children, or indeed people in general, about citizenship.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate), 1901

Article 1 of the Italian constitution says that ‘Italy is a democratic republic founded on work’. Article 4 says that ‘the Republic recognizes the right of all citizens to work and promotes those conditions which will make this right effective,’ and moreover that ‘every citizen has the duty, according to his possibilities and individual choice, to carry out an activity or a function which contributes to the material or spiritual progress of society’. These are not bad principles to found a modern nation upon. Yet to the extent that it was ever meaningfully embraced, the notion of a person’s right to work, in Italy as much as in New Zealand and most Western nations, has been very successfully eradicated. Just the other day, in receiving the news about our worse-than-expected (by whom?) unemployment figures, Mr Key flashed a smile halfway between the reassuring and the resigned. That the state is neither responsible for nor capable of securing employment for its citizens is a concept so natural that it can be conveyed entirely via non verbal cues.

The invisibility of the working class, and of course of the unemployed except when it can be cast as a bludger, is essential to this erasure. So where are these workers? What do they look like? They say you need an image. They say that those first photographs from space of the whole earth were an important catalyst for the birth of the environmental movement. Do we have an image for what it means to work?

(Seriously, I'm not being rhetorical here.)

If you had asked that question in Italy until three or four decades ago most people would have visualised the painting by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo reproduced above, in which the working class is represented in the act of striking. It is a rural strike, quite appropriately - in 1901 the country had barely been touched by industrialisation - yet it remained absolutely iconic for at least three quarters of a century. It was on every other book and poster and conference and festival that had anything to do with the working class. In Rosarno a localised version with olive and orange trees was painted on a wall of the central post office.

Image via Fortress Europe

If you insisted that factory work be considered the fundamental unit of labour, then what about this picture of workers outside of the Pirelli factory in via Ponte Seveso, Milan, in 1905?

It is a poor reproduction, I know, but last time I was home I saw it on all its glorious detail in one of Mum’s books. It’s not a workforce on strike, but it’s a large group, seemingly aware of its strength, and they are all looking at the camera at the same time with the fixed stare typical of the photographs of the era, which is a little freaky, and some of them are clinging to bits of the façade so they can all be seen, and it reinforces the no doubt romantic, historically inaccurate idea that it was their factory and their jobs, their work.

So this was the image of the factory worker, la classe operaia, linguistically and materially synonymous with the Italian working class. Perhaps in Britain the iconic figure would have been the miner, in New Zealand, the watersider. Perhaps we choose to recognise the great struggles, even in defeat. But no more. Work no longer works that way. We have outsourced our visible working class, our manufacturing, displaced the ownership of the things that we buy and the conditions in which they are produced, and we have quite successfully spirited away the rest. Do we even tell each other what it is that we do anymore? Let alone organise. As if in a process of un-imagining, I wonder if the modern worker has come to resemble this study from Pellizza da Volpedo’s great tableau: a lonely and faceless figure.

But it’s just a failure of memory and representation, isn’t it? It’s not as if the working class no longer exists, but it is no longer thought of as something concrete, with shared interests and a common purpose. And so perhaps recovering those ideas might also require something as basic as little books with facts and pictures, telling the story of work, of what work does and of who does work, so that we can learn again to understand its value.

D. Richardson. About Dustmen. London: Ginn and Company, 193?
I've scanned the book and it can be downloaded here.

Part 2 of this post is About Postmen.