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International Socialism, June 1977


Elana Dallas

Autobiographical Accounts of Everyday Life


From International Socialism (1st series), No.99, June 1977, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Life as we have known it
edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies
Virago £1.25

Useful Toil
edited by John Burnett
Penguin £1.00

edited by Studs Terkel
Penguin £3.00

THESE three titles, recently re-issued, contain autobiographical accounts of every day life by working women and men, together spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In their words they describe the work they did as children and as adults, their experiences of childbirth, marriage, the boss, the foreman, and their experience of the power of workplace solidarity.

In Life as we have known it we meet Mrs Burrows describing her childhood in the Fens in the 1850s:

‘On the day that I was eight years of age, I left school and began to work fourteen hours a day in the fields, with from forty to fifty other children of whom even at that early age, I was the eldest. We were followed all day long by an old man carrying a long whip in his hand which he did not forget to use.’

In Useful Toil B.L. Coombes, a coal miner, describes ‘jib night’:

‘Thursday night is “jib night” at the collieries. This term is supposed o refer to the men’s faces when they get the docket which shows how much pay they should draw on the morrow. Some of the men looked at the paper for a few seconds, then pushed it into their pocket and walked away ... Others would jerk upright and stare at thepaper with their mouths open and their eyes bulging before they made the usual comment of: “Well, I’ll be damned! Just look what the blasted old sod have put in for me!”’

Studs Terkel’s Working is from the USA first published in 1974. The accounts are contemporary and describe work of all kinds. One view is by Gary Bryner, a UAW member at General Motors, on an assembly track:

‘They use time, stopwatches. They say, It takes so many seconds or hundreds of seconds to walk from here to there. We know it takes so many seconds to shoot a screw. We know the gun turns so fast, the screw’s so long, the hole’s so deep. Our argument has always been: That’s mechanical; that’s not human.

‘The workers said, We perspire, we sweat, we have hangovers, we have upset stomachs, we have feelings and emotions, and we’re not about to be placed in the category of a machine. When you talk about that watch you talk about it for a minute. We talk about a life time. We’re gonna do what’s normal and we’re gonna tell you what’s normal. We’ll negotiate from there.’

All three books deserve to be read.

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