Who Is a Working Man?

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Dec 13, 1947

Who Is a Working Man?

“Has that peculiar phrase ‘the housing of the working classes’ been defined anywhere?” asked the master of the rolls in court the other day; and Sir Valentine Holmes said in reply: “I regard myself as a member of the working classes but I’m quite certain that the L.C.C. would not consider me as a tenant of one of their flats.”

Who was the muddle-headed man who first used the phrase, “the working classes,” and misled the thoughtless into believing that little or no serious work was done except by one section of the community and that the rest of the community consists largely of drones and the idle rich?

The real working classes, of course, are situated among all sections of the community. Among their members again and again have been kings and presidents of republics as well as manufacturers, shopkeepers, poets, farmers, miners, shipyard workers, road-sweepers, jockeys and journalists.

If to work is to belong to the working classes, I for one certainly belong to them. And my case to work has been doubly difficult, for I always did it against the grain.

The very act of writing has been repugnant to me since I first wrote the letters of the alphabet on a slate with a slate-pencil. At a later stage I had the worst handwriting in my class and could manage nothing better than an ugly scrawl as with the greatest reluctance I wrote out “Birds of a feather flock together” six times in my copy-book.

Some people would define a working class as a manual laborer and, if that is a true definition, I have been a working man ever since I was a child; for, if driving a pen over paper is not manual labor, especially when one does not enjoy it, I do not know what is.

Writing, it must be admitted, is a perfectly unnatural accomplishment. Children, when first toiling at it on a slate, can sometimes be seen protruding their tongues at the side of their mouths in agony.

Hence, I do not feel either a spiv or a drone as I look back on all the thousands of miles of lines I have written during the past 60 years.

Not that I take any credit for this. With me it was always a case of “work or starve,” and, little as I liked work, I preferred it to the prospect of starvation. It may be that I developed a slave mind, for even in my twenties I began to look on being out of work as more terrifying even than work.

I do not think work can be so repulsive to other people as it used to be to me. I have seen a man hoeing a gravel path for pleasure; five minutes of such toil was always enough for me. There are men who would be unhappy if they were not in their offices by ten o’clock in the morning: At such an hour I prefer to begin my second course of beauty sleep.

* * *

Women with their ant-like industry seem to take a pleasure in darning holes in socks and sewing buttons when they are needed on one’s garments; if I were left to myself I doubt whether I should have a sock without a hole at the big toe and, when buttons fall off, I should probably make shift with safety pins. I am one of the world’s workers, but only when I am paid for it.

I am amazed at the number of men who might have lived the life of drones and yet have preferred to work as hard as any navvy. Mr. Churchill, it seems to me, is not only a member, but on the Stakhanovist level. Ranjitsinhji, again, who entertained the public without being paid for it, was surely one of the world’s workers no less than Abel who made his living by it.

The truth is, “the working classes” is a vague and ill-defined term which gives a false impression of the condition of modern society. It is time for it either to be deleted from the dictionary or to have its meaning extended so as to include the editor of the “Daily Worker” and me.

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