On Useful Toil

One of the books I’ve been dipping into of an evening is John Burnett’s Useful Toil, his 1974 compendium of pieces from ‘autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s’ and it’s served to remind me how lucky I am to have been born and raised where and when I was, with privileges that I’ve too often taken for granted, rather than working all hours for a pittance, or worse. It’s also become abundantly clear to me that those, like my grandmother, who went straight from their rudimentary schooling into domestic service were regarded as the lowest of the low; it was always the last resort, it seems, however much of a gloss anyone might put on it. Clearly, it depended on whom they worked for: my mother insists that my grandmother’s employer, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, was a kindly soul. It seems absurd that such servitude still exists in this day and age.

Yesterday, I went to see the Courtauld’s fantastic exhibition of Soutine’s 1920s portraits of cooks, waiters and bellboys at Parisian hotels and clubs. Seen together, the pictures transmit the warmth of feeling and empathy of an artist who knew first-hand how hard the ‘lower classes’ worked to get by. Later, having walked down the Strand to the National to get a fix of the Rembrandts, I exited from the back, and as Orange Street curved round to the Charing Cross Road, I saw a young chef vaping.

All of that has somehow conflated into this semi-ekphrastic poem:


the young patissier    uses his breaks
to mango vape    beside the fire escape

he stands off-centre    lop-sided    feet splayed
left hand clutching    the bulging of his waist

his right elbow leans    for pleasure not weight
upon air    a leer on his palsied face

I can’t help but pose    exactly the same
unconsciously perhaps    my off-kilter way

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