The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: Reviews

Interview with Kate Mossman in Word Magazine, 11 May 2009

In the early hours of the morning, a giant tanker makes her way into the Port of London. She is 390 metres long and weighs 80,000 tonnes, with a stern that “bulges like an overstuffed cushion”. She set off from Yokohama three weeks ago, stopping off at Mumbai, Istanbul and Casablanca and carrying a cargo of fan ovens, running shoes, calculators, cashew nuts and toy animals all bound for England. “Her boxes of Moroccan lemons will end up on the shelves of central London shops by evening,” writes Alain de Botton. “There will be new television sets in York at dawn.” These daily events go completely unobserved – apart from by a small group of “ship-spotters” standing on the dock with logbooks and binoculars. As a piece of literature Alain de Botton’s new book, The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work, is almost impossible to categorise. It’s a forensic examination of the workings of nine modern industries (he follows a single tuna fish from the moment it’s hauled out of the sea in the Maldives to the housewife who picks it up from Sainsbury’s in a tin). It features passages of imaginative prose as powerful as anything by Charles Dickens or George Orwell and explores the notion that people rarely feel connected to what they do for a living – toil away for an entire lifetime in careers they may have chosen in a flash at the age of 16. Previous books by the 39-year-old author include The Consolations Of Philosophy and The Architecture Of Happiness. Can this be the same Alain de Botton who runs a counselling service-cum-shop called The School Of Life in central London, selling courses like How To Do The Housework for £200 a pop?

Your book takes a “lyrical” view of the working world. What do you mean by that?

I think we’ve got really strongly defined ideas of what it’s respectable to feel astonished by, or in awe of. In Britain at least, that’s always had a bias towards nature and the countryside, while the machine has been seen as an instrument of destruction and oppression. We’re totally cut off from the sense that machines might have an aesthetic angle, or are awesome in some way. By that I mean that they are the product of something bigger than any one human being.

Tell me more about the ship-spotters you saw down on the Thames.

They’re there now – in Tilbury – you can go and chat to them! They’ve got all the gear – cameras with big lenses, books that tell them when the ships are going in and coming out; they’ve got charts and radio-monitoring equipment. They don’t work on the ships but they have a knowledge equal to if not greater than someone who actually does. They’re not putting their knowledge to any practical use, so they’re in a curiously pure relationship with it all.

How did you find out about all the hidden workings of these industries?

Well, I started reading the Financial Times, the back section, which often reports on the losses and gains of strange companies you never usually hear about – the ones that manufacture funny things like bottle tops or rubber bands, this sub-world that exists beneath everything around us. I found out about trade fairs and started going to them. It was a chance to deal with the kind of material that only gets covered in the financial press in terms of numbers. But I didn’t want to report it as numbers, I wanted to report is as a human phenomenon.

Why has it become so unfashionable to use literature and philosophy to explain the workings of every day life?

Learning is controlled by universities. Most people who are involved in the teaching and propagation of learning are paid for by the state; they’re civil servants essentially, and the state has a certain definition of how you teach, what literature is for. I think that relating literature too closely to life and experience is simply too sensitive, too delicate a topic. That’s why most topics that are exciting – as soon as they are taught academically they die. The most interesting feelings one can have about books slip into the wayside. It’s not a coincidence that people get bored at university – they’re not allowed to be excited.

What’s the practical application of this book, though? Do you really imagine the two ladies you observed in the Belgian biscuit factory might actually read it?

That would be really ambitious, but why not? Let’s be ambitious. It’s terribly sad when people think their work is not important in any way, and usually that’s down to the idea of “importance” put about by the media and in culture. That’s why The Office was so good – it shone a spotlight on a world that normally never appears. If you look at most TV, it’s never about the life that people actually lead; either it’s too grim and it’s all about murders, or it’s taking place far away in some strange, American, airbrushed pseudoland. And yet the idea of representing reality – perhaps it’s a giant conspiracy I’m not aware of – but it does seem alienating that most of what we are doesn’t crop up in art. One of the things that art is good for is that it has a way of making you feel less isolated and alone.

What kind of succour could, say, an accountant get from The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work?

Well, the accountants I met in particular were a very cheerful lot. They were a lot happier than most of the writers I know – they were appreciated and they were doing a job they could do… But so many jobs are cut off from their ultimate meaning because of industrialisation; it’s easy to feel utterly disconnected from the end product you’re creating. Someone might be manufacturing the top to that water bottle (he points at a bottle of Perrier on the table) for example, but they’ll never see you enjoying a glass of water. The industries that have shown great booms in the 20th century have all been things you can put on a conveyor belt. That’s the best way economically to make a job, but the worst way from a human point of view.

What’s happened to the ego in the modern age?

In a religious society you have, right at the centre, the idea of something that’s bigger than human beings, be it above or below or offstage. In a secular society, you believe that essentially humans are the main actors – you shift from the worship of a god to a worship of yourself. That is a terribly troubling proposition because, for a start, it creates a lot of envy. If human beings are supposed to be the greatest thing around, what if you’re not feeling so hot about yourself? It’s nice to look at something that is non-human. That’s why people get a lot of relief from going to the countryside – looking at clouds, people get an echo of that feeling that they might have had once upon a time from some kind of God. The ego has become troubled as it’s got larger. It’s not that individuals become more important, but they’re aware of other individuals being important – and that’s where the problems start.

Lots of people think you’re a life coach, and that these are self-help books…

I partly invited that criticism because I wrote a book called How Proust Can Change Your Life. I’ve got a love/hate relationship with the self-help genre but I like one thing about them, and that’s the idea of literature as “therapy” – the act of reading as a source of consolation and communion. We’re not such complicated animals that we can’t get benefit from really quite simple sentences; there are times in life when you’re feeling vulnerable and weighing up different options and someone can say, “Life is short”, and that one message happens to be a really catalytic one. In the real world we get jogged and pushed by all shorts of things. We’re all moved along by the back of a cereal packet or what we see on Oprah. We can find ourselves weeping over a mobile phone advert but we don’t know why.

At The School Of Life I can buy something called A Holiday At Home [rrp £60], a giftpack consisting of a pair of flight socks and some of your books. Doesn’t the commercial side of your work make people a bit distrustful?

I’m always being both ironic and serious in what I do. We live in a culture that’s very suspicious and in order to get messages across we have to employ different strategies. With The School Of Life, the first question people have is, “Is it a cult?” So in order to get people there, you might have to make a joke along the way. It’s a place of community, a place of conversation. All courses are fully subscribed. You can go to the Tate or the ICA but no one talks to you there, do they?

How did you feel when Charlie Brooker called you “an absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man… a slap-headed, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who’s forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious”?

Imagine you’re slaving away in a kitchen and someone comes and sticks their finger in your cooking and says, “That dish is absolutely disgusting, that’s the worst stuff I’ve ever eaten.” That’s what it was like with Charlie Brooker. It’s very depressing. I do believe in criticism, but that was more like character assassination. I write books from a point of confusion; I don’t claim to know what’s going on.

If you had to do one of the jobs you examine in your book, which would it be?

I’d want to be one of the satellite engineers I talked to, because they’re doing the opposite of what I do. It’s a collective job that doesn’t involve the ego at all. You’re working in a huge team, over five years, on one tiny part of it and no one will ever know what you did. They never asked themselves why they’re doing it, which is a question I am deeply troubled by. That perennial need to question, “Where this is going” – well, it’s a kind of neurosis.

And do you still find yourself asking that?

All the time. All the time.

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