Monday, August 22, 2005

To the Lighthouse

This weekend I finished two (count them) books from my current reading pile, which has been static for some time now. That's what two days at the football do to a gal! Saturday was Wonder Boy's preliminary final, and we had to be there an hour before the game, then sit through three of the four quarters while he was on the bench... but I digress.
Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse was the first book I finished. I really enjoyed this book, and not simply because (apparently) it is chick lit(?!). The dominant female characters in this book are delicately poised on a knife edge, balanced precariously between accepting and kicking against the traces of the proscribed role of a woman in an upper-middle-class household. There are women to admire and to pity, and something of a sense of Virginia's own struggle to assert her intellect and personality in a society in which women were supposed to support men and not the other way around.
The narrative is so beautifully constructed: the entire action takes place in a 24-hour period, yet encompasses many years of the characters' lives. At nightfall, the household drops into slumber only to awaken, Brigadoon-like, after the first world war has been and gone.
The best thing about the book is Woolf's way with words. Descriptions that can evoke so much that is familiar and yet magical:
Her hand cut a trail in the sea as her mind made the green swirls and streaks into patterns and, numbed and shrouded, wandered in imagination in that underworld of waters where the pearls stuck in clusters to white sprays, where in the green light a change came over one's entire mind and one's body shone half transparent enveloped in a green cloak.

Now I am off to Book Crossing to log this book and prepare to release it in the wild for someone else to enjoy, I hope, as much as I did.

The second book I finished, Dirt Cheap by Elizabeth Weinhausen, is an account of life as an unskilled labourer. Respected journalist Weinhausen took 12 months leave of her job and attempted to work and live under the conditions faced by many workers in our increasingly casualised workforce. She failed, drawing on her savings to supplement her meagre income. But her account of the jobs she was forced to take and the way she was treated by her employers left me filled with dismay. I have always been careful to try to treat all my coworkers -- including office cleaners and service staff -- with respect, although many of my colleagues felt it was below their dignity to do the same. I could give multiple examples of times when my small investment in friendliness and respect was paid back in beautiful ways: my favourite example is the time our cleaner, Melina (I'm afraid I don't know how to spell it), presented me with a beautiful pair of knitted slippers she had made me after I complained about having cold feet one day!
But back to the book: Elizabeth Weinhausen found the most appalling thing she had to deal with in her 12 months was not the extremely limited pay packets but the way she was treated: as though she had no personality, as though she had no life outside work and as though she had no security in her position. The received wisdom in Australia is that "jobs are there if you really want them" and "businesses will look after their employees even if there is no legislation to make them". Dirt Cheap gives the lie to both of these beliefs. It is true, the jobs are there and Weinhausen had no trouble finding them, but the hours were scanty, the pay scantier and the conditions scantier still.
When I was still at uni I worked as a sandwich hand in the cafeteria of a major bank's corporate headquarters. I was young and naive then, and probably got a little more than my fair share of attention from the customers because the pink uniform they supplied had a zip front and only came in two sizes, one a little too small for my C-cups and the other the size of a circus tent, but my experiences in that job were exactly the same as Elizabeth reports in this book. Depersonalisation, no solidarity with co-workers who were afraid that my work time meant a reduction in their hours, no respect for my timetable (the manager would call the morning of the day they wanted me to work, assuming I would be available) and low, low pay.
In the light of the federal government's industrial relations agenda, there is a frightening future ahead for many low-wage workers. I recommend this book to all Australians, to be read in the name of a fair go.
(This one's not going on Book Crossing as the Voice of Reason wants to read it next. Then I promised it to someone else, I think.)


Sharon said...

I couldn't agree more with the comments you have made regarding the second book... I too have worked at all sorts of things - and for quite a while worked cleaning - in all kinds or environments - from private homes to hospitals... I was very good at what I did and gained most of my employment by word of mouth... I remember one day in particular - we have having a visiting poli - I was asked to clean the slatted seats in one of the areas that this poli was going to grace us - as I was doing it - a silly labourious job(made worse by inconsiderate paying public) - a woman walked passed with her teenage son - she glanced at me and then in a voice loud enough for me to hear - "Son if you don't stay at school and study, THAT is the SORT of job you will be fit for"... Did she think I was hard of hearing too!!!! I was seen most of the time to be 'invisible' but on the upside I also saw some 'intersting human behaviour' because I was... I could write a book... Unfortuately we all don't wear the 'A4'uniform of the Collins street set (Melbourne here) - but I am sure if the staff toilets weren't cleaned etc - the cleaners would certainly be 'noticed' then...

beche-la-mer said...

Sharlee, that reminds me of another story. I was sitting at the football before the main game and reading the Sunday paper, and the woman sitting in front of me (who regularly sits near us, as we are all members) kept turning around and chatting to me as I was trying to read. I was being polite and conversing with her but inwardly feeling a little resentful of the interruption to my reading, when she pointed to the newspaper and said, "I wish I could read, you know. I'm dislexic and the letters just jump all over the place." She went on to say that she had managed to hide her illiteracy from her husband for their entire marriage, right up to his death, and only admitted it to her adult children when she realised that she needed to ask them to read forms to her at the funeral parlour.
I was a little ashamed of my impatience with her, as I realised that not only did she not have the solace of reading as pleasure, but she also had no concept of depriving me of any pleasure by interrupting my reading. Here is a woman of intelligence, a warm, friendly woman with a great sense of humor, whose options in life have been curtailed by the inability of the school system to recognise and do something to help her with her basic disability.
This is exactly the kind of person who would be likely take an unskilled job, sign a contract without really knowing what she was signing, and have no-one to stick up for her if an employer took advantage of her. And yet, despite her difficulties, she has raised a family, managed a household, maintained a sense of humour and a lively personality and is a worthwhile member of society. This episode reminded me that one should never make assumptions about people until one knows the details of their lives. Just like the woman who made that comment to you -- she had no idea who you were or why you were working that job, and she made the assumption that the job was unimportant just because it was unskilled. Yet I doubt she would have wanted to sit on the seat if you hadn't cleaned it!

Maureen said...

I loved 'To the Lighthouse' too, agree with your comments on it wholeheartedly. Think I must dig it out and read it again. The other delicious Virginia Woolf is 'A Room of My Own' How I empathise with this article.

goodthinkingmax said...

I found your "To The Lighthouse" this morning when I was buying my coffee. I am a Bookcrossing member and it's the first time I have unexpectedly found a book in the wild so I'm very excited! Unfortunately the BCID number won't work so I can't journal it, and I can't Private Message you from the Bookcrossing site so here I am! My bookcrossing name is goodthinkingmax too, so if you could PM me and let me know the correct no. that would be great.

I'm looking forward to reading this again. I read it years ago for uni. but will enjoy it far more this time now that no one is assessing me.