Jonathan Self: Work-life balance is tosh. Coleridge knew it, and so do I.

As his children enter the world of work, Jonathan Self muses on what that means

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair —
The bees are stirring — birds are on the wing —
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
— ‘Work without Hope’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge could have been writing about our twins, Oliver and Charlotte, 19, who, now that they have had time to settle in at university, are, even as I write this, leaving their lair in order to look for part-time jobs.

My first paid work, aged 10 (I lied about my age), was delivering newspapers and, over the following years, I tried my hand at — among other things — cleaning bedpans in a geriatric ward, selling something called a warm-water udder washer to dairy farmers, unskilled construction work and demonstrating draft excluders (‘say goodbye to your windy back passage’) in the Selfridges DIY department.

On my 18th birthday, I started as a junior copywriter at a London advertising agency where I was teased mercilessly by colleagues — ‘You don’t have a creative licence? You had better nip down to the Post Office and buy one’; ‘Go and ask the art department for a pot of tartan paint, would you?’ — and had just got the hang of things when I was asked to leave for slipping one too many risqué headlines through the system. It was: ‘Enjoy carols around your organ this Christmas’ to promote the Bontempi Electric Organ that did for me.

“I have no sympathy for anyone who complains about having to work. Work in all its forms is a privilege”

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As an aside, my wife’s first proper job was for a ferry company. Soon after she joined, the management forgot to book any models for a photoshoot and asked her to step in. On the front cover of that year’s brochure, Rose is driving on board with a man and a dog; on page two she is propping up the bar with a second man, but no dog; and on page three she is sharing a cabin with a third man and several children. When services on the ferry failed to live up to expectations and the passengers turned ugly, it was her role to deal with them. Rose did this by placing ‘Queue Here’ signs in random locations around the ship. This never failed to calm the angriest of crowds — even though they had no idea what they were queuing for — and says much about the British psyche.

I don’t, incidentally, subscribe to Aristotle’s philosophy of work. He drew a distinction between praxis, something done for its own sake, and poiesis, something done for some ulterior, practical purpose, such as work. I imagine he would have approved of the French word for it — travail — with its implications of both effort and suffering. With the very notable exception of those who are being exploited and/or are engaged in uncongenial occupations for minimal pay, I have no sympathy for anyone who complains about having to work. Work in all its forms is a privilege.

I am not sure I would go as far as Kahlil Gibran, who believed that ‘work is love made visible’, but Freud was surely onto something when he said that man only needed two things for happiness: ‘Love and work, and work and love.’

You won’t be surprised to hear that I have no time for all this modern work/life balance tosh. Its proponents would be well advised to read Coleridge, who ends the sonnet quoted above with the words:

Work without Hope draws
nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object
cannot live.

Thankfully, the twins are workers. Spare them a thought as they tramp around Bristol handing out their CVs hoping to find some gainful employment.