Portrait of a Small Town

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“The beautiful town of Dartmouth situated on the mouth of the River Dart is one of South Devon’s most popular and enchanting towns.” So says the ‘Visit South Devon’ website [1]. “With its charming historic streets, scenic river location and surrounded by South Devon countryside you have to go a long way to find a town as pretty.”

For the tourist, this is the default image of my hometown: Enchanting. Picturesque. Pretty. And it certainly is those things. I have lived in Dartmouth for most of my life, and I am still struck by the beauty of the town and its surroundings whenever I take a walk or look out of a window. Dartmouth is in many ways remarkable. Once I had moved away from home for the first time, I experienced the realisation that most people do not grow up in a place where travel to nearby a nearby town like Torquay or Brixham is made possible by not one, not two, but three ferries, which carry hundreds of cars and passengers over the water every day. Nor is it considered normal by most people to have a steam railway and naval academy on one’s doorstep. And while I haven’t spent much time in big cities, I can well imagine that the prospect of looking out of one’s window and seeing lush green fields and clear blue water is an alluring one, which naturally draws thousands of holidaymakers to this little settlement on the River Dart every year. The picture-postcard version of Dartmouth is, in its own way, real. But it is also desperately incomplete.

Try this for an analogy: Imagine a car. A beautiful, expensive car that runs like a dream and gleams in the afternoon sun. Most people would recognise this mental image as something attractive and desirable. But strip away the paint, the bodywork, the plastic and fabric of the interior, every part that is visible to the eye from the outside, and most people would barely recognise it as the same vehicle. If you were particularly fond of the vehicle, you might not appreciate seeing it taken to bits in this fashion. But, for the rest of this article, that is what I intend to do.

Dartmouth is, to be sure, ‘a pristine jewel in the heart of beautiful South Devon’ (a sentence I made up off the top of my head, but which could quite easily have been drawn from a holiday brochure). But, like the car, it is much more than that. To see what I mean by this, we need to look beyond the shiny bodywork and delve into the engine itself.

Just as a car without an engine is hardly a car at all, the picturesque coastal town would wither and die without a multitude of working people whose labour keeps it running smoothly. At the height of the summer season, it runs at quite a pace, as anyone who has worked through it will tell you. Continuing with the engine metaphor, it may be instructive to view the various functions required to run the town as moving parts, parts which have to be moved by the physical and mental exertion of those who are tasked with moving them. Like the engine, these moving parts are deliberately kept out of sight. They are not meant to be noticed. But without them, there would be no town at all.

Let us consider some of these functions on just one day. Here are some of the things which have to happen in order for the town to operate:

The streets have to be swept, and the public litter bins emptied. Any litter in the streets needs to be collected and disposed of. Not only this, but the commercial waste for almost every business in town has to be collected and removed. An army of cooks, waiters and waitresses, and kitchen porters have to be at their stations in time for the hotel guests to descend upon their breakfasts. Everything the guests consume would have been delivered by delivery drivers on previous days, and all of the dishes they use have to be collected up and washed. Having had their breakfasts, the guests make their way out into the town, where another army of workers is in the process of opening up the shops, restaurants and cafes of the town. In the absence of the guests, cleaners make their way through the hotels, vacuuming, dusting and changing bed linen. It is barely light outside, and already the engine is firing on all cylinders. Everything – everything – on which you lay your eyes in this town has required a titanic effort to appear for you as it appears. Shelves have to be stacked. Edible products like pasties and ice cream, as well as a host of ingredients in the restaurants and takeaways, have to be prepared. Deliveries are unpacked as they come in, creating a mountain of cardboard and plastic waste which has to be disposed of. Cream teas are made and consumed, sandwiches are filled and sold, and lunchtime comes around: more table service, takeaway meals and dirty dishes. For those who work serving food, there follows a lull in which lunch breaks are taken, earlier or later depending on the needs of the day. It is not unusual for workers to return from an hour’s lunch break at 5 o’clock in the afternoon if this is the only time they can be spared. (I have seen workers with extra responsibilities go without a lunch break at all on a 14-hour shift because they simply could not be spared.) During this time, ice creams are scooped and sold and the shops churn out the sort of clothes, shoes and accessories which the locals cannot afford but which are eagerly purchased by visitors looking for an ‘authentic’ maritime look. Then dinnertime arrives. The shops are closing down, but the hospitality workers have several more hours to go, and they are busy hours indeed. Hundreds of diners must be seated, served, and cleaned-up after. And then, once the guests have finally departed for the evening, clean-down begins, an arduous activity which involves the removal of copious amounts of grease and dirt, sweeping, mopping, polishing, and the filling-in of essential paperwork. Everything has to be spotless. It is now 11 o’clock, and while the hotel guests cuddle up for the night in their recently-cleaned en suite rooms, the workers make their way home on the last bus of the night, tired and smelling of grease, or catch last orders in one of the less pretentious pubs the town has to offer. Then, the next morning, it all begins again.

The writer in me is concerned by the length of the previous paragraph, but the former hospitality and retail worker is concerned that it is not long enough. There must be, I am acutely aware, a thousand other things I could have included but didn’t. And each of these activities – washing an entire evening’s dishes in a busy restaurant, for example, can itself be broken down into a number of repetitive and, in the case of the kitchen porter, grimy tasks which last for several hours. (Deep in the bowels of the restaurant, the kitchen porter may not even glimpse the outside world between the hours of 5 and 11, until he or she is finally tasked with taking out the rubbish to the bins which are, like the kitchen porter, deliberately rendered invisible for the comfort of the visitors.) I could write for paragraphs on end about the work involved in the fish & chips industry alone, the sheer quantity of grease and work involved in making a meal that is gone in five minutes, leaving only a mountain of disposable packaging. But I think I have written enough to make the general picture clear.

Before I move on to the political conclusions one may draw from this state of affairs, I would like to undertake a brief exercise to illustrate the sheer number of work hours it takes to keep a business running. I have dug out a rota for a Friday in April of 2015 from the restaurant and takeaway where I was working at the time. On the Friday of the week in question, assuming that everyone on a long shift took an hour’s lunch break, and assuming that both the restaurant and the takeaway were opened and closed down at the normal time, more than 70 hours were worked that day, and that was only in April. If asked how many hours of work went into a day in that business, I suspect that most patrons would have greatly underestimated the figure. Multiply the number of hours by the number of takeaways and restaurants in Dartmouth, and you would be somewhere close to appreciating the scale of the labour that goes into just one sector of one small town’s economy. Unfortunately, I suspect that almost no-one appreciates that scale, and it is to this problem that I turn next.

So much of the labour that powers the engine of a small town is invisible, and deliberately so. The unfortunate result of this is that we grow accustomed to not seeing labour, even when it is right in front of our eyes. It is similar to homelessness in that way: even if you were fully aware of the scale of the situation, there is a limit to what you personally could do about it, so why subject yourself to the discomfort of seeing it in the first place? Most of us do not perceive the vast amounts of stress, boredom and sheer hard work that go into making small-town life a reality. Rather, we are subtly educated to see only the outside: the historic buildings, the delicious food, the sunset reflecting on the river, and so on. This may make visiting a town like Dartmouth a more pleasant experience for the tourist, but it obscures essential political facts from our view and our consciousness. It may come as a surprise to some to hear that towns (and particular parts of towns) like Dartmouth are plagued by food poverty, seasonal unemployment, and for many people a poor standard of living, but why should the thought even occur in the first place? How can anyone appreciate the problems of people who they simply cannot see? (The housing estates are, like the bins, tucked away out of sight.)

My aim in writing this article is not to arouse some great feeling of pity or charity for the poor oppressed masses. As I was recently reminded, these jobs are how hundreds of local people earn a crust, and even the ideal society would doubtless involve dirty jobs. Simply doing away with the whole business is not an option. But if we are ever to rid ourselves of the class system which bedevils this country and makes a mockery of the values we profess to hold, at the very least we will have to know and notice that labour exists, that it is everywhere, and that even in a town as beautiful as Dartmouth, it is often smelly, repetitive and physically draining. Events like the 2016 EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump might make a particular class of people highly visible temporarily (cue hand-wringing attempts by politicians to placate the irksome masses) but if real, permanent change is ever to happen, it must happen with eyes wide open to the reality of labour in the modern world. Armed with this knowledge, we stand a chance of building the fairer tomorrow that so many of us long for. But without it, I fear that nothing can ever change.

[1] www.visitsouthdevon.co.uk/places/dartmouth-p178913

A version of this post was originally published at overlookingthelaundry.blogspot.com.

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