21 AUGUST 1971, Page 16

John Bridcut on a working woman

A Working Life Polly Toynbee (Hodder and Stoughton £2.00) At first sight, this book seems to be the work of a starry-eyed idealist and to contain a wad of heart-rending social problems with irate and relentless demands for 'positive action.' Even before chapter one, there is a page ominously headed The Facts' on which there are straight statistics on the working population, average wages, working hours, unemployment, supplementary benefits, retirement pensions, etc. Unemotional though this list may be, it seems to presage some highly emotional harangues in the pages to come. Happily, it is not that sort of book and is likely to reach a wide audience amongst those who are sympathetic to relieving poverty but aware of the impossibility of abolishing it. Polly Toynbee, the journalist wife of Peter Jenkins, the political com

mentator, spent' a number of months in different occupations, observing attitudes

to work. She experienced the monotony of a cake factory, a car components works and a soap factory; she watched an em ployinent officer and a youth employment officer conducting interviews; she visited a coal mine and a steel works; she spent as little time as she could in the Women's Royal Army Corps and she was an orderly in a maternity ward. Few people, journalists or not, can claim to have had such a broad look at working life in so short a

time and Miss Toynbee clearly feels guilty about it. None of the people with whom she worked knew her true identity — she said she was a student doing temporary work. How nice it is to know that the deception troubled her.

Miss Toynbee communicates the boredom of the cake factory and tells how, after a day's work, all she could do was watch television: stupid, boring jobs make stupid boring minds. She makes plain at the start that the examples she has chosen are not the worst she could find: she has deliberately sought to write about "work as it is experienced by most people — unskilled and semi-skilled work at neither its best nor its worst." Therefore it is no surprise that nothing she described is quite as dull as the fob of Flossie, the famous girl at the cornflake factory, who has to sit on a high stool, holding a long wooden spoon and watching all the cornflakes pass before her on a conveyor belt. (Her task is to flick any burnt cornflakes off the belt. She has to rest after an hour and a half because she cannot see straight.) Generally, the book is well-written, if not particularly well printed and even less well proof-read. Miss Toynbee aims to see behind limited horizons, lack of ambition and drive; she also attempts to explain them. Having seen the youthful enthusiasm of the schoolboy snuffed out by the careers adviser, she does not censure him, as well she might, for basing his advice on a thirty-second assessment from a short questionnaire. Instead, she tried to understand the adviser and see the positive value 'n what he does. This is where the book shines.