Customer Review

100 of 117 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Patronising, 15 April 2005
This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
As someone who has spent a long time living in a family dependant on benefits, and having to suffer the social stigma of poverty and it's undignified nature, Polly Toynbee has written this book in order to inform others of the harshness of life at the bottom of the economic ladder, and I have a problem with it.
I work a low paid job at a supermarket, and my educational opportunities are limited and would like my voice to be heard, not a middle class person taking it upon themselves to speak for me. Yes, I do not doubt her sympathy, but that is not what many poor want; it is instead the chance to express their opnions and further their lives in a less oppressive way. Part of the problem is middle class dominance of politics, and it's reporting of it in a social context. Whatever happened to communication? Let the poor have the opportunity to speak for themselves, I am sure they would have alot to say, and it would be from a genuine perspective. Toynbee can immerse herself in it (poverty) but she is not of it.
Another thing is the negative life she imposes upon working class experience, rather than also focusing on the economic realities. I have many happy times being working class, times where myself and others have found ways to cope with our siuations in a positive way. It is not just grim estates and horrible landlords, and soul destroying work. Tell us something we don't know already. Of course she was going to find it tough, she comes from a more comfortable world, and her senses and feelings being in alien situations are going to be picking up experiences and their consequences in a more intense way. But to put it another way- yes it is good journalism, but from an unskilled, manual worker doing low paid work, and having experienced some of the things she describes in her book, it seems a bit ridiculous when someone plays at poverty for a bit in order to tell other people what it is like to live in poverty. Ask the poor themselves! We aren't stupid you know!
She goes on about the voicless and invisible. Well, she is contributing to that condition of being powerless and impotent politically.
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 8 Aug 2008 23:40:17 BDT
paul says:
Well if you would agree with the former prime minister (tony blair) we are all middle class now. However I dont and I agree with your review people have voices the only problem is will people in power be more likley to listen and act upon what a middle class writter says compared to the working class?

Posted on 28 Aug 2008 14:44:48 BDT
J. Baxendale says:
Well, why don't you write the book then? If you don't, how can you blame Toynbee for writing it? She's hardly stopping you. If you really are poor low-paid and undereducated as you claim, you really need to decide whether you want to put things right or just enjoy wallowing in your misery.

Posted on 9 Apr 2009 22:34:58 BDT
Good as this review is, what Polly is doing here is nothing new. I (respectfully) suggest this reviewer gets hold of copies of Down And Out In London And Paris and The Road To Wigan Pier by George Orwell both of which had an influence on how the working classes and those living in poverty were regarded by society as a whole. They are also very,very good books.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Jul 2009 17:15:11 BDT
C. A. Austin says:
Orwell's gifts of perception and storytelling aren't shared by Ms Toynbee. I'm a fan of her journalism - and of what she *attempted* with this book - but she was either out of her depth or insufficiently committed to the project. It's a posh girl gone slumming, not a real Down And Out. I believe she could have done better; I wish she had.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Jan 2010 11:18:00 GMT
"Well, why don't you write the book then? "

As an established journalist with a recognized identity, publishers are happy to print whatever Toynbee writes. Unknown authors don't have the cache so aren't likely to be published. I've set up a blog detailing my experiences of unemployment and I'm sure I could expand it to fill a book, but I don't think a publisher would be interested.

You, J Baxendale, clearly don't understand life at the bottom, but you are typical of many such people. Still, the recession that bit after you posted your comment scared you and a few others, didn't it?

Posted on 4 Feb 2010 19:57:17 GMT
WinstonSmith says:
I just had to say that I agree with most of what you have said, and found it particularly cringe-worthy when she said things along the lines of "Oh goodness gracious, I'd spend that at the hairdressers". Well, Love, sorry but most of us don't do that and wouldn't spunk two hundred quid at the hairdresser, ever, even if we had the money... which we don't.

The only point I disagree with is your obsession with her class. Class being quite a vague concept anyway, surely it's better that someone draws attention to these issues than everyone ignoring them??? Nobody is stopping you writing your own book. I'm currently out of work and doing writing in my plentiful spare time and think you should do the same - but leave the girl alone! Even if she was an aristocrat, she'd be no less right in what she says. Who are you going to slate next? Charles Dickens, Tony Benn - "F**k that bloke's opinion, he looks too posh to me" - what do you hope to achieve by having a massive chip on your shoulder about class?

Finally, you say "we aren't stupid you know!", well, obviously YOU'RE not stupid and hopefully I'm not either, but, in the area where I used to live a lot of people (and by a lot I mean the vast majority) were completely politically unaware. The chances of any of them creating a book of this standard is, sadly, very slim....

Posted on 16 Feb 2010 13:21:26 GMT
I liked hearing what this reviewer had to say, but I strongly disagree that Polly Toynbee " contributing to that condition of being powerless and impotent politically" by writing about it.
One commenter asked why you don't write a book yourself, and the obvious answer is that Polly Toynbee has a privileged position as part of the UK media industry crowd, and you don't, so her chances of getting published are about ten thousand times greater than yours.
So why do you think she shouldn't use her contacts and experience to draw attention to working conditions in the UK? How is she contributing to the powerlessness of the powerless by writing about how she tried to put up with the same working conditions and found it hard?
You say "tell us something we don't know already", but this book isn't aimed at the people who already know about life on the minimum wage; it's aimed at people who don't, and who think their taxes are paying for the sometimes-employed to live the life of Riley.

Posted on 27 Sep 2010 13:24:24 BDT
Well said. I think your point about the happy times is spot on, as is the notion that rich people with secure lifestyles can ever have an insight to the enduring poverty.

Posted on 6 Sep 2013 15:30:42 BDT
nomdeplume says:
To me, your obsession with class is a red herring. What 'Hard Work' really does is show how privatisation exploits people. This issue is even more relevant now (2013) than when the book was first published. The present government is convinced that the privatisation of services reduces their cost - - and Polly Toynbee (especially in her chapter on working as a school dinner lady) shows just how this happens. Get real!

Posted on 17 Jan 2014 14:25:50 GMT
Charlotte says:
I think you may be too harsh on PT it was a worthy effort to at least raise the profile of the underpaid.However her predecessor in the American "Nickled and Dimed" does a much more acidic job on her employers and the description of the lecture on "Time Theft" by Walmart is truly comic genius.
Finally for the plight of women in particular I recommend "Women without a net"(I cannot remember the name of the author) a tragically moving selection of true recollections of the way poverty horifically affected women's lives when there was nobody there for them.
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