Years ago, working for a bank, I was helping a lady open a bank account for the first time in her life. She was obviously out of place, looked nervous and awkward, and only doing it because her husband’s employers, as most were in the late eighties, moving to payroll rather than cash. When I asked for his occupation, her face turned almost scarlet. She flustered for a minute: ‘He’s a, oh, what do you call it… Er, a refuse collector!’ she ended triumphantly.
It took me a few moments to comprehend, then I blurted, unthinking: ‘Oh! He’s on the bins!’
She flushed a deeper red. I could have kicked myself. ‘My dad’s on the bins!’ I said, beaming a huge smile at her. Her whole body relaxed and she smiled for the first time, clearly relieved she wasn’t talking to the daughter of a solicitor or bank manager.
I was lying, dear reader. Dad isn’t, and never has been, on the bins. I just felt awful that I’d embarrassed her further and wanted to try and make up for it. Dad was a lorry driver for over forty years, an occupation sometimes similarly disdained. I know this because I’ve been on the receiving end of sneers and snide comments when I’ve mentioned it to some.
I’ve never lied about my background, my parents, my grandparents. For the record, Mum was a cleaner in the local steelworks (before business was lost, mainly to China and India); my paternal grandad worked down the mines, my maternal grandad in the steel industry – in Sheffield, for their generation, it was usually one or the other. (I almost burst with pride when, eating in Field & Green, a local restaurant, I realised the cutlery was all from Sheffield and the knife I was using was made by Firth Brown, where Grandad worked. The chef, the lovely Laura, seemed pleased to hear the connection, quality cutlery being one of the passions of her partner, who had scoured second-hand shops and internet sites to find it.)
I have always been proud of my parents, their work ethic, their raising of four, generally okay, kids. (One of us may have an unhealthy obsession for certain biscuits.) The point I’m making – and yes, I know I’m taking a long time to get there – is that in the current circumstances my parents, in their lowly, underrated jobs, would be considered essential workers. As then, they would still earn little more than minimum wage. Within a couple of years of starting work I earned more in my cushy number in a heated office than my dad did driving an articulated lorry the length and breadth of Britain. (Strangely, it seems as a bank employee I would also be essential – I’m claiming it even though I haven’t worked in a bank for twenty years now.)
I celebrated the heroes of the health services a couple of days ago. Today I’m saluting the workers who, like my parents, working manual jobs for little money, are often considered the underclass of society. Apparently Dad wanted to work down the mines but Grandad wouldn’t let him. I’ve always wanted to learn to drive a truck – Dad can’t understand why. They both wanted something better for their kids but, in reality, they were both doing something special. As are many around the world, not just in this crisis, but all the time. If that lady in Sheffield is still alive, I hope she’s no longer embarrassed by the essential work her husband did.