For all the talk of an industry in crisis, you have to hand it to the British media for their ability to get to the nub of a story. It was, one imagines, with a gasp of triumph that the Daily Mail was able to deliver a stinging blow to the president of the supreme court, Lady Hale, she of the spider brooch and the damning verdict on our prime minister’s prorogation wheeze. Via a stunned headline, the paper was this week able to reveal that Hale, who graduated top of her class at Cambridge in law, who was the first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission, and the second to be appointed to the court of appeal, was in fact an “ex-barmaid”. Truly, we must applaud this mighty organ’s dogged commitment to truth and scrutiny.
I do worry about what sort of precedent this sets, however. When the day comes that I achieve something of professional import that has implications on the very notion of democracy, will I too be put through the media wringer? I may not have a law degree or a seat on the most powerful court in the land but, like Hale, I am an ex-barmaid. I’m also an ex-waitress, dishwasher and tour guide, and – my personal nadir – a former milk factory worker required to wear a hairnet and fetching paper suit. These jobs were executed through my late teens and early 20s with varying degrees of competency and enthusiasm. I still maintain, however, that my three years working behind a bar were the best fun I’ve ever had in a job.
But back to Hale and her pint-pulling shame. Imagine, for a moment, a world in which public figures were routinely labelled by their early menial jobs rather than their subsequent professional achievements. Think ex-ice-cream scooper Barack Obama, ex-coil winder Paul McCartney, ex-waitress Elizabeth Warren or ex-secretary JK Rowling. Of course, Hale isn’t the first person to have a past role used as ammunition against her. Earlier this year, celebrated man of the people and Trump apologist Piers Morgan attempted to shame the activist and politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for having worked as a bartender and waitress in 2018 before becoming the youngest congresswoman in US history. This came after she criticised Ivanka Trump’s suitability as a diplomatic representative at the G20 summit. Ocasio-Cortez’s response to Morgan was suitably crisp: “Imagine if more people in power spent years of their lives actually working for a living,” she tweeted. “We’d probably have healthcare and living wages by now.”
While no one is suggesting there’s anything heroic about waiting tables, having to make ends meet through assorted McJobs in your formative years can be character building and lead to a more rounded and compassionate view of the world. For me, bar work yielded all manner of skills, from teasing out the life stories of strangers to dealing with casual misogyny and the ability to unblock vomit-clogged toilets.
More pointedly, these poorly paid starter jobs separate the grafters from the pampered layabouts. It’s always instructive to read about the likes of Hale, the daughter of schoolteachers who went to a grammar school and worked through her university years, being part of the remainer “elite”, versus such ordinary folk as the Eton- and Oxford-educated Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. How many members of Oxford’s illustrious Bullingdon Club do we think could unblock a toilet or change a pub barrel? Running the country is one thing, but until you’ve sweated through an eight-hour dishwashing shift, you know nothing about life.
- Fiona Sturges is an arts writer specialising in books, music, podcasting and TV