The Fifth Best and Worst Jobs Ever!

As outlined by the Introduction to the History of Work Series, this is Part 1 of 5 of the Best and Worst Jobs in History. Godfrey and I don’t stand on ceremony or words. We get right down to business. Without further ado, here are the selections:

Best. Job. Ever. Number 5!

Being a Pirate has simultaneously transformed and stayed the same since there was water and people had boats. The mediums have changed (ie. the Internet or a Hedge Fund instead of a ship), but the methods (ie. lying, cheating, killing, hacking, stealing) have stayed the same. Historians and popular culture will tell you the a career as a pirate means freedom, adventure and rum, which is true. It also meant democracy, health insurance and possibly getting hanged, drowned or put in jail for the ridiculously greedy ponzi scheme that you pulled on the financial world. This career is a celebration of independence, entrepreneurship and risk taking.

Summary of Academically Sound Findings and Analysis:

PIRATE

LOW

MEDIUM

HIGH

TOTAL:

Level of Hardship

Lots of risk-reward here. For example, Bernie Madoff, one of the twenty-first century’s more notorious pirates, is facing a lot of hardship now. This being said, many Somali pirates (flush with cash and power after several years of mostly successful hijackings and coastal defending) are living much richer lives than their parents and grandparents ever did. Pirate ships were, as we all know, the first places where democratic principles were written down (100 years before the French Revolution), they saw health-insurance established, and tolerance of ethnicity and gender were also realized here before anywhere else on Earth…or at sea.

All this being said, having your face exploded by a cannon or your arm semi-hacked-off with a rusty cutlass isn’t really “medium” hardship…

3/5
Opportunity for Advancement Why do you think so many merchant sailors and Royal Navy seamen deserted their serf-like existence to become pirates? Because every pirate is only a few votes away from becoming a First Mate or Captain!!!

Women were also able to advance in this profession. In fact, the greatest pirate in history was a woman named Madame Cheng.

3/5

Meaningful Nature of Work For someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, loves a tropical climate, and is known to sip some rum every now and then, this job is for you.Whether today or 400 years ago, pirates have always found meaning by thumbing their noses at the status quo and finding different ways to make the world work. Meaning is what you make it when you’re a pirate!

4/5

Worst. Job. Ever. Number 5!

The First World War Message Runner was responsible for maintaining a battle’s lines of communication before radio existed – in fact, it would not be uncommon to see a message runner carrying a cage of pigeons through the exploding muck of the Western Front because, well, pigeons were more reliable than transmission cables. Not only was the job horribly dangerous, if you think about the daily nine-to-fives (we’ve all had them) where nothing gets accomplished and you feel like crap walking home in the rain, wondering what it’s all for, the life of the Message Runner was just like that…except, instead of data-entry, powerpoint presentations, or hammering nails, you faced imminent death every single day.

No water breaks or smoke breaks, as the glow of a cigarette would be spotted by a sniper a mile away. Oh, and the mud on your boots would invariably cause your feet to rot (it was called “Trench Foot”). And, remember, if you quit, your friends will probably die.

Summary of Academically Sound Findings and Analysis:

FIRST WORLD WAR MESSAGE RUNNER

LOW

MEDIUM

HIGH

TOTAL:

Level of Hardship

It’s not just the getting shot or shrapneled or bayonetted that makes this job one wracked with hardship. It’s the overwhelming knowledge that, if you fail, the lines of communication break down and there is a really, really good chance that your comrades – and your friends – will die in a hail of gunfire and explosions.

It’s also incredibly hard to run through mud that is waist-deep when you’re tangled in barbed-wire and you can’t see anything through the haze of mustard gas.

0/5
Opportunity for Advancement Hey, if you don’t get horribly wounded by shrapnel or captured by the enemy you could get promoted to, like, Corporal! …awesome…

Fun historical fact: Adolph Hitler actually started his “career” as a message runner in the First World War. Clearly, this is a traumatizing job (see above).

1/5

Meaningful Nature of Work Your work is incredibly meaningful – life-saving, even. But this only makes things worse.

5/5

Reflections on these Jobs

GODFREY: The jobs in this series are not always bound by place and time….Take piracy,  well, it’s alive and well, on the financial trading floors of the world. Sure, they’ve swapped their peg legs for Prada, their hook hands for Blackberries and soiled sea clothes for Armani and white collars, but they’re still pirates. I won’t beat this analogy to death, but if you think of the rolling graphs of the Dow Jones index as the high seas, and derivatives as highly risky booty, well there you have it. The risk that everything could sink – you along with it – just makes it better.

First World War Message Runners is probably the most sadly futile and comically absurd occupation that ever was.

JOHN: Amazing! Our matrix totally works! Hopefully we sucked some of the romanticism out of piracy (ie. Bernie Madoff is a pirate and Johnny Depp will never play him in a movie). Every kind of pirate is all about teamwork, adaptability, innovation, and they’re typically great communicators.

As for Message Runners, well, nothing screams futility like a guy running through mud to deliver a message that might possibly affect minor changes along an immovable stalemate in a totally useless war. Sigh. As it turns out, creativity can’t outmatch exploding shells.

PIRATE

LOW

MEDIUM

HIGH

TOTAL:

Level of Hardship

/5

Opportunity for Advancement

/5

Meaningful Nature of Work

/5

Remembering the Humour of War

It's always nice when the Home Front helps out soldiers in the trenches! Copyright Punch or the London Charivari.

It's always nice when the Home Front helps out soldiers in the trenches! ©Copyright Punch or the London Charivari, 1917.

Today is Remembrance Day. And all across Canada people are paying their somber hommage to the fallen and forever scarred soliders of the past century and beyond. We read poems by Wilfred Owen, Sigfried Sassoon and Robert Graves because our communities – local, regional, national – feel that tragic language is the most accurate cultural response to war and conflict. Their work has done much to fashion both the suitable ethical and artistic response to the human tragedy of the Great War (and the other ones we’ve gotten our men and women mixed up in over the past 100 years, too). Such poetry of disillusion, its images rooted in the popular imagination that is very much a part of our cultural heritage, is even symbolized each year in Britain and Canada by the selling of poppies and by commemoration services all across the country.

Do you wanna know something, um, funny, though? Historically, guys like Rick Mercer or Jon Stewart represent a more accurate cultural response to war and conflict than somber war poetry ever did. I challenge you to complicate this clichéd response to war and conflict by exploring the humourous cultural responses to events like the Great War. Before you fly off the handle, please, trust me, I know what I’m talking about and I’m going somewhere with this, so allow me to explain.

The appropriate cultural symbol of war and remembrance in Canada

The appropriate cultural symbol of war and remembrance in Canada

Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme (2001) uses the following quotation as a means of emphasizing that, in many ways, the literary representation of the First World War has been compressed into a single cliché: “terrified, I clawed the stinking mud as the bullets whistled round my head and shoulders and as I waited for death.” Keep in mind Dyer’s purposeful cliché as you think about the traditional Remembrance Day experiences unfolding all across Canada, and, perhaps more importantly, how recalling and interpreting such events tends to be shaped by our modern memory of war and conflict. A soldier’s recollection of Passchendaele or pictures of 1 July 1916 on the Somme or the graveyards near Verdun or the memorial at Vimy Ridge all account for the truthful poignancy of clichéd, tragic responses to the war; however, it is dangerous to rely solely on such reactions, as they supplant many other facets of the war, such as humour, and simplify a very complex event of the past. While tragic language does typify war and remembrance, cartoons, hilarious songs and jokes have been discussed, or dismissed, in paragraphs and chapters by Military Historians from Paul Fussell to Niall Ferguson. Laughter happened and it was seriously funny. But for some reason, humour always finds itself on the margins of histories and contemporary stories that deal with the reality of war.

Perhaps this is because soldiers are the ones who get to tell the story or because we want to use tragic language so that the horrors of war are never again repeated. Look, if war was truly so bad, we’d never, ever do it. Ever. The first-hand knowledge of war writers, it would seem, gives them credibility regarding the reproduction of battles, attacks, ambushes, bombings, and heroism: “when experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it) becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built,” says Historian Leonard Smith. When such a statement is juxtaposed with the following comment by renowned war poet Robert Graves, the credibility of the war authors is somewhat brought into question:

[T]he memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities. High-explosive barrages will make a temporary liar or visionary of anyone; the old trench-mind is at work in all over-estimation of casualties, ‘unnecessary’ dwelling on horrors, mixing of dates and confusion between trench rumours and scenes actually witnessed.

No, I’m not saying that war authors or veterans who recount their experiences are liars. But can, as Wilfred Owen once said, true poets really be truthful? Can historians or journalists? Perhaps all that we can do is offer the idea that no matter how documentary, factual or autobiographical an account of war presents itself, it is just a war story among other war stories: “if reality remains inaccessible or unnameable,” says Evelyn Cobley, “then all narrative renderings produce rather than reproduce the war experience.” The graphic examples of humour represent some pretty funny productions from the war experience from 1914-1918 on the Western Front.

Our community will never agree on appropriate ways to interpret events. Historians have engaged in scholarly war and often make accusations against one another that are archetypally and stereotypically based – the nineteenth-century paradigm relies hopelessly on the bankrupt notion of objectivity and postmodernism believes in the discipline’s rejection of ‘fact’ regarding the study of the past- (Editor’s note: that was perhaps the nerdiest sentence written on The Gumboot yet!). This comes without credible foundation. What is most important is that we understand what it means to ‘get it’. While I chuckled through most of my graduate school research about humour, war and remembrance (causing great disturbance to those around me in the library, for certain), I will never laugh in the same way, or for the same reason, when experiencing the same jokes that you experience. But I will ‘get it’ just like you ‘get it’. Maybe I will not always ‘get it’ in the way jokes were originally intended, but through careful scrutiny and correlative research one can bridged the gap in comprehension concerning a topic, such as humour and war, in a unique way. Reader, keep humour in mind as you examine the Remembrance Day ceremonies going on around the world today, and remember that ‘getting’ a joke and ‘getting’ the past stem from the same idea: that a method of studying something, like a joke, should be judged by its consistency to itself and its faithfulness to the concept it explains. It must untangle old problems and lead to new insight.

By no means am I arguing that our community should do an about-face and remember all conflict through comic eyes or as being humourous, but we do need to be conscious that laughter, just like tragic language, offers a perfectly suitable cultural response to war and conflict. After all, the cartoons in this post are only two examples of historical artifacts from The Great War. And there are many, many more. Take into account this popular trench song from the First World War that was shouted out at the time of the conflict:

Do your balls hang low?

Do they dangle to and fro?

Can you tie them in a knot?

Can you tie them in a bow?

Do they itch when it’s hot?

Do you rest them in a pot?

Do you get them in a tangle?

Do you catch them in the mangle?

Do they swing in stormy weather?

Do you tickle with a feather?

Do they rattle when you walk?

Do they jingle when you talk?

Can you swing them over your shoulder?

Like a continental soldier?

DO YOUR BALLS HANG LOW?

While the song is funny on its own, imagine the riotous laughter that ensued when soldiers on the Western Front were told the story that a battalion loudly belted this verse as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig followed behind them atop his noble steed – fun historical fact: Douglas Haig was not the most popular guy in the British Army, and this kind of humour presented a clever way to make fun of him without incurring a terrible punishment.

Okay, look. War was not, and is not funny, but perhaps it is not always tragic either. Take an exaple of another sardonic trench song from the First World War: “We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.” And humour was part of ‘being here’. For the soldier as well as the people who remember war and conflict on November 11.

- JCH

One of the most effective uses of humour as it relates to war is making fun of the enemy - or The Other. Copyright Punch or the London Charivari.

One of the most effective uses of humour as it relates to war is making fun of the enemy - or The Other. ©Copyright Punch or the London Charivari, 1914.