A Day’s Work

Joanna Biggs reports from the workplace

Behind a branch of a fast-food chain in Lincoln, there is a featureless yellow brick call centre open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. From the level of noise as the call centre handlers walk in, they can often guess what’s happening across the country. Bad weather causes a surge in the number of calls: a dense, chattering sound. A terrorist attack is loud. But less dramatic worries are quieter and more frequent: anger at a lost connection, sorrow for a family member who’s died, simple loneliness. T. has spent 11 years solving problems with people’s phone and broadband connections through his headset. When we meet on his lunch break in a side room too small for the many office chairs in it, he’s already eaten the pasta he brought from home at his desk. Tucked behind his ear is a rollie with a neat twist at the tip, and he takes it down to turn it over in his hands as he talks; normally he’d smoke through his lunch hour. He’s wearing long jean shorts and a Homer Simpson T-shirt; his eyes are ringed with yellow-blue shadows. ‘To be honest, this place takes so much out of me,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to pull away when I get home. I certainly swear at home more because I’m allowed to, but other than that really, unless I’ve got a couple of days off together, I do feel I’ve lost a large part of myself working here. I just had two weeks off through sick and holiday, and it was painful coming back. I really, really had to make myself come in. Because I just didn’t want to. I know it has a detrimental effect on home life for me. I can’t talk for definite about everyone else. I know there’s quite a few people who drink a lot more since they started working here, but …’

When T. was four or five, he wanted to be a binman: ‘You get to make a hell of a mess.’ His mother was a lab technician at a secondary school and his father a civil engineer but he had ‘never been able to apply myself in an academic situation. So it took me three years to do half-decent at my A levels, whereas my sisters both cracked on, knuckled down and got excellent grades.’ He dropped out of university after four months and worked in kitchens and bars (he would work in bars if he won the lottery: ‘You’re chatting to people who actually want to talk to you not because something’s gone wrong and they have to talk to you’). He came to the call centre through an agency as a ‘stop-gap and eleven and a half years later I’m still here. So I fell into the trap.’ He thought it would be a good job for a year or so, but ‘the money just keeps you here.’ T. is married with children, and though it’s September, he reminds me Christmas is coming. ‘That’s what’s difficult to get away from because part of me wants to try different career paths, try something that’s not answering the phones, but there’s nothing with the same money for this level of qualifications.’

He gets up at 6 a.m. most days and walks the two and a half miles to work listening to music: ‘The music is to stop me thinking about the fact that I’m heading here.’ (His MP3 player is broken, so he has been borrowing his wife’s; he can’t skip quickly enough when it gets to ‘Bailamos’ by Enrique Iglesias.) When he gets to work the first thing he’ll do is have a cigarette outside: ‘You find out what’s going on here two months before the management do.’ He must be logged in and ready to take calls at 8 a.m. Somewhere between 9.15 and 10.45 a.m. he’ll have a break for 15 minutes: a coffee in the canteen is 90p, but T. brings milk from home and makes his own. He used to have a coffee every hour ‘because it was an excuse to get away from my desk’; now he has cut down to three or four a day. As he works, sitting in an ergonomic mesh chair in his headset, he’ll be reminded by large electronic screens on the wall striped green, amber or red how well he and his colleagues are doing in responding to and handling calls. The standards change but they create both time and emotional pressure: T. is supposed to answer and deal with whatever arises after a call is finished within a certain time, he has to direct the problem to the person who can solve it on the first call; he must collect details like mobile numbers, email addresses and agreement to a text message customer satisfaction survey. ‘You have customers who don’t want to listen but you’ve got managers breathing down your neck, saying you’ve got to let them speak to you like crap basically.’ A noticeboard at the entrance divides ordinary phrases into two columns: ‘I’m not sure’, ‘usually’, ‘obviously’ and ‘maybe’ are ‘below the line’ and ought to be avoided. ‘Above the line’ terms include: ‘lovely’, ‘excellent’ and ‘what can I do?’ The emotional labour of a call centre isn’t just learning to withstand a customer’s impatience but also learning to speak in a voice other than your own.

At lunch he’ll smoke or he’ll call his wife, his kids or his grandparents: there’s ‘someone to ring every day’. Everyone who works there gets free broadband and there are landlines provided in the atrium, under nursery-bright murals of slogans like ‘Let’s Pull Together – We’re One Big Team’ and ‘We Don’t Shift the Blame’ and ‘Do Something Brilliant’. In the yellow-walled staff canteen, most sit alone, eating in front of a propped-up tablet computer, or hunched over a smartphone. The next break is around 2 p.m. If there’s been a particularly nasty call, he’ll go out and smoke, hoping someone will be out there: ‘That’s really the only way to survive it when you’re getting calls like that. You need to vent about them.’ If you get stuck on a call at 4 p.m. – the end of the shift – you can’t tell the customer, and managers don’t always notice the ends of shifts. T. doesn’t feel satisfied at close of day: ‘You’ve got no vision of what will happen to a call once you put the phone down. It goes off somewhere else, someone else deals with it and whether they get things right, get things wrong, get it fixed, you don’t know.’ At the end of the day, T. will walk home again, or maybe stop for a drink with a colleague. ‘I couldn’t tell you the amount of people I’ve been friends with, gone out drinking with and whatever and I never see now because they don’t work here.’ The next morning as T. gets ready for work again, his young son might tell him: ‘No Daddy – no work. Work’s closed. No. Work’s closed.’

T. earns £10.90 an hour, which brings him a salary of £22,105 a year without overtime, a figure above the UK living wage of close to £16,000 but below the median wage of £27,000 a year. He’s still employed via the agency that got him the job when he was twenty. (Young people increasingly use an agency to find their first job, as permanent contracts become rarer.) Sometimes, as for T., the permanent contract doesn’t come; perhaps it will never come. He can’t count on his hours or claim sick pay and doesn’t have access to all the services more secure employees do; he sits alongside colleagues on permanent contracts who are paid £3, £4 or £5 an hour more than him. A campaign led by his union, the Communication Workers’ Union, led to him being put on the same accelerating pay scale as permanent employees three years ago, following EU legislation on temporary workers. He was lucky to get in before agencies developed ‘Pay Between Assignments’ contracts, which keep agency workers on less money because of the way they got the job. These new zero-hours arrangements use a legal loophole to stop workers claiming equal pay with their colleagues after the three-month trial period; several agency workers on PBA contracts I approached felt too vulnerable to talk to me. A contract is seen as a ‘golden ticket’ by workers and a ‘carrot’ by managers, according to Jonathan Bellshaw, the CWU representative for T.’s call centre. It seems that for each new generation coming into the workplace, the conditions get worse.

On 5 January, the first working day of the year, adverts appeared on London Underground trains where adverts for Match.com normally are. In black type on canary yellow, there was a sentence – ‘It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working’ – from an article by David Graeber for Strike! magazine about ‘bullshit jobs’. Productive jobs, he argues, have been automated away and replaced by administrative ones which masquerade as service: HR, PR, financial services, ancillary industries like dog-washing and all-night pizza delivery. These bullshit jobs are very like T.’s. It’s work that looks like work – it fills up a forty-hour week – but feels pointless to the people doing it and wouldn’t be missed if it disappeared. ‘The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound,’ Graeber writes. ‘It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.’

‘When the stress of it all gets to you, it doesn’t matter what you do to separate work from home,’ T. said. ‘I’ve been on antidepressants twice at least here. You can’t separate home from work, and because I’m agency there’s no sick pay for it. So when I’ve had that, I’ve just had to put up and shut up. It’s not like I can take off a month to pull my head together, because there’s just no financial way to be able to do it. I had a rough spell of it recently with an interaction with my manager but I’m hopefully getting beyond that because that really did have a negative effect on me, to the point where I was contemplating not coming back in. I was really close to saying: “Sod it. It’s not worth it. I’d rather have something minimum wage and not deal with that.” But I came back and I’m still here.’ Unqualified or low-skilled workers used to be valued for the things they did – work that may have exacted a physical toll, but might leave them enough mental space for the life they wanted to live outside of it. Now they are valued for emotional resilience, and the shortfall is left to Seroxat and Heineken. Would T. be happy to think that his identity came from what he does all day? ‘I really hope not. I could not say enough how I hope not. I used to like who I was, and if this place is now my identity, then I don’t like myself. Literally, apart from the few people that I can sit and have a chat with and a gas with, the money is only just passable as the reason I come here. So, if the money changed, or certain people didn’t work here any more, I can safely say I would probably be at the Job Centre looking.’

The sign on the wall of the flat where Ina works reads ‘Beautiful Young Lady’. ‘That’s it,’ Ina says. ‘It doesn’t say nothing more. It doesn’t say name, it doesn’t say colour, it doesn’t say nothing. And who wants to come up, comes up.’ Then Ina waits. ‘It’s a gamble. You flip the coin. The same as working in an office. You might have somebody calling who pisses you off with a million questions and asking something ridiculous which doesn’t exist in your type of job. It does piss you off. For example, they come to me and they say, “Oh, I would like blow job without a condom!” Crrr! Who do you think you are! “No.” They are like: “Why not?” And I’m like: “Because I don’t want to.” “Why?” “I don’t do! So that’s it!” Same as in an office: we don’t provide this paper, we don’t do this.’

Ina had worked until 2 a.m. last night and woke up at seven. The Crossroads Women’s Centre is in a mews behind Kentish Town Road in North London: she arrived early with a sandwich, and napped on the sofa as she waited. She wore a black top edged with black and silver plastic jewels, and her wavy blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail. The English Collective of Prostitutes, formed in 1975 with the aim of decriminalising sex work, has shared the centre with 15 other women’s groups, such as Women against Rape and Global Women’s Strike, since the late 1990s. There is a pink babygro with the slogan ‘I’m a full-time job’ on sale in the entrance hall and Selma James, the feminist writer and activist who helped found the ECP, is being trailed around the building by an old white sheepdog and a young black Labrador.

Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel about industrial Manchester, begins with the disappearance of Mary’s aunt Esther, who has fallen in love with an army officer and become pregnant by him. When the officer disappears and their daughter falls ill, Esther stops working to care for her, but needs to buy medicine. ‘Oh, her moans, her moans, which money could give the means of relieving!’ Esther remembers. ‘So I went out into the street one January night – do you think God will punish me for that?’ Sex workers are no longer primarily presented as fallen women to be pitied and rescued; more recent depictions such as the Cinderella story Pretty Woman and the glamorous memoir Secret Diary of a Call Girl are more likely to talk about the pleasures than the difficulties of sex work or about the conditions that led women there.

Ina grew up in Bulgaria. (Up to 81 per cent of off-street sex workers in London come from elsewhere, and a quarter are from Eastern Europe.) She wanted to be a model but her father thought she should do ‘something serious and realistic, not a fairy-tale dream world like a ballerina or a model or whatever, or celebrity and stuff like that – he didn’t want that. He wanted us as serious as possible, hard-working people, serious job, you know?’ Only her mother knew when she started working as a model. The day before a shoot she had done was to be published, her mother told her father and ‘he snapped’. She came to England at 17 with a boyfriend, knowing that she would be going into sex work, almost in a rebellious spirit. ‘First time I started the job, I could say it was revenge. That I’m beautiful and I can make it without anybody stopping me – even if I need to lie, I’m going to lie and prove that I can make it. I don’t need to be that terrifying, hard-working woman and proving to people that yes, I’ve got an important job and I’m highly qualified and smart. No, I don’t want that. I want just to be me, to be free. And that’s it.’

On her first day, as she spoke no English, she was talked through what was on the menu card and she memorised it. ‘And the customer only needed to point a finger. And each time they were trying to do something else, thinking I was stupid. I used to pting!’ Ina mimed a comic-book bop to the nose: ‘Go between their eyes! I was like “No!” I wasn’t speaking English so I was speaking my own language. And if they were trying again I was like schting! And I was pressing the button for the maid!’ She punched at least two customers on her first day, but she made money: ‘My first day at work, it was the best day ever! I made a thousand pounds, my first day. I was new. This is what they usually say, the maids, “Oh, if you’re new you make lots of money and then it slowly goes down.”’ She paid the rent and part of the deposit on the flat she lived in, sent some money to her mum, bought clothes for herself, topped up her mobile and called all her friends. A Scottish colleague taught Ina English by pointing at things, getting her to repeat the word and then testing her on it later. The boyfriend who brought her to England became a drunk and an addict; they fought and he hid her passport. She got a pickpocket to steal it back, dumped him and never looked back. The maids were right about the money. After four years of sex work, Ina earns £400 a day. On average, she earns around £65 a visit.

Most of the week Ina studies English, Maths and IT as she hopes to move into care work, but when she has a shift, she’ll wake up around midday, have a coffee and two cigarettes and take the train for 35 minutes to Central London. She likes to watch other commuters: ‘I try to read every person on the train: the way they behave, the way … their body language. What they tell you. This is what I try to do because it makes me understand the customer, the way they behave if they are angry or they’re pissed off and stuff like that. So I’m trying to read as many people as possible to make it as safe as possible for me.’ She might pick up a toothbrush or some mouthwash from Boots, and then get ready by undressing, washing her hands, using the bidet and putting on work clothes. ‘I could be a police officer, I could be a schoolgirl, I could be a dominatrix, I could be in sexy lingerie. It always depends on the day and how you feel like.’ She puts on make-up and then arranges condoms and lubricant in a basket and the maid – who acts as her receptionist as well as intervening for safety; she is paid from customers’ tips – helps her lay out tissues, baby wipes, hot water, soap, mouthwash and a toothbrush, plastic cups so that she can have a clean cup each time she needs to rinse her mouth, as well as clean towels and bedsheets. The room has four lights, two orange and two red, for atmosphere. She switches them on, and she’s ready to work.

She sleeps while she waits, or she goes shopping (the maid will ring her if a client arrives). She aims for the day to unfold undramatically; she pushes customers away ‘if they’re bad in language’. ‘Most of the time I try to make it as comfortable as possible, as relaxing as possible and to forget that it’s a job. But obviously with some rules. Always use a condom, never French kissing, no anal, no this, no that. Make sure these things are all cleared out from the beginning. So yeah. And then it just rolls on. It comes easily.’ She’ll have around six clients a day who stay for around half an hour, and prefers a day with ‘less money, nicer people. Better than too much money and arseholes.’ She knows she’s good at her job – ‘I am a very confident person at work. I’m not outside. But at my job I’m very confident in myself because I know what I’m doing and I know I’m going to get it right’ – but that she’s not good at giving marital advice. ‘I’m terrible! I’m not married! I’ve got a relationship but I didn’t get to the point where I wanted to marry that person, so I don’t know how to … They always ask me: “How do you keep so well? How come you can make me happy any time I come, and smile all the time?” I don’t know what to answer to them.’ Other clients ask: ‘“What can I do better in my relationship?” How would I know how you behave at home? They expect you as a sex worker to give advice on their personal relationship but you don’t get to know them so well because some of them they don’t want to open so much. You can’t give them an advice or even if you try to give them an advice, you’re sort of pushing back and trying to … Am I doing the right thing? I don’t want to ruin his relationship.’

Many clients think they’re buying loving attention rather than unadorned sex. On PunterNet, clients write reviews of the sex workers they’ve visited: they’ll give a rating for the room, whether the sex worker matched her photo, what positions she did and where she let him come. PunterNet is its own world with its own language: a ‘punt’ is the half-hour or so they spend with a sex worker, ‘OWO’ is oral without a condom, ‘mish’ is missionary. (Sex workers have a parallel version of PunterNet: the Ugly Mugs Project collects sex workers’ accounts of clients who rape, or are violent, to be circulated among other sex workers and shown anonymously to police.) The majority of reviews on PunterNet are positive – the website says it ‘aims to promote better understanding between customers and ladies’ – but negative reviews are most reliably earned for lack of enthusiasm. ‘She made no attempt at conversation let alone seduction,’ Peachmuncha says of a visit to Sabrina in November 2014, ‘and was looking off into the middle distance whilst she prodded my back with her fingers. I don’t know about other guys but when a lady just asks “You want blow job with condom or without?” the passion of the moment is kinda out the door and into the Thames for a dampener.’ The punters don’t want to think of it as a transaction, but as a service. In summer 2014, the Economist argued that the arrival of websites such as PunterNet was changing the sex industry: ‘The shift makes it look more and more like a normal service industry.’

Ina and the maid will prepare dinner in the flat from food bought at the supermarket downstairs and eat together, feet up in front of the TV. Her shift ends at 2 a.m. unless she’s had a good day when she’ll leave at 10 p.m. She’ll clear the room up, change the bins, take her make-up off, brush her teeth, shower, put her clothes on and leave. ‘When I go home I want my peace and quiet. After 12 hours of work, you don’t want to hear anything, or you don’t want to see anything. I’m just too tired sometimes.’ When she gets home, she’ll take her shoes off, put the TV on, and at 3 or 4 a.m. she’ll go to sleep. Her family, most of her friends and her boyfriend don’t yet know she is a sex worker: ‘When the right moment will come, yes, I will tell them. But I don’t think they are ready yet to listen.’ She sees colleagues outside of work, but ‘obviously we don’t talk about the job. We talk about different things. I tend not to take home my work. I always … That is my main thing. Don’t ever take your job home. Like even if you work in an office or in a restaurant, don’t take it home with you, don’t take the stress with you at home. Try to enjoy it as much as you can. I advise everybody don’t take your job with you home. Just leave it at the desk and that’s it. It’s the best thing. Otherwise it drives you crazy. You can’t sleep if you worry: “What am I going to do tomorrow? What am I going to do? I need to do this paper, I need to do this.” No: relax, chill out. You have time. You have time to do it all.’

In 2012, the flat Ina works out of was raided by twenty police officers, looking for drugs and women who were being forced to work. Sex workers’ flats are periodically raided by the police, in the name of combating trafficking and other crime. The laws around prostitution are complex: broadly speaking the act of paying for sex is legal, but the promotion and coercion of sex workers – pimping, brothel-keeping, soliciting, advertising – is not. ‘They came in and started accusing me of pickpocketing, robbing, begging, many ugly stuff,’ Ina says. ‘They called me a gypsy, they called me rotten and stuff like that. They talked to the customer at the same time and asked him if I use drugs or if I drink, which I didn’t. The customer said: “Not what I know of. I knew this girl for a long time so I only saw her sober and she’s really nice, she’s really polite.”’

The police wanted to know her employment status: did she have a National Insurance number? Did she have proof she was self-employed, a student or on benefits? ‘I never claimed benefits: how can you ask me for benefits? I never claimed for benefits. I work! Can’t you see I’m working!’ She had to bring a letter with proof of her status to the police station within two weeks; in the meantime they reported her to the immigration authorities. She knew that police often took money on a raid without giving a receipt as proof of its existence, so she put her takings in her pocket, and told them they would have to beat her up for them. The police found no drugs, underage or trafficked women or evidence of coercion at her workplace.

Ina rang several lawyers afterwards but none wanted to get involved. At her monthly sexual health check-up a woman she’d known for years gave her a leaflet about the ECP. The ECP found her a lawyer and helped her prepare a letter confirming her student status. ‘Being a Bulgarian, don’t forget, you are allowed to stay in this country, because we are in the European Union. What they actually done, it wasn’t right. They thought I don’t know, they thought, oh, she’s young – I was only 21 – they said: “Oh, she’s only young, she doesn’t know nothing about it.” I proved them wrong. They let me go. They were so lovely when I went there. They treated me so nicely because I was the only one with a lawyer. The lawyer talked very properly and she handed the letter and you don’t have a right to do this, you don’t have a right to do that.’

Since then she’s been working with the ECP, visiting sex workers to talk to them about their problems and handing out rights sheets in English, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Thai and Bulgarian. In December 2013, two hundred police officers (trailed by photographers from the Daily Mail) raided twenty flats in Soho on suspicion of trafficking and trading in stolen goods linked to the crack cocaine trade. Sex workers were evicted and given cautions; thirty were arrested. Others were body-searched by male officers, and one woman was thrown into the street in her underwear. Officers confiscated earnings and threatened to tell sex workers’ families what they did. In response, the ECP organised a protest through the streets of Soho. Their slogans were drawn on pink cardboard hearts: ‘Bulgarian Women Say No Evictions, Safety First’, ‘Benefit Cuts Drive Women into Prostitution’ and ‘No Bad Women Just Bad Laws!’ They also fought the evictions in the courts: two flats in Brewer Street closed down for coercion were reopened in February 2014 when Judge Kingston at Isleworth Crown Court was persuaded that the sex workers organised themselves co-operatively and freely.

When the ECP was founded in 1975, they argued that housewives should stand with sex workers: ‘All women benefit from prostitutes’ successful attempts to receive cash for sexual work, because the cash makes it clear that women are working when we are fucking, dressing up, being nice, putting on make-up, whenever we relate to men.’ Ina had asked to be paid for the work of answering my questions. She suggested a rate of £50 for half an hour, and I agreed: sex workers let us see that just because something is performed for free, or understood as a service that is often given for free in different circumstances, doesn’t mean it’s not work.

In the last few years, there have been more downs than ups. ‘It’s a lovely job to be in but when the raids are coming in, it’s just outrageous what is going on.’ Ina wants ‘to be treated as any other job. I want to be treated as an equal. So if I have a problem to be entitled to call the police without me being prosecuted. This is what I want.’ The most recent parliamentary inquiry in March 2014 recommended the Swedish model, which criminalises the clients. Sex workers themselves point to New Zealand, which has decriminalised sex work, making it safer for women and men: when a man pulled off his condom in a brothel, he was fined NZ$400 and his name was printed in the local newspaper that covered the case. He was the bad guy. Ina will vote in the general election ‘no matter what they think about my job’, but without much conviction: ‘Talking about election it just drives me mad. Everybody says I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, but when it comes to actually doing it, they don’t.’ Politicians might not campaign with sex workers in mind, but that doesn’t mean sex workers don’t contribute. In 2014, sex work was included in GDP figures, in order to harmonise with financial reporting in the rest of the EU. (Including the grey economy in GDP in dark times is an old trick: Italy recognised sex work as economic activity in 1987 and raised its GDP by 18 per cent overnight.) With no reliable figures on prostitution, the Office of National Statistics guessed, using a 2004 Poppy Project report about London’s sex industry, that it added £5.3 billion a year to the economy. The British economy grew at 0.7 per cent in the third quarter of 2014; a good proportion of this growth is down to work many people would like to pretend doesn’t exist.

Sex has been linked to servitude for a long time: Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel of seduction, Pamela, showed how serving a master in the dining room might slide into serving him in the bedchamber; in the mid-19th century a Salvation Army register showed that 88 per cent of the prostitutes it helped had once been domestic servants. The service industry employed 46 per cent of the British workforce in 1948, and employs 85 per cent of it today. All kinds of workers in all kinds of jobs are now encouraged to create an experience out of an ordinary transaction – the smiling and fucking that the Wages for Housework campaign identified as worthy of payment – and we are only just beginning to understand what sort of experience of work the service economy allows. The way emotions are used at work is something sex workers understand better than most of us. Ina is used to changing the way others feel: judging the emotional state of the customer, calming him down, relaxing him. She does this part of the work by taking another name, putting on a costume and acting a role: ‘I can be a man: so I have a strap-on and wear leather, you know, trying to be rough and stuff like that. I could be a little angel sometimes. Sometimes you need to pretend you are a schoolgirl. I’m good at uniforms, you know, playing a role.’

It may have become central to our economy, but the invisible demands of service work, and how to defend ourselves against the effects of those demands, are rarely talked about. You can legislate for a safer working environment and a shorter working day, but how do workers organise against emotional labour? Esther considers herself lost to society at the end of Mary Barton: ‘She had longed to open her wretched, wretched heart,’ Gaskell says when Esther meets her niece Mary again, ‘so hopeless, so abandoned by all living things, to one who had loved her once; and yet she refrained, from dread of the averted eye, the altered voice, the internal loathing, which she feared such disclosure might create’. When Dickens founded Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush in 1847, it was because he thought he could rescue prostitutes from themselves. But do modern Esthers need saving? Ina chooses sex work over other more menial service work; she organises her hours, defends herself against the state, and works uncoerced. The Economist noted that sex workers behave like freelancers in other labour markets; there is even a graduate premium. (The situation is different for the women who have been trafficked to the UK to work in the sex industry against their wishes.) Esther may not have been able to turn people away and Pamela couldn’t escape from Mr B., but Ina can follow the mood she wakes up in: ‘If I’m at work and I don’t fancy sex I will be like, no, I will wait for the next customer and probably he will want dominations and he won’t touch me.’ She finds enjoyment in her work: ‘You could have good times at work, you know, like having a pleasure moment.’ Did she mean orgasms? ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. You still can have it. But it’s like having sex with your partners: one time you might come and one time you might not come. Sometimes it can be too quick and you are like “Crrh! Oh come on! Not now!”’

When Hugh Crossley was 18, he inherited a 5000-acre estate in Suffolk, an Anglo-Italian mansion with a bell tower, two stuffed polar bears, gardens with a maze and the businesses – arable and livestock farming, a lake, a pub and a hotel – that go with them. On a wet May day, our tour group in blue overshoes is being shown the old entrance hall, with its dark wood panelling and green, cobalt and terracotta patterned tiles. I’m the youngest person here. We steam in our rain jackets as we are told the four white tiger skins were brought back from India; the jockey scales were stood by the door as a test of Victorian hospitality (you were supposed to put on weight during an evening here); the doll’s house replica of the hall had been made by the estate staff for the fifth birthday of Lord Somerleyton’s aunt Mary in 1931; the shiny animal hoof reworked into a doorstop once belonged – can you guess? – to a water buffalo. When the narrator of W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn came to Somerleyton, he was charmed by ‘the sheer number of things, possessions accumulated by generations and now waiting, as it were, for the day when they would be sold off ’. Standing upright in the fierce two-armed pose animals adopt on heraldic shields, the yellowing polar bears – caught by the first Lord Somerleyton on a trip to the Arctic in 1897 – showed their pointed teeth. A couple in fleece pullovers stood in front of the frozen animals: ‘They’re horrible really, ain’t they?’

The current Lord Somerleyton, Hugh Crossley – his portrait, disconcertingly Hugh Grant-like, hangs above the 1953 coronation chairs – took over the pleasure palace bought by his great-great-grandfather in 1862, when his father at 75 learned he had Alzheimer’s and decided to retire to a house on the estate. The Crossleys’ fortune was made in 19th-century Halifax when they developed and patented steam looms for carpet-weaving: ‘Let each carpet produced by John Crossley be its own traveller,’ the slogan went. The Crossley family bought the house from Samuel Morton Peto, who built the Houses of Parliament and Nelson’s Column before going bankrupt from his investments in the railways: he had to give up the house he’d extended, created a model village for and built a railway to. Crossleys have now lived at Somerleyton for 153 years: Savile, made a baron in 1916 for his public service as a government minister, was the first to grow up here, go to Eton and then serve in the Ninth Lancers; Francis, the second lord, went to Eton then served in the Ninth Lancers in the Great War; Savile, the third lord, went to Eton, served in the Ninth Lancers and became Master of the Horse; Hugh, the fourth lord, went to Eton, but dodged the Ninth Lancers; his four-year-old son, John, who will be the fifth lord, rides a tricycle with what looks like a gazelle hoof doorstop in its trailer through the house. I wonder if he’ll go to Eton too. To visitors, the house is charmingly faded, or an unthinkable burden, but to the current Lord Somerleyton, its ‘nooks and crannies’ are where he played as a child, picking up where the ‘leaks, stopcocks and odd things’ are, without noticing. He can walk through the estate in his head: ‘Your mind can just go round like a drone and pretty much see every fencepost.’ It is at once home, the family business, part of Britain’s cultural and industrial history and the carrier of his family’s reputation: ‘There’s a big big thing, a kind of genetic drive about continuing your name, your name to be continued through time, in a way that probably isn’t necessarily the same with just sort of Joe Bloggs’ – or Jo Biggs, I think – ‘in the street, because of what you’ve come from. You don’t want to be the one to screw it up. And you want it to be here, going on.’

The entrance to the part of the hall Lord Somerleyton lives in – the old servants’ quarters – is strewn with bikes and tricycles and scooters. Larta, the housekeeper, opens the door. ‘Sir! She’s here!’ Dogs run ahead of him to where I am trying to work out the best place to leave my wet raincoat. In jeans with rips at the knee, red and black running trainers and a caramel jumper, he has brown-grey swept-up hair and tanned skin with a few wrinkles. He takes me to a corner sitting room with a lit fire; a small clock on the mantelpiece, flanked by two candlesticks with pink candles, will chime the hours. Larta brings me a cup of tea in a mug printed with blue flowers.

Hugh Crossley didn’t enjoy Eton. ‘It’s obviously a great school but I floundered and they didn’t particularly look after flounderers very well.’ He grew up believing that going into the army was what men did, but ‘swerved away’ at the last minute, studied history at university and began looking back to the first Crossleys instead: ‘I was welded to this thing that there’s an entrepreneurial gene that’s died and it needs to come back to life. And it’s my job.’ From the moment he made a will at 18, and knew for certain that the estate was going to be passed to him and not one of his four older sisters, he understood that the house had to earn its keep. ‘Dad kept going on, you’ve got to make money, Somerleyton needs money. And I … I thought … Either I’ve got to go into the City or I’ve got to start something myself.’ The idea of the City brought ‘out the socialist in me slightly’ and so instead he opened a restaurant in London called Dish Dash: ‘It was on everyone’s lips as kind of the cool Middle Eastern place,’ he remembers, ‘and that was absolutely what I wanted to achieve.’ His father’s decision to stop running the estate in 2003 brought him back to Somerleyton, with a pang of regret: ‘One’s always a bit embarrassed about it. The bones of it are here already. I haven’t created anything. I’m just doing what everyone else did: plant trees, you know, replant gardens. And it’s a wonderful process of renewal and change and it’s wonderful working with the experts involved, but you’re kind of doing the same thing that everyone’s done. It’s a kind of glorified landowner role.’

Jane Austen wrote her comedies of manners from the point of view of the heroines trying to find love and self-knowledge, but from the perspective of the estate-owning heroes, they’re stories about men establishing themselves against the previous generation. Darcy, with his £10,000 a year, struggles with his love for Elizabeth Bennet because his father’s generation had chosen a dynastic marriage for him. Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility is disinherited and left with £100 a year when he marries for love; Willoughby marries an heiress he doesn’t much like for £50,000. (A happy resolution to the problem is shown in the late novel Persuasion, when Wentworth, rejected by Anne Elliot’s family for lack of money, makes £25,000 capturing enemy ships in the Napoleonic Wars.) There is a parricidal aspect to inheriting an estate. The Halifax carpet factory finally closed in 1982, but money had been draining away from the business since the 1920s. The house was first opened to paying visitors in 1958 by Hugh’s father. ‘I was a pretty naive rural boy,’ Hugh says, ‘and Dad was lord-in-waiting to the queen and it just seemed set so. It was only quite late into early adulthood, you realise that what was so wasn’t that rock solid.’ His father made the house into an attraction in an era when the tearoom was run by ladies in the village, without pay, simply because they liked baking. Somerleyton has always been run by the family that lives there, without the help of English Heritage or the National Trust, and the professionalisation of the ‘heritage day out’ – when Hugh goes to a rival NT property, he notices the borders: ‘Christ! There’s just no weeds!’ – meant Somerleyton’s ‘faded grandeur’ wasn’t ‘anywhere near good enough’. The estate was run by Hugh’s father and two trustees, who were enjoined not to profit from the estate but also had a duty to invest wisely. Hugh met opposition when he tried to modernise the estate: ‘It wasn’t well managed by the trustees, by Dad, albeit he was scared himself. Everyone understands now they played a part in a really catastrophic handover. And in a sense I’m not the innocent party because I was a guy crashing around telling people what to do in a probably unsophisticated management way.’

The estate wasn’t profitable when it came to Crossley – he had to sell assets to make it viable – and now it makes money in a sedate way, thanks to the holiday resort he’s created. ‘Forget what you see around here,’ he jokes, the resort’s ‘the king. It’s the king. It absolutely does what it says on the tin every single year.’ In June 2013, Crossley opened a new venture with a business partner in Norwich: Hot Chip, a British version of a Belgian chip bar. (‘Chips and Fish’ is a portion of chips fried in rapeseed oil with ‘crispy goujons of North Sea fish, tartare sauce with lemon’ for £5.) He had a ‘friendly spat’ on Twitter with the band that shares the chip bar’s name, and he invited them to the restaurant next time they play Latitude, the festival held nearby on the estate of his friend Hector. He hopes his Hot Chip will go nationwide: ‘I don’t want to be talked about for log cabins. I want to be rung up by Radio 4 programmes about entrepreneurial something, and food industry something, because of Hot Chip, not because of anything I’m doing here.’

The arrival of John – named after the first Crossley – has changed the way he thinks about the businesses. ‘I don’t want to be hiding worry from him in the way I’m sure Dad was from me.’ He wants his tenure as the head of the estate to ensure John’s freedom. ‘We want to have done enough to say to John, here’s a seriously profitable set of businesses and actually although we didn’t have that – you don’t want to sound too pious about it – you really have got a choice. Which is you really could stop opening to the public. You might even be able to stop doing weddings, or you might just cherrypick a few that are high value and not do the rest. Rather than be beholden to the beast, as everyone is but no one wants to be, you want to feel like you’re in control. But I need a few years to get to that point I think.’ And leading the estate the way he wants to has brought him a sort of peace with his duty to the five thousand acres. Hugh told the local paper when his father died in January 2012: ‘At heart Dad was an estate man, a county man and, most of all, a great Englishman.’ Hugh used to avoid the gardens when they were open to the public but now he’ll ‘stride about like Dad used to and just go and talk to people in the garden’.

Crossley doesn’t ‘have a career in a formal sense. Maybe I should have, but basically I’m ungoverned.’ He gets up most days at 6 a.m. with his children, John, two-year-old Christabel and baby Margot (born a few weeks after I visited Somerleyton), then takes a turn around the gardens at 7.30, either on horseback with his wife, Lara, who helps him run the estate, or on foot. The dogs run and he’ll talk to the gardener. In the mornings, he might make a trip to Norwich to check on Hot Chip, but in the afternoon, after a toasted sandwich, he’ll work in the estate barn that has been converted into an office, answering emails and talking with staff. ‘Every now and again I’ll say something to an employee that [Ben Davenport, joint CEO of Somerleyton] just cannot believe! “You just cannot do that kind of thing.” And I say, “Hang on a minute, it’s a family business!”’

His father used to chair local branches of the RNLI, NSPCC, St John Ambulance; Crossley has sat on the board of the Lowestoft Economic Development Framework, whose aim is to revive the town with transport and green energy infrastructure. Wartime bombing, the decline of the fishing industry and of tourism affected the town; now employment is just above the UK average; obesity and teen pregnancy rates are high and school results at 16 are 20 per cent below the rest of the UK. Crossley’s ‘not caught up in what one can and can’t say’: ‘Using the dirty word class – you can talk about classless Britain as much as you like, it’s nothing to do with that, a village needs layers,’ which means the high as well as the low. ‘I don’t at all believe that you should be allowed to live in society and not work. It’s fantastic that the dire state of our condition economically in the crash has allowed it to become politically acceptable to talk about this, because it’s been a real problem. It has been literally untalkable about. Apparently it’s totally fine to have three generations of benefit junkies who just don’t work. And of course there needs to be room, and there needs to be the compassion in society to look after those who need to be looked after but it doesn’t mean … the altruistic mission for welfare for all is a really high-minded one but it’s been very hard to manage and it’s been very abused, and people have lost their way. Particularly since the 1980s. Thatcher made people greedy and dispassionate and frankly nasty and it’s been pretty bad in society in lots of ways, but very good for the wealth of the nation. The next thing was a massive tilt the other way, with this massive state intervention and allowing people to think it’s totally OK to do nothing and that’s been kind of going on for a while and it’s really cancerous and corrosive and bad.’ Farming and rents have held up in the recession, despite a few more bad debtors, but he hasn’t sold any holiday lodges since 2009. He wouldn’t necessarily want to see the government, which is ‘stuffed for money like everyone else’, change: ‘To be fair, Tony Blair might have bankrupted us but he was certainly no enemy of people like me in the way that Miliband might be.’