Early Swerves

Leo Benedictus

  • The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills
    Flamingo, 255 pp, £10.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 00 715131 4

For a brief time, a few years ago, I was employed as a temp at the Public Trust Office, one of the grey government monoliths that no one notices in Central London. What this office does, I never discovered. I asked my colleagues and they didn’t know. There were muttered guesses from a few that it was ‘something to do with law’. Almost all of them were temps too, so perhaps this ignorance is no surprise. Anyway, all that any of us did was process invoices till going home time. My job was unusual, however. I was a new department of one. It seems there were so many temps processing invoices at the Public Trust Office that they had to hire another temp to spend eight hours a day processing invoices from temping agencies. That was me. I was not very good at my work, of which there was a lot, and found myself steadily overwhelmed as each day’s shortfall accrued in inky stalagmites around my desk.

The Scheme for Full Employment, Magnus Mills’s strange dystopian parable of blue-collar bureaucracy in haulage depots, is more realistic than you might think. But then the book world’s most famous former bus-driver should know his way around a garage. The story is a simple one, purposefully lacking in suspense or mystery. A nameless narrator, as has become Mills’s custom, works driving ‘UniVans’ somewhere in England at some unspecified point in time.

The UniVan is the brilliant invention at the centre of a scheme, fully assimilated and approved within English society by the time the story opens, whereby the Government keeps the surplus workforce busy by paying them to drive UniVans from depot to depot, delivering parts to repair the UniVans which are slowly worn out by delivering parts to repair the UniVans which are slowly worn out – I won’t go on, although Mills shows no such restraint. It’s as if you’d casually asked England’s dullest man how work was going and he settled down to tell you. Most of it goes something like this:

I walked round to the loading bay and waited. A dozen or more UniVans were backed in, all with their engines running so that their cab heaters could warm up. Mine was parked next to Bill Harper’s, and he was standing at the rear watching Chris Peachment get him loaded. Along the entire length of the bay there was similar activity, as fully-laden pallets were moved around by men on forklift trucks. In the meantime, Horsefall was observing the scene from his office at the far end. The fact that he remained ensconced indicated operations were running smoothly that morning.

And operations continue to run smoothly for most of the book, barring a few nerve-jangling van inspections and ten unprecedented days of test runs to Eden Lacy. But then in the last quarter, having flirted with the idea of starting a plot, Mills finishes things off in a couple of swift, nonchalant strokes. When many of the Scheme’s employees find their occasional three o’clock skives (or ‘early swerves’ as they are known) becoming less frequent, they start to complain. Others, worried that the early swervers’ discontent will be the beginning of the end for the Scheme, pronounce themselves ‘flat-dayers’ and sternly insist on observing a full eight hours. An industrial dispute follows (with meticulously recorded beer and sandwiches) which turns the public against the Scheme. It is wound up on a flimsy technical pretext, and its infrastructure sold off to the private sector. The end.

Mills made his name as a deadpan portraitist of the workplace, whose straight-faced tales of the uneventful wriggled with understated menace and wit. In its radical dullness, at least, The Scheme for Full Employment could not have been written by anyone else – it marks a new outpost even for Mills. Not that this is unexpected: his three previous novels show the trajectory of a distinctive writer seeing how far he can go. From the very funny, but very deliberate, suggestiveness of his first novel, The Restraint of Beasts (1998), about three accident-prone fence-builders, he has pushed into more abstract territory. All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), the tale of an itinerant handyman stranded in an off-season campsite, was much darker and more oblique. In Three to See the King (2001), Mills reduced the world to a featureless plain of red sand, on which his narrator lived alone in a house of tin. This intelligent – and again very funny – study of the lonely self seemed to have marked Mills’s maturation point.

But The Scheme for Full Employment goes one further still. No one has any character and there is no inner life to be detected. Mills has restricted himself to primary emotions and motivations – even the title is especially flat. Like the facsimile roadmap and worksheet which precede the narrative, the world here is schematic, a fully functioning but lifeless machine. In this new mode, the components of the novel – its style, stories, characters and dialogue – have been sacrificed for whatever greater function Mills intends for the book as a whole. The characters in Three to See the King never questioned the strangeness of living in houses of tin on a vast red plain, but they behaved roughly as human beings might be expected to under the circumstances. Where Three to See the King was like a dream, The Scheme for Full Employment is more like a computer simulation. Take this exchange: ‘That all looks very serious,’ one UniVan driver says, looking at a list of names headed ‘Strike Committee’. ‘Do you suppose it’s a list of striking flat-dayers?’ ‘Could be,’ the narrator answers. ‘On the other hand it might be a list of non-striking swervers.’ English van drivers only say ‘do you suppose’ and ‘on the other hand’ in the polite fantasies of 1930s aristocrats. No doubt this is the effect Mills is getting at – the proletariat as it is imagined by elitist policy planners. It was characterless, passive proles like these who were supposed to be happy in the nation’s tower blocks; proles who should be seen but not heard.

The usual jobsworths, spivs and petty officials are all present and correct, playing along to someone else’s system of jargon and dockets. There is a young new employee whose initial curiosity and enthusiasm quickly disappear once he realises the irrelevance of what he’s doing. This is an accurate picture, if not a very nuanced one.

For much of the book, I couldn’t get a fix on what the Scheme, with its sea of surnames, its rules and ranks, its united struggle to avoid work and put one over on the supers, really reminded me of. Then I remembered: school. This working mass is being treated like – and behaving like – children. The book itself is a cute little package of pastel shades, with a pattern of hundreds of UniVans inside its covers like wallpaper in an eight-year-old’s bedroom. And the writing itself is deliberately childlike – syntactically simple, conventional and un-self-aware. It is as if Mills, like so many company directors, is infantilising his workforce (including his narrator) into squadrons of manageable drones in order to play out his rhetorical model of the labour market.

So what’s the big idea? Enter Joyce, a female superintendent, the only woman in the novel. Who does she remind us of?

‘Ridiculous, isn’t it?’ said Joyce, now turning to face me. ‘This Scheme’s a complete sham . . . It’s nothing more than a sideshow! A relic from some bygone age when people didn’t know any better, dreamt up by do-gooders in their ivory towers! It’s inefficient, expensive and wasteful, and what it needs is a thorough shake-up! These vans should be made to earn their keep instead of going round and round full of unwanted spare parts. The depots should be put to proper commercial use and the staff paid by results. Otherwise this entire outfit will go exactly the same way as all those other failed social experiments, like public transport, school dinners and municipal orchestras!’

When she’d ceased speaking Joyce stood looking at me with a challenging expression on her face, as if daring me to contradict her.

You can almost smell the hairspray. The school dinners bit is presumably a reference to Thatcher’s early incarnation as the ‘Milk Snatcher’, with her Iron Lady years still to come. ‘She looked magnificent,’ our narrator tells us with Alan Clarke awe as Joyce and her cohorts deliver the Scheme’s coup de grâce fifty pages later, ‘and at that moment I realised the future belonged to people like her.’

The analogy with Thatcherism, intended or otherwise, is unavoidable; but whether Mills means to inculcate Thatcherite values or merely depict their triumph is not important, as his book succeeds in neither. The comparison we are invited to make between the Scheme’s self-evidently impractical Möbius economics and pre-Thatcher trade unionism is dishonest – not because 1970s trade unionists were always practical, but because their impracticality was never self-evident. And, what’s worse, Mills attempts to make us the unwitting accessories to his fiddle. ‘There was no longer any public support for a Scheme that produced nothing,’ we are told in the final pages. No longer? It was an effort of will to imagine such unlikely public support existing in the first place. And having my disbelief, which I had suspended in good faith at the beginning of the book, offered back at the end as some sort of revelation felt like playing the patsy in a rather casual conjuring trick. Mills has a unique and restless talent, for which The Scheme for Full Employment marks a wrong turn.