Niall Brennan
The Making of a Moron

There were ample social facilities, personal amenities, and the organisation of the continuous shifts suited the private life of the workers. The personnel officer, a gruff young Scot, believed sincerely that none of the men was overworked. He had their welfare at heart in much the same manner as a farmer believes in conserving the energy of his horses. But he did not know how true his opinion was. The men were certainly not overworked. Their attitude to work was openly hostile. By common consent they had chopped about an hour a day from their forty-hour week. True, everybody sprang into life when a company official hove into sight, but work was systematically avoided when he disappeared again, and the finer points of how to avoid it without being found out were explained to newcomers. It was easy to hide in the rambling buildings of the plant, and one man's proudest boast was that he had survived a whole shift without once falling into the error of working. There were hidden recesses for poker and two-up schools, into which the newcomer was carefully introduced after a few days. Part of this initial schooling was the art of standing attentively alert by a machine while reading a comic paper. If an industrious newcomer was driven by sheer boredom with cards and comics to carry out his work, he was corrected with comments that soon became hostile. The first warning was a tolerant opinion that such diligence was 'not necessary.' If the conscientious beginner persisted with his folly, the tenor of the remarks became more antagonistic. The output of work was reduced literally to the limit of the foreman's watchfulness and the saturation point of absolute idleness.

The optimistic Scot had deliberately overstaffed the plant in order to make sure of average production with under-average effort. There was comparatively little work for each individual to do. The workers were all unskilled, and after only a couple of days I was able to take charge of one of the big machines. Most of the work consisted in carrying loads of pulp or waste paper by hand or trolley; emptying these loads into beaters; feeding sheet pulp to beaters; sweeping and cleaning, shovelling, raking, or stacking. A handful of chemists darted out occasionally, in white coats, and darted back into hiding again with a torrent of friendly abuse behind them. A couple of crane-drivers worked high above the heads of everyone else and seemed to delight in swinging mighty bales of pulp as close to the heads of the men below as they could. But these were the only men with any semblance of skill.

The object of the mill, and this I believe to be a fundamental point which will be more fully discussed below, was the making of low-grade paper, chiefly for wrapping. I mention this because paper-making is an ancient craft, and the development of paper-making machinery might have been one of the noblest steps towards genuine progress that science has given to a suffering world. Paper-making machinery is enormously big and it has great beauty and dignity. Its essence is a system of rollers, over which the saturated pulp from the beaters is slowly poured until, by the sheer length of the journey (in one case, a hundred and fifty feet), the fibres are knitted together, and the wet slop at the feeding end is transformed into a giant swathe of delicate paper which flows off the other end onto a storage roller. We are so accustomed to the sight of paper in convenient sheets that there is something delightful about an unbroken sheet of paper ten feet wide and hundreds of yards long. There is something to marvel at in the sight of these slowly turning rollers, several feet in diameter, in a sequence as long as a running track, caressing the pulp into this long carpet of paper. That such machinery builds the paper by the delicacy of its touch instead of mangling it to shreds is a remarkable testament to how admirable machinery can be. But to see one such machine, gently moulding a pulp dyed pink into a mammoth roll of paper pinker still, and to know that all this human skill and knowledge was destined by the grace of big business to wrap chewing gum, was to make one feel sour. It is difficult to become fervent about work like that. I felt as I feel when I see circus elephants playing with coloured balls and wearing silly hats. A thing which has greatness and beauty and a capacity for doing even greater and more beautiful things when the hand of man guides it rightly should not be made to do less than its nature demands simply because someone is going to become rich by it.

The workers themselves, in this mill, were a rabble; they were not ignorant clods redeemed by the dignity of knowing their ultimate and infinitely more important destiny. They were loud-mouthed, dogmatic, and evil-tongued men who had apparently committed every sin in the calendar, and were proud to admit it over lunch without the omission of a detail.

I would never have believed it possible that the sexual life of man could be revealed with such vigour in such dispassionate activities as rabbiting, the races, football, or the comic papers. It was impossible to say that conversation ranged over these matters and sex too, for sex was the connecting stream of thought which gave meaning to all the others. Not one thing was allowed to pass without its sexual significance being demonstrated to the innocent. This erotic interpretation of life was accompanied by the appropriate rituals. There was a certain amount of flippant homosexuality. The organs were occasionally produced or displayed. It may comfort the fashionable ladies who insist upon having their parcels wrapped to know that the paper was freely impregnated with urine. Had Freud lived to see it, he would have been a happy man. Not even Havelock Ellis could have demanded fewer inhibitions.

The mental standard of the workers was, of course, low. So-called lack of inhibition is always accompanied by, indeed only made possible by, a stunting of the intellectual integrity of man. Reading matter—there was a lot of reading done—consisted of comic papers, pulp weeklies and dirty magazines, most of them scavenged greedily from the waste-paper bales which arrived daily for repulping. The men had a curious inability to describe or explain. One of the surest tests of the cultural standards of any people is their ability to tell you where to go if you ask the way. A Roman policeman could tell me the exact whereabouts of a men's lavatory four blocks away though neither of us could speak the other's language. A worker at the mill could not tell me, in several hundred words of our common language, the whereabouts of the hot-water urn, though it was less than thirty feet away around a corner.

So far as unavoidable work was concerned, the general plan was to fry and leave it to someone else. There was of course a flat taboo on doing anything which was officially the task of someone else, whatever the consequences or circumstances might be. This had some picturesque results. A beaterman by the name of Henry who became a mate of mine had a blockage in his beater ten minutes before the shift began. Blockages were frequent and the first remedy was to take the long pole kept nearby for the purpose and to try by force to ram the coagulated pulp through the submerged knives. If this did not work, the beater had to be stopped and emptied. A man got in and cleared the knives by hand. This operation took about five minutes. To be sure, enough ramming always produced a sufficient clearance to prevent the beater overflowing, but ramming became very tiring after a while. Henry put up with the blockage for the whole shift, indulged in the masochistic luxury of fury and frustration, and finally took the skin off his shin because he would not stop the machine and clear the blockage the proper way. That act of maintenance and repair was the official duty of a man named Joe, who had not been seen all day. Joe was hardly ever seen. Whenever my beater was blocked, I cleared it myself, as much for the pleasure of a break in the monotony as for any higher motive. But Henry took the view that if the illicitly-conceived and base-born Joe was going to desert his mates and play poker all day, he Henry was not going to do his job for him. Henry finished that shift in a state of exhaustion and self-righteousness. Joe, of course, was totally unaffected, and quite unsympathetic. His only comment was rich in wisdom: 'Why didn't the silly barsted knock off and 'ave a smoke.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.