by Magnus Mills

This remarkable novel deals with the love of labour. And it does so uniquely. Imagine William Morris writing Emmerdale, all wrapped up in with a Wickerman touch of paranoia.

All Quiet on the Orient Express takes as its main theme the efforts of one man seeking to employ himself creatively in spite his newly borne freedom. In this sense it is an existential work but in an incredibly banal yet paradoxically readable way. Apparently on his way to travel to India, our protagonist is diverted by one and then another job for Mr. Parker, owner of the campsite he happened to be staying on come end of season. The endlessness of the chores recall Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, but this is a thoroughly English book and it is as interested in the value of work as it is in the absurdist, Kafkaesque situation.

In some senses the novel is a frank piece of rather old-fashioned social realism – imagine kitchen sink transposed to the twisty lanes and farmyard fronts of the Lake District a la Postman Pat or Whistle Down the Wind. But there’s a twist to this texture where on the surface of things nothing much happens at all. For example, one of the most dramatic moments is when our quiet antihero is painting a gate and a visiting milkman accidently knocks it over spilling its contents all over the roadway. He makes the best he can of a bad job by turning the splodge spillage into a green square and that’s just what this book is about: the struggle to be creative in one’s work despite the attempts (deliberate or otherwise) to disrupt the quiet peace of crafting an end-product. And, from a narrative perspective, the incident is an important one.

The mystery of local folk, especially Bryan in his cardboard crown and the various sidelines of Mr. Parker are both captivating, and the characterisation excellent.

The feel of its setting – the Lake District and, most notably its pubs – and of local, rural Britain is pervasive and, I’m sure for any British socialist, the book is contagious in its depiction of the leisure found in creative labour or being at rest while at work, as well as being at true rest (boat-rowing on the lakes or evenings at a warm pub playing darts with plenty of Topham’s Ex on tap).

On the other hand, the noise of interpersonal relationships and common misunderstandings disrupt this pleasure. Indeed, the coy politeness of our protagonist is the reason why he takes on so many tasks of which hold scant personal gain and it is this that often sees him exploited. These are things that spoil the beauty of the realm of physical, creative work. It is the labour itself that rewards the worker with a reduction of his world, personality and anxieties, no its capital value. It’s like gardening – the people’s art; a love of life through labour.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Marx, Morris nor Engels but a Cistercian Abbot (Andre Louf) who once wrote ‘We must work with some material substance that resists us, and against which we have to pit ourselves to reshape it.’ [1] Just as Magnus Mills has crafted a book of deceptively simple words and slender paragraphs, our protagonist labours before us fashioning a work of brilliant social realism, deadpan humour and life-enriching fiction. Indeed, I immediately sought out more Mills, which is as a reader has to be the best kind of recommendation.

[1 cited in Tobias Jones’ ‘Utopian Dreams’ (Faber & Faber, 2007)]

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