Portrait of the Artist as a Junk Worker
By Malcolm Sharps
Two things stopped me from going stark staring mad working in the packing department at the mobile phone factory where I made boxes and filled them the whole day. One was my ever-vivid imagination in those days and the other was the presence of Mike Lancaster, real name Mike Lancaster. I won’t say the name of the internationally famous company we worked for; they might still be looking for the gummed tape and brown paper we made personal use of. At first I thought Mike was an old hand, he seemed assured making his way around the packing area swapping comments with the other staff, who obviously liked him, particularly the females; I soon found out that he had started only a week earlier than me and the white streak in his jet-black hair dated from no earlier than that and was a shock reaction to the repetitiousness and tedium of the work. I escaped that effect of the job but for the whole time I was there I bore my own mark internally, something wider and darker, like a bruising of the soul.
We used up, at most, 10% of our brains doing the job. What happened to the other 90%? We dreamed with it. A quarter of the people I met in junk jobs turned out to be prospective musicians, or actors, or novelists, or poets, or painters, or so it seemed, or so they thought. I even met a top-level crossword writer who was unable to make a living from it, so there he was pushing a trolley of medicine bottles from the end of the line to the padlocked restricted zone and pushing it back again when it was empty.
Mike wanted to be a horror writer, Mike was a horror writer, in fact: he was just waiting for his great break, the chance to be published. I listened with unforced interest to Mike’s ideas which he shared with great enthusiasm, and not only with me, with anyone who would listen. He was just as enthusiastic about letting me read his writing: it was precociously assured, totally contemporary in expression, grammatical and coherent and along with the derivative bulk of it, marked by many individual touches. The ‘how’ was much more impressive than the ‘what’, which was often gratuitously gory. Like the butcher who ‘economises’ by serving up his customers’ bodies as ground meat. But why? It just happens. Or an Elfin trickster character Bingo in a longer story which, it seemed to me, broke a rule of the genre code, in that it showed strange events in the lives of strange people, with no balancing reference to normality: one layer of strangeness too many. There was a substantial body of work, however, impressive for a twenty-two-year-old. And there was a good chance a publisher might think so too.
Between gaps we contrived ourselves in the work routine, I talked crazily with Mike about films and books, about our own story ideas. Horror was like a religion with Mike. All of my religious friends talk po-faced about their beliefs; Mike beamed constantly relating his, displaying a happy glow of faith in what was consciously implausible but grounded in something very real: a fascination with what is terrifying and grotesque. I have no particular interest in horror, my interest is in all artistic activity which is done well, which exhibits a certain professional finish. Consequently, I had to be in sympathy with Mike and the world he was trying to create. I offered him advice and I’m proud to say he incorporated a number of my suggestions into his later drafts of stories before publication, which years after I received in the post.
We storylined together over the mounds of paper and empty boxes which should have been our main focus of attention, tentatively advancing, and soon charging ahead with a tale of innocents abducted into a strange bedevilled factory – where else? – a remote sorrowful place of Evil, the real purpose of which is shrouded in rumour, misinformation and mystery. But it turned out the bodily essences of the innocents were needed to power some terrible Satanic experiment which would…well, we never did get to the final purpose of the Factory of Evil. We never got to the purpose or final justification of any story, that is what is such fun about pair or group storylining, and also its weakness. When the pace of one line of narrative flags, the story just grows another adjunct, like Gormanghast growing another wing or Kafka finding another annex to a room draped in shadows.
I once asked an older woman worker on one of the junk jobs I used to do what went through her mind to pass the time as she worked. ‘I think of all the lovely things I’m going to do on my holiday’, she said. I found there weren’t enough lovely things in the world for me to relieve the dullness of these hours folding card, arranging instruction manuals and placing the phones into cutout cardboard templates. The time ground down on me and I was crushed between it and a hard place. I was acutely aware there were those around me who would be crushed for the rest of their lives and their souls would shrink a little more each day: workers in packing departments, and in the other departments among machines becoming slowly machines themselves, mindless means of production. And there were those like Mike and myself whose state was temporary, constantly asking the question ‘but how long is temporary? How long will we have to bear the day job in the despatch departments, the carparks, the diners and the bars?’ The answer is undetermined: until the positive response to the unedited first draft arrives, until the post-interview acceptance letter, until the ‘thank you for coming, we’ll contact you’, said at the audition, actually means it. And it sometimes does.
As a horror religionist, Mike had a great respect for the holy icons of his faith. A great knowledge too, far greater than mine. We discussed King Kong and the golden age of animation which that film sparked off. The name Ray Haryhausen was also sacred, though I only knew snippets, literally flashes of action, from his animated sequences. Mike had seen more and said far more than I did; he probably knew the name of Haryhausen’s brother’s housecat. We kept returning to King Kong, which I had at least seen in its entirety. We went over every detail of the action on the top of the Empire State Building. Then went over it again like small kids do. Somehow it was decided we had to make our own King Kong set. Or our hands decided for us and I found myself one day using scraps of packing to model Kong’s head. Mike was encouraging beyond all expectation. I thought my Kong was terrible; he was inspired by it and started on the beast’s body and the arms, which were much more professionally done than my head. The brown paper we used for wrapping was already the right colour and by crumpling it we could get an impression of rough fur. Having seen how well Mike had done his parts of the giant ape, I had to go back and improve the head. In front of me was a vision of King Kong with the bi-plane buzzing around him like a venomous insect, and he had such a look of terror and alarm mixed with heart-rending pathos in his eyes. I held back, not knowing if I could bring about the effect. I cut two eyes from white polystyrene, added two black dots and carefully fitted them into the delicate eye sockets I’d created from gummed brown paper. The result was gratifying. The eyes suddenly brought the super-ape to life. From a lifeless mask, in a moment it became the living Kong. This close up it was somehow more real than the film had ever been. What’s more, I had made the eyes so they could revolve in the sockets with the direction of a finger tip. You could make them stare anywhere. You could make them look sideways at you! It really was magic!
I showed it to Mike, relying on his usual endless fountain of enthusiasm and encouragement. But this time he was truly knocked out and couldn’t contain his excitement. It’s Kong! You’ve got the pain! The sadness! And such incredible eyes! It’s Kong! It’s Kong! There was no stopping us now, we had become like Gods creating life from dust. Next, Mike made the Fay Wray doll. He got the scale just right; and though it didn’t turn into a human you might expect to suddenly start speaking to you, it was persuasive in its complete innocent vulnerability.
We could never have created a model big enough to represent the full height of the Empire State building, but the situation was forgiving: we could cut the building off at any point as long as Kong had a top to hang onto. A cardboard box the size of a small upright cupboard got covered with rectangles to represent windows. The shape wasn’t yet perfect, it lacked the stepping of the upper floors and the pinnacle, but it would do for the moment.
I approached the bi-plane with some uncertainty, but I had gained so much confidence over a few days. I Iooked at some old photos and with lightning speed taught myself aircraft construction on a reduced scale. I knew it was going to be great.
I was in the middle of the bi-plane with the wings made and matched and the separating struts still needed, when the manager discovered the masterpiece. He reacted coldly and silently. There was no display of anger, no threats, no final warnings. Just one of the other packers was ordered to take the models away. The manager didn’t even ask who was responsible for building the monstrosity, pun allowed. Kong went to the factory skip with Fay Wray protectively in his arms but, like some interrupted consummation, never did get to scale the highest peak with her.
Mike and I were saddened, we were stunned. Now the story was over and we could only imagine what might have been. Our dream was destroyed but somehow we accepted the tragedy as part of the prospects faced by a foredoomed giant ape who has a crush on a girl small enough to sit in the palm of his hand. Much as we had stressed our hopes and downplayed our doubts, it could never have lasted.
I do not believe the searching heart of the artist is confined to artists alone, otherwise ordinary people could never understand what artists do. And I do not believe that it is only the future prose writers, poets, translators, actors, painters or musicians whose hearts die a little each day in the packing departments, the diners, the bars and all the other workplaces in the world with low-paid junk jobs. The ordinary workers doing any soulless job, all of them, stare out to some horizon which is not actually there, and they imagine in the mind what cannot be touched by the senses; they all seek the freedom to exercise impulses they have long ago forgotten the purpose of. And in their search they reach out beyond themselves, they are dreamers who imagine another reality, wanting one other than the one which they inhabit as prisoners, they are artists too, but artists of the saddest kind, the kind who will never create art.
Unlike real life, books and films often give an impression of finality at their conclusion; it all depends on what you want to say where you choose to make the cuts. But life always has sequels. This is not the end; you’ve come with me so far, and you deserve a happier ending than this. So here it is:
Mike went back into education to get a diploma in English Literature. He published a collection of horror shorts during this time. Who knows how much of it was the effect of his new educational regime which forced him to comprehensively diversify his literary interests, but he underwent some sort of Epiphany as a writer and changed genres, also reverting for publication from his adopted horror pseudonym to his real name. It was as if he was acknowledging this renamed author as finally who he really was. From a horror writer, at which he was destined to be of minor significance, even an obscure mediocrity, he turned into a prize-winning Teen and Young Adult (T&YA) fiction writer and has now completed 4 books. As well as in the United Kingdom, he is published in the United States, and in addition to his English language editions, his works are translated into 7 foreign languages, including Mandarin.
As for me, in order to stay away from the junk jobs forever, I took a slower, more self-indulgent and colourful route, crossing Europe many times from West to East and back, before becoming first a teacher, and later a translator and occasional writer and lyric writer.
The End, for now.
Titles and publishers of the books of Mike Lancaster
O.4 (American title: Human .4)
1.4 (American title: The Future We Left Behind)
English publisher: Egmont Press
American publisher: Egmont USA
American publisher: Sky Pony, USA