Smallcreep: a book (and album) report

If you prevent men from seizing and wielding power over you by force, you do not solve the problem of human freedom. You merely make it necessary for others to acquire power over you by some other means.”

– Peter Currell Brown

In 1980 Mike Rutherford released a solo album called Smallcreep’s Day. In case no one remembers, Mr. Rutherford was (and may still be) the bass player for the progressive rock band Genesis, and latterly the guitar player as well. This is the band from which Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel sprang to successful solo careers performing pop music of a completely different species. Mike, too, released a number of albums, his offerings published under the appellation Mike & The Mechanics, an entity that delivered several hits including All I Need is a Miracle and The Living Years.

Mike before the Mechanics. Image probably copyright Shergold Guitars.

But Smallcreep’s Day preceded the “Mechanics” and was very much a concept album in the style of Genesis. It was his first solo effort and many agree his most creative and certainly his most energetic. I was a great big Genesis fan, and I had the record in my clutch the day it hit the bins. The jacket of this record showed a man, presumably the character of the title, peering down in wonder at something from a catwalk in an industrial setting.

In fine prog tradition, one side of the album was one long suite of songs chronicling the adventures of Pinquean Smallcreep, a man who (the inner sleeve informed me) worked in an enormous factory putting the same component into the same machine day after day and week after week and year after year, never seeing much of the works beyond his own little area until the day he became curious about what they were building and set off to find out. The songs and tunes were wonderfully evocative for me, and the album has remained one of my favorites through the years. The lyrics do not reveal what Smallcreep discovers at the last, but the ending ballad beautifully narrates his grateful return home to his wife and children.

The cover of a minor musical masterpiece.

Another note on the sleeve said that the album was inspired by the book of the same name by Peter Currell Brown. I logged the name in my memory and made a mental note to read that book someday, imagining that the author might have been more explicit about what hulking industrial horror lay at journey’s end. In my mind’s eye I pictured Smallcreep coming upon some collossus of destruction, maybe a giant robot like the one on the cover of The Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot album.

This was in those benighted olden days when you could not instantly know every fact by entering a few words into an online search engine (in fact, this was back when engines were engines and leaked fluids). To find the book, which for all I knew might have been written in the 1920s or the 1950s (1965, it turns out), I would have had to go to a library or maybe a large bookstore — Waldenbooks or B. Dalton would have been the largest, there were not yet Borderses or Barnes and Nobles — and I never got around to it.

In fact I pretty much forgot all about it until recently, when in an idle moment I thought of and googled the book and found that while it had gone out of print in the ’70s, it had been picked up again in 2008 by the British house Pinter and Martin.  It was being distributed only in the United Kingdom. In fact, even P&M themselves would not directly sell it to a Yankee. Their website directed me to an entity called The Book Depository, which promised free shipping to almost anywhere in the world (every country I could think of was listed, but maybe if you live on the island of Saint Helena you would be out of luck — no, just checked, and they deliver to the world’s most remote inhabited place).

A forgotten cult classic reprinted in 2008. Image copyright Pinter & Martin.

The book was shipped by Royal Mail, which caused me to whoop and holler a bit when it arrived, and that precipitated my having to explain my enthusiasm to Mara, who simplified my explanation when she told Angela that “the Queen of England sent Daddy a book!”  

I’m a slow reader, but even so I expected that I would whip through this little book. And I might have. The writing is excellent. I mean it really excels. Brown’s style is fleet, crisp and elegant – quintessentially British, I’d say — and he finds just smashing similes and metaphors for everything. Of a corpse: “He looked balefully up at us like one who has been disturbed from sleep to be reminded of some tiresome duty, and he looked fidgety and worried even in death.” Of men walking swiftly down a stairwell: “They began to clip-clop down the stairs at a great rate, leaning forward even further like ski-jumpers in flight.” And near the apocalyptic ending, when a worker inside a mammoth industrial crane glides high over Smallcreep’s head: “I saw his bared teeth like rows of concrete blocks…and then he was gone, but his shadow came after him like the shadow of an enemy aircraft and touched me, so that I shivered, as if my name had been marked down in a book.”

I've always thought Smallcreep found something like this, from another album in my collection.

But I discovered right away that the storytelling was of the kind that if I’m honest I must say is not my favorite. I am not especially learnéd, so I can’t evaluate the book within a literary tradition, I can only talk about my own experience with it (which is why this is a “book report” and not a “review”). I was prepared for something a little fantastical, but this was in that vein where things happen that are so bizarre and grotesque, and no one in the story reacts realistically to any of it, which leaves the reader — remember, that’s me — no cathartic vent in the story. Here’s an example. One factory worker is feeding a die stamping machine so quickly that when Smallcreep interrupts him to ask directions the man makes an untimely move and one of his hands is chopped clean off. Far from expressing horror — my the reader’s horror — the man grumbles that he’ll surely catch it from the foreman now, but before the scene is over he gets his other hand chopped off, too, and he wanders off dripping blood muttering about how they’ll probably dock his pay.

I was once charmed by this drastically understated style of storytelling, even attempted it myself, and I’m sure the style has a proper name, which I don’t know. But I get bored with it. Yes, I get it — the company owns this man so completely that his own sense of self-preservation and self-worth are overridden even when the company’s machines are bodily chewing him to pieces. Check. After a few chapters of this kind of thing I began to feel as though I were walking with Smallcreep in a macabre, dangerous, and depressing funhouse where there was no limit on what the author could throw at us. Rules of society, psychology, physics, architecture and even probability were AWOL. I understand that it’s a style, and that some consider it a very gripping style, but I don’t enjoy it. I feel taxed by the need to cobble up some significance for these seemingly unrelated and absurd events. So even though the writing itself was so original, I found myself not wanting to pick the book up. It’s only 205 pages, but I wasn’t even halfway through before my interest had flagged. There seemed no hope, no point in going on just to encounter more absurdity.

Except.

Or maybe he'd discover they were building something like this, the largest digging machine in the world.

Except that I really wanted to know the same thing that Smallcreep wanted to know. What were they building there? I am not a book-ending-cheater. Many fine and worthy humans do this, but I do not. So the piper had to be paid. I slogged on. Just past halfway, it gets briefly interesting when Smallcreep is forced by one of a series of misunderstandings to descend below the factory to a vast underground lake of sewage, out of which he is hauled into a boat by Walpole, the company’s lowest paid employee, who is proud that he and his family go without practically all comforts and is happy to do so to preserve the “order” of things. But then it refracts again into inexplicable scenes of barbarism and chaos, and I almost despaired.

Suddenly, however, Smallcreep opens a door into the office of some kind of chief of marketing or sales, and here the narrative suddenly begins to arc upward into a cogent idea, as the salesman tells Smallcreep that our modern society consumes products with the same spooky fervor that mediaeval illiterates consumed myths and legends. Here I perked up, because while a little didactic this thesis was right up my alley. I am the choir for this sermon. And it gets even better when our hero finally ascends to an austere little room in a tower, where the general director sits. This man says amazing things about industry and leaders like himself, delivering himself of such whopping mouthfuls as:

I would not hesitate to say that the blame for a not insubstantial proportion of human misery, yes, and of the bloodshed of the last hundred years must rest squarely on the shoulders of those whose lineage I have chosen to inherit. But lonely as I am, and aware as I am of the fallacy of the concept of human progress, it has been my last untarnished hope that that minority of men about whose shoulders the cloak of true wisdom has come to fall has from age to age increased both in number and in quality of men; for if it is not so I know, and the very knowledge weighs heavily upon me, that the story of man will henceforth be one of retreat, slow but inexorable retreat, into darkness, chaos, terror and despair. Sir, against that despair only I and such rare men stand, sole guardians of all that is of the essence of civilization and human culture.”

Or maybe something like Gustav, the largest gun ever built (thanks Adolph!).

This was the first time anyone seemed to be saying anything to Smallcreep that wasn’t hallucinatory gibberish, but he’s basically telling Smallcreep that the masses are lucky that such a man as himself is in charge of their lives, because the masses themselves would actually prefer to be enslaved by a dictator. Pinquean meekly resists this assertion, reminding the esteemed director that they fought for freedom, to which the GD replies,

I do not doubt your ferocity. But one look at freedom, and you would all shrivel up like worms in a snowstorm…You do not buy freedom because you dare not. In a society of free men you would be forced to face up to the truth of what you really are. In every sense of the expression you would have to do your own dirty work, you would have to forge your very own relationships with those around you.”

I’ll leave it there. It made me wish the book had had more of this and less of women giving birth to babies that died while no one noticed because they could not hear her screams over the roar of a band playing.

In the 1927 movie "Metropolis", the people tend and serve the machines they've created. Maybe that's what Smallcreep saw?

Here’s the final irony and the bittersweet victory of the book, which I recommend for its writing and for many of its arguments but only to those with the patience and stomach for a long dismal journey into the surreal: Peter Currell Brown was a factory worker — he WAS Pinquean Smallcreep — until he wrote a book that is as much as anything else a lament about the death of virtue, integrity and craftsmanship in modern work life, the success of which book enabled him to quit the factory and become an artisan, a sculptor of pottery.  Brown was given a happy ending that he did not vouchsafe to his offspring Smallcreep. On the other hand, I’m sure it was not Brown’s agenda in Smallcreep to make us feel content with the shape of mid-20th-century society.

 

6 Responses to “Smallcreep: a book (and album) report”


  1. 1 Kip December 23, 2010 at 13:20

    Matt,

    That was a wild ride! I hardly know where to begin. When I saw the album cover to Smallcreeps, I had the flashback…and a curious wonder if I still had the album in my now small collection. I do…just found it and hope to have time over the long weekend to play it. I have had I Robot going round and round in my brain for days now. Yesterday I gave in and listened to it straight trough…much easier to do now that it is in mp3 format on the old iPod, but the audio was taken from the original vinyl, pops and scratches included, so it sounded just as it should. Then to story of the reading of the story. What a story! I traveled the whole road, from wanting to read the book, to not sure I want to read the book, to well, no thanks not the book for me, to oh darn, now I’ll have to read the book. So, it was shipped by Royal Mail eh? Well, isn’t that something! No buttered scones for me, I’m off to play the Grand Piano!

    • 2 jstwndrng December 23, 2010 at 17:26

      If you’re keen to read it after all this, I’ll ship you the book, save you nine pounds thruppence. Unless part of the experience for you would be getting a book by Royal Mail! By the by, I seem to have parted with the vinyl, though I have the CD. Keep your vinyl…or at least examine it…it appears that quite a number of early pressings had the Smallcreep suite as SIDE B instead of SIDE A. I think mine was one of those, because I remember being weirded out when the CD didn’t start with the song “Moonshine” as I had always remembered it. I think this is because my vinyl sides A and B were swapped, which would explain why I always played it wrong way first. That album might have been a collector’s item!

  2. 3 Jana December 23, 2010 at 15:07

    I don’t know much about Sci Fi but last month the term “Steampunk” caught my eye. It was the first I heard of it – I loved the idea of making anything Victorian “hip”!although some of it doesn’t look very family-friendly :-( . For some reason your post reminded me of this newfound (to me) genre again with all the gears, fantasy and technology I suppose.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • 4 jstwndrng December 23, 2010 at 17:34

      Jana,
      Steampunk is a great and perfectly descriptive word isn’t it? Yes, some of steampunk is pretty risque, but that’s just a fringe of the fringe, I think. Steampunk seems to have inherited the torch of reactionary style from the Goths. I admit I would be all over bowler hats and vests if I were young and bored and disenfranchised (as once I was). In fact I had a little “railroad” watch on a fob at one time in high school — won me a lot of ridicule, but I can now claim that I was sort of a too-early pioneer — maybe the steam without the punk?

      Smallcreep is mid-20th century so much too late for Steampunk, but certainly Jules Verne and H.G. Wells would fit the bill. The popularity of the recent Downey-Jr Sherlock Holmes is also related.

  3. 5 marni December 23, 2010 at 22:52

    Wait….Am I missing something? What did they build??!

  4. 6 jstwndrng December 23, 2010 at 22:57

    Well, I didn’t say, now did I? That wouldn’t be cricket! If you want to know, you’ll have to armwrestle Kip for the book! But let’s be clear…I also never said that I KNEW what they built.


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