Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 37, Number 2. 13th March 1974
Smallcreep's Day: by Peter Currell Brown
Smallcreep's Day: by Peter Currell Brown.
Victor Gollancz 1965; now available in Pan "Picador' paperback edition 1973. $1.40. Reviewed by Marty.
This week, for a change, I am looking at a real book, one which has been around for some time.
Smallcreep 's Day is the, first-person Pilgrim's Progress of an insignificant factory worker, who is one day beset by a question. His job may be described in a few words:
"put down the second pulley and picked up a fourth. I pulled up the lever, took out the third and put the fourth in, before depressing the lever, putting down the completed pulley and picking up the next. I pulled the lever up again...."
Such has been his life for 15 years, and he has always been contented with it, until one day he wonders - what happens to this pulley? Where does it go? Where does it fit into the scheme of things? And so his search through the factory begins.
The factory is not one the reader is likely to have come across anywhere, for Smallcreep's journey is an allegorical one, in which he is brought face to face with many aspects of the society which Peter Brown savagely attacks.
The above description may not sound particularly inviting; in which case it is my fault. It is as difficult to convey the atmosphere of Smallcreep's Day as it is to describe Lord of the Rings or the Titus Groan trilogy by telling the story. Smallcreep's Day is not a great work by these standards, yet it is a work of considerable force and novelty.
Peter Brown's main delight is in smashing the reader's beliefs about his own society. Pinquean Smallcreep is an ideal searcher for this knowledge, for the continual revelations do not affect him in any way: his total naivety enables him to proceed where others would be stranded in horror. Yet many readers will realise—hopefully with shock—that Smallcreep's defence of the beliefs which his life is based on are no flights of fancy but are called straight from the Average Man. As he searches for his pulley, to find what his contribution really is, he meets up with all the classes in the factory, even the managing director, who confesses his hypocrisy, and tells Smallcreep that he has been fooled.
"Then we live well," I said quite impatiently. "If you mean that you eat well, then I must agree, hut that has nothing to do with democracy either, and pigs and horses cat well if their owners have any sense. If you are speaking, however of the quality of your daily lives, then I do not agree. You are as stultified as tinned sardines, living in a dream world because your real world is so utterly unfulfilling." "We are happy," I flung back as a last attempt to comfort him. He shook his head slowly. "If a pig in a sty tells you he is happy, what do you think? That he doesn't know what happiness is, of course. The product, Smallcreep, is always the same a pig who dreams he is a god."
Such people are not, however, typical of Smallcreep's Day, for Peter Brown's world, our world, is populated with "contented pigs" rather than discontented humans. A press operator informs Smallcreep that he has been allowed to buy shares in the factory;
".....I hold two penny shares and a ha'penny preference share... It gives you Something to work for. I'm double time and treble time here most weeks now because I know I'm working for myself." He came close to my ear. "I wouldn't be surprised, if I work hard here for three or four years or so, that my tuppence ha'penny won't have doubled itself by that time. What do you think of that, eh? So much for your socialism!"
Young men from the higher offices produce statistics to demonstrate that Smallcreep arrives at work at nine rather than seven thirty, and that he owns a car. He is surprised, but too polite to refute the statistics of those much wiser than himself. Some of the hardest blows are reserved for the advertising manager.
"Throughout the ages men have believed in malignant little spirits....We have our germ-creatures."
"But germs actually exist," I said.
"Have you ever seen one?" he retorted. Of course Smallcreep knows people who have; the advertising manager does not doubt him. "But the modern housewife, who daily performs long and exhausting rituals to exorcise these creatures, has never actually seen one, and it is a simple medical fact that her rituals are irrationally elaborate. All this cleanliness....Then there is our obsession with whiteness. What could be more irrational than the concepts "Whiter than white", "seven shades whiter" "
It seems as if Peter Brown occasionally makes the mistake of going too far; that his attacks are totally unfounded, and perhaps this may detract from the very real criticism of twentieth century capitalist society he is making elsewhere. Yet, on reflection, the truth or otherwise of the existence of germs is irrelevant to the housewife. She is told to perform certain actions on certain grounds and to buy certain products to do them. There may be some truth in any advertiser's claims: but his interest is in using current beliefs to back up his claims. What these beliefs are is irrelevant. For instance, the words "vitamin C" now conjure up a glowing picture of health, and so every edible product is now oozing with the stuff. This is despite the fact that we get quite enough of it in an average diet, and it is quite useless in conjunction with some products, for instance anti-nauseants, in which the advertisers proudly boast it is to be found.
Smallcreep firmly believes that there must be a rational explanation for everything. He repeats this so often, and is proved to have no idea of what is going on around him so often, that by the end the reader is forced to the conclusion that something is drastically rotten in the state of the nation. The status of the worker seems to have changed remarkably little since feudal times; freedom of speech is a farce; freedom of thought is nothing more than freedom to hold prejudices.
Smallcreep's Day offers criticism which is totally destructive. It provides very few answers to the problems it poses; but since it is an allegory, and no divine being appears at the end to revive Smallcreep from his hysteria, his only solution is to return to sanity operating his pulley-slotter. I am not pointing this out as a fault of the book; his intention is to shake the reader out of his complacency and to think for himself. Peter Brown's message deals very much with the way in which people have most of their thinking done for them, until they are not only incapable of thinking but - worse still believe that they think. It would thus be laughable for him to finish off by doing the reader's thinking for him. Smallcreep's Day is a very successful, very powerful allegory. It is also fluently written, avoiding the sickly danger of turning an allegory into a series of improbable adventures. Peter Brown has worked in factories, done a six year apprenticeship in toolmaking. His knowledge of the machines makes them real, and their grossness and grotesque distortion even more horrible. Smallcreep's Day is quite real.