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The Devil’s Carousel
Jeff Torrington

The Devil’s Carousel
Jeff Torrington
Secker & Warburg
London 1996

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In The Devil’s Carousel, Jeff Torrington depicts the last gasps of Centaur, a moribund car plant, with a sardonic energy amounting almost to rage. This is an angry book whose events comprise a series of more or less tragic endings. In the opening sequence, drunken Laker reads his letter of acceptance from Centaur with its signature like "a pair of serpents either trying to screw or trying to chew one another", and smashes his watch which becomes fixed forever at 12.27. Curly Brogan – "if there really was a spectre haunting Europe then a whiff from either of Brogan’s armpits would exorcise it" – fakes his own death to escape the monotony. Henry Wormsley (The Worm) who is forced by his wife to take a permanent night shift, expires of a heart attack on a fishmonger’s step, his epitaph a bit of banter from a duo of "industrial clowns":

‘Why outside a fishmonger’ Hardy wondered aloud.
‘And why was he singing a hymn?’ asked Laurel.
‘A hymn – what hymn?’
‘"Nearer my Cod to Thee," of course,’ said Laurel.
The leaving-do for Twitcher Haskins, a loathed security man and amateur bird watcher who is suffering the hallucinatory effects of a blinding migraine, is celebrated with fake sentiment, bogus reminiscences, and grim ceremony. In contrast, the demise of the car plant itself – which will transform the workers from "men of substance into factory wraiths" – is delivered with no ceremony, the trembling voice of the Convenor full of panic and pain:
‘Lads they’ve pulled the plug on us… everything’s to go – lock, stock’n barrel. The whole shebang!’
This is uncomfortable reading, a sustained indictment of the brutalising effects of late twentieth century factory life. The workers and management are hopelessly divided, home lives are poisoned by poor pay and long hours, the factory floor is strike-bound and fearful of increasing mechanisation. By way of light relief, the book is punctuated with excerpts from Centaur’s anonymous and subversive newsletter, the gloriously mis-spelt and wildly surreal "Laffing Anarkist". The mundane and downright depressing events at Centaur are transformed in mercurial flights of fancy, as when the recent deaths at the plant are parodied in an "obitchery":
The death is announced of Sandy McWhussle, the dearly beloved bit-on-the side of Ella Choppers… long-remembered for his innovative attempt to introduce oxygen to the Main Assembly Division… Plans are now being made to launch a McWhussle Fund, with which it is hope to sponsor any up and coming young alcoholic.
The Anarkist reveals a vein of humour and genuine anarchy in the downtrodden workforce. But the ultimate irony of The Devil’s Carousel is the workers’ final acquiescence with the system; the plant runs like clockwork for its final ninety days when the men want their redundancy pay-off:
‘A grand in the hand’s better than two feet in the picket line.’
The final morning at Centaur culminates in a tea-mug smashing ceremony: a painfully futile gesture at the close of a working life.

Reviewed by Helena Mary Smith


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