Kindle Cover May 2020
Frontispiece to The Plate Shop
OUT ON KINDLE 25 JUNE 2020

A new edition of John Harvey’s first novel from Holland House Books,

 

THE PLATE SHOP

 

Winner of the David Higham Prize for Fiction,

Shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize and the Yorkshire Post Fiction Prize

 

Revised; with original illustrations not reproduced before;

With a new Forward on the writing of this novel.

 

(Print edition to follow)

From the Forward:

 

            Occasionally, driving, I’m stuck behind one of those large lorries the back-end of which consists of an enormous drum which, you presently notice, is very slowly turning round. It turns so the wet concrete inside it does not set on its way to the building site, and you can see, folded close to the mouth of the drum, the chute which will be lowered for the wet concrete to pour out. For me, however oddly, these lorries are the equivalent of those little yellow shell-shaped cakes which Marcel Proust might dip into a cup of tea, and find his childhood returning to him. Those giant slow drums bring back the several years in which, around the age of twenty, I worked in the local heavy engineering works.

 

            Not that I was ever swarthy with oil and iron filings, or muscular from lifting sheet iron onto a drill-bed. My job was white-collar and unskilled. I had a desk in the office of the Time Study Scheme, which was just being introduced, where I cranked an old manual adding machine. I would add up the times assigned for different parts of a job, and take the sheaf of job-cards up to the Foreman. Or I went round the work-bays collecting time-cards from platers, welders, machinists, fitters, and back in the office I added up the times the jobs had taken. If there was a go-slow a plater might draw me into the depths of his bay, between the pin-ups and the sandwich boxes, and slip me a tight-folded knot of cards which showed, back in the office, they had still made an OK time for their bonus.

 

            I worked there through my gap year. The atmosphere in the office was practical and friendly and I was glad to find I could work there again in my summer vacations from college. I had a connection because my grandfather had worked as a store-keeper there, another relative worked there later, and I followed events when a takeover threatened. ‘Asset-stripping’ was a term much heard at the time – the practice of buying a company not to develop it but to flog off whatever was saleable quickly. Closure and mass job-losses loomed, and also showed my young eyes the hard relationship between Money and Work in the world. When the idea took hold of making the factory a novel, it was clear this crisis must shape the story.

 

            Through the long first year when I worked there, though, the factory mainly seemed a vigorous going concern. Shears squealed, hammers pounded. Huge tonnages of iron slid through the air; a sheet of steel, in a press, would flex like folded cardboard. Voices joked, talked football, swore or argued: at intervals ‘Music While You Work’ boomed indistinctly through the banging of iron. Elsewhere in the factory flames showed at the foundry-chimneys and when the man in huge goggles opened the hatch dazzling metal tributaries flowed into the moulds. At a height, in the General Offices, you saw the draughtsmen, in white shirts, at their slanted tables underneath the neon tubes. Eroticism smouldered in the passages round the typing pool and outside the apprentices would wolf-whistle to the messenger girls. As to Money and Power I can see like yesterday (it’s not in the novel) the tall, black suited figure of Mr Ferguson, the General Manager, gravely conducting Major Leech, the Chair of the Directors, who did seem extremely old and brittle, down the length of the Plate Shop under the wary irreverent gaze of the platers. And in the acreage of yards outside the workshops the new big and small cement-mixers, plaster mixers and well-point drills, the batching plants and weigh hoppers and the truck-mixers themselves, multiplied countlessly, all shining in brilliant red, or yellow, or grass-green or sky-blue.

 

            As the novel went through its drafts one figure slid centre-stage, the Foreman of the Plate Shop. He was the lynch-pin of the shop: the point of contact, or collision, between management and workforce. He could be peremptory but he also had ideas, and could originate improvements to the machines. He had, as they say, a big shadow, though in real life he was a short man, a bit hunched, who always wore a grey suit baggy from long use. I realized recently that I had included him in the old drawing of an accident that makes my frontispiece. He is the man in the suit and cloth cap over to the right. And he had a wonderful name, too good for a realist novel: Joshua Slocomb Chard. My foreman has the surname Clyde, not so much to commemorate a great site of British industry, but because ‘Clyde’ is not too far from ‘Chard’.  

 

            I always saw my Foreman as being a bigger-built man, with his jacket often more off than on: I was drawing partly on other foremen in the factory, but it’s true my Foreman also has, in his mood and emotional temper, features of my father. On the other hand the relations of my foreman with his hard-of-seeing clerk Josh came straight from the life. And the real foreman was at odds with the Time Study in the way I describe. He had been in the job for years, and rightly saw the Time Study as interfering with his control of everything. Though he innovated himself he was out of tune with the larger changes going on around him, and it seemed to me afterwards that he had been like a factory – or an industry – on borrowed time, in person. . . .

Novels by John Harvey

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

  • Facebook
  • Twitter