Observer review: The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills revisits the time before New Labour was new in The Scheme for Full Employment

The Scheme for Full Employment
by Magnus Mills
Flamingo £10, pp255

'How can we have a productivity bonus when we don't produce anything?' It is a good question. Depending on your view, The Scheme for Full Employment is 'the envy of the world' or a dotty social experiment to keep people off the streets and on the ring roads. Gunmetal grey vans built to withstand rust and wear drive round, shifting surplus spare parts from depot to depot. Load, unload, collect the keys and make sure someone signs your docket.

The narrator of Magnus Mills's novel is one of the UniVan drivers, who records and laments the demise of the self-perpetuating Scheme.

Apart from holding up the traffic and attracting geekish van-spotters, the Scheme barely affects the wider community. It potters along happily, until a dispute arises over the frequent practice of granting an 'early swerve', which allows staff to clock off early. Soon, 'early-swervers' are in conflict with intransigent 'flat-dayers', who believe in working the full eight hours, producing 'momentous debates' in the canteen, rival insignia in yellow crayon, a threatened go-slow (oh, come on - slower, how?) and, finally, a strike.

This beguiling fable returns Mills to the ordinariness of working life, a retreat after the parable of cults and tin houses in Three to See the King. Like Tim Lott in Rumours of a Hurricane, he revisits a moment when Old Labour was whipped into shape by harsh new ideologies.

Similarly, Joyce, the new superviser who proves the Scheme's nemesis, recalls a political icon. She is the only prominent female, apart from George's unseen girlfriend, who exploits the Scheme for her cake-delivery business. With her insistence on utility and strong views on 'failed social experiments', like free school meals, Joyce is reminiscent of Mrs 'milk-snatcher' Thatcher. The narrator, baffled but enthralled by her steely femininity, marvels: 'She looked magnificent and, at that moment, I realised the future belonged to people like her.'

Distillations of the everyday, Mills's fabulist communities define their own archaic rules, apparently solid but ultimately fragile. No wonder he cites Gormenghast as a favourite novel.


David Jays

The GuardianTramp

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