Yesterday I went to a mill about an hour and a half outside of town. I'd watched the recent BBC adaptation of North and South while being sick last week so I was expecting a beehive of human activity, maybe some low-level class conflict, and possibly Richard Armitage brooding through the beautiful but deadly industrial fluff floating in the air:
Yep. Just like that.
But it didn't go that way - there was hardly anybody there - certainly no brooding owners with eyebrows that did his job for him, no attractive Charles Bronson-y blue collar types, no indentured children rushing about with brooms, and no consumptive coughing. There were three engineers who I might have slipped a business card to if I was still footloose and fancy free, but I'm not. Je suis sage comme une image, and anyways they weren't dressed in period costume.
When I realised there was hardly any staff at the mill, I stopped fantasizing about a pornographic mash-up of class-concerned classic novels - something like Lady La Spliffery's Lover from the North goes South - and thought instead about industrial labour and its changing nature in a north European context.
The man taking me on the tour bragged about how the mill was perpetually decreasing overheads by investing in clever machinery and hiring fewer and fewer blue collar workers. And the mill I was touring had merged operations a couple of years ago with a mill a few kilometres away, so they'd also managed to sack half the white-collar staff working at them. The workers that remained were kept in tip-top shape - their health system was excellent, even for here, and they were given full physicals every year to make sure any long and expensive diseases or illnesses were nipped in the bud. "Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency," he said with some satisfaction, and more than once.
In our industry, the satisfaction is merited; these sorts of mills can and do run anywhere, in conditions that continue to be Victorian-ish in the sense that you can pay workers in buttons and ignore their health and safety concerns. If this high-paid and labour-organized part of Europe can compete internationally, it has to be inhumanly efficient.
And this brought me back to North and South - more the book than the BBC series, which was 'faithful' in the sense that the last Pride and Prejudice book was 'faithful' to Jane Austen. That is, no Laurence-Olivier-Wuthering-Heights-type bastardization of plot lines or characterizations, but many annoying instances of dialogue or setting being changed in an effort to make it more accessible and in the effect of draining most of the humour or meaning from the author's work. The book North and South ended in a sort of funny, sweet way, albeit too quickly because Elizabeth Gaskell's publishers were sick of paying her by the word, and the series ended so fucking drippily. Making out in a train station and getting into your lover's cabin unattended before marriage for a three hour journey indeed - what nonsense. Margaret Hale may be a real drip of a heroine, but she's not that big a drip. It was almost as bad (and certainly as open-shirted, uncharacteristic and artificial) as the closing scene of that Pride and Prejudice when that drippy Mr. Darcy walked across the field to make out with Kiera Knightley's drippy Elizabeth Bennett, which was only worse because making Elizabeth Bennett a drip is a far worse crime than making Margaret Hale a drip, and because Richard Armitage looks really good. But the bungee cord of my disbelief was nonetheless well snapped.
Anyways, before I got onto that rant, I wanted to say that the mill yesterday made me think more of North and South as a prescient sort of book, sociologically speaking - raising suggestions of a soft, paternalistic but highly efficient owner-worker dynamic which is probably the only thing besides the CIA which stopped Europe from going commie. It was neat. It makes me recommend North and South, if you have the patience, bearing in mind as mentioned that Gaskell was paid by the word so it does rather go on a bit in some places.