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The Scrivener: Obedient Servant

…I’m sure she gets a great deal of pleasure from doing exactly what I command her to do on the floor…

Steady on there! Rein in that imagination! Brian Barratt is thinking of a carpet sweeper.

Having read his splendid column you really must visit Brian's new-look up-dated Web site, The Brain Rummager, www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

When the noise changed from zzzmmm to fffmmmfff, the vacuum cleaner was busily battling with something difficult to swallow. Earlier today, it changed from fffmmmfff via thrummmk to ssscrrreeee. A smell of burning emanated from its shiny little body.

I switched the power off. After nearly forty years of faithful service. R.I.P., loyal little vacuum cleaner. Only twenty years ago, a guest who used it commented that it was more powerful than her own, which was much larger and heavier. Mine weighs less than five kilos in its deceased state, including the final load of carpet fluff, desiccated bread-crumbs, bent paperclips and errant peanuts.

Forty years before I bought my bright red plastic cleaner, there were full-page advertisements in women’s magazines for more cumbersome, non-plastic, machines.

Hoover: ‘It BEATS... as it Sweeps... as it Cleans’. They were still using that motto in more recent years. ‘... in its easy, gliding motion the Hoover dustlessly dislodges even the most deeply embedded grit’. Dustlessly — try saying that quickly ten times with a mouthful of bread-crumbs.

Electrolux: ‘You confer the “freedom of the house” upon your wife when you give her an Electrolux’. This brand ‘possesses important features which others lack, such as the protected dustbag, filter pad and sleigh runners’. Reindeer are an optional extra.

Modern equipment was essential for the successful housewife in the 1920s and 1930s, but servants were still a necessity for the middle and upper classes. A writer in a popular British women’s magazine put it this way: ‘If we are to become a world of robots, of machine-made and machine-souled men, then we shall need no servant beyond the machine. But if, as presumably the case will be, we remain human, then there will always be human servants, so long as the race survives’.
She went on to tell her readers: ‘...the human being whose nature it is to obey receives just as much pleasure from obeying and serving as the person born to command receives giving orders’.

We may well laugh at such sentiments, but they are a reminder of the machinery of the British Empire and the United States of America, where the happy obedient servant was a mere slave, until very recent times.

Perhaps we are now moving towards the world of robots. We can do much of our banking through a machine embedded in a wall. Automatic cameras tell Big Brother when we have driven too quickly or through a red light. Drinks and food can be served up to us by machines. The tea might taste like coffee and the coffee might taste like chocolate, but rejoice, it’s all automatic. There are even talking motor-cars for cognitively handicapped rich people who don’t know that they must close the doors and fasten their safety-belts before driving.

Machine-souled men are evident in company management, where employees are mere cogs in the wheel of progress and eventual collapse. Machine-made men, and women, are pretty evident in the world of politics, too. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.

However, the fact remains that my little vacuum cleaner has died. Fortunately, I have an old-fashioned, non-electric carpet cleaner of the simplest style. Push, pull, push, pull, and she responds beautifully with a quiet purr. I’m sure she gets a great deal of pleasure from doing exactly what I command her to do on the floor. And isn’t that the way it was meant to be?

© Copyright 2006 Brian Barratt

Extracts from Things My Mother Should Have Taught Me, The National Magazine Company/Leopard Books, London 1991, 1995.


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