"Aristotle had codified the snobbishness of classical antiquity in distinguishing between certain arts that were compatible with a ‘liberal education’ (the so-called Liberal Arts such as grammar, logic, rhetoric, or geometry) and pursuits that involved working with the hands, which were ‘manual’ therefore ‘menial’ and thus below the dignity of a gentleman” E.R Gombrich, The Story of Art
I enter the yard sometime around 6am and walk through a dimly lit corridor into the mess room. Large red-faced men sprawl on battered chairs sipping coffee, flicking absently through The Sun.
I’m waiting to find out who I’m riding with today. This was always the most nerve-wracking part of the job – as you might draw the short straw and be confined to a truck for an indefinite amount of time, with someone that either, A. Doesn’t speak – at all. B. has abhorrent views (this was rare). C. works you harder as you’re a stranger and therefore need to prove something (this was common). On occasions of course, you would have combinations of these variables – mostly A and C.
I got paired with R, a huge man and over 6.5 feet tall – despite his size he moved with real agility. It was as if R. had the musculature of a serpent, coiled and knotted, often overcome by a strange form of kinetic energy. Perhaps there were a faulty wire in his brain forcing his muscles to shudder with a terrific over-exertion. I was fascinated by the way R. moved his body along the low-ceilinged corridor as we made our way to the truck. He was forced to strain his neck – arms propelling himself along like the wheels of an express train – fractured motion coiled with an animalistic tension. Excited I could sense, he had the potential to unleash a raw urgent power.
In his van the first thing I noticed was the smell. It was so bizarre – I couldn’t work it out. It was a combination of stale cigarette smoke and something sweet, perfumed and annoyingly familiar. Beneath the heavy odour of fag-smoke, there was something that I found oddly comforting – this unidentified odour cut through and I relaxed into the passenger seat.
R. asked if I smoked and once I said yes, he seemed to immediately relax rolling a cigarette and going through the day. We were to run around central London dropping off and picking up artworks from various museums and galleries around town. It was a Friday in October, already the sun was coming up and I could sense it was going to be a very hot day.
We set off and started speaking about what we saw on television the night before and more interestingly what he used to do before handling art. R. used to fit and install washing machines in houses and flats across London for a company that would send the machines out with only one driver. R. was responsible for getting the washing machines delivered to the clients’ residence and install them. This would include having to carry the washing machine up endless flights of stairs, as the passenger lifts in the blocks of flats were often in a permanent state of disrepair. 10-15 washing machines a day, 6 days a week. R said that his back was in a permanent state of pain from having to heave these washings machines up countless flights of stairs – continuing to say that the job he is doing now, is a doddle by comparison. I sat back, happy to listen, noticing this story was punctuated by his large hand rubbing a regularly Bic-ed head, fag on constant go.
We arrived in central London around 11am after doing some preliminary work outside town. The office workers were scurrying around the city, carrying sandwiches and coffee cups. I remember R. became more animated at the site of a group of young women crossing the road. At this point I thought to myself, please no. R. stares out of the open cab window letting the young women cross for the green light, R. locked onto them – I turn my head 90 degrees to my left, hoping to feel the truck in motion again.
Through the old back-winding streets of central London R. manoeuvres this gigantic 7.5 tonne vehicle. He pulls heavily on the steering wheel as if pulling an iron chest from the ocean, slowly the truck turns, his arms hauling the wheel in endless rotations. We come to a stop as a black taxi blocks our path. R. is instantaneously enraged, sweat already pouring from his large domed head which he delicately inserts through the cab window to scream at the taxi driver. The taxi driver is of course very used to this and screams back. For a good few moments they exchange real hostilities – so much so I actually thought R. would leave the cab to confront the driver. We drive on in silence and R. eventually asks me to open the glove compartment so I can hand him a baby wipe. I search the glove compartment, finding the pack and pass them to him. R. takes a fistful, placing them directly onto his bald head – rubbing in concurrent circular motions as he steers the truck elegantly with both elbows. I realise then, this is the smell I couldn’t place earlier – a comforting, familiar, perfumed baby wipe.
We eventually pull up at a central London gallery in the early afternoon. The street is full, lined with cars and we can’t find a spot for the van. R. decides to park in the street itself, where we unload. As I get out from the cab and work my way towards the tail lift, I see a man gesticulating from inside a small electric car. His car elicits a high-pitched horn. R. appears at the rear of the van as the man exits his bubble car. I notice his shoes – small slip on loafers with sockless tanned feet, cream chino shorts and a pink pastel shirt. The man is becoming increasingly irate as he cannot park his car in the street. R. explains we won’t be long, his body moving animatedly in that simian manner I found so alluring. This is when events took on a bizarre twist. The man from the bubble car, clearly annoyed by not being able to achieve his objective immediately, took it upon himself to mimic R’s body movements in some grotesque parody. We paused for a moment, then R. took a few steps closer to the man with real intent. I felt compelled to place my hand on R’s vast chest and nudge him back. Chino-shorts took a moment to compose himself, realising that he wasn’t in any immediate danger as the gallery manager appeared for diplomatic negotiations to begin in earnest.
My impression of that brutally hot day is one I hope not to forget. The man in the slip-on shoes is not unique, embodying privilege and self-appointed rank in matters of the everyday. He, like many others of his social class, epitomises the arrogance of blind wealth and white privilege. Eschewing patience, virtue and decency for a self-appointed privilege. When you spend your youth carrying washing machines up stairs, labour becomes something more than just being on time. Labour for a lot of these men, is the body dissolved of its essence – forced to mutate, yielding to the demands of capital.