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Loves the jobs you hate

Artefact 1: Mr Muscle | Article 2 of 4

Scrubbing floor
You don’t know your floor until you have scrubbed it on your hands and knees.

Lawrence, like the slogan of the 1994 Mr. Muscle advert, ‘loves the jobs you hate’. But what motivated him to have such a phenomenal work ethic? James Walker explores this in the second of our four essays.

James Walker

James Walker @memorytheatre

Born in 1879, Mabel Dodge Luhan was the daughter of a banker from New York. Despite being born into wealth, she had a difficult childhood. Her controlling parents were incapable of affection, meaning her childhood was lived, ‘in a rigid unlovely inescapable pattern.’ Art offered her the emotional connection missing from family life and would lead to her finding escapism as a patron of the arts in Taos, New Mexico. It was here that she hoped to build a colony that would offer an alternative mode of living to Western society. Impressed with Lawrence’s writing, she invited him over, hoping he would capture the essence of Taos as he’d done with his Mediterranean travelogue, Sea and Sardinia (1921).

Lawrence eventually took up her offer, writing on 5 November 1921 that, ‘we are very practical, do all our own work, even the washing, cooking, floor-cleaning.’ Lawrence had grown up in the mining village of Eastwood where cleanliness was essential, particularly for any household unlucky enough to have father and son working alternative shifts down pit. The mother would not have had the luxury of a shift, instead working 24 hours a day to ensure moleskin trousers and shirt were clean for the next day.

It’s no wonder, then, that Luhan was so shocked at Lawrence’s perceived restlessness. ‘Now I don’t believe I ever saw Lawrence just sit,’ she writes in her memoir, ‘He was forever doing something. Rather fussily, too…He always did the baking, and at least halfof the cooking and dish washing…Lawrence really had very little sense of leisure. After the housework was done, he usually crept into a hedge or some quiet corner and wrote something, sitting on the ground with his knees drawn up.’

Leisure wasn’t a luxury afforded the working classes, so it wasn’t long before he chided Luhan on the virtues of cleanliness: ‘You don’t know your floor until you have scrubbed iton your hands and knee’. But this wasn’t really a viable option for Luhan as she had miles of floors. It would take her all day to clean, time which was better spent on more useful pursuits, such as connecting with the cosmos. Meditation certainly wasn’t Lawence’s thing. On his protracted trip over to New Mexico he stopped off at Ceylon where he became infuriated by the Buddha statues, complaining “Oh I wish he would stand up!”

Luhan had servants to do the chores, enabling her to concentrate on worthier pursuits, such as her patronage of the arts. Lawrence loathed ‘servants creeping around’ and preferred to do stuff himself. Knud Merrild, who lived with the Lawrence’s for one winter up in the mountains of New Mexico, observed that Lawrence loved simple living and despised anything that placed a barrier between him and the world. Lawrence confessed to him one evening that: ‘The more machinery intervenes between us and the naked forces, the more we numb and atrophy our own senses. Every time we turn on a tap to have water, every time we turn a handle to have fire or light, we deny ourselves and annul our being.’ Therefore, being busy is about being alive and taking control of your own destiny.

However, Merrild also detected another reason for his eagerness to get things done, ‘He couldn’t bear not to be master of the situation’ and ‘he just wouldn’t be told anything; he was preaching and teaching all the time.’ However, Lawrence didn’t simply bark orders. He would never expect anyone to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself, as Dorothy Brett observed during their time together in New Mexico:

‘With a handkerchief bound round your mouth, you have been sweeping the rat-dirt and nests out with a small dustpan and brush. You come crawling out, looking white and tired…Nothing will prevent you from doing the same hard work that the Indians do, however dirty and disagreeable. You have to share the worst with the best, even the dirt and heat in the roof. You will not ask the Indians to do anything that you are not willing to do yourself.

’Clearly Lawrence’s working class upbringing and his desire to be self-sufficient were driving forces behind his versatile work ethic. However, being busy may have been a way of quelling an active and creative mind. This is evident in a letter from Kai Götzsche to Knut Merrild on 22 October 1923. At the time, Götzsche was travelling with Lawrence through Old Mexico. ‘He is always so concerned about the ‘spirit’ of the place that he isn’t aware, I believe, that it is he, himself, his own mood or frame of mind, that determines his impression of the moment, or the landscape.

‘Kai goes on to write: ‘He needs, in a high degree, something else to think about, and something else to do besides his writings. I am absolutely sure that he would feel happier and live more happily if he could go out for a few hours a day, and have some work to do, milk a cow or plough a field. As he lives now, he only writes a little in the morning and the rest of the day he just hangs around on a bench or drifts over to the market place, hands in pocket, perhaps buying some candy, fruit, or something. If he could only have access to a kitchen, so he could make our food, that would occupy him for a couple of hours.

’Is this why he lived such a peripatetic lifestyle? Did each new home provide new distractions and tasks to help fill up his day? Or perhaps while erecting a roof or irrigating a field his subconscious had time to map out the latest novel. Or was the process of writing so emotionally draining, physical graft brought about an even keel to his physical and mental health?

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