2018-12-19

Review: Paul Brookes "Please Take Change"

Paul Brookes is a poet I know through the internet.  We used to hang out on Poetry Circle, an online forum...

Before I begin this review I must reveal that I live a charmed life.  I have always found it easy to get jobs, and places I have worked have been more akin magical kingdoms, than grey Kafkaesque distopias.

I try to remain aware that this isn't true for everyone (should be... isn't) but awareness is one thing and knowing what living it is like would be something else again.  The main power of this book is it gives you a window into exactly that, and furthermore it paints subtly, neither glorifying, nor playing up to the grimness.

From the biography on the back we discover Paul has been a security guard, postman, admin assistant, call centre advisor, lecturer, poetry performer and now works as a shop assistant.  He has recently been interviewing almost every poet in the UK in  The Wombwell Rainbow Interviews and very interesting they are (you may find yourself, or even myself, in there if you look hard enough...)

This collection draws heavily on Paul's employment history.  Not all of those are the most glamorous of jobs (except "poetry performer" — literally the most glamorous job there is...) and you might expect there's a degree of arduous toil, unsympathetic bosses, wearying drudgery to be expressed.  In this you'd be right, and these poems do reveal a world of quotidian working days.

However, also running through this are threads of razor-sharp observation, human warmth and humour which keep the collection alive and make reading through the 75-odd short poems a light and rewarding experience.

Let's start with:

workaround

some systems don’t work
so you have to do
a work around
when this becomes the system
I don’t know
my bus
takes a detour for roadworks
or accident
something tells me
this is not temporary

I love the sheer universality of the experience related here, I have encountered the same thing in fields as separated as software design and cafeteria queuing; my home town had a "temporary car park" for four decades; and I've even worked for major international corporation entirely devoted to working around the things it failed to address previously.

Also the skillful way everyday language is put to work to illustrate the general principle, but simultaneously narrate the concrete example, is typical of the poems here.  Another that demonstrates this point is:

The List

Their companion gone
old men stoop lower
with less in their basket,

try to recall her shopping list,
was it Robinson's marmalade,
or Hartley's lemonade?

Spam. No she never liked spam.
Never enough fat on bacon.
Yes, I need a receipt, young man

Which is touching, humorous, and heartbreaking in roughly equal measure.  People who do or don't need receipts are a recurring theme, almost a running joke throughout this collection.

These two poems are perhaps a little unusual in using a symbol as a metaphor for something larger.  More pieces are essentially biographical, in the sense of relating wonderfully observed moments and characters from the author's working life, take:

Two Lads

at my till. I put first lad's
goods through while second

says to his mate,
I'm gonna get a kitchen knife
and rip your twatting head off.

Blip

I'm gonna put it in shoebox
Set fire to it. Piss on the remains.

Blip.

Do you want a receipt? I ask
the first lad.

There's the slyly comic receipt again :-) and also here is the acute observation of real everyday behaviour, skilfully juxtaposed against the mundanity of the till queue.

This is a fascinating collection.  The early copy I had was a little unevenly edited, but I hope that will be sorted out in the final edition.  The scenes from everyday life are compelling, and the understated humour and good will with which they are presented lifts them well above the mundane to a plane of their own.

The conflicts, insults and travails presented here are something to be accepted, but not surrendered to, and the ultimate message we take from this is one of optimism and — I said it before — good humour.

Lets just end with this:

Embarrassed

One of two young girls with flushed cheeks
who buy cans of coke and energiser asks

Please can I buy a lotto scratch card, #7?
I ring for the manager as per rule.

He asks the girls for i.d.
No. I haven't. I'm eighteen.

We need to see your I.D. he says.
You're an embarrassment, one replies

How dare you embarrass me?
Both girls flounce out the shop.

Did you hear what she called me?
Says the manager, smiling ear to ear.

Please Take Change is published by  Cyberwit.

Paul's other books are available here.


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