John Forth examines a dark and often funny poetic exposure, by Martin Hayes, of the politics of a soul-less work place

almost-like-menWhen We Were Almost Like Men
Martin Hayes
Smokestack Books, 2015
ISBN 9780-9929581-0-7
130pp    £7.95

 

It’s possible that Martin Hayes has invented English Institutional Verse. Anyone who thinks we need more myth like a hole in the head is probably in the wrong place – a courier company whose people are supervisors, controllers, riders, mechanics, telephonists and a curiously pampered bunch from Sales & Accounts. The blurb calls it ‘The Inferno’ scripted by David Brent and Charles Bukowski, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be ‘Lord of the Rings’ by the Marquis de Sade:

between 5 and 7 every afternoon
and between 7 and 9 every morning
the shifts change

those with bleary eyes walk in
saying nothing
and those with bright eyes
walk out
saying that there’s a whole heap of shit
to sort out

but because this happens on a rotational basis
no one ever has bleary eyes for too long
or bright eyes
for long enough
.                                [‘rotating weathers’]

A lot of it is Gormenghast-gone-large, with Horse the mechanic, Harry the supervisor, Robbie the 24-stone right-hand man and Janet the telephonist; but there’s a sense in which nearly everyone’s workplace is visited, like the one Fred Voss took to pieces when he wrote Democratic atmosphere is one thing; actually giving us a voice is another. It’s where a personnel brochure costs more than the new PCs that would make their lives easier (‘addressing the problem’). You learn of the two kinds: the people and non-people, the latter being those who’ve learned not to care in the way that Horse doesn’t care (‘on Horse’).

What’s common-to-all in the new pragmatism is that ‘characters’ are being replaced by machines, and some of the things making lives bearable are under threat. In the title-poem, the hair-raising antics of those who had cars were stopped when spaces in the small car-park were given over to Sales staff. Since ‘progress’ dictates that machines always cost more than the characters, the latter become expendable and are not always wise or efficient anyway. Hence the lot of non-people is fixed while for those in the new Sales & Accounts building the carpet just gets deeper:

…they have an air conditioning system
that never lets the temperature drop
from a cool solid 24-degrees
and that they have a water-cooler and a coffee machine
and that it is populated by perfect-looking people
dressed in suits
who walk around on £28 pound per yard gun-metal grey carpet
surrounded by forgiving apricot-coloured walls
under sunken spotlights.
.                                     [‘the new church across the road’]

Think of lotus-eaters. The machinery, luxury and ‘celebrity’ are undermined by the harmless word ‘forgiving’ that turns out, sadly, to be only what the walls do. A nose-pressed-up-against-the-window helplessness works best when it’s allowed to sneak up on you and, like Voss before him, Hayes is only making you laugh when he’s not making you sad. He’s good at penetrating the surface of real events, exposing layers of meaning that drive ordinary people to keep warm by the false heat of a workplace ethic. It’s as deep as you want it to be, and it’s often funny (but not always), being at its best if the narrator keeps what’s left of his innocence by not getting involved.

This is especially the case towards the end of the collection when stories darken, the walls of the corporate prison close in and work becomes a threat to life and sanity while the de-humanising effect of pranks infects jokers and victims alike. The word soul-less has become a cliché in describing some jobs but a lot of skill is needed to explain and re-enact what it means. It’s a big book at 130 pages and it contains nearly all the poems in Hayes’ Redbeck collection of 2002. Years later it’s still the case that no outsider can fathom how to live in a place like ‘Phoenix Express’ or how to cope with the iniquities of office-politics and the crazy waste of lives and resources. I’m reminded that I once worked with a man whose key-to-happiness was ‘never lose sight of the goal in your desire to kick the full-back’. The poems that manage this are the ones that best succeed.

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John Forth was born in Bethnal Green and recently retired from teaching English after thirty-odd years. He has published four poetry collections (Malcontents in 1994, A Ladder & Some Glasses in 1998 and The Demon’s Phenomenal Filmshow in 2013 when a collection of early work, Spirits of Another Sort, also appeared). A New & Selected is due next year from Rockingham. He has reviewed new poetry for London Magazine and his poems have appeared in a number of journals.