Friday, 03 August 2018 18:47

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For: Introduction and Review

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in Poetry
The Things Our Hands Once Stood For: Introduction and Review

 Alan Dent introduces and reviews the recent collection of poems about work by Martin Hayes.

From Chaucer to the present day, hardly any poetry in English is about work. Most of it has been written by men from the higher reaches of society. Chaucer’s father married Agnes Copton who inherited twenty-four shops, as well as other property. Chaucer himself worked for the Countess of Ulster, and one of his relatives was a moneyer.

Dunbar worked for King James, who paid him a pension estimated at about eighty pounds Scottish, a handsome amount. Edmund Spenser was educated at Merchant Taylor’s, London and Pembroke, Cambridge. He served Baron Grey, owned land in the Munster Plantation and by his thirties he also owned an estate at Kilcolman.

John Donne’s father died when he was four. A few months later, his mother married the wealthy Dr John Syminges. Donne was privately educated, studied at Hart Hall, Oxford, and later at Cambridge.

Keats’s father was a hostler, but he rose to manage the inn where he worked. At nineteen, Keats received two bequests: one from his grandfather worth £800 and £8,000 from his mother’s legacy. A total of some £550,000, at today’s values.

There are exceptions, but by definition they are rare. Most of our poetry has been written by people who have not needed to work, have inherited wealth or have been paid very well. The harsh fact of employment as the means of a roof and food, and poverty or destitution being only one or two wage packets away, has been very distant from most of our poets.

By contrast, Martin Hayes writes principally about employment. Even these days it is almost a taboo topic. The legacy of the Romantics permeates contemporary poetry. The requirement to display a superior, exquisite sensibility bubbles away in the background of most poets’ work. This generates what Miroslav Holub identified as a widespread failing – too much subjectivity, too much toothache.

Employment is a demeaning subject because employment is demeaning. As Hayes puts it:

we help these corporations exist

as our 83 year old mothers have to fill out 28 page forms

to see if they qualify for meals on wheels…

If part of your motivation in writing, conscious or otherwise, is to prove your superiority of response, why write from the point of view of an employee? An employee is by definition inferior. An employee is subject to an employer’s contract. An employee must comply. An employee is a supplicant. An employee must please the employer, or face being demoted, thwarted or sacked. An employee must define himself or herself by promotion, remuneration, position in the hierarchy. An employee’s identity is in the hands of an employer.

Like his American friend Fred Voss, Martin Hayes works for a living. He writes from the employee’s perspective:

a man I work with

cries every time it gets too busy...       

He works in the London courier industry, which is one of those modern, cut-throat operations ripe for zero-hours contracts and the intrusions of the so-called “gig economy”. The phrase is a terrible misnomer – it ought to be called the “you-get-shafted economy”.

Hayes is a husband, a father, a son, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, but none of these categories can be permitted to define our identities. Our economic system requires people to define themselves as ‘hands’, as employees. A good husband, wife, father, brother, son, daughter or friend is a failure if they don’t have a job, status and pay. It is against this tyranny – and it is nothing less – that Hayes’s poetry protests.

His style is demotic. Arguably the greatest exponent of demotic style employed for high-minded ends in English is Joe Orton, who once remarked that he came from the gutter and wasn’t going to forget it. Literature isn’t supposed to come from the gutter. The first working-class writer in English was Lawrence, and it is little wonder that he was snobbishly dismissed as a heretic.

Hayes, like Lawrence and Orton, is speaking for those whose lives are supposed to be not worth speaking about. Lawrence once observed that as much happens to working people as anyone else. He knew it from experience, but our culture denies it. Life happens to the rich and powerful, politicians, celebrities, magnates, pop stars with private jets, footballers with glamorous wives, and dubious businessmen with private islands. The rest become an indistinguishable mass whose experience is worthless. Only by identifying with money and power do their lives gain any significance.

Hayes is intent on revealing the significance of the lives of employees, but it isn’t a pretty picture:

the controllers come in on Monday mornings

full of stories about imaginary women…

Like the employees, his poems tell stories too. Usually they are stories of the stupidity of management, impossible working conditions, unattainable deadlines or targets, exhaustion, boredom, frustration, waiting for the salary that will barely get you through the next month, depletion, breakdown, the empty boasting and fighting upwards of humiliated workers like Ronnie, who wears a t-shirt bearing the slogan:


Madman On Duty

The photographs that accompany the poems complement them perfectly, unflinchingly conveying and criticising the realities of working life. Nearly all of the poetry books produced by the Culture Matters imprint show the publisher’s fidelity to William Blake, the inspiration for their website, in the way they combine text with meaningful images. Here, the grainy photographs, often murky, gritty and gloomy like the world of the poems, vividly express the alienation, poverty and broken-down environment in which those ‘hands’ work, creating riches for others.

When he moves from the workplace to the domestic sphere, the prospect hardly improves. Browbeaten and diminished at work, men and women have little energy, confidence or relaxation to make their intimate relations rich. This is the world of Christopher Lasch’s Haven In A Heartless World, the ironic title of his study of the way the ethos of the kill-or-be-killed workplace has invaded the private sphere, destroying the family and personal relations as an asylum from the dismal alienation of employment.

Kill-or-be-killed may seem exaggerated. People don’t murder one another physically for money or advancement at work, usually – but they do murder one another emotionally and psychologically. Workplaces are snake-pits of back-biting, betrayal, sycophancy, rank-pulling, boredom tolerated in the hope of preferment, where the competition is so vicious because the stakes are so low: 

it’s funny really

how 37 years can seem like a couple of chicken bones in a dog’s mouth

when placed alongside this technology...

says the man being dumped after nearly four decades because he can’t keep up with the machines.

Disillusioned, in the best sense, this is poetry which has no need to be flowery. It is direct and simple because it is uncovering the simple truth behind our culture’s manic, ceaseless, sickly, sentimental excuse-making – the human relation on which our society is based, that between employer and employee, is morally indefensible.

Out of this depressing miasma, Hayes extracts black humour. Many of his poems have a humorous edge. When employees share their experiences, they often find gallows humour, which is why employers, more and more, seek to isolate employees from one another – a distinct advantage, for them, of the you-get-shafted economy. In the humour, lies hope. That is the insight at the heart of these poems.

They rarely say it directly, but they imply, time and again, that work should belong to those who do it. Hayes applies the principle of Occam’s razor – the fewer assumptions the better – and the employer’s approach is full of false assumptions. Hayes is determined to expose every one, and show that those who do the work should control the work and benefit from it.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say the whole of our mainstream culture, the press, television, film, music, radio, schools, the church, every bit of it, conspires to conceal this simple truth. Listen to the politicians, the commentators, the interviewers – isn’t it the case that the problems they endlessly discuss emerge from the same source, the unequal relation of employer to employee?

Employment is one of the main drivers of inequality, because unequal ownership rights are built into employment relations in a capitalist economy. It is the Great Money Trick, which Robert Tressell explained in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and which Karl Marx theorised as the theory of surplus value.

Along with rents from property, and interest on loans, extracting value from work done by employees is one of the means by which the few become richer than anyone should, while the majority get by and those at the bottom are doomed:

where bookies and pawnshops sit side by side

and we aren’t supposed to get the irony

The means by which people are distracted from thinking about this and doing something about it are legion. Buy the latest gadget, or the new release; see the

latest blockbuster, keep up with the newest fashion; download the app that will cut your toe-nails, but never stop and ask yourself why so many people hate their jobs.

It isn’t work that is hateful, but employment. People like to be active. Work should be our hope. Work should be controlled by those who do it, work that is co-operative and rational, work which enchants rather than depresses. That is the vision that Hayes has glimpsed. People are bamboozled into thinking negative ideas must be shunned, but without criticism there is no ground for moral improvement. Hayes stares hard at the negative of employment and brings into the light a better possibility: 

the best bits were the Friday afternoons

when the storms that poured down onto our screens all day

suddenly became a trickle..

We evolved to move horizontally, which is why our thigh muscles are so strong. We were made for walking and running long distances in search of food, better shelter, and a more propitious environment. Yet our rulers have elaborated a culture where we are pressed to move vertically. The metaphor is “the greasy pole”. Perhaps a complementary one would be the escalator to nowhere.

Employment is the means to rise. We scramble for a place on the escalator, elbow and kick one another out of the way (in the most polite, Home Counties manner, of course) but if you get to the top all you find is the abyss on the other side.

Adam Smith expressed this well. He called the pursuit of private wealth a “delusion”. Unfortunately, it is the delusion on which our society is based. To be deluded is to be insane or virtually insane. What Hayes writes about is the insanity of a society where employers pursue a delusion by using employees as mere conduits to their lunatic enrichment, as mere ‘hands’ to be employed and make money for the employer.

He is the only British poet who writes consistently and seriously about the workplace. Almost all the others ignore it. When current employment relations are consigned to the dustbin of history, and are viewed as we now view slavery, or the feudal relations between lord and vassal, will people wonder why so little was written about it? Perhaps, but maybe they’ll twig that when an entire culture is in denial, ambitious writers are willing to poke out their own eyes.

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For is available here.

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Alan Dent

Alan Dent is the founder and editor of The Penniless Press and its successor MQB.