Scores of disabled people who have been brutalised by the bureaucracy of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have contributed to a new anthology of poetry and prose that describes their ordeals in “graphic and heart-rending detail”.
The Brown Envelope Book* is co-edited by two disabled writer-activists, Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R, and contains more than 200 poems, pieces of prose and short plays, the majority of them written by disabled claimants of benefits.
The overall theme of the book is the “brown envelopes” in which DWP sends its letters to claimants, but many of the contributors describe the work capability assessment process, the experience of visiting jobcentres or, in Kate Jay-R’s own How The DWP Ruined Vivaldi For Me, waiting on hold for a DWP adviser to answer the phone.
In his introduction, Morrison calls DWP’s brown envelopes the “paper symbols of state malice towards its claimants” and “agents of malignant governmental origami”.
Among the many highlights of the anthology are Steph Pike’s £53 A Week, which imagines how former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith would have fared if he had tried to fulfil his 2013 boast that he could live on £53 a week in benefits.
Another, Posting Icicles, by Scottish poet Lynn Valentine, describes how her letterbox “chokes on brown envelopes”, while Work Capability Assessment, by Louisa Campbell, compares the fitness for work test to a brutal, physically violent interrogation.
A foreword to the book has been written by its patron, disabled activist John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots group Black Triangle.
He says in the foreword that the book “illustrates the trials of claimants with stories of individuals who have been subjected to this cold-hearted barbarism in graphic and heart-rending detail” and will “enlighten all who read it as to the ongoing injustices being perpetrated upon ordinary people by other ordinary people working as bureaucrats in our country”.
Morrison has previously published two influential anti-austerity anthologies, Emergency Verse – Poets in Defence of the Welfare State, published in 2010, and The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity, the following year.
Jay-R is the author of the anti-austerity blog Diary of an Armchair Campaigner, which she began writing following the death in 2012 of Karen Sherlock, who died after fighting for two years against the unfairness of the work capability assessment.
She is also founder of the Don’t Go Breaking Our Arts disability arts Facebook group.
*An ebook version has been published by Caparison, an imprint of The Recusant, in collaboration with the Don’t Go Breaking Our Arts Facebook group and the Culture Matters co-operative of writers and activists. A print version will be published this summer. The ebook can be ordered, for £4, at: https://www.therecusant.org.uk/the-brown-envelope-book/4595276669
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