The first “novel” I ever finished writing wasn’t really a novel at all. It was a true story told in the third person, with all the names changed but the same events and surroundings. It was called Poundland and it was about a year I spent working at a single-price retailer.

It began in the summer of 2007, when I finished working at a hotel in St. Andrews and returned to Dundee for my final year of university. Over the summer I had for the first time in my life become accustomed to having money, and I had made the decision to work weekends during my final year so that it would be the first I didn’t spend in poverty.

The only job I could find, though, was at Poundland, and I only got that because my flatmate worked there. Jobs were hard to come by in Dundee and Poundland was the lowest of the low. It was one of the few places that actually paid the minimum wage. Poundland was a place people joked about and avoided at all costs… both as a place to work and to shop. The customers and staff were the most desperate and hopeless people I ever knew.

So I went into it with a sense of humour. I had to. I laughed with my friends when they came into the store and picked up each item, asking, “How much is this?” I laughed with them when they asked when Poundland would have a big sale (the answer, bizarrely, was January). I laughed when they asked if it paid one pound per hour, and I told that that it wasn’t a whole lot more.

But working at Poundland wasn’t much of a joke. It was a year-long nightmare that drove me almost insane, and ruined the lives of many others.

The store was run by a little fat bastard whose name I probably shouldn’t repeat. He wasn’t an awful human being – painfully ignorant – and his ignorance harmed those around him. He ran a shoddy staff of people who couldn’t work elsewhere, and who hadn’t yet realised that they could make more money on the dole. He ran the store through pure nepotism, too, dooming his halfwit employees to lowly positions whilst his friends and family were given promotions. He used to have something called a “black alarm,” which meant someone would have to follow and watch whatever black person came into the store, and he would make copies of the CVs of any non-white or non-British person who dared apply for the job, and would go about explaining why every qualification was probably fake.

One day I broke my foot and the manager told me I would be fired if I called in sick. He made me stand on my broken foot for nine hours before letting me go home, and said that he was too busy to help me get to the hospital. One of my co-workers – one of the few good guys, who is now a firefighter – was fired after catching pneumonia. A Polish woman, who’d been employed there before the manager had been promoted, was denied time off until she was days away from having her baby.

But it wasn’t the staff, necessarily, that made life at Poundland intolerable. It was the customers. The people who shop at Poundland Dundee are a special breed. They are people who are not above requesting help from the cashiers by saying, “Oi! Faggot!”

During my year at Poundland I was punched in the face by one of these customers, and treated like scum by the rest. I watched as two of them were arrested by armed police, while another shat on the floor, and every day dozens of them would come in to shoplift, to stare into pieces of tinfoil whilst tripping, and simply to be in a place where they could, for once, treat others as subservient. Once, even, a woman was followed home by a man and his mother, who came to Poundland purely to find a girl that they could rape together.

The police were frequent visitors, particularly because Poundland sold knives that were often used in brutal crimes. One man was fatally stabbed just outside the shop and the police told us that whoever had sold him the blade would be charged with providing the murder weapon. Thankfully, it turned out the charming fellow had stolen it.

One of my co-workers once caught an awful disease after a customer spit in his face. Another voluntarily took up smoking crack so that he could get sick leave, and then quit so that he could get benefits. One poor girl had to stand and watch as a kid slashed his wrists in front of her as she tried to pack his bag.

I could go on.

I did go on.

Poundland: The “Novel” was about 80,000 words. They were carefully chosen, vitriolic words, but nothing in the book was fiction. I wrote it with the intention of bringing Poundland down and destroying the people who had hurt me.

Perhaps there are better motives for writing a novel, but it worked for me for a while. The book was written in about a fortnight, and I made revisions here and there for the following few months. I firmly believe that one should wait a long time before editing one’s own work, and so I let Poundland sit in my drawer for a year.

But when that year had passed I found it harder to edit than before. I could spot typos and grammatical errors, but I could neither add nor remove anything. I found myself so removed from the protagonist that no longer was me, that I just couldn’t change anything.

The problem, of course, was that I’d struck out since Poundland and made a life for myself. I’d moved away from Dundee and away from a life of borderline poverty, and I was… dare I say… happy.

But I persisted. In Korea there were dark days, of course. Many of them. On those darkest of days I could relate again to Poundland. I could get back into character and rewrite sections that needed altering. I read a little Bukowski to help put myself into the position of a beat-down worker. It helped.

I decided to publish the book myself because I didn’t want any publisher to fuck with it. That sounds like a big-headed and extremely foolish thing to say, but quite frankly it just wasn’t a regular novel. Any publisher would’ve been sued for printing a book like that and would’ve naturally insisted that changes were made. But that would’ve defeated the point.

I built up a website and spread word of Poundland’s imminent release. Naturally, the first people to take note were the managers at Poundland’s headquarters. They were not amused.

At first it started with a friendly note. “A couple of my friends are characters in your book… I can’t wait to read it!” wrote one manager. Another was less polite: “Don’t you fucking think of publishing that piece of shite. If you have anything to say, say it to me.” I could see from posts on Facebook and MySpace that Poundland staff and managers were talking about it. My old co-workers and managers were talking about it. They feared it…

Then my website was taken offline by various attacks .

And again.

And again.

And again.

I recorded evidence and posted it on the site, which only fueled interest. Poundland moved along nicely. I began to enjoy promoting the book, knowing that the right people were worried about their misdeeds. I was getting my revenge.

I set a date for the book’s release. Sometime in May 2010, and then I went on vacation with my girlfriend.

We were driving around Bali in the back of a taxi, looking out at the rice paddies and lush green valleys, and the sun that never moved from the blue sky, and I had an awful thought. I was thinking about my book and an image passed through my head of the people still trapped in Poundland.

I pulled my notebook out, in which I had all my ideas for marketing and sales, and wrote one last sentence:

I don’t want to publish the book anymore.

It was as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had. I felt completely washed clean of all my hate and desire for revenge. I began to pity the poor swine who’d mistreated me and others, and I pitied the poor bastards who’d worked with me and shopped in Poundland. I even pitied the awful managers who’d done everything possible to get ahead and fuck over their staff.

I looked around at the world I’d made for myself and the world that had been handed to me, and I knew that I was one of the luckiest people on earth. I had escaped a dark place and landed in paradise, while so many others rotted in hell. I had no desire to make their lives worse, regardless of what they’d done to me. They had it bad enough.

I walked around with an idiot grin on my face for the rest of that vacation, and returned to work in Korea with a newfound appreciation for my job and surroundings, as I thought of all those who had it worse. Even to this day, when it gets bad enough, I just look back to how it was for me in my darkest hours, and think of the poor fuckers who are still stuck there and who will never get out.

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DAVID WILLS is the managing editor of Beatdom Magazine, and the author of The Dog Farm and Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'. You can learn more about him on his website.

47 responses to “Poundland”

  1. […] I have a new post up at The Nervous Breakdown. It’s something I’ve not written about publicly before, but that was a significant period in my life. Please take the time to read it: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/dswills/2011/05/poundland/ […]

  2. You are a far better person than I am.

    I used to work as an intensive case manager for the Deaf mentally ill, and I had to work with this director who was a control freak and very manipulative. One time after we negotiated for a contract to get 100 dollars a week for 24 hours on call service, he simply changed the code number and then cut the 100 dollars a week on call pay to 25 dollars a week and work four hours extra for free. He quit the job after getting the sense of us not liking him at all. (We all chipped in for a gift but refused to show up for the farewell party. Although the other workers shot down my idea of attaching a note saying, ‘Thanks for quitting. Now get the fuck out.’)

    A year later, I visited an interpreter at her house because she was on sick leave from cancer. She said at one point, ‘you should never wish cancer on even your worst enemy,’ and immediately I went, “Hey, wait a minute, what about…”

    If I worked there where you used to work, I would have lost whatever left of my will to even simply live to those parasites of our energy and spirits.

    I would have enjoyed ‘Poundland’ and learned to appreciate that I had it easy compared to others.

    Way to keep your head high.

    • Thanks, Patrick. Back when I worked there I could never have imagined getting over it. I just feel so far removed these days that it’s hard to feel the same anger that I once did. There are plenty things to get pissed off about, but after a while it’s probably best for our sanity that we just let go and move on.

      Your boss sounds like he’d be right at home managing a school in Korea! Your story of contract-changing is pretty much the quintessential experience for people who go there and teach.

      I would’ve voted in favour of your note. Back when I worked in Poundland I probably would’ve voted in favour of hiring an assassin for that fat little fucker, too.

  3. Though I mourn the loss of POUNDLAND (the book), am so glad I got to read this terrific piece, and v. much look forward to THE DOG FARM, I’ve been waiting for someone to write fiction about English teachers in Asia for-fricking-ever, it’s great source material, and if this essay is any indication, imagine you are thoroughly kicking ass with your book.

    • Thanks so much. I actually finished The Dog Farm about a week or so ago, and am just working through some revisions with my editor. It is looking good, I think. Certainly, it feels great to have finished something that has been sucking up all of my time and energy for the past two years!

      I agree completely that it’s about time someone dealt with the subject of ESL teachers. It’s just too good to pass up. The thing is, if you look around the blogs online you could spend decades just reading this fantastic material – the stories are amazing. But no one has managed to condense it into a book yet. I think maybe the problem is that there are too many stories – I found myself having to make tough choices in that respect because if I included everything I wanted to, I’d have ended up with an unreadable 1,000,000 page memoir.

      Ah well, thanks for the kind words. Hopefully I won’t one day have an epiphany that will rob the world of The Dog Farm

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Oh my God, Poundland sounds vile.
    What kind of family unit follows a woman home in order to rape her TOGETHER??? Good Lord!
    I have to say, I am sad that you aren’t going to publish it because I know no one would be able to tell the story of such a place in such a brilliant way. You are funny and clever and I would love to read it.
    But, I understand totally why you don’t want to have a bar of it anymore, thinking about it or writing about it – Happiness is always the very best revenge.
    Love your stories, David. Can’t wait for ‘The Dog Farm.’

    • We had a policewoman on staff and she gave us all the gossip on the Dundee crime world, which is a pretty awful place. She would tell us all kinds of stories, and get us the details of what happened after the armed police left the store or what went on upstairs after the stabbing and so on…

      Thanks for your kind words. I was immensely proud of the book probably because it was the first disciplined effort to finish a novel. But I’ll read it again in a couple of years and see if it really was worth publishing. I suppose by then I could blur the lines and release it if it was really worthwhile. It could be my “Rum Diary.”

      “The Dog Farm” is something I’m really proud of and really excited about. I got a sneak peak at the cover art about an hour ago and it looks cool.

  5. D.R. Haney says:

    And I agree with you, when you say: “I agree completely that it’s about time someone dealt with the subject of ESL teachers. It’s just too good to pass up.” Yet, you know, I almost feel as though I’ve read a novel about that subject after reading your past posts. Which isn’t to say that I won’t buy The Dog Farm when it’s published, and then promptly lose it someplace in, oh, South America, or move on before it arrives in California.

    Meanwhile, your writing does inspire anger, huh? I’m referring to the constant hacking of your MySpace page, not to mention the attacks on your blog, and even a few here. It’s funny to me because I think of you as being very reasonable — or maybe I should amend that to say that I find your opinions to be very reasonable. I would expect to find you reasonable in person also, but so far I haven’t had the pleasure.

    But, David, what is it about people shitting in public wherever you go? Do you think it would happen if we ever hung out? I mean, could we be in Beverly Hills or someplace and suddenly have a limo pull up and Jackie Chan or somebody get out and squat and decorate the pavement with a nut log? Nothing personal, but I may have to pop a Xanax before our first beer.

    Seriously, though, congrats on The Dog Farm. Can’t wait to read it.

    • It was hard not to just take my own experience in Korea and call it a novel, like I did with Poundland. As you all know, it was quite an eventful few years. But there’s the challenge, I suppose. There are hundreds of people in Korea writing blogs (not necessarily well written, but all fairly interesting) and they all want to write that novel. It just hasn’t been done because it’s tough. It’s tempting to take Korea and make it a character.

      The power of reasoning can get you in a lot of trouble. That’s why I’ve mostly just kept my mouth shut in China. No point getting in more trouble, even if I’m right or being sensible. Just gotta be quiet for a while.

      I think that if we ever hung out it would probably happen. I went to a zoo about six months ago and we were having a picnic in a nice grassy area for families. There are toilets nearby, but on the command of one older woman, approximately ten children dropped their pants in unison and just shat. I’m not even exaggerating that.

  6. Greg Olear says:

    We’ve all had jobs like that…well, most of us have…but maybe not THAT terrible. POUNDLAND sounds like the name of an unreleased Spinal Tap bookleg. And that odious manager should have been taken out by one of the knife-wielding customers. I hate people like that.

    But you did right by passing on the book…it would have kept you metaphorically trapped in Poundland forever.

    • The last I heard, the manager had moved on to slightly bigger and slightly better things – managing another shitty store. Hopefully a change of scene will force him into developing some morals.

      You’re right – it does feel good to be free of that place.

  7. When I first saw the title of your post, I thought “Wow, Poundland sounds like the name of the great lost Tom Waits album.” Then, after I read it, I thought, “wow, that post pretty much contains the lyrics of a great lost Tom Waits song.”

  8. James D. Irwin says:

    I shop at Poundland quite regularly now. It’s horrible, but financially neccessary.

    When I saw this on the homepage I did think you’d gone right ahead and posted an entire novel…

    • My marketing plan was to sell the ebook version for… well, I’m sure you can guess how much I was going to sell it for. With a big giant price sticker on the front.

      My landlord used to shop at Poundland, which is why nothing in our house ever worked.

  9. Brian Eckert says:

    So you’re Rodney Munch. Interesting…

  10. Uche Ogbuji says:

    I’ve shopped there a couple of times out of curiosity at the US “Dollar Store” equivalent, but I had no idea it concealed such horrors. Very admirable of you to have reconsidered having spent that much energy on the project, but maybe that expenditure was necessary to get you to the better place you describe in your final para.

    • I have always wondered what a dollar store was like. Apparently Poundland was not the first – it was just an imitation of the dollar store. In Korea we had something similar, but again it was nowhere near as shitty. Poundland is where people supposedly shop out of desperation, but the funny thing is that everything there is broken and the non-broken version can be found for basically the same price (sometimes cheaper) at a supermarket. Really – and I didn’t get into it here, but did in the book – Poundland is like a social club, where people come to “get the best deals”…

      Writing helps me work stuff over in my head more so than just thinking about it, so you’re probably right – I wouldn’t have likely come to let go without the experience of writing the damn novel.

  11. Erika Rae says:

    David, I’m convinced people who shit in unlikely places are attracted to you somehow. It’s almost unbelievable, really. Certainly I’ve never witnessed a wayward shitter…and I’ve even lived in Asia. I think this speaks somehow to some dark underbelly that you have born witness to. A truth in humanity. I am seriously impressed. Jealous, even.

    • Maybe I wear too much eau de toilet…

      But yeah, it happens way too much. The gross thing about this is that someone had to clean it up because it was in a store. Usually it happens outside and is left for the elements. But this turd was trampled quickly into the ground and dragged around the store til the whole place was covered in brown linoleum. It was awful. The manager was telling people to clean it up, and nearly everyone threatened to quit rather than deal with the situation. Certainly, I threatened to quit. That, it turns out, is the line.

  12. “and simply to be in a place where they could, for once, treat others as subservient.”

    Says it all, really, doesn’t it?

    Ye gods, man. I’m glad you’re out. While it’s a blessing to be able to look back and rise above a situation, and even wish the people in it the best for their own rise and evolution, that still unfortunately dictates that you be in the situation in the first place, and it’s a very different kettle of fish when the situation is sitting and laughing and taking a giant steaming dump in Aisle 3.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Sorrentino

    I guess when you learn a valuable lesson in prison, it’s a lot better to then have your sentence ended, rather than remain in Cell Block D for the term of your natural life.

    Anyhow. Good move getting the fuck out, and I’m glad you dealt with it in such a healthy way.

    • I think that sometimes it’s necessary to go through hell to know what hell in fact is, and therefore in future you can do what you need to avoid returning. Not that I would likely ever aspire to work in Poundland, regardless of my past, but I now have a fairly healthy distrust of the common man, of managers, and of working anywhere for any amount of money.

  13. Joe Daly says:

    When I saw the title, I was quite sure it was going to concern some randy Korean S&M club. Turns out the characters aren’t all that far off.

    What a nightmarish place. One or two of those “colorful” tales would be enough to cement the Legend of Poundland, but sounds like you’ve culled about twenty from a much longer list. It’s true that some of our most dreaded experiences are the ones that serve our writing with the greatest of majesty.

    Dundee sounds crazy. Thank God it’s not like that in Glasgow.

    • “It’s true that some of our most dreaded experiences are the ones that serve our writing with the greatest of majesty.”

      Absolutely. I couldn’t really create much of a story out of my present job – “I only work a few hours here and there and have no bosses to answer to…” Nope. It’s the shitty jobs that are worth reading about. Bukowski had it nailed.

      Dundee is an interesting little city. I prefer it to Glasgow, but that’s probably because there’s marginally less violence.

  14. I’ve only darkened the door of a Dollar Tree and a C’est Deux Euros (for some reason the “un euro” place doesn’t exist). Both have the same smell and the same shampoo stocked next to the knockoff DVDs. But Poundland does sound more hellish than any of them.

    At least, you’re left with these funny/horrifying stories. Revenge can be quite a motivator, but in the end probably best to shelve.

    • Goddamnit, “C’est Deux Euros” just sounds plain classy. It’s the sort of place you could tell your English-speaking friends about and they’d be filled with jealousy. The curse of the French language…

  15. Becky Palapala says:

    Mr. David!

    Your talent for attracting controversy and public shitters is truly remarkable.

    Jesus.

    I’ve had some disgusting, awful jobs in my life, but most of them were darkly hilarious, not just black, wretched, and doomed.

    Well, I guess, I mean, I find much of this darkly hilarious, but I can see how someone wouldn’t, especially the person(s) who had to endure it.

    • Thank you, thank you. It’s my specialty. I think that when people see me they just start chugging laxatives.

      I suppose when I look back I tend to think of Poundland as “darkly hilarious”. Mostly that’s because people laugh in disbelief, or think in some way that I’m pulling their leg. Nowhere could be as awful as Poundland…

      I suppose it is funny, except for the poor bastards still stuck there.

  16. Reno Romero says:

    Mr. Wills:

    This was a good fun read. I totally understand you’re (long gone) pain. I worked customer service jobs all my miserable life. Like you I can tell 100s of stories of nasty customers, bad bosses, etc. Damn. And damn again. It seems to me that your days are better now. You deserve it. After being called a faggot numerous times and a punch to the mug you deserve better. Good deal, David.

    • The “faggot” comment was a frequent one. Poundland customers have no respect for long hair on men, apparently. The worst I got it was when I fell asleep at a friend’s house and she put eye-liner on me. I couldn’t get the stuff off and went into work like that… Poundland was suitably situated in the roughest part of town. Nasty.

  17. Richard Cox says:

    I’m dumb. It took me the whole post to realize Poundland meant “things for a pound.” Jeez.

    This was fascinating to me, though. The whole process of working there, writing the book, waiting (a YEAR) to edit it, the build-up, and then not bothering. You, sir, are a bigger man than me.

    Nice post, David S. Wills.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      you wouldn’t believe how often you see people asking the price of individual items in there.

      it is fun to ask though…

      • Richard Cox says:

        Well I conveniently let this line slip past me:

        “It was called Poundland and it was about a year I spent working at a single-price retailer.”

        Although hopefully if I actually were in the store, it would be fairly obvious.

      • The first line of the book: “How much is this?”

        My next TNB post (maybe this weekend) is about another unfinished book – not a novel, this time – from that same period. This one went unpublished mostly because I couldn’t imagine anyone reading it. But back then I wrote so fast and – let’s say – Kerouacianly that it was a little easier to dismiss the book at the end. My latest book has taken so much effort that it would be a little more difficult to give up. In fact, it would likely involve some tears.

  18. I think you went through a beautiful exercise in writing this piece. I mean, sometimes when we look back on what we’ve written, we realize we just went through a damn futile experience. The words aren’t right. Our motives were miscast. And we produce these things, these monstrosities that don’t reflect the sort of truths that we should have been after in the first place. I’m glad you wrote about your Poundland experience. It helps me to look around, to see where I’ve planted my feet, and it reaffirms that I need to not get caught in Poundland-esque experiences, which I have been totally guilty of.

    • Yeah, there are lots of reasons to write and I’m sure some revenge novels have been great, but for me it was healthy to take it as an outburst of raw emotion and step away. Hopefully I’ve learned enough from the experience to improve my life and to improve my writing.

  19. David Breithaupt says:

    David, I think you should let Stephen King write Poundland. In the meanwhile, I will wait for the movie.

  20. […] (It was during this week that the Murder House was discovered. Over this whole period I was working at Poundland.) […]

  21. michelle says:

    Found this by accident, thank you for shareing this. I work there at the moment just part time to put my self through college untill I can go to uni. I have never had to deal with such bullying and fear of unemployment. I was starting to think I was the only one! Thanks again I no longer feel like I am going mad!

  22. The Chocolate Sheep says:

    Well done for writting this David, i also worked in poundland Dundee in the stock room and the ” little fat bastard ” aka SIMON GUY is a fucking waste of space who shags all his staff then promotes them to senior sale, i worked there for nearly 2years n couldnt stand that DICK.

    I found out the other day that all the time i worked there Simon and Ashley were trying to set me up but failed as i was just to quick and good at my job.

  23. Anon says:

    I can not agree enough. I also work at said store, I got laid off of a summer job and this was an only option, I have ended up staying here for nearly 3 years and I can relate to every thing you have said.

  24. Jessica says:

    I can so relate to this article. I had the misfortune to work at Poundland in Bath (the beautiful Roman city of Bath has a Poundland now) last year and lasted only about 3 months before I was fired when a customer conned money out of my till.
    Those three months were still enough to leave me an exhausted, emotionally drained shell. I have many stories to tell, thankfully not as awful as yours.
    Now I’m starting my own business as a freelance proofreader and have started writing my novel again and although I’m just starting out and not earning much yet, I’m happy again. I never again want to be put in a position where I have to take a job in a place like Poundland, and it appears I’m not the only one.

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