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 .
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.