Selected and edited by Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R and published by Caparison/ Culture Matters, Alan Morrison presents a showcase of work from The Brown Envelope Book poetry anthology produced in collaboration with Don’t Go Breakin’ Our Arts.
The Brown Envelope Book is the third Caparison anti-austerity anthology – the first being Emergency Verse: Poets in Defence of the Welfare State (2010/11) and then The Robin Hood Book: Verse Versus Austerity (2012).
Our aim with these series of poetry anthologies has been to highlight the struggle faced by the most disadvantaged in society, made worse by the despicable ‘scrounger’ rhetoric of right-wing red top newspapers. Given the nightmare for the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled claimant population, faced by the inequities of the pandemic it seemed, once more, an apt time to think about producing another protest anthology. The Brown Envelope Book provides a focus on the need for a compassionate restitution of social security, and abolition of the indignities of the work capability assessments and Universal Credit.
In late 2020, DAO’s editor Colin Hambrook put me in touch with Kate Jay-R who was looking to publish a body of poetry produced by members of her welfare-related disability Facebook group, Don’t Go Breakin’ Our Arts (formerly Nothing4Something). This seemed serendipitous and prompted me to offer to collaborate with Kate and her group towards a third Caparison anthology focused on disability and benefits, in particular the WCA regimen for disabled claimants.
There then followed, equally serendipitously, a generous donation towards producing a print book. In addition, progressive poetry publisher Culture Matters also expressed an interest in being involved in the project. I then sent out a call out to all my poetry contacts and associates to submit poems for consideration. So The Brown Envelope Book project was born – and certainly not on the back of an envelope! (Just at the point, paradoxically, the DWP had announced it was about to change the colour of its notorious tan envelopes to white).
Of immense value is Kate Jay-R’s Diary of an Armchair Campaigner, which charts her experiences and polemics as a disability activist during the worst years of ‘welfare reform’ (2012-17), a lengthy excerpt from which is included at the start of this anthology. Another seasoned disability and welfare campaigner, John McArdle of the Black Triangle Campaign, agreed to be patron of the book, and pen its Foreword. Additionally, academic Kayleigh Garthwaite, author of the paper ‘Fear of the Brown Envelope’ (2014), provided an endorsement. This has become a much bigger project than any of us foresaw at the outset – a broad coalition of activists, campaigners, writers and poets coming together under one banner to express moral opposition to persecutory policies.
As with the original Emergency Verse, The Brown Envelope Book is starting out as an ebook, so maybe it’s more The Brown E-Book at this juncture. A print version of the book is planned for the summer. The poem samples picked for this showcase are meant to give a flavour of the variety of voices and perspectives converging on the same or similar themes. The selection begins with a poem by Erik Zoha, a founding member of Don’t Go Breakin’ Our Arts (the punning name of which he came up with), who sadly passed away while in hospital on 15th April 2021, just two weeks after his 53rd birthday. We have dedicated the book to his memory.
Co-editors: Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R
Pushing The Brown Envelope
by Erik Zoha
Waiting apprehensively with stomach in knots,
Through the letterbox a brown envelope plops;
Gateway to no income, destitution, poverty –
Courtesy of rigged assessment, bureaucracy;
Ineptitude, delays, mandatory reconsideration.
Weeks, months of pre-tribunal real deprivation.
DWP should tell me Goldilocks level of disability,
Just right amount to garner base level of stability.
Finance-wise, is PIP a king’s ransom amount ??
Or minimum re daily hurdles sick people have to surmount.
No laughing matter, what happened to human respect?
Atos assessor lies and DWP errors unchecked.
In these PC days of so-called equality for everyone,
Why is disability discrimination state-driven, anyone?
Oh bloody hell, oh my God, oh shite;
Stress-induced brain fade, forgot PIP envelopes are white.
by Lynn Valentine
The letterbox chokes on brown envelopes,
no matter how cheery the postie has been,
all morning I hear the echo
of his whistle hanging in the street.
The strip of grass outside the house
is ice-smooth, somehow the cold
clambers in along with the letters,
though there’s hardly any room.
I pick at the glue to reveal the scars,
appeal denied, phone for interview.
I join the ranks of the drowned, the unwanted,
shiver on the sea of the living-room carpet.
by Maria Byrne
And is the
Of hard work
And a good work
But it seems
Is not enough,
And help to get in work
Doesn’t cover full time
Now, if you work hard
To educate yourself
You’re a mouth not
A useless eater.
Assessment for Disability payments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
by Cathy Whitaker
They ask her to sit down,
three of them in a row, suited,
a solid pine desk barricading them.
They ask her if she can you feed herself? shower? dress?
On a good day she says. They’re busy ticking boxes.
She speaks louder. I’m tired all the time.
They all stare at her.
The woman in a crisp striped blouse and skirt says,
you don’t look tired. You look fine.
It’s hard to walk she says. Everything hurts.
For a few minutes silence settles in the room.
But how did you get here? The woman asks,
you’d have to walk from the carpark wouldn’t you?
They all smile at her like a row of nodding dogs.
Yes, she says. It was exhausting. It took ages.
You can walk. You can work. The young man says
with a wide smile as if he’s trying to charm
her with his crocodile teeth.
At home she lies on the couch under the window
wonders how she’s going to survive.
How can she make some money, live?
Wonders about suicide.
by S.J. Litherland
She’s impersonating Justice, her make-up
salon ready, her eyes bright and censorious,
the quiet inquisitor with highly polished
nails, a system finder, a trailer through the files
of the inadequate and the failed. They’re racked
by the bleeding of their lives in solitary,
the view out of their windows busted
like those seams below without air, left to writhe,
scattered in face powder to dampen the sparks,
like the hardened arteries of our land,
she’s there to hand out questions and interrogate,
with the polite blandness of the torturer
who gets on with his job. Her eyes crease
as though with sympathy: We’ll get back to you.
They know they’ve handed her the tools.
What can they say about natural justice
and the wrong dealt out to them in coupons?
The word Benefit hangs like a threat to despoil
the air. There is no injurious word like Malefit.
Torquemadas have laid aside the knife,
you can cut as easily with the stroke of a pen.
Work Capability Assessment
by Louisa Campbell
They may as well strap you to a wooden chair,
slap you about a bit,
dim lightbulb over your head.
Tell us exactly how far you can walk
before you must stop
for the pain…
Did you know
there’s a wheelchair
imagined for you?
If they imagine you
having the strength to propel it,
Searching for the Work-Search Form
by Paul Lester
When applied? Where applied to?
What happened? What will you do
Next? Columns merge in that work-
Search form he must fill in to prove
He’s actively seeking employment.
Weary and depressed at all this,
Tempted to improve his prospects
With a round-up of the usual suspects
From a long list of past rejects,
Hoping the interviewer won’t notice:
Is this what he’s now reduced to?
No. He will apply and get no reply
But at least have some material to supply
For that infernal work-search form
So as to satisfy his interrogator.
Now stood before the Jobcentreplus,
Automatic door, chewing unwelcome,
He decides he must check once more
All’s well with his work-search form.
He seeks for it in all of the usual places
With growing alarm. Where’s that record,
Proof he’s actively seeking employment?
Finding it hard to believe that he could
Have forgotten or lost that work-search form
He heads into the mouth of the beast,
Nevertheless, and as he knows he must,
Not knowing when applied or where applied
Or whatever will happen to him next.
How the DWP Ruined Vivaldi For Me
by Kate Jay-R
The Four Seasons (spring)
Was a school assembly thing
While we filed in
Took our places
On the floor spaces
Crossed legs and shoelaces
Now, cursing on hold
We wait to be told
While we wait
Listening to Vivaldi
(I’d rather be in Aldi)
Some other ideas instead:
Friend Michael said
Or here’s one
For the suggestion box
My sister mocks
Don’t Keep Me Hanging
On The Telephone
And I said
If they’re a bit slow
At picking up
How about Nick Lowe
(All I feel is an ocean
Keeping us on hold
While our cuppa’s getting cold
Makes us very cross
So a bit of Diana Ross
I’m Still Waiting
Though you’ll end up hating
They play on a loop
Each day she watches the postie cheerfully
striding up the path in his fluorescent jacket,
his knee-length shorts the colour of Bath Stone,
his walking boots worn pavement-soft.
Each morning she waves in response
to his raised hand, listens for the letters
to land on the ‘Welcome’ doormat.
She waits for his whistle to recede,
for the clunk of the garden gate,
the rattle of striker as its latch catches.
Each day she picks up the bundle of post.
She sorts leaflets and flyers from magazines,
dumps offers of cheap broadband,
of double glazing and funeral plans,
into the paper recycling bag.
She considers the envelopes,
plain and windowed, some white, some brown,
her name and address hand-written or printed.
One has the familiar type on the reverse:
If undelivered, please return.
This is the one she has expected.
She crumples, scattering post across the floor.
It is an hour before she gathers
enough strength to tear it open.
We do not know when normal service will resume
by Rachel Burns
Today I saw an archangel
preening himself on the lake
the unfolding of the wing
as white as the white of a human eye
slowly dipping into the water
then once clean folding back into his body
and later the letter arrived from the hospital
with an apology from royal mail
a sharp V cut into the envelope
and the letter unfolded itself like a broken wing
like the wrong kind of origami
A Foretelling of the Second Coming of Christ
in which He will Cleanse the Department
of Work and Pensions
by Deborah Harvey
After Matthew 21, v12-13
The only light is from the stairwells
between each floor of the blocks of flats
and the leftover moon, and the flame of your anger
which is crackling with devotion that is holy.
Take these table tombs in the churchyard.
Right now you could tip them over
with a flick of your finger
one after the other, if you tried.
Must it take a furious god
to cut loose justice, send it clattering
on its dusty broken wings,
overturn the desks of the assessors
and drive them from their dens
like cheats and thieves?
I had that A5 white envelope today
by Elaine Edwards
you know the one
I said you know the one
it’s the bullshit form
to see if they can declare me
fit for work again and
make me go to tribunal
court for the disputed claim
to get things sorted out again
to be allowed to live
to fend for myself
or it could be okay…
I have good representation
from a point of understanding
for the first time in this process…
Insert string of swear words here
I am not as scared as before
but still it is a time
of severe abuse trauma
to be dredged up in another layer…
In Sickness and In Wealth
by Maria Gornell
Ever felt like a flower not allowed to bloom?
as you call out my worth in numbers
the Mcdonaldisation of the world
punch keys into my heart
bureaucracy through my soul life
gorge my eyes out with relentless
hammering to my bones
send me brown paper letters
signed with a death wish
wish me sickness in health
take away my power
silence my voice
scapegoat me into a box
strip me of my identity
tell me I’m a drain
a worthless egg
crack my spine
and send me on journeys
that lead nowhere
give me a bus ticket
while you make a profit
on my disempowerment
wrap me in chains
insult my intelligence
because you can’t be sick
and clever at the same time
send me more brown letters
to reinforce my absolute
uselessness on earth
which you are employed
at the will of an unemployed world
take away my options
limit my chances
send me to a food bank
of unhealthy processed gluten
that will make me more
fat and sick
tell me I didn’t fulfil my duties
take away my human rights
this is England 2018
In sickness and in wealth.
by Holly Conant
opens on both sides but I
have no hands, no fingers to
grasp the notion of a handle. I
experience a priori. Your side
has a window. Mine
has a slate board which I
bang my head
A letterbox posts through both sides.
If I post a letter this is the wrong
way, or at least, no-one else
understands. But I
am expected to act on orders with
a standard header, sanctioned by
someone who has spelt my
A peep-hole works on one side. I
search. I try to observe the
difference to make sense
of everyone else, but logic has no place
through this looking glass. The
world is obtuse and I
cannot see beyond the
The door is locked on both sides. It has no
David Barr, 2013
by Kittie Belltree
They knew about it and did nothing about it […] If we let a defective bus in the road [and it killed someone] we would be up for manslaughter; that’s why these people should be taken to court
— David Barr’s father, a bus driver, commenting on failures to address
serious safety concerns raised over the Work Capability Assessment
A points system
A physiotherapist, a DWP decision-maker and two
Ignoring the red lights
35 minutes to make the assessment
18 minutes to write the report
15 points to pass the test
No substantial risk
Driving his son to the edge
Anti-psychotic sedatives, sleeping tablets
antidepressants and a history of mental distress
Ignoring the red lights
He got a bus to the bridge, walked to the middle and jumped
The Brown E-Book is available to purchase online for £4 on The Recusant. The Brown Envelope Book print edition will be available to order in the summer also via The Recusant.