Being With Me Will Help You Learn

Being With Me Will Help You Learn

Author: Thomas McColl

Title: Being With Me Will Help You Learn

Review by Jade Craddock

Thomas McColl’s debut collection Being With Me Will Help You Learn contains over fifty works – of poetry and flash fiction – that take the reader on a journey through contemporary life, exposing the depravity, absurdity and dissolution of modern society, both realised and envisioned. His poems pop and zing with brio and pluck as he tackles his subject matters with audacious, unchecked frankness and honesty, equally at home in the modes of satire and pastiche, as with narrative and dystopian poetries. The brilliant opening poem ‘I’ is a wonderful introduction to McColl’s talent and voice, it begins:

For assuming that I am the most important person in the human race,

the gods have announced demotion of my I to lower case.

And then for the smack of wit and awareness that defines the collection:

i have not been told when this will take place,

but by stating that, i realise now there is no need.

i have begun my sentence in the previous sentence.

Fine balance

It is a wit that is finely balanced with its opposite – sobriety, and is used throughout by McColl to great effect to show up the darker realities behind the seemingly playful and fun, as in the poem ‘Self-Discovery’ in which a man falling asleep on ‘page three of his copy of The Sun’ wakes to find ‘the headline Phwoar! across his forehead,/ and a large pair of breasts framing his eyes.’ A humorous scenario, it seems, but McColl gives the crushing blow in the finale: ‘no-one there in the office/ had noticed anything different.’ The humour is turned on his head, any sense of the moment’s levity transformed into a damning indictment. It is not a jovial, humorous faux pas but a telling portrait of a debauched man. And this, despite any surface appearances to the contrary, is the rotten core that is uncovered at the heart of all of the poems. However, in some it is much nearer the surface, as in ‘Sweatshop’, which opens in Isan in Thailand in the setting of the poem’s title with unambiguous opprobrium, albeit with a very lyrical quality expressed in McColl’s inventive compound modifiers:

Through each vowed-silent twelve hour hex,

they work their vein-dead fingers to the bone

The poem then travels ‘from Isan, through Phuket, to London’ and the ‘label’s flag-ship store’ and ‘a girth-maddened girl – belt-brained and vacuous’ – again the compound modifiers ooze both lyricism and implication. But it is once more the final line that delivers the poem’s satirical sucker punch, as the girl in London looks at a picture of the women sweatshop workers, she cries: ‘“The women, look how slim they are”.’ Again McColl exposes the modern heart of darkness.

Tom McColl

McColl tackles subject matters with unchecked frankness

London is at the centre of much of the poetry, and whilst it may not be that London itself is the target for the collection’s criticism – arguably the setting could be any number of towns and cities – the capital is obviously indicative of the modern urban degeneration that the poems spotlight as well as representing the fulcrum and epitome of many of these problems. And there’s a sense in the collection in which the city has not shaken off the shackles of its Dickensian past, as in ‘Now Showing: East London by Night’ in which the speaker sits looking out on London on his bus journey, concluding: ‘a searing portrayal of urban decay, each bus shelter advert a commercial break from the film’s bleak landscape.’ It may be some two hundred years on, but the city the speaker observes shares the same ‘bleakness’ of Dickens’ London, there are even the same social problems, albeit slightly altered, as ‘The Chalk Factory’ highlights, in which the narrator walks the street of London, ‘drawing chalk lines round homeless people,’ his discovery: ‘London’s one big crime scene.’

Urban life

Some of the poems are less specific but still depict the scourge of contemporary urban life, be it noise pollution (The head of the SS (Sound System)/ Division “Das Noise”/ lives next door, harassing me and the neighbours,/ invading our rooms/) or traffic. In ‘Pedestrianland’, McColl demonstrates his ability to weave dark fairy tale parodies of modern life. Taking the characters of The Wizard of Oz, he sets them in the present, where the scarecrow ‘feels inferior/ for he hasn’t learned to drive yet,’ the lion’s ‘still too scared/ to cross the road,’ the tin man ‘drives a flash new car’ and only Dorothy dreams of another world ‘where the bikes and cars she hates so much are banned.’

In other poems, McColl creates new fairy tales – although more grim than Grimm – as in ‘The Price of Fame’ where a single paragraph poem emulates the way the scenario develops like a rolling stone, unchecked and increasingly dangerous. Some of the narratives are more quotidian – ‘Resignation’ and ‘Tom’s Presentation’ both dealing with employment – but still contain the fictive element that transforms them into modern fables, with Kafkaesque and Orwellian echoes. And in S, McColl offers a strange and surreal narrative of a man ‘who loved the letter S’, although I did feel as if a trick was missed in this one as despite the abundance of sibilants in the poem (He was an S terrorist –/ sent chain letters through the post), there were two lines which featured no sibilants – surely an oversight for a man ‘totally obsessed’.

But only a minor quibble in the entirety of a very impressive collection. Indeed, from the first to the last, McColl’s poems are engaging, compelling reads – an accolade that can’t often be attributed to entire collections – his subject matter vivid and accessible, his mode of telling refreshing and inventive, and his tone incisive and lively. His poem ‘Open Mic’ talks of a poet’s failure: ‘I went to an open mic poetry night, read my poems to rapturous applause, promoted my booklet, did not sell a single one’. But on the basis of this collection, this is not a fate that Thomas McColl should have to worry about.

Review by Jade Craddock

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