I think we have all seen those World War Two prisoner of war movies, where the men connived their escape in secret, digging tunnels with makeshift, man-made tools, then releasing the soil from their trousers in the exercise yard. The men did however, receive assistance from their respective military services back home. One of the most ingenious of the strategies for escape came in the early 1940s from MI9, the British secret service unit responsible for escape and evasion; they hatched a plan with British Toy maker, John Waddington Ltd to develop the game of Monopoly for the imprisoned men. They set up bogus humanitarian organisations to get the games into the camps, but the aim was not to brighten the spirits of the men through this capitalist game, but to hide tools in small boxes within the package. The most important development however, and why Waddington were brought in, was their ability to produce silk maps; these were easy to hide (down boots) and quiet, unlike their paper counterpart. So the game was instrumental in the war effort.
Monopoly has been around for over a hundred years, although it was only licensed as such in 1935 and has been the joy, and frustration of many families across the world since then. It was originally intended to educate people in the iniquities of monopolistic capitalism; but as Catherine Smith’s poem beautifully shows, the competitive nature of capitalism, particularly between a parent and child can overcome any benevolent thoughts. “Almost bankrupt and only recently released from jail,/she owes her ten year old/four hundred quid in rent/….she pleads poverty.” But the boy is unrelenting, “He points out/she could give him Leicester Square,” showing no sign of compassion for his rival’s predicament. “She thinks how/this is what capitalism does to children,/-brutalises them.” So she fights back, “she’ll take her chances,/and hangs onto Leicester Square.” She does this not by rational economic thinking but through human experience; “She likes/the Japanese men with their cameras…/she likes the pigeon shit, the café/ with the gilt-framed photo of the Queen.” And I guess the moral of the story, whether it be to free prisoners or help educate our young, we need to be careful of the multi-headed hydra that capitalism can become, and how “no favours asked” is a rare and touching thing.
Catherine Smith writes poetry, prose and radio drama. Two of her poetry collections have been short-listed for Forward Prizes. In 2004, she was included in both the Mslexia ‘Ten Best New Women Poets’ and the PBS/Arts Council ‘Next Generation Poets’ promotion. She has adapted some of her fiction and poetry for Live Literature performances in collaboration with Lewes Live Literature.
She teaches creative writing in Brighton and for the Poetry School, the Arvon Foundation and, occasionally, the WEA. She has two adult sons, and lives in East Sussex with her husband and two cats.
Almost bankrupt and only recently released from jail,
she owes her ten year old
four hundred quid in rent
for landing on his new hotel in Bond Street.
He owns most of the West End
and several public utilities.
She pleads poverty. He points out
she could give him Leicester Square
and they could come to some arrangement
over her arrears. She thinks how
this is what capitalism does to children,
– brutalises them, makes them worship
five-hundred pound notes, little red boxes,
encourages them to sniff out the weak
and charge them exorbitant rent,
rob them blind, make them beg.
She watches his fingers fatten on his stash
and she tells him, no. She’ll take her chances,
and hangs onto Leicester Square. She likes
the Japanese men with their cameras,
their perfect hair, their busy hands,
she likes the pigeon shit, the café
with the guilt-framed photo of the Queen
where the waiter give her extra chocolate
on her cappuccino, no favours asked.