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Poem of the week: The service sector by Lee Harwood

A comic portrait of a seaside town is undercut by unease about the economy that shrinks its residents to mere toys for business

A faintly comic spectre haunts the bright postcard-pastoral of this week’s poem, The service sector by Lee Harwood. The title gives us a clue, prepares us for possibilities of dodgy dealing. But, at first, manipulation is merely child’s play. Real estate? Well, there’s the doll’s house “set down by an unseen hand”, an instinctive aesthetic pleasure hinted in the matching of the little white house to the “brilliant white breakers” that contrast so picturesquely with “a peacock green sea”. The possibly sinister information, that the doll’s house is joining other “white buildings”, is delayed, then presented casually, a mere finishing touch to the decorative process. Toy-land urbanisation continues in the fifth couplet: the houses are now occupied by tiny, timid people, although the giant seems less likely to be a child at play. A shift to workaday realism ensues, with a tercet illustrating the traffic of industry (trucks) and people (cars). The dogs “obsessively” mark territory. There’s a soundtrack of busy sibilants.

“Time” at the beginning of the next stanza announces the pun on “minute”. The tiny people dress in tiny (“minute”) coats so as to enter the servitude of clock-time. The “matchbox car” cunningly echoes a famous toy brand, and the menace is heightened by the (authorial?) voice of warning: “Best not.”

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