Captains Log 06/12/15 2:10 pm
I wake up feeling reckless. I met up with some old friends last night, one I hadn’t seen in a year. I’m hungover. I consider putting this off, staying in bed reading I, Robot and eating cold beans from the tin.
Then I remember the second line in my intro poem (see notes at the bottom of ‘A New Frontier’ post) ‘I’m scruffy and hungover’. No, I realise that it’s in the interests of accuracy that this happens right now.
As I walk down the street on this crisp December day, I decide this is an experiment in not giving a fuck. I know this can work now, I don’t have anything to prove. More than that, last time I put so much effort into thinking out exactly what I was going to say and worrying about every little detail; this time, I want to see how well it can go if I don’t prepare at all. So I go to Rothbury Terrace in Heaton, for no other reason than the fact that Wilf Stone, from the Ska band Pikey Beatz, said I should.
The first person I meet is a girl called Amy. I can tell straight away that we’re going to get on, she has a really friendly smile. She tells me she’s training to be a police officer, which surprises me because she seems so incredibly laid back. I mean, I’m not saying you can’t be laid back and be in the police… I’m sure every PC loves a bit of Bob Marley and a peppermint tea every now and again. Anyway, who knows, maybe when she’s on the job Amy storms into a heated crime scene like a wrecking ball. But on her day off she’s completely unassuming. She tells me she’s about to sit her final policing exam. We talk about the funny things you could be tested on: Saying ‘Allo Allo’ in the correct tone, mastering the knock. We get on to talking about what makes it a hard job. She admits there is lots of grey areas in the law and it’s difficult to try and make sense of it all but she’s determined to make it work. She tells me she loves meeting people and being involved in the community and I tell her we must have something in common.
As I move on I feel a little bit weird. Of all the kinds of people I imagined being a part of this, a police officer wasn’t one. I consider the concept of now writing a poem at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Is this what it feels like to sell out? Let’s check… no, I’m still poor.
I’m feeling on good form. I try a house across the street with a giant mosaic above the door and a sticker for the organic food company Suma in the window. Being a long-haired vegetarian with a compost bin who occasionally burns incense, I feel like I’ve really come to the right house here. But there’s no one in. I consider hanging around until someone comes back. Then I realise that could be a fast track to a restraining order, potentially from Amy…
So instead I walk to a door where the knocker is a huge brass sun with a smiley face. A woman with short brown hair answers and politely listens to the poem. She’s called Helen and she’s really interested in getting involved, so long as I’m not going to charge her. I talk about how important I think it is not to charge people. The first thing everyone thinks when a stranger knocks on their door is ‘How much do you want?’ I’m really enjoying disrupting that. Then she invites me in! This is amazing: Nobody has actually invited me in yet! I walk through to the kitchen where a man is eating soup at the table. He looks up bemused. ‘Erm Dave, we have a door-to-door poet here,’ explains Helen. ‘You better give him the shtick,’ she tells me, so I do the poem again.
Helen starts to tell me about what’s important to her while Dave makes me a cup of tea. She’s a primary school teacher and she thinks there’s a big clash of ideologies in the schooling system. Ofsted think children are vessels which need to be filled with facts and figures. Helen believes that they’re more like candles: You need to find the right way to light them. We talk about which makes a better human being, a better citizen. She tells me the most rewarding thing about the job is finding out that a student has gone on to do English at A level or degree because of her. ‘You feel like you’ve really had an influence on their life.’
‘So where are you at in your life?’ Helen asks me. I laugh and explain that sometimes, when I’m waiting for someone to answer the door, I wonder if I’m having some kind of breakdown. We talk about music and words till I’m half expecting them to turf me out. But Dave wants a poem as well. He’s really interesting looking, like a more approachable version of Will Self. He tells me he’s a doctor for the NHS and he’s just got back from Denmark where he’s been sharing skills with medical types. It feels nice to be reminded that, despite all the negative press, the NHS is still internationally respected.
Dave believes in democratising healthcare. He tells me he got into being a GP for political reasons, which I’ve never really heard anyone say before. He explains the old ways of doing things: The élite controlling information and treatment, telling people what they’ll do with their bodies and when. He’s much more interested in putting the power in the patient’s hands- telling them the options and letting them make their own minds up. ‘The job is to give people a choice but not to make them feel like they’re doing it on their own,’ he says. ‘It’s like a collaboration, where the doctor becomes a sort of guide.’ ‘A man came to me who was 72 and I asked him if he’d ever considered giving up smoking. He said he had absolutely no interest in that. “I’ve only got a few years left and I want to enjoy myself while I can.” “OK,” I said, “Well I know not to ask you about that again then.”’ ‘Doing nothing is an option as well.’
Dave puts a box of fig rolls on the table. ‘I don’t know if you like fig rolls?’ he says. I LOVE FIG ROLLS, not giving a fuck is working out great! I ask them both if they know anyone nearby who would like a poem. They recommend the empty house with the giant mosaic on it, so I knock on their neighbor next door instead. A lad with blonde hair down to his eyes answers and, just as he does, Dave and Helen step outside and head towards their car. “Do it, it’s amazing!” Dave shouts to the lad. He warms to me pretty quickly after that.
His name is Alex and he’s training to be a pro-scuba diver. ‘When I say pro-scuba diver, I don’t mean like a pro-footballer,’ he says. I laugh at the idea of people caring as much about scuba diving as football. Or an underwater football match. He got into diving in Vietnam and has done it all around the world. He tells me once he gets in he never wants to leave. Then I ask him what the scariest thing is that ever happened to him while diving. He tells me once, on his way back up, he forgot to decompress properly and started panicking. I learn that you’re not supposed to go straight back up to the top when you’ve dived very deep, otherwise you get ‘the bends’ (Note: Not just a Radiohead album but also a very dangerous condition). As he panicked he started to breathe too quickly and used up too much of his air. At 130 feet he was faced with the choice of either asphyxiation or bubbles in the brain. He looked up at a body of water twice the size of his house thinking: ‘I’m never going to make it’. In the nick of time another diver swapped air with him. It saved his life. I’ve got to hand it to Alex, that would have put me off diving for definite.
I decide to call it a day. It’s getting dark. What surprises me is how it’s starting to change the way I feel about the people living around me. They aren’t just anonymous strangers anymore. I suddenly become aware of the enormity of the human race, all those billions of people with their own lives and interests. It seems obvious now I say it, but I don’t think I’ve ever really confronted the complexity of that before. I also learned that I work better when I’m not thinking much, in fact it almost started to feel easy. So next time, I’m going to step right out of my comfort zone.