The Byker Wall: A long block of 620 flats with a reputation for violence and general dodgy-ness. When I told people I was going, they all made the same noise: “Oh?” I asked my friend Pat what the noise meant, he said it was fear. I told Amy the police officer when I dropped off her poem last month, “Carry a rape alarm and don’t take any valuables,” she said. It wasn’t a joke.
I wasn’t as worried as some people looked but, I have to admit, this did feel like more of a risk. I mean yeah, it’s all good and well knocking on a street like Rothbury Terrace, with its assortment of professionals and students. But the Byker Wall is an estate. I think about the estate I grew up on, where I was chased by boys swinging bike chains, where someone pissed on my Mam’s car door. Would I go door-to-door there and ask if anyone wanted a poem? No, no I wouldn’t.
But I’m interested in whether the Byker Wall’s reputation is really as bad as it’s made out to be. Plus, I realised when I wrote my piece to do on people’s doorsteps* (bottom of page), I wasn’t writing it for someone who was a young professional; I was writing it for someone who was working-class, who had maybe never thought about poetry before. So on an overcast Saturday afternoon, without a rape alarm and carrying a smartphone, I decided to give it a go.
Captains Log 26/03/16 13:13
I can see the Wall looming in the distance, the nerves are kicking in now. It’s starting to rain. I’m worried that no one will talk to me if it’s raining…
I’m about to knock on my first door when a lad on the street with baggy jeans and big headphones says: “Are you talking about Jesus like?” “No, I’m a door-to-door poet,” I say. “A poet? Go on give me a poem then.” I start doing my intro poem. I get to the line that says “So I’m at your door to find-” but I’m not at anyone’s door so I add, “Not your door obviously, that one,” pointing behind me to number 13. Spookily, right at that moment, I hear the door start to unlock. The lad I’m talking to nods to the person behind me and walks off. I turn around. “Hi, I was just about to knock on you.”
A very tall man is stood there called John. He tells me he really likes Judo, he’s won one gold and two bronze medals in national competitions. John strikes me as a reasonable man, but the kind of person you wouldn’t fuck with under any circumstances. He looks calm but ready to strike, like a puma. I ask him who the best judo-er is, is it judo-er? Someone who does judo? He tells me it’s a judogi. His favourite is a French man called Tiddy- John likes him because he’s in the same weight category and he fights really well. So I tell him I’ll look up Tiddy and bring him a poem back about that…
I’ve ran out of doors on the outside, it’s time to go in the enclosed area inside the Wall. This suddenly feels a lot more real- it’s harder to run away. After a few tries, a mid-twenties girl answers. When I say it’s an art project she immediately invites me in, I really wasn’t expecting this. “I love art,” she says. Stepping into her house it’s decorated all over with jazzy wallpaper and bright colours. Her name is Andrea. I sit down on her living room chair; her son is in a baby bouncer crying. “He needs to go to sleep but he’s fighting it,” she says.
Andrea seems really happy to talk but daunted by the fact that I’ve asked her what’s important. “I don’t know, I’m not really in a great place at the moment. I just found out that I’m pregnant and when I told the father he said ‘You should have an abortion.’ I just thought, ‘You know what? If you don’t want anything to do with the child that’s fine but I’m going to keep it for me because he’s still my child.’” It’s sad news and I don’t really know what to say. “So you know it’s a he?” I ask, offhand. “Oh no,” she says, “but I have two boys already so I just assumed.” What if it’s a girl? “Don’t say that!” she laughs, “Girls are very demanding, I’m scared of having a girl.”
We talk about the pressure on girls growing up that boys don’t have- makeup, being more worried about your clothes, being more vulnerable. “But if I ever had a daughter,” I say, “I would try and raise her to be a cool girl.” “Well what do you mean when you say a cool girl?” she asks, “My family are really strict Muslims. If you live in a Muslim country you never really go anywhere. But when you say ‘cool girl’, what do you mean by that?” I tell her I’d like my daughter to be independent and not too worried about image or clothes. Some of the best girls I’ve met in my life are like that. Andrea’s face starts to absolutely beam, “I would really love to hear that poem about a cool girl!” she says. So far, no one has ever genuinely wanted me to write a poem for them more than Andrea wants this one. Not in my whole life. It’s hard to put this experience into words really. I feel useful, probably in the way that someone with a real job, like a doctor or a firefighter feels. Andrea recommends I try the block of bungalows across the courtyard. “I know this lady who lives opposite me, she’s a bit deaf but she’ll hear you,” she says…
I try the house but there’s no answer, so I move to the first one on the block. I meet Ana from Portugal. When I ask her what’s important, she says “Your poem started me thinking about religion, how it’s a good thing but people use it to do bad. At the minute I’m Catholic, I believe there is something bigger than us but not the way it’s written down. Not Jewish, not Catholic, not anything.”
Ana talks about how you go to church and they tell you what’s right and wrong. But Roman Catholic priests are known paedophiles; in other religions women suffer genital mutilation, or they are oppressed and have rights taken away; people commit terrorist attacks in the name of religion. She tells me something her son said about the recent terror attacks in France: ‘Humans are the most dangerous animal in the world. Sometimes I’m ashamed to be a human.’ He is 11, which is grim and also quite mind blowing. I ask her, if you could try and stop two religions going to war, what would you say? “I would ask them, what is the first thing your god tells you to do? Fight? Or do they say you need to help each other?” She believes as long as you’re doing good it doesn’t matter what religion you follow. She wants her son to be able to choose for himself and I think this is really important, it’s the way I was raised and it’s something I’ve always been really grateful for. She recommends I try the woman next door as well, she must be a proper character…
The next person to answer is a lady with long black hair , “I think we’ve got a few minutes before the grandkids get here”. Her husband is sat in his PJ’s watching TV behind her, “You like art don’t you Graham?” “Yeah”. So I come in and I start the poem for them both in the living room. But Graham is a tricky customer. “But this could be worse you know | I could be a Jehova,” I say. “If you were a Jehova you wouldn’t be here,” he adds. I carry on. Halfway through the next stanza he says “Right so you’re doing your poetry but what are you after?” I skip to the stanza about why I’m here. “I-phone 6! I don’t know what one is!” It’s a tough start. “So what are your interests?” I ask him. “Well I used to like The Toon but not anymore.” (That’s Newcastle United for any non-Geordies). They recently failed to beat Sunderland AFC in another derby game- I decide not to mention that most of my family support Sunderland. “Well, I could write you a poem about Newcastle?” “No,” Graham says. I suppose it would be rubbing salt in the wound really.
Graham’s wife points across the room (I don’t like referring to people as ‘the wife’ but when I asked for both their names she just told me Graham’s). “Write us a poem about the bloke on there.” I walk across to the table and there is some photos of a man in military uniform, along with an article from The Chronicle which has been framed: ‘Metro Hero’. It’s about a 70 year old man called Mick Baldwin who rescued someone that got trapped in some metro train doors. “That’s Graham’s dad, we lost him on Christmas day,” she says. “I’m really sorry to hear it”. Just then the door goes, “That’ll be the grandkids”. “I tell you what I can look up this story online,” I say, “I’ll leave you to it. It’s a great idea for a poem though,” I add to Graham, “he seems like a really good man. I’m sorry about your loss.” “Nar nar,” he says, “he was 92 he lived a good life.” Graham’s wife takes me to the door and sees me out…
Further along the block I meet a guy called Carl. I ask Carl what his interests are. “Getting wrecked,” he says. Straightaway, I feel like this is a ‘testing the boundaries’ thing, to see what I’ll do next. “OK yeah, I can write you a poem about getting wrecked. What kind of drugs are we talking?”
Something about this makes Carl change his mind, I’m not sure whether it’s the possibility of being incriminated or the fact that, once he knew I would literally write a poem about anything, he suddenly didn’t feel like it was a good idea. “Will you write me a poem about how much I love my girlfriend?” The situation has changed from hardcore to sentimental in about 3 seconds. “OK, what’s her name?” “Claire.” “And what do you like about Claire?” “Everything”… I try to narrow it down. “She’s there all the time, like when I need her.” I ask how long they’ve been together. “11 years,” such a long time. I ask where they went on their first date. “Greggs.” “What did you have to eat?” “I can’t remember.” “What do you normally have from Greggs?” “A mince pie and a large latte.” “What does Claire have?” “Same.” “Is there anything else you want me to say about her?” “She’s amazing. Her personality. She’s kind, generous.” “Anything else?” “No, not really.” I’ve ran out of questions. I think this poem is going to be hard to write. I wonder if the angle is the first date in Greggs and suggest that, Carl seems to like it so I decide I’ll give it a go…
I walk around for a long time with no takers. A little girl in the park shouts “Harry Styles!” I decide to ignore it. Outside of another row of bungalows, I’m about to give up when a man called Stu sticks his head out the window. He comes to the door with his friend Davie. They laugh at my intro poem (I love it when they laugh). We talk about what’s important to them. “Wanking,” says Stu. Again, I reckon he mainly said this to test the boundaries. “OK, yeah, I’ll write you a poem about wanking,” I say, “although we need an angle here guys, I can’t just write ‘wanking’ on a piece of paper. What if I did it about having a danger wank?” We all laugh.
It’s interesting but, again, after showing that I would literally write a poem about anything, the conversation opens up a bit more. “I hate my dog,” says Stu. “What’s she called?” “Precious.” “But she’s not precious?” “No.” Precious comes to the door, a French bulldog with very droopy, bloodshot eyes. “So why don’t you like Precious?” “She’s a scruffy, rotten, horrible thing; she keeps escaping through the gate; she’s always begging me for food; when I take her out with the kids she runs away on the field with them, she loves playing with the kids.” I mention that the last one doesn’t sound so bad. I think Stu secretly loves his dog. I say this and he tells me it’s true. Just then, the little girl from the park walks through the gate with some of her friends. “This is my daughter, Stephanie,” says Stu. “It’s the man who looks like Harry Styles!” she says excitedly, “What’s he doing here?” “He’s going to write us a poem about Precious.” “Why do you have to do this?” she asks. “I don’t,” I say, “I just like to meet people and hear their stories.” “Precious always sniffs your bum,” says Stephanie, “and licks your toes”…
By now I’ve got 6 ideas, I decide I’m going to call it a day. On my way back through the estate I see Stephanie’s friends again. “Are you really Harry Styles?” asks a young lad, he can’t be older than 7. “Yeah.” “Why are you in Newcastle?” “Well it’s all gone a bit downhill for me,” I say, “I used to be a singer but I’m a door-to-door poet now.” “Do people ring you and ask you to come to their house?” “No, I just knock on them, they don’t even want me to do it.” “When you come back will you bring all your friends? Like the rest of One Direction?” “Yeah OK.” “Who will you bring? Zayne?” “Yeah why not”…
I’m just about to leave when I spot Carl. “Have you done the other side [of the Wall]?” he asks. “No, I’ve got 6 things to write about now so that’ll keep me busy.” “My sister wanted one.” “Ahh well if it’s a request,” I say. Him and Claire walk me over and I finally get to meet her. She can’t believe Carl said they went to Greggs when they met. “What’s your side of the story?” I ask. She says they went to the pictures. “What did you go to see?” “The Chipmunks.”
We get to Carl’s sister’s house and go round the back. She’s called Gemma and she’s busy changing her son’s nappy. “I can see you’ve got your hands full,” I say. Her son laughs. It’s the funniest sarcastic-sounding laugh I’ve ever heard. She asks for a poem about her kids. Riley is the boy with the crazy laugh and Rubi is her little girl. She says Riley is a character. I can tell. He’s walking along the windowsill when Carl’s dog suddenly leaps up barking at the open window, trying to catch Gemma’s cat. None of us noticed the cat was there. Carl frantically pulls the dog back but, despite the racket, Riley seems completely unafraid. He carries on toddling along the windowsill like a tightrope walker. Gemma says he’s always crawling up on things, he got stuck up on his bedroom window once. He sounds like a toddler Houdini, so I think I’ll write a poem about that…
It’s time to go home. The world became a lot less threatening today. I remember how, as I left Ana’s house, she said “This side of the Wall is fine, it’s full of families and nice people,” implying that it was the other side that was really bad. After that, I found myself worrying about getting closer and closer to ‘The Other Side’. Then it suddenly dawned on me: A few hours ago, the whole Byker Wall seemed terrifying, now I’d went to one part and saw it was fine, it was the next part that was scary. But when I got there and met Gemma, it was just as fine as everywhere else.
Maybe we’re always just scared of the unknown? Maybe most people are generally good? I remember that there is a lot of things about the Byker Wall that don’t fit the stereotype: It’s in UNESCO’s list of outstanding 20th century buildings; it’s got its own micro-climate. Plus, two days ago, a stone’s throw from where I started my rounds, the world renowned poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze performed at The Cumberland Arms. That night, Byker was probably the most cultured place in the region, maybe even in the country. But people have their ideas about what Byker is and ‘centre of culture’ isn’t one of them. I start to wonder how much of a place’s reputation is based on ideas… and how many of them are wrong.
* I’m a door-to-door poet,
I’m scruffy and hungover
But this could be worse y’know,
I could be a Jehovah.
I won’t tell you that you’re the devil
If you disagree.
I don’t care about the afterlife-
One’s enough for me.
In school they taught me poetry’s bust,
Wrote by toffs who’ve turned to dust
On country manors, deathly shrouds,
Serious lords and fluffy clouds.
I found it quite hard to relate,
I grew up on a rough estate;
Walls thin as paper used to trace
The clouds an endless shade of grey.
I’m here to make poetry exciting
Like bungee jumping but less frightening,
So I’m at your door to find
The subjects that flow through your mind.
Tell me about your life.
OK, maybe not the whole of it.
I’ll put it in a poem
Or at least have a decent go at it.
Maybe you heard a great story
You’d love to hear in rhyme;
Maybe your blood is boiling
From a recent council fine;
Maybe you dropped your I-phone 6
And it fell down the toilet.
I don’t know, I can’t decide
For you ‘cos that would spoil it.
So cheers for listening to these verses,
I hope I got across my purpose,
Don’t slam the door, don’t be nervous,
The door-to-door poet is at your service.