Captain’s Log 09/08/16 17:26
I’m dropping off a poem for the first time since Glastonbury. It’s been nearly two months since then. I can’t believe it’s taken this long but I’ve been busy laying some big plans. The first thing I notice is how casual the whole process is getting. I’m going to pick up some shopping on the way home; I’m in a jumper instead of a suit jacket; I ride my bike there and put my briefcase on the back, I feel like a pizza delivery boy. But despite things getting more informal, it does feel weird coming back. The Byker Wall is not a festival. I pass the graffiti at the entrance, ‘Fuck 46 Nonces’ it proclaims, in bold silver lettering.
The truth is, I’m a little worried about this. Out of the Byker poems I’ve dropped off, Judo John was less than overwhelmed, Andrea was un-contactable and Ana was too busy to listen to me read it. But despite this, all of those people were much much more interested in the project than Graham. When I first met him, he made it clear he didn’t like poetry. In fact, he didn’t really seem to like me. He interrupted my intro poem frequently to tell me what he thought of it; I performed it more and more nervously, every interruption forcing me to get quieter and quieter until I was practically mumbling.
I knock on the door, Graham’s wife Linda welcomes me in, all smiles. It’s a good start. Graham is in the sitting room, I go in and perch on the leather sofa. They both seem really happy to see me. Graham seems a lot more interested in the project too, he asks me all about how it’s going. We move through loads of other topics: Flying ants and how much they’re bastards, how I accidentally committed a snail massacre, the Labour Party. Linda asks me if I want a drink and makes us all a vodka and coke. This is nice, it’s the first time since Doctor Dave that I’ve been invited in and made welcome. It doesn’t matter either way, I don’t expect anything, but it would be a lie if I said it didn’t feel good.
‘Can I read you my poem?’ Graham sets the Olympics to mute. Being aware how shoddily I performed the last one, and knowing I’ve got their full attention, I make an effort to take my time, letting each word have its moment. They sound amazed. This is unexpected, and pretty incredible, especially considering Graham actively professes to hate all poetry. And he doesn’t just give me a generic thumbs-up either. ‘I like that bit, about being shrivelled up like crisp packets on bonfires,’ he says, reading it again to himself, ‘you do though don’t you?’ ‘I’m going to frame that,’ Linda says. The whole project suddenly makes sense again. This is where it really feels like I’m achieving something. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being in Glastonbury, I really did, but getting people to engage with poetry there was like shooting seals in a barrel. People are there for art, that’s not what Door-to-Door Poetry was invented for.
‘Can I pinch a cigarette?’ I ask. ‘You can pinch owt you like,’ says Graham, in a “mi casa tu casa” sort of way. We get talking about Graham’s dad, the poem being about him saving a woman on a train. ‘I forgot to tell you he was in the Marines,’ Graham explains. ‘He served under Lord Mountbatten, who got blew up by the IRA in the 70’s.’ ‘Where did he serve?’ I ask. ‘Oh all over… He joined in 1940.’ We talk about how the war effected him. ‘They never recognised it after World War 2,’ says Graham. ‘I think it was during the Gulf War, when they started diagnosing the after effects, post-traumatic stress. But seeing people get blown up, my fathaa had that.’
‘He used to have me in tears,’ says Linda.
Graham goes on: ‘He was the perfect gentleman. Always wore a suit, loved his trilby hats. It would only come out if he’d had something to drink. It was really bad.’ Graham gestures his dad re-living the war. ‘Stuff like that just wasn’t talked about,’ I suggest. ‘That was it. You went to war, you came back, you got on with it,’ he adds.
The conversation turns to therapies, the smoking ban, the benefits of the plastic bag charge. I have another vodka and coke. Linda lets the dog in, an excitable Staffy, a lighting fast blur. They tell me that he was rescued from someone who was going to turn him into a fighting dog. He’s the opposite of that now, really friendly. It’s heartwarming to think they saved him.
‘I need to go,’ I say. It’s been 2 hours. I’m supposed to be stopping at the supermarket to get some garlic and cashews for a stir fry. Linda goes into the kitchen and brings back half a bulb of garlic. I tell her I’m going to have to go to the supermarket anyway, but she insists. I put it in my briefcase. ‘We should meet up again,’ she says. ‘That would be really nice,’ adds Graham. We swap numbers and agree to go for a pint sometime soon; I’m excited by the prospect of the first Door-to-Door Poetry Social. As if it could ever get that far? ‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ Graham says to me, shaking my hand as I go to leave, ‘I thought it was going to be absolutely shit. I did. But I really enjoyed that. And I’m a Byker lad me, why should I care about poetry?’
I’m walking back to where I left my bike. I realise I really needed this. It just goes to show how unpredictable the project can be. What I expected to be a quick, flat, uninspiring interaction has turned into a 2 hour long conversation, two new fans of poetry and the promise of a few sociable pints. Hello again Byker, I missed you.
This stopping train contains a crowd of strangers,
all shrivelled up like crisp packets on bonfires;
eyes trying not to see the other travellers,
their ears plugged in, pretending they’re not near
the other people pressed against their shoulders.
They’re shoving now to burst out through the doors,
a pack of moody, ravenous hyenas.
But as he’s swept along the concrete platform,
Mick Baldwin’s pretty sure he sees the form
of a woman’s arm trapped in the doors.
Increasing speed, she’s dragged across the floor,
sideways, through the people and towards
the tracks where she’ll be crushed to death for sure.
And now Mick’s pushing through the crowd before
he’s even had a chance to think what for.
And in that moment, all the secret laws
of mind your business, look after what’s yours
are dropped for something that is worth much more,
when human decency comes to the fore.