For anyone that doesn’t follow me on Facebook, let me set the scene. A few months ago, a researcher from The One Show e-mailed and said they were interested in making a film about Door-to-Door Poetry. They wanted to follow me around as I dropped off the last 4 poems for the people in The Byker Wall and have it as one of the features they do inbetween the interviews on the sofa. To be honest, I don’t watch The One Show and before this I never really had any interest in being on it. I also assumed my free use of foul language and frequent references to drugs would have dissolved any chance I had of getting on anyway. But apparently it hadn’t and, on the insistence of my Mam, I told them I was really interested in working with them.
“The next step,” explained the researcher, “is for you to speak to the people you’ve mentioned in Byker and tell them that The One Show is interested in making a film about you and would they mind a researcher (me) getting in touch?” So I asked Graham, Carl, Lee and Gemma and all of them said yes apart from Graham.
Weeks passed, I was told it was being sorted. Then I was handed over to another researcher who dropped some interesting news. See, it turns out that both of these people were freelance (as in, they didn’t work for The One Show at all). I was now told there was only ever a 1 in 10 chance The One Show would take on the idea. Furthermore, she said they’d both decided the residents of Byker weren’t ‘suitable’ for the show, for reasons which she couldn’t really explain. Since talking to various people about it, I’ve found out this process is pretty standard and I really don’t want this to sound like I’m bitter. Like I said, I don’t even watch the programme. The point is, for whatever reason, I’d told three people in Byker that The One Show were interested in making a film about them when they weren’t. I remembered Lee calling me just after I’d passed on the good news:
“I’ve told my kids! They’re over the moon!” I now felt embarrassed and very, very guilty.
As luck would have it, a few days later an award-winning filmaker called Emma Cramb got in touch, completely out of the blue.
“I’ve stumbled across your door to door poetry project. I was hoping I could maybe chat to you about creating a short visual piece?”
It literally couldn’t have been better timing. We met in Heaton Perk on the 10th of September and, as we talked about what we both wanted to do, it turned out this was a pretty perfect fit. Emma was doing some work with a media group called The Roundhouse, who’d asked her to make a short documentary about someone ‘interesting’ by late September/early October. And her films were really good. So the rest of September was filled with e-mailing, calling and meeting Emma and James, the producer from The Roundhouse, to plan the blag.
Last Friday, we went down to The Byker Wall to drop off some poems. This is what happened.
Captain’s Log 30/09/16 09:04
I’ve just finished getting ready for the crew in time. We’re meeting at my house. By now the nerves, plus the triple espresso I had for breakfast, have hit at once and I’m rattling around the sitting room, pacing back and forwards, trying to climb down from the ceiling. “I’m just going to ignore the camera,” I tell myself. “I’m just going to do what I normally do.” The plan is to drop off Carl’s in Byker first, then head to his sister Gemma’s house who’s moved to Wallsend. Lee’s had to cancel, his wife’s broken her arm and he needs to take her to hospital. I asked him if we could meet him later at 4pm, but it turns out the crew can’t do that and I’ve not been able to get in touch with him to let him know. It feels wrong that the person I didn’t want to let down the most isn’t going to be in the shoot. But people have lives to live, I remind myself this isn’t the most important thing in the world to everyone.
At 9.15 Emma and James have arrived.
“I like your briefcase,” smiles Emma. “Is that your bag of poems?” Going out with a briefcase now feels so normal I’ve kind of forgotten how mock-formal it looks. I hop in Emma’s car and James follows us in his. Adam Opie, a cameraman I’ve worked a lot with before, is also on his way; he’s running late so we decide to meet him there. During the ride over, Emma explains the order of the day. First we’re going to do some shots of me walking into The Wall. Emma’s already been down twice to pick out places she wants to use. What’s interesting is that she’s chosen a big tower that originally caught my eye when I first came down 7 months ago. I even put a picture of it up on that very blog post. This being the end of my time here, it gives everything a weird cyclical feel. The other interesting thing is that we’re filming on a street called ‘Albion Row’, which I’ve always thought sounds pretty poetic, doesn’t it?
We get out the car and walk over to the spot. Adam pulls up in an Uber pretty soon after. He gets out, his indie fringe over his eyes, his body covered with bags, wires and metal poles. The crew get the cameras set up while I watch a man on the balcony of the tower, sitting in a deck chair in his shorts, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by Union Jack bunting. I walk across a busy roundabout a few times to get the right shot. Then we move on to the second spot. As we walk over, a woman with her hair cropped in a blue hoodie asks us what we’re filming.
“Do you know Carl?” I ask, mentioning his street and second name.
“I wrote him a poem, I’m going to read it to him and we’re going to film it.”
“Oh… that’s nice,” she says, in a heavily disappointed tone.
“It looks a lot more interesting than it is,” I add.
We get to the next location and I make a quick note of what’s going on on my phone’s dictaphone. I realise I’m documenting a documentary about a poet who documents his work. Like two mirrors with a mirror in the middle. Emma’s picked out another place I took a photo of when I first came. Gemma’s old house isn’t too far from here. We do some shots of me walking and I also achieve one of my few successful selfies. The woman in the blue hoodie comes past again.
“I just did a selfie!” I say, in a semi-ironic tone of joy.
We move again. This time, while filming, a man goes over to James and asks what we’re doing. It turns out it’s Carl’s girlfriend’s brother and he remembers me visiting before. In fact, he was listening to my poem when I first knocked on Carl all that time ago. He also seems to have got a bit confused; he thinks I’ve wrote a poem for him about smoking loads of dope, which I haven’t (although I would of if he had asked me to). We chat for a bit inbetween takes and he tells me about how he knows everyone in The Byker Wall, how he’s lived here for 20 years. “If someone comes in and starts kicking off, everyone’s got your back.” I tell him it must feel good to know everyone in your community. I don’t know anyone on my street.
We hit a problem, Gemma texts to say something’s come up and she can’t do filming. It’s a blow, as we’ve already had Lee drop out as well. But James seems sure we can still make it work, so we head over to Carl’s house and the crew get set up outside. This is the surreal part. Carl knows we’re going to be filming from the minute he opens the door. Emma shouts “Action” and I head to the house and knock. He answers and we look eachother in the eye. I must have talked to Carl about 5 or so times now; I know him, but not well enough to guess what he’s thinking. There’s a look on his face, of maybe nervousness, or shock. I imagine the view from his standpoint, the two massive cameras and the boom on either side of me. This must look pretty intense. I try to say hello in the least ‘Homes Under The Hammer’ style voice I possibly can. Suddenly, a van pulls up behind us. “Well aii!!” shouts a man at the top of his voice, before driving off fast, thus completely killing any illusion of a natural exchange.
Before I perform the poem I feel like it’s important to prepare him, it clocks in at about 3 minutes 40 seconds. I explain I ran with the idea of his first date and ask him if he’s standing comfortably. He smiles but doesn’t say much. Carl is a man of few words. In fact, it’s this part of his character which led to the poem in the first place really; him asking for one about his girlfriend, me finding it hard to learn any information about her. It’s ironic that I’ve managed to write such a long poem about so little. As I’m saying it, I notice Carl’s looking over my shoulder a lot [I find out later that a few people have gathered to listen]. We have a quick chat after, I worry that it’s mainly me talking at him.
“I got into a serious thing about Greggs and Chipmunks,” I explain.
“Say goodbye and shake his hand,” mutters the voice of James from behind me. I suddenly feel like I’m in a hostage situation, one of those phone calls where you pretend to your partner that everything is fine while being held at gunpoint.
“Ha ha, thanks very much Carl. I better be going now.” I shake his hand and walk off.
Of course, in real life, this would be the end. But for the sake of getting this from all angles, we need to do it again. Carl has no idea about this yet. I knock on his door and explain.
“So I just said goodbye but I didn’t really mean that,” I laugh. “Just pretend all of this never happened.” Carl seems happy to help, which is what I really like about him. I knock on the door, say hello again and he dutifully listens to the entire poem, which is no mean feat. He’s now listened to at least 7 minutes and 20 seconds of poetry, which could be more than he’s ever done before in one go. He’s told me he normally hates the stuff already. The crew get some closeups of me knocking on the door and of Carl. After this, we all say goodbye for real and I shake his hand and thank him for being involved.
We do some shots of me walking wistfully off into the distance and sitting around outside his house, which feels a bit weird knowing Carl’s still inside. We’ve just finished everything when him and Claire step out the door.
“We’re still outside your house,” I laugh, “I’ll see you later.” Carl smiles, in that awkward way you do when you’ve already said goodbye to someone 3 times and you have to say it again. It feels like this shouldn’t be the way we last see each other for real. It should be more ceremonial. But I suppose some goodbyes are heartfelt and deep; some other goodbyes, when you’ve said goodbye lots already, are just a small shrug.
The First Date
A man who goes to doorsteps writing poems
And always looks like he’s just smoked a spliff
Pressed the buzzer of a couple’s home
Who’d lived eleven years of perfect bliss.
A man called Carl answered: “Leave me alone,
I don’t want to buy anything,” he hissed.
But when he offered poetry Carl said “Great,
Write my lass one about our first date.”
It seemed a pretty reasonable start,
A way to show your true love that you care.
“So what’s this lady called who holds your heart?”
The poet asked. Carl answered: “She’s called Claire.”
“And tell me Carl, where did you both depart
On your first date and what was it like there?”
“Well that one’s clear as yesterday,” Carl said.
“The place we went on our first date… was Greggs.”
“A Greggs?” “Yep, Greggs,” Carl answered the same way.
“That’s seriously what you want to put?
Was it one of those Greggs Moments Cafés?”
Carl shook his head. “Right. Was it any good?”
Carl nodded and told him about the way
The butterflies did backflips in his gut
And how, the perfect gentleman and date,
He’d walked Claire to her door with a stake bake.
It seemed a strange place for true love to grow
And not a topic fit for Elton John
But then what did this humble poet know?
I mean, they’d been together for so long.
So the wordsmith said that he would go
And in a few weeks he’d be back along;
Then off he went, to spend a lot of time
Thinking of some way to make this rhyme.
But that night in the happy couple’s house,
As they watched the telly on their own,
Sitting up, Carl told Claire all about
The poet who had visited their home
And how he’d made a promise he’d write out
Their first date off to Greggs into a poem.
But at this point, Claire jumped up fast and shrieked:
“But we never went to Greggs you freak!”
To Carl this change of mood was a surprise
In all these years he’d never heard Claire shout.
But now the fires of hell burned in her eyes,
Though he was right, he knew without a doubt.
“OK,” he said, “If that’s a pack of lies
Why don’t you tell me where we first went out?”
Claire paused a while, then said, after she’d thunk,
“…The pictures, to see Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
“Alvin and the Chipmunks? Are you mental?!
I’ve never seen that film in all my days.
We went out to a Greggs man, plain and simple!”
Carl said now getting equally irate.
Their first, they fought like Afghan rebels,
Throwing cutlery and smashing plates
And shouted all night long from separate beds:
“Greggs” “Chipmunks” “Greggs” “Chipmunks” “Greggs” “Chipmunks” “Greggs”.
Well soon two weeks had spun around the clocks
And these two had really fell from grace.
They hadn’t smiled, the silence never stopped,
Except to argue where this date took place.
They’d split the DVD’s in their own box,
Decided they would go their separate ways
And wave goodbye to all their life as lovers,
When they heard a ringing at the buzzer.
“That poet’s here again, Carl,” Claire told him.
“I’ve seen him through the spyhole in the door.
Why did you ever say you’d let him in?
Our life was so much happier before.
What happened in the past’s not worth this stressin’,
Our future is the place that I live for.”
And Carl agreed, so hand in hand they left
To beat the stupid poet half to death.