My next stop as a Door-to-Door Poet was Bensham. It’s common knowledge that there’s a big mix of religions and nationalities living here, especially Orthodox Jewish and Eastern European. As the project is about meeting as many different people as I can, this seemed like a good spot. Also, while I was looking for places to visit, I came into contact with Craig from The Comfrey Project. They offer asylum seekers a space to grow fruit and veg, as well as a comfy building where they can have a cup of tea and make some new friends. After going to visit (and getting lost on the bus) I realised how little I knew about the area. Craig and the rest of the team gave me lots of useful advice about streets I could knock on and things I could do to improve my chances. I decided to stick to Bensham Road, which runs along the side of The Comfrey’s allotment. They also said I could use their building as a jumping-off point, somewhere to put my stuff and relax in before and after, which is an incredibly welcome offer when you’re knocking on strangers miles from home.
But could I really get the Jewish community here involved? I don’t know much about them and I was worried about somehow accidentally offending someone. I tried to make what I do as welcoming as I could; I took the crass joke I make about Jehovah’s Witnesses out of my intro poem.* I usually go knocking on a Saturday but, as this is a day of rest for many Jewish people, Craig recommended I try a Monday or a Tuesday instead. It turned out Monday was Halloween; I had no idea whether this would help or hinder what I was doing but I decided there was no harm in trying. So, on Monday morning I set off. This is what happened.
Captain’s Log 31/10/16 11:47
I get to The Comfrey where I’m meeting a lady called Yvonne. She’s driving out in a red van as I walk towards the gates. She has to lock-up the building while she goes out for 45 minutes, to see about buying a carpentry workshop. I put my laptop and sandwiches in the van for safekeeping and she drives off. I’ve got some fancy gadgets now with my Arts Council funding, one of them is a watch that measures my heart rate and the distance I’ve travelled, so I can show it on a map later. For the heart rate monitor to work, I need to wear a band around my chest; I put the band on with my shirt pulled up next to the road, making me look like some kind of flasher to a few passers-by.
Bensham Road is the busiest street I’ve ever knocked on. There’s not houses all the way along it like there usually is. It’s a main road, with lots of other streets and cul-de-sacs sprouting off. I usually find a number 1 and start there, but it’s far too massive for that. I decide to start on a row of very new looking houses nearby. I try a door on the right hand corner. No answer. I have that horrible feeling of not knowing how long to wait. I try a second one, no answer. On the third, a man with glasses and short silver stubble opens the door. He’s in a vest and his underpants; I assume he’s probably going to say no. However, when I ask him if I can tell him a bit more about what I’m doing, he invites me in. He has a little sausage dog called Tessie, who begins to run around and bark frantically.
“Sorry, I’m still in my boxers,” he concedes.
His name is Alan Crawford Wallace Campbell and he asks me to write about him using his full name.
“I like my full name,” he says, in a smooth Scottish accent. I sit down on the sofa and do my poem. “I’m gobsmacked. Poetry’s not something that floats my boat really.” I explain that he’s exactly the kind of person I want to write for. “And how much do you charge for that?” he asks. I tell him nothing. “You must charge something for writing a poem!” he says, in disbelief. “You can’t do something for nothing.” I tell him I did for nearly a year; now I’ve got some funding, he’s actually the first person I’m getting paid to write for. I ask him what’s important. “I’m not a very interesting person,” he replies. As soon as he says it though, it’s like a stop valve has opened in his brain. He begins to detail his whole life at an incredible speed. How he moved from Germany to Scotland when he was 1 year old in 1951. How people used to call his Mam a Nazi even though she was never allowed to be a ‘pure’ German citizen. How someone painted a swastika on their house when he was young.
It’s a barrage of facts, like he’s firing cannonballs of his life story at me. He tells me he moved to the North East in 1991. In 1997 he left his wife because he came out as gay; he’s lived in Gateshead with his partner since ‘98. “I’ve experienced bigotry as a German, as a Scot, as a gay person, as a Christian. I used to give talks on diversity, I’d tell them ‘I tick every box’.” He tells me he knew he was attracted to men his whole life, but growing up in the early 60’s left him feeling that, if he told people, he’d be laughed at. He knew he couldn’t carry on the way things were after he tried to take his own life. It got to the stage where he thought “If I can’t be true to myself, I can’t be true to anybody.” “I’m really glad it didn’t work. My wife’s moved to Gateshead to be beside me and my partner; my kids are still with us as a family unit. We’re quite unusual in that sense.”
I ask him how his experiences have shaped him.
“It’s like talking to a shrink,” he laughs. “I always felt different. Because I am different. Not just my sexuality but my background. I almost felt guilty because I was part German. I thought sometimes: ‘Why wasn’t my Mum trying to do something [to stop Hitler]?’ But she was trying to survive.” He tells me he’s stood up on public transport a few times and called people out for being racist. “I think ‘Oh god, I’m gonna get beat up here’. But I have to do it.” His younger daughter has just married a guy from an Indian background. They’ve got a baby girl and he worries about how people are going to treat her. I tell him if more people like him are pointing out racism, then hopefully it’ll make a change. “It’s uncomfortable to challenge people,” he adds. “But if I didn’t, I’d be letting my Mum and Dad down.” “Children aren’t born bigoted,” he says. “They’re not born racist.”
I wave goodbye to Alan Crawford Wallace Campbell as I step out the door. I decide I’m not going to keep trying on this particular row of houses. Bensham Road is a very strange place, a patchwork of different buildings, varying massively in age, style and value; tower blocks, Victorian stately homes, council terraces, all placed side by side in a random and disorientating order. I could quite possibly find 6 poems to write just on this block, but I don’t know if it’ll really reflect the different kinds of people that live here. I walk a bit further and try a few doors on the council terraces of Chester Place. No answer. Then a tall woman appears with light brown hair and grey jogging pants. She keeps the door only slightly ajar, I try to make myself look as un-threatening as possible.
She’s called Linsday. I ask her what’s important.
“I don’t know… I don’t really have an interesting life.” I wish so many people didn’t think that. “I’d say my kids, they’re 22 and 24.” Lindsay and her husband Andrew moved here from Halifax to give them a better life. I ask what’s good about living in Bensham. “The neighbours. We had a house fire in 2009 and they were great; they were checking if we were OK, they didn’t kick up a fuss about the smell coming through to their house, or the building work we had to do after.”
“Do you know what started the fire?” I ask
“Yeah, my husband,” she laughs. “He was smoking in bed. I’d told him not to. He knocked a cigarette into the laundry basket and then fell asleep. I had a load of pine furniture at the time. It just went up.” I always wonder what I would do in that situation.
“Did you grab something valuable or did you just run?”
“I just grabbed the kids,” she replies.
I ask what the first thing was that she noticed.
“Andrew came downstairs, he’d had a drink. He said ‘Err, I think the house is on fire’. I went up to check and, by this point, him and my son Stephen had went outside.” Lindsay tried to put out the fire with a bowl of water. When it didn’t work she grabbed her daughter Hannah from her bedroom and ran out. “My husband didn’t realise I’d got Hannah, so he went back in. He collapsed on the stairs from the fumes. I could see him, he was OK. I didn’t go back in to get him though, I didn’t want to leave the kids.” I know that you shouldn’t really try to help in that situation, that you should leave it to the emergency services, but I can’t help sensing a hint of bitterness here as well. “He’d started shouting ‘My kids! My kids!’, cos he thought they were still in there,” she says. “I said ‘What you on about man? They’re here!’ When the fire brigade came they just put him on some tarpaulin and rolled him down the stairs. He was fine.”
She laughs, but it’s clear the fire caused a lot of damage, both to the house and their family.
“The entire upstairs was destroyed. Stephen was mad at his dad for drinking and smoking, he doesn’t drink anymore. Hannah was mad at him too, cos he’d ran out of the house and left her in bed; she’s never really forgive him for that. See, I do have an exciting life!” she smiles, even though I never said she didn’t. I’m kind of pleased that I reminded her of it, though it is a pretty bad memory to have brought up. It took them 6 months to sort the house out. “Hannah moved out to a friend’s, Stephen went to stay with my Mum. Me and Andrew slept in the living room. We worked on it at night after work, it cost us thousands.” What’s amazing is that the only thing upstairs that survived the fire was the kid’s memory boxes.
“There’s newspaper clippings from the day they were born, umbilical cord clips, sonographs.”
“I like the idea that you only grabbed the kids,” I say. “Cos they’re the most important thing in your life.”
“And left the husband,” she laughs.
Craig recommended I try the Jewish religious study centre, which is in a converted pub called The Borough on the other side of The Comfrey. It has accommodation in it for the students, so they live and work there.
“They’re about 18, the lads who study there. They look very cool; you always see them outside smoking. I think you’ll be very much on their wavelength.” I walk over. As I get outside though, I start to have some doubts. How does one go about knocking on a religious study centre? The idea of just walking into there feels a bit wrong. I mean, what if I just stumble right into the middle of a lesson? What if there’s a receptionist? I’m not really sure how to properly explain this to a receptionist. I take a deep breath and walk in. There’s no one there. I hear someone hammering and sawing in a back room. I try a different door. The floor is covered in paintbrushes, open wires, tables with tools laid out on them. I ask 2 builders if they’ve seen anyone who works or studies here.
“It’s closed,” says one of them. “We’re doing it out at the minute.” I think about asking if they want a poem instead, but they look a bit busy.
The Borough has posh, semi-detached houses going along either side of it, so I give these a knock. I try one on the right. I meet a lady called Michelle with blonde hair and eyes like Bowie, one brown and one blue. She listens to the poem.
“I’m not really bothered about poetry,” she says, but she looks pretty bothered. She laughed at all the bits I wanted her to laugh at and she didn’t looked bored once. I tell her it doesn’t matter and ask her what’s important. She tells me she’s upset that they’re changing the pub into a religious centre, she liked it before. “It’s a listed building and I think they should be treating it better. It’s wrong that they’re pulling it to bits.” She says it’s against council regulations and she wants to try and stop them, as it’s ruining the area. She tells me the students make noise right into the middle of the night; I compare this to the students who live around my way, who I reckon are definitely much worse.
To be honest, I’m not sure I completely relate to Michelle’s worries. But there is something in what she’s saying that strikes a chord. The story of the old pub being converted into something modern, it reminds me of Luke Wright’s poem ‘The Houses That Used To Be Pubs’. I ask her if there’s any pubs left that she likes. She tells me The Crown just across the road is great, they have proper fireplaces and do good pints of real ale. I ask if I can write her a poem about The Crown and she says yeah. I feel good about this, for a few reasons. One, I get to go to the pub for research (result!) But I also hope this will remind Michelle that, though some pubs get turned into something new, there are others that don’t. I ask her if she’d recommend someone to write a poem for.
“The lady who runs The Crown. I can’t remember her name but she’s got blonde hair and she’s quite thin.”
The Crown is a short walk up the road from here, but I reckon it can’t hurt to try all the doors I pass along the way. For the next hour I work my way up Bensham Road, through the patchwork quilt of different buildings; 4 doorbells and one door; blocks of ugly square flats that look like they’ve been hit by bombs; massive luxury houses. I dream of a world where everyone can live in luxury housing. Failing that though, there’s something almost democratic about seeing all these buildings next to eachother, instead of being separated and hidden away. Some people answer. No one says yes. An old man on Havelock Close pulls the blinds from the windows and aggressively gestures for me to leave. I eventually get to The Crown. I walk in and ask if the lady who runs it is around; the barmaid says it’s her day off. I’m not having much luck.
I leave the pub and head down Coatsworth Road, trying the first row of houses I pass. At one door, I hear someone fumbling with the keys for about 2 minutes. An old man comes to the window with bright blue eyes and white hair. He looks how I imagine Nick Cave will look at about 70. He opens the top section of the window.
“I don’t have the keys,” he says, in a soft voice. “You’ll have to come around the back.” I go around to the back door. The man invites me in the house, he’s called Derek. We sit down in the living room and I do the poem. We start chatting.
“My son and his girlfriend are getting married soon.”
“I could write a poem wishing them all the best for their wedding?” I suggest. Derek chuckles, he seems pretty up for it.
“How long have they been together?” I ask.
“2 or 3 years.”
“Are you going to do a speech at the wedding?”
“No,” he says. “I’m quite shy really. I did a speech at my wedding cos I had to. But I didn’t say much.” I ask him what he would say, if he was going to do a speech. “I’d wish them a nice life. When I first met her she seemed like a nice girl, even if she is from Scotland,” he jokes. We talk about unhelpful Scottish stereotypes, haggis and buckfast.
“I hope they’ll stay together as long as me and the wife,” he says. I ask how long that is. “Since I was 27. I’m 79 now.” I try desperately to do the maths, I’ve never been very good at maths.
“52 years?” I guess.
“What’s the secret to staying married for that long?”
“Always agree with her,” he smiles. He tells me at one point he wasn’t sure if his son would even get married. He’s 40 now. I ask him what the difference is from when he was younger. “I think when you’re really young you haven’t lived much, so you just sort of drift apart. People used to get married before they’d even done anything.” Derek doesn’t romanticise the old way of doing things, he says it’s much better to wait.
A few more houses. A well-built man with a grey moustache answers. He listens to the very start of the poem, then interrupts me suddenly. He looks like he’s been struck by an overwhelming epiphany. I wonder what he’s about to enlighten me with.
“You know! I heard something on the radio the other day… ‘Truth is like poetry’… or was it ‘Poetry is like truth’. Erm… and… ‘People don’t want to hear it’… or something. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to waste your time. Goodbye.”
Just after this, a woman with a black headscarf and a big smile answers. She’s called Masima.
“I really liked that,” she says, in a cockney twang. “I studied English Literature. I used to write poetry when I was younger but not now. What you’re doing is brave.” I tell her thanks. “You actually look like a poet as well,” she says. “I mean if something’s supposed to look like a poet, you do.” I ask her what’s important. “Frustration I would think. I’ve got council workers coming in next week and I’ve got to rip up my carpets so they can put piping under the floor and put in a new boiler. That’s taking over my brain at the moment.” At the risk of making her more frustrated, I ask what she has to do. “Well, I have to lift up my son’s bed, lift the carpet up in his room; take the carpet off the landing; empty out my daughter’s bedroom and lift the carpet off there. And they’re going to be here all week too. I’m worried about the cold, about them leaving the door open.” I look at her, holding the door open while I ask her to tell me about her DIY issues.
“Imagine the nerve,” I say.
Masima says she’s not sure if there’s anything poem-worthy in all of this. I tell her it could be, I kind of like the reality of it; it’s nothing flashy or dramatic, just one woman’s struggle with what everyone knows is a pain in the arse.
“It’s all in the description,” I say. “Like what if it was an ‘ocean of carpet’.”
“Yeah. I’ve got to move a chest of drawers too, that’s like a small car.”
“Good stuff, what else do you have to move?”
“A bed,” she says. “Actually that’s more like a car.”
“The drawers are about the size of a baby elephant,” I suggest.
“Yeah and the pipes under the floorboards are like snakes.”
“That’s a quality simile there, I can tell you did English Literature.”
“And I’ll have to move the fish tank too,” she adds.
“That’s not fair on the fish.”
“I don’t know why I mentioned snakes, I hate snakes,” she says. I tell her I’ll keep that as a backup. I don’t think anyone’s written a poem about getting a new boiler before; if it all goes wrong, I’ll just write one about hating snakes. “Oh and also,” she says. “I want you to write, for the record, just because I’m wearing a headscarf, it doesn’t mean I’m a terrorist.” I tell her how it saddens me that people feel they need to justify this, as if the pope would apologise for the IRA. “It’s a horrible world,” she says. “That’s why I really like what you’re doing, you’re brightening up people’s lives. Massive respect to you for that.”
I walk back to The Comfrey, the orange sun setting behind the greenhouse. What a brilliant person to end on. I feel great. The whole day wasn’t really what I was expecting though. I went looking to see if I could find people from Eastern Europe, in the end I found someone from Germany. I went looking to find Jewish people, I found a Christian and a Muslim. I’m learning that it’s very easy to trick yourself into thinking only a certain ‘type’ of person lives in a place. The reality is often a lot less predictable. I hadn’t found any of the people I was thinking of. But did it matter? Maybe walking into somewhere and throwing your pre-convictions on to it isn’t the most productive way of going about your day. Maybe the most important thing is keeping your eyes open and listening to what people are telling you.
* I’m a Door-to-Door Poet
and my hair could be much neater
but this could be worse,
I could be here to read the meter.
I won’t be pulling out your cupboards
looking for a reading,
I just want to ask a question
that I hope you’ll find intriguing.
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 stick 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.