Captain’s Log 21/11/16 13:40
I get off the bus on Bensham Road. I’m meeting Lisa Shaw from BBC Radio Newcastle at The Comfrey Project. I don’t really know what she wants to do, I vaguely know it involves recording my voice while I deliver poems. I have a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach; when I stop to think what it is, I realise it’s the feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen. I’m out of my comfort zone, which I decide has got to be a good thing. Before I meet Lisa though, I’m going to Lindsay’s house. I came to Bensham last Wednesday to ask if anyone minded being on the radio. Lindsay said she didn’t fancy it, which is fair enough, so I thought dropping off her poem first would be a good way to get into the swing of things. I had a bit of a strange one writing it. It didn’t really go the way I thought it would. Those who read my last post may remember her joking about her house fire. I went away and thought I would write quite a funny poem, one about a husband who gets drunk and accidentally sets his house on fire. But, the more I thought about it, the more I decided it was actually quite serious. I don’t know what she’s going to make of this at all.
Lindsay answers the door. I get the poem out of my briefcase and start reading. She listens intently, her eyes fixed on a certain point in the distance. It starts to drizzle, little spots of rain landing on the paper.
“Thanks,” she says… Oh no. I can’t really tell whether she likes it or not. But then, Lindsay doesn’t seem like the type to gush her emotions either. I feel the need to explain. While I was writing it, I also remembered her saying that nothing interesting happened in her life. As well as trying to capture how much her kids mean to her, I wanted the poem to stand as proof that, actually, Lindsay has had some quite dramatic things happen in her life. She nods. I’m still not really sure how she feels. I start to wonder if I should have wrote about this at all; but, then again, this is the story she told me. I tell her about a get-together I’m planning in the next few months, where I share the other poems I’ve written with everyone I’ve met in Bensham. She says she’s up for coming with a big smile, I decide it can’t have went down too bad. I mean, what was I expecting anyway? “Wow, Rowan, what you did there when you explained that horrible thing that happened to me, that was great.” I say my goodbyes and shake her hand.
She moved to build the kids a better life,
to save them from the future that she saw:
A life of crime, of drugs and gangs and knifes,
of coppers always knocking at the door.
From Halifax, she brought a memory box;
some snippets of two babies’ early scenes,
of photographs and sonographs, first locks.
Their weight in gold to her now they were teens.
They settled in a quiet little terrace
where the neighbours never stuck their nose in,
or talked behind her back about her business.
A place they decorated, made a home in.
But their re-building wasn’t finished yet.
One night her husband sunk a dozen pints
then went to bed to smoke a cigarette,
bathed in beer and telly’s hazy light.
Downstairs she told the kids about her day,
until she heard him stumble down the stairs
and slurring, without ceremony, say:
“I think something might be on fire up there.”
She ran and found the bedroom’s laundry basket
transformed into a bonfire night display.
She threw a bowl of water, it was past it;
she grabbed her son and daughter, got away.
Outside and he had only grabbed his shoes.
The kids stormed off, they said he didn’t care.
But when they walked away he tripped a fuse,
his brain persuaded they were still upstairs.
She pulled and begged him hear the voice of reason
but all the pints had left his mind askew
and for his kids he ran back in there screaming,
the empty house’s drunken rescue crew.
Within a second he’d begun to cough,
the house now full of black and toxic air;
he didn’t get too far before he stopped
and crumpled at the bottom of the stairs.
She chose to find the kids and not to go in;
she knew she wasn’t leaving him for dead.
The fire brigade rolled him out on tarpaulin.
“I hope it knocks some sense in him,” she said.
The whole of their new world had been ablaze
and afterwards the neighbours came to help;
then every family member with a trade
stayed and fixed the wires and pipes themselves.
And for her kids she built it all again.
The walls were charcoal, objects undefined;
she looked to see if something still remained,
the memory box was all that she could find.
I head over to The Comfrey. Yvonne is the only one in the office; she sits at a round table and eats jam on toast while we talk about Donald Trump.
“He’s very good at manipulating the media,” she says. “At distracting people.” I don’t know how we get on to politics, but it seems fitting considering 2 of the 3 poems I’ve brought today are pretty political. I’m wondering whether they’ll actually play them on the radio. Last time I tried to say something even remotely political on BBC Newcastle was my poem about newsreader and massive legend, Colin Briggs: “Stuff those national news bigwigs | They speak for the Conservatives.” I had to take it out.
Lisa comes in and we shake hands; we do a quick interview at the table, where she asks me what I’m trying to accomplish by bothering strangers.
“On days like this,” she asks. “Is it not tempting to stay in the house instead?” I tell her this is the first time it’s properly rained when I’ve gone door-to-door, maybe after this I’ll throw in the towel. I look outside. To be fair, the weather is turning pretty grim. It’s 2 in the afternoon but it’s so dark it might as well be nighttime. It’s freezing and the rain is coming down heavy as we step outside.
“Hopefully Alan will let us come in the house,” I say. I don’t think his poem will survive if I take it out here.
We walk across the road and get to his gate. Lisa starts recording on a little dictaphone with a mic head on it. I press the bell. We wait for a very long time.
“Err, Rowan,” she says, in an upbeat, radio presenter voice. “There’s a sign there that says the bell is broken.” Yes, that’s right. A year of knocking on strangers’ doors and I still can’t knock on a door properly. I try the knocker. Alan answers and, true to form, he invites us in. We take our shoes off while Tessie the sausage dog barks endlessly at me.
“She’s done a wee on the floor,” Alan informs us. “Excuse me a minute.” Business wiped up, we head upstairs to a second sitting room. I never went up here when I first came. It’s so neat, there’s cream carpets and sofas, ornate lampshades. It looks very posh. Alan makes us both a cup of tea and brings it to us on a tray. By the time we get to this point, Tessie has just about decided I’m not a menace, but the chance of her going mental again seems highly probable.
Lisa does an interview with Alan about the first time he met me.
“I thought he was a salesman,” he says. “I’ve never really been into poetry but he was really easy to talk to, so I ended up telling him my life story.”
“Does that make it easier to write a poem?” Lisa asks. I tell her it’s about picking out a particular idea from all that information; it was what Alan said about challenging racism that really struck a chord, something he really believed in. After this, Lisa puts the mic in my face and I do the poem. It’s nerve-racking. Alan is a very nice man but he’s said himself he doesn’t like poetry; he doesn’t seem the type to lie about what he thinks either, even for radio. His eyes go very wide.
“I’ve got goosebumps,” he says, once I’ve finished. “The fact you’ve taken what I’ve said and turned it into something so beautiful and passionate… I need to listen to more poetry.” It couldn’t have went better! I’m completely relieved and a bit speechless. It’s this last bit that makes me the most proud, I want to stand up and say: “Well, my work here is done,” while dusting my hands off and walking slowly out of the room, in a Lone Ranger stylee. Instead, we finish our tea and head downstairs, before stepping out into the rain.
It starts in dark pub corners,
in stomachs full of spite.
It ends in concentration camps:
The rule of the far right.
Brexit’s voice has broken
and it’s the best excuse
for every closet racist
to air their dirty views.
The water’s getting choppy,
the time’s come to be brave,
to swim against this ocean,
to push against this wave.
From nasty taxi drivers,
joking on their own,
to fascist balaclavas
on streets with megaphones;
logic is the answer
to the politics of fear,
but I’ll admit I’ve walked away
pretending I can’t hear
because I’m on my own today,
because I don’t know what to say,
because I’m going to miss the bus,
because my nose might end up bust.
A hundred passers-by,
a new excuse in every head
and all this silence used as proof
for everything they’ve said.
Their voice is getting louder,
it won’t just go away.
Next time I’m going to be the first
to question what they say.
To speak, but without screaming,
be reasoning and calm.
To speak, but not to fight back,
though they may cause me harm.
To speak, but not degrade myself
and sink down to their depths.
To speak and show the whole world why
it’s them who is the threat.
To speak against their prejudice,
to speak against their hate,
to speak, to speak and make it clear
before it gets too late.
Lisa thinks it’s a good idea to try The Crown. I’m not complaining, by now conditions are even worse and the pub looks incredibly inviting. For those who missed my last post, I met a lady called Michelle, who asked me to write her a poem about this pub. So, on Wednesday the 9th of November, I decided to head down and write about whatever happened there. That morning turned out to be the day Donald Trump was announced as the next US President. I don’t know what I was expecting from The Crown; somewhere in the back of my mind I think I had visions of a big log on a fireplace, a few people sat round in armchairs quaffing real ale and making wise-cracks about the state of the world; maybe an anecdote about how the Hairy Bikers came in once, looking for a phone to ring the AAA on. Whatever it was I was looking for, it wasn’t at The Crown. I found the pub pretty much empty. There was only three old men in there and they sat at the bar in complete silence for an hour. If anything, it seemed quite menacing.
Eventually, I took the plunge and went up to them, explaining I was a poet and asking if anyone had anything they’d like me to write about. I met Stephen, Gordon and a man with white hair and a captain’s hat, known only as The Captain. The Captain comes into The Crown every day from precisely 12pm to 3pm and has exactly 4 pints of beer during this time lapse.
“I’m not really a Captain,” he confessed to me later. “I just like drinking and sailing boats.” He told me he used to be in the Queen’s Royal Guards; Prince Phillip once kicked him in the bum. Soon after, I met Margaret, who comes in every day for a cup of tea, a Wagon Wheel and a Club biscuit, if there’s a Wagon Wheel and a Club available. These people were all very eccentric (and this is coming from me), but once I approached them they really opened up and were incredibly friendly. It was a real lesson in not judging a book by its cover.
Now, as me and Lisa cross the road, I can see The Captain’s face through the glass in the door. No one knows we’re coming. We step inside. I imagine what this must look like from their point of view, as I casually saunter in with a presenter from The Beeb; for a second, I pretend I’m always this important-looking. The 3 men I met last week are there, in identical places. I ask The Captain if I can read him my poem and if he minds being on the radio.
“Well, alright, but it better be good,” he says. The pressure is now on. At the start of this year, I stood up in The Royal Albert Hall and did a few poems at a slam, knowing full well that the audience was made up of some of the most incredible poets in the world. But all of this now pails in comparison to how much I want to impress this random man I met in the pub.
A hush descends as literally the entire room, all 6 people, listen to what I’ve wrote. The pub’s manager laughs at the bit I meant to be funny. The Captain inspects me closely. When I start to talk about him, he really sits up in his stool. He beams.
“Did you expect it to be that good?” Lisa asks him.
“To be honest, no, not really,” he says to me. “I didn’t think you’d even come back.” Stephen and Gordon come over and shake my hand. “I can’t believe you’ve come up with that from what we spoke about,” The Captain adds. “Well done, I take my hat off to you.” He looks over at his hat… It’s already on top of the jukebox. Despite this, it’s a real result and I’m over the moon. I really didn’t think anyone here would enjoy it as much as they have. It’s absolutely made my day. The manager takes a copy to put up in the bar. Me and Lisa say our goodbyes. “Well, you know where we are,” The Captain says.
“I’ll come back in and visit sometime,” I tell him, as I step out the door.
The afternoon that Donald Trump has won
and there’s a deadly quiet in The Crown.
You only hear the fridges humming softly,
the barmaid counting out loose scraps of change.
There’s three old men sat drinking at the bar,
one dressed in a weathered captain’s hat.
No one speaks. There’s not much you can say.
Another taps his fingers on the wood.
Eventually the barmaid speaks her mind:
“It still feels like it’s all a stupid joke.”
“It’s not a funny one,” the tapper adds.
“Ah, let’s not talk about it,” she replies.
“Politics in pubs just causes rows.”
A silence falls again as thick as fog.
“Of course, back in the day,” The Captain says,
his gentle voice now filling up the space.
“Pub arguments were caused by dominoes.”
“By dominoes?” “By dominoes,” he says.
He talks about his journeys on the ocean,
of clear blue skies and drinking lots of cans;
he travels with a man they call The Skipper,
a friend you can depend on with your life.
I dream I’m on a sailboat with The Captain,
drifting on a calm and distant sea,
and a simple game of dominoes
is all there is to scare or anger me.