Captain’s Log 13/02/17 09:54
I get off the bus on Bensham Road. I cross at the traffic lights and walk over to a parked car. Dave Sillito and Phil Putnam Spencer from BBC Breakfast are stood next to it, unloading some camera equipment.
“I like your beard,” I say to Phil. “It’s very well groomed.” We’ve arranged to meet Alan Crawford Wallace Campbell at 10:00 am sharp. You might remember Alan from older posts. Originally, I’d hoped to bring the Beeb along with me while I dropped off the new poems I’ve wrote for people in Stockton. But, out of the 4 I asked, only Jayne wanted to be filmed. I got the feeling this had something to do with Benefits Street, a lot of them seemed worried about bringing any more attention to the area.
We take a few shots of me walking along the pavement looking as (un)natural as possible. Then we head over to Alan’s house.
“I think this is the place,” I say, tapping the silver knocker. As soon as Alan answers, I remember Tessie. Tessie is a small sausage dog who barks a lot when new people come over.
“I hope you’ve warned them about her,” Alan says.
“I have,” I say, before remembering that I actually haven’t.
We take our shoes off, heading upstairs to the sitting room. Alan makes us tea in posh little cups, with a separate milk jug. Eventually, Tessie stops barking, so long as Alan holds on to her. We sit down on his cream sofa, covered in massive cushions and Alan talks to David about when we first met.
“I thought he was from Unicef,” he says. “My husband couldn’t believe I invited a stranger in. He said, ‘You must be mad!'” Then Alan explains about his upbringing, how his family moved to Scotland from Germany during World War 2 and how they suffered a lot of racial abuse, most horribly, people painting swastikas on their house.
It’s kind of weird chatting to Alan about it all again. It hasn’t really been mentioned, but I’ve already sussed out that this is going to be made to look like the first time he’s heard the poem. I think Alan has as well. David asks me to read it. I’m worried Tessie is going to start barking at any minute; she sits on Alan’s knee the whole time during my political rant, yawning and wriggling to try and escape. But Alan seems a lot more interested.
“I think I enjoyed that even more than the first time,” he says.
“Is this poem you?” David asks him.
“Yes, definitely. I think it’s one of the highlights of my life.” Hearing Alan say this, I can tell by his voice that he really means it. It makes me incredibly proud.
“Have you got any photographs from when you were little?” David asks. Alan gets out a white carrier bag and goes through them.
“There’s one of my Mum in Dusseldorf wearing a blanket,” he says. She’s actually made this ‘blanket’ into the most stylish, knee-length coat you can imagine. Another one is of her holding Alan and his brother when they were babies. After a few minutes, we pack up and get ready to go.
“Thanks so much for giving up all your time on this,” I say.
“No problem. I’ll look forward to reading the book,” Alan smiles.
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.
I wave goodbye to Alan and step outside. I lead the crew round the corner to Village Heights. We’ve arranged to get a few shots of me knocking, and hopefully an interaction where someone listens to my opening poem. I never tried here when I first came to Bensham, but it seems like a good spot. I knock on 3 doors and no one answers. Then David sees someone in the house on the end. It’s quite handy having a team of people with you when you do this. I wonder how much easier it would be if I had them here all the time.
I’m opening the gate when an old man comes out, he’s quite stocky and has a thin grey moustache. I decide to stop opening the gate. Once someone’s at the door, it feels a bit intrusive.
“Hi, I’m doing an art project. Have you got a minute and 10 seconds to spare?” He nods and walks out on to the drive. I head over and do the poem.
“You’ve got some lungs on you,” he says, laughing. His name is John.
David comes over to us.
“Can Rowan write something for you?” he asks. There’s just one problem though: I don’t actually have any time to do that. If I had known that’s why I was doing this, I would have said the same. I’ve just about managed to get the 5 poems ready for people in Stockton today, but it’s took a lot of late nights and a vast quantity of coffee. The truth is, by the time I’ve wrote up what’s happened to me right now, it’ll probably be time for me to go to Darras Hall on my next stop. Everything is planned out with little space inbetween. It’s all ahead of a week with director Peader Kirk in March, where he’ll help me turn all this scribble into some kind of a show. Rooms have been booked, dates have been set. There’s no way I can fit anything else in. But what am I supposed to say? That I can’t do it?! That will look great on national telly, won’t it? ‘The man who goes from door-to-door, telling people he’s too busy to write them a poem.’ So I don’t say anything. And John says yes.
“What’s important to you?” I ask him.
“Immigration,” he says, immediately. “I voted out. I think this country is being ruined.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, I feel like a foreigner in my own country.” I am now planets away from Alan’s house, the liberal German immigrant who believes in defending racial equality. I ask him to tell me a bit more. “The NHS is falling apart, there’s a lack of houses. It’s all because of immigrants. People fought in World Wars for this country and now it’s being ruined.”
I’ve always wondered what would happen if someone asked me for a poem like this. In all the time I’ve been out knocking, no one ever has before. It’s Sod’s law that it would be today. But, although this is a view I really can’t agree with, I am prepared for such an occasion. Like with all of the people I meet, it’s a case of me listening to what’s important to them, but also trying to nudge the topic in a direction that rings true on a personal level.
“How do you feel about the Indian workers who were invited here during World War 2?” I ask.
“Well, the Empire raped India of its resources, didn’t it?” he says. I agree.
I would normally ask more questions, but the crew seem eager to go. I suppose it doesn’t matter anyway, the fact is it would be basically impossible to write this anytime soon, whatever the suggestion was. I decide to leave it there, thinking that, if I ever do find the time, I’ll write him a poem about the British Empire. But there’s a bit of me that wishes I bumped into John when I first came to Bensham. After all, I’ve been saying I want to prove absolutely anyone can enjoy poetry. So long as they’re civil, I refuse to turn anyone down. It would have been interesting to talk more, to try and write a really good response; something that John could relate to, but was also true to me as well.
Me and David hop in Phil’s car and set off to Jayne’s. The journey takes about an hour, but it really flies over. David talks about The Watchmen, Phil tells us about about him and Antony Gormley standing on The Angel of the North’s head.
“It was being constructed at the time and was horizontal,” he adds. They both seem really down to earth. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it’s great to spend the day working with people who have interesting things to say.
We get out the car at Jayne’s. David does an interview with me outside and asks me why I started the project.
“Boredom,” I say. “Also, I had this feeling that more people would enjoy poetry if they were approached in the right way.” We get to Jayne’s and I knock on the door. She invites us in.
“The camera’s not rolling now is it?” she asks.
“Just pretend we’re not here,” David says. Jayne goes to make us a brew. As I stand in the kitchen chatting to her, Phil asks me to move so he can fit his camera in the room. It takes up nearly the whole door frame.
We sit down on the sofa and I get the poem out. David asks Jayne what she thought when I first knocked on her.
“He came to the door with his little wooly hat on.”
“Were you not scared to let him in?” David asks.
“He doesn’t look very scary,” she says. “There’s a lot more scary people than him around here.”
I explain how I ended up writing the poem. Knowing nothing about horse racing, I looked into Red Rum and found out that he won his third Grand National in 1977; no horse has ever done that before or since. But it was also the last race he ran. After that, he fractured his leg and was put out to stud. By this point though, Red Rum was a household name, he was invited to loads of opening events: Like the horse version of Peter Andre. One of these was at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, for the opening of ‘The Steeplechase’, a ride where people sit on plastic horses and race other people on a track- like a cross between a rollercoaster and a horse race.
I do the poem.
“You got it to a tee at the end,” Jayne says. “But there was one thing, Red Rum was a gelding,” which I find out means he couldn’t have been put out to stud, cos his balls were cut off to make him run faster. I don’t really know where I got this from. “Also, he didn’t fracture his leg. Horses get shot if they fracture their leg!” This time, BBC Sport has let me down… On national television! It’s pretty embarrassing, but also pretty ironic.
“Maybe we can take that bit out?” I say.
There’s another problem. The front door has blown open halfway through the poem and Jayne’s budgies are going mental, cheeping and flying around in their cage, so the recording has a lot of background noise. Phil asks if we can do another take. Jayne closes the door and we wait for the budgies to calm down. But they don’t calm down. After a few minutes, there’s a tantalising window of silence. I start again. Within seconds, the budgies are going mental again.
“Is it the cat?” asks David.
“No, I think it’s you,” Jayne tells him. In the end, Phil says we have enough to make it work. As soon as I stop trying, the budgies go completely silent. I take Jayne’s postcode.
“I’ll send you an updated version,” I say, “once I’ve thought of a new line that rhymes but isn’t wrong.”
Grand Opening, 1977
Red Rum stands in Blackpool Pleasure Beach,
next to a ride they call ‘The Steeplechase’.
The crowd now close to something out of reach;
his light brown coat, his calm and knowing face.
Soon the punters will ride plastic horses,
pretending that they’re on the racing courses.
After winning National number three,
he broke his leg, they put him out to stud.
Now he goes on chat shows on TV,
his face appears on jigsaw sets and mugs.
An honoured guest at opening events,
he leaves a hoof print in the wet cement.
But he sees muddy Aintree in his mind;
the thundering gallops, other racer’s jostles.
With every jump he leaves them all behind,
breath pouring thick as smoke from out his nostrils.
The day the bookies said he’d past his prime:
Their faces as he crossed the finish line.
We head out onto Bowesfield Lane. 3 women are stood watching us across the road. One of them asks us what we’re filming. Me and David go over, I explain I’m a Door-to-Door Poet.
“You don’t want to do it around here,” she says. “There’s loads of bag heads and that.”
“I’ve already done it,” I explain.
“What do you think, can Rowan write you a poem?” David asks.
“No,” she says. “Just so we know what’s going on, that’s all.”
David wants to get some more shots of me knocking on doors.
“OK,” I say. “But I’m not going to have time to write all of these poems. Can I just tell them that I can’t write it at the end?” David and Phil look at eachother.
“You can’t really say that,” David tells me.
“Yeah you can’t say you’re going to do something and then not do it,” Phil says. David carries on trying to find a street. I definitely don’t have time to write these poems.
We head to North Cote Street nearby, a row of white terraces that seem to stretch off forever. Before I first went to Jayne’s, I’d actually considered this spot first. We find a little lane full of houses and I have a go. A tired looking man about my age answers in trackies.
“What’s it about?”
“Have you got one minute and 10 seconds?” I ask. He says no. I feel the blow, there’s a lot of pressure for this to work today. I could have just launched into the poem there, I sort of regret not being a bit more forceful. But, then again, that isn’t really my style. If a person says they don’t have exactly 1 minute and 10 seconds to spare, they won’t be getting any further hassle from me.
A few people answer, no one says yes. After about half an hour we stop. A yellow van with 2 lads in it pulls up on the road.
“What’s going on?” the one in the passenger seat asks. “Has there been a murder?” I explain I’m a Door-to-Door Poet. “Really? Give me a poem.” I start doing my intro poem, he stops me after a few lines. “Oh right. Well, yeah. Just as long as it’s nothing serious,” he says. They drive away at speed. It’s a grim reminder of why people here might not like cameras very much.
We walk back to the car.
“I’ll look out for you on the telly,” Phil says, with a cheeky grin.
“It’ll be out on Thursday,” David adds. We shake hands. It still doesn’t feel like this is going to happen. After the let downs I’ve had in the past, I tell myself there’s a good chance it won’t. All the same, it feels incredible to have spent a day filming with a crew from national telly. And, minus the fabrication of a horse’s balls, it’s went pretty damn well too.