Captain’s Log 13/02/17 15:55
I’m walking into the Tilery Estate. I’ve just finished filming with the Beeb, but it’s not time to go home yet. Today is also the day I’m dropping off the rest of my poems in Stockton. I’ve arranged to meet Boris at 4, so the plan is to take Julie and Chelsea theirs first, then go to see Boris, then go and see Maj after that. I just need to deliver 4 poems on opposite sides of the town by foot in about 2 hours. How hard can that be? I turn on to Kingston Road. The ice cream van from my last visit is still driving around, playing its tunes at top volume in the freezing conditions. This time, there’s 2 kids actually buying some, which makes it seem a lot more worthwhile for the driver. As I walk down the road, the van follows me, as if it’s deliberately trying to syke me out with its jangly version of ‘The Entertainer’.
I get to Julie’s house. The door is slightly ajar. I knock. Nothing. I start to wonder if I’ve got the wrong address. Then, Julie answers in her pyjamas, she looks pretty run down.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’ve got laryngitis.” I offer to come back another time, or post it if she’s still not feeling well.
“Why don’t I e-mail you later in the week and see how you’re doing?” I ask.*
“Yeah OK,” she says. I give her a wave and head across the road.
I go through Chelsea’s gate and knock. Her mam answers, putting her head through a tiny crack in the door.
“Is Chelsea in?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Do you mind dogs?”
“No.” She opens the door and two Labradors come running out into the yard, one black and one golden. They both sniff me excitedly. Chelsea appears after them.
“I’ve got your poem,” I say. She invites me in and we sit down on the sofa. I know that she’s been poorly with her pregnancy over the past few months.
“How’ve you been?” I ask.
“Fine thanks,” she says, smiling. “A little bit of a cough, but that’s it.” I mention that Julie’s got laryngitis. “The whole street is down with it I think.” Chelsea’s mam comes in.
“Where are my manners? Do you want a cup of tea?” she asks.
Her mam comes back from the kitchen with tea and Chelsea mutes the telly. They both sit down while I get out the poem. I explain how it came from hearing about the hard time Chelsea has had recently; how it made me think about how tough mothers-to-be are. I read it to them.
“That’s really good, I couldn’t do that!” Chelsea says.
“Are you looking forward to the big day?” I ask.
“I can’t wait, 11 weeks to go.”
“Have you planned out what your first drink will be to celebrate?”
“Amaretto and coke,” she says with confidence. “It tastes just like Dr Pepper.” I finish my tea and wish her all the best.
“I hope the next 11 weeks goes as quick and hassle free as possible,” I say, as I step out the door and head on my way.
If Men Did Childbirth
If blokes gave birth then it would be considered
the toughest task that anyone can do.
Bets to see whose bump is really bigger;
morning sickness renamed ‘MEGA-FLU’.
The World’s Strongest Man would be replaced
with Bodybuilders Having Twins instead;
shots of all their pink and wheezing faces
lying side by side in gowns on beds.
Man V Food would surely introduce
a challenge to eat all of your placenta.
Clips of daring sportsmen on the news
swapped for toenail clipping, third trimester.
If men gave birth, it would be celebrated
as an endurance contest like no other.
But girls are solid, often it’s not stated.
So here’s a shout-out to the selfless mothers.
After this, I make a frantic speed walk across town to Hartington Road. It’s now 4.30, I was meant to be at Boris’ house at 4. It’s shaping up to be a very busy day, but I’m past the point of being tired now. I feel like a Door-to-Door Poetry machine. I get outside the flat and ring Boris’ mobile. He’s already told me he turns his doorbell off in the evening and doesn’t take unexpected calls, for fear of people on the street. The phone answers, then hangs up immediately. Soon after, Boris comes to the door. He shakes my hand, welcomes me in and we head upstairs to sit down in his living room. He tells me he’s been reading my website.
“It’s an important thing that you’re doing in the area,” he says.
Boris starts to talk to me about his mental health issues and the problems he’s had with getting treatment.
“Mental health has been sidelined a lot,” he says. “Now, with cutbacks to the NHS, there’s not the facilities. When people find out the name of my condition, they worry incase something is going to go wrong. My doctors are frightened of it.” Boris is the most softly-spoken, chilled out and intelligent person I’ve met in a long time. Knowing how thoroughly kind he is already, the idea of someone being frightened of him completely breaks my heart.
“I used to have a doctor down on Norton Road,” he says. “He was a psychiatrist as well as a GP. He helped me quite a lot. I left and came to one on the corner there. They took me on at first. Later, one of the receptionists said, ‘The doctor doesn’t have time for your condition.’ I couldn’t understand, they’d taken me on knowing the problem.” It’s a clear example of the shoddy state of mental healthcare in this country today. It’s really upsetting to hear.
I give Boris the book back that he lent me, Observations of Wildlife. I really enjoyed it. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know anything about Peter Scott before this. The book was a collection of his beliefs on conservation, some explanations of what led him to start the WWF (he drew the panda too), as well as some examples of his paintings. I looked it over in The Chillingham Arms one night and an old man came over to me at the bar.
“Not enough people your age know about Peter Scott,” he said. “He was like Attenborough before Attenborough.”
“A very nice man lent it to me,” I told him. It felt really special to be reading something from someone I met as a Door-to-Door Poet, especially considering that I bumped into Boris on ‘the roughest street in Stockton’. To repay the favour, I’ve brought him Straw Dogs by John Gray. It’s the book I was telling him about the last time I was here.
Boris gets up and puts the lamp on. He shows me the briefcase I gave to him in exchange for his. He’s stitched it up with some bead wire and cleaned it, it looks brand new.
“I read your blog and thought, if you’d took it with you to Glastonbury, then you’d quite like to hold on to it.” This is one of the most thoughtful things anyone has ever done for me. It’s really heart-warming. Despite this, I insist that Boris keeps the briefcase. It feels important that I leave him with it, since the one he swapped me with is so much better. Also, who knows? It might be worth a couple of quid one day and that might make up the difference. He points out the handles on mine and his. “You can tell from looking at them that they’re made by the same company.”
“What are the odds of that?” I say.
I take out my poem. We talked about a lot of different subjects the day I met Boris, from aliens to religion to genetics; it made it quite difficult to pick something to write about. In the end, I tried to approach his views on humanity and also his feelings about the importance of kindness. I show him it.
“It certainly gets to the point,” he says. “It’s like a vast perspective of a great landscape, with skyscrapers and cities and buildings everywhere. All the words are based on what you’re feeling and it conjures up all the emotions you had when you first wrote it. It comes across very powerfully.”
“I’m so pleased you like it,” I say.
“I was quite moved. I think you’ve got a lot of talent. You’re definitely a proper poet; you’re not Pam Ayres.”
“That’s all I ever wanted to hear.”
Boris shows me a few books, including some poems by Kathleen Raine and Kipling’s ‘Madalay’. He talks about how the rhythm in the Kipling one helps to create a sense of a journey. We get on to talking about the different kinds of poets.
“Arabian poetry can be very soppy,” Boris says. “Then you get your Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is all about war. There’s so many reasons for writing.”
“This is part of what led me here,” I say. “There’s so many different kinds of poetry. To say you don’t like it, it’s like saying you don’t like music.”
“Even music is a kind of poetry,” Boris adds. We talk about The Beatles, how ‘Norwegian Wood’ is a good poem in itself.
I get ready to go. Before I do, Boris walks over to his shelf and fetches a few books for me.
“You really don’t have to do that,” I say. He’s already given me so much. But he’s set on the idea and passes me Peter Scott’s The Eye of the Wind and The Divine Milieu by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. We arrange to go for a cup of tea sometime in the next few weeks. I’ve really enjoyed meeting Boris. He was the most unlikely person to find on this street; getting to know him has been very special.
The Question Mark
Sometimes I get the feeling that
this world can’t get much grimmer
and humans look like swarms of rats
except that we’re much dimmer
and all our great accomplishments,
our skyscrapers and parliaments,
seem accidental, side-creations
of a massive infestation.
The fascism on re-repeat,
we never seem to learn.
We watch the starving millions flee
the cities as they burn.
The only explanation seems
that cruelty’s wired into our genes
and, as a mould grows on a crust,
we’ll eat ourselves and turn to dust.
But at these points of lowest low,
though it could be misplaced,
there’s still a bit of me that hopes
for all the human race.
We’ve wiped the smallpox from earth’s face;
we’ve sent our probes to outer space;
there’s holidays and worker’s rights,
yes, not for all, but we can fight.
Cos I believe in kindness,
and I know that sounds quite trivial,
but one thing that defines us
is we’re highly unpredictable.
And that could be the reason for
the savagery and endless war
but, likewise, it could be the cue
for countless acts of beauty too.
The chef who quit his job to feed
the homeless in his city;
a cleaner saves a child in need
and gives away a kidney.
The news shows us a tainted view
of all the evil that we do
but change the lens and you can see
a billion acts of charity.
And sometimes I still think we’re doomed,
my high-hopes bruised and beaten,
but I would not be in this room
if human beings weren’t decent.
We’re capable of such distress
but also so much selflessness
and it’s this great big question mark
that lights my mind when it gets dark.
I wave goodbye to Boris and head down his Victorian staircase, then walk up Hartington Road to Maj’s house. I’m running 45 minutes late now, I hope he hasn’t been waiting in for me. I ring the bell. He answers.
“Oh, I forgot you were coming,” he says. “I’m just having my tea.”
“That’s OK mate, I can come back another time.”
“No, no, cos I was actually really looking forward to seeing you,” he says, inviting me in.
We head into the sitting room.
“I don’t know if I can do this now,” Maj explains. “I need to go down to the hospital to see my lass, she’s been admitted today and I don’t know how long she’s going to be in there.” It seems like I’ve turned up at a really bad time.
“Why don’t I come back another day?” I suggest.
“When though? I’m working Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,” he says. These are actually the only days I can do.
“I could just give you a copy to read later?”
“That’s no good is it though?” he says, smiling. “I want to hear you read it.”
“I could do it quickly now? It’ll take about a minute.” He says yeah.
Maj seems to have enjoyed the poem, although, if I’m honest, he seems a little confused about how this is for him. I was planning on explaining how I got to this point before I showed him it.
“So, when are you coming back with the stuff about this street?” he asks.
“Well, this is kind of it,” I say. I tell him I started off writing a fictional story about someone on Hartington Road, a homeless person who was being judged. But, because Maj’s feelings were so true and real, writing him a poem that was made-up just felt sort of wrong. And then I remembered the story of Alan Palmer in the news, a homeless classical piano player in Newcastle who shocked passers-by in Central Station. The more I thought about it, the more I felt Alan’s struggle really symbolised everything Maj believed in.
After I explain, he seems to get where I’m coming from.
“Look at this jumper my Mam just knitted me,” he says. It’s quite a radical change in subject, from the judging of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, to assessing the quality of some knitwear. But there’s no denying this is a fine woolen jumper, it’s like something you’d buy from a shop, with its perfectly neat plaits. Looking at it reminds me of Maj’s mam, seeing her eating on her own at the kitchen table as I came through the hallway.
“I should let you get back to your tea.”
“I’m really sorry about this,” Maj says, taking me to the door. “I was really looking forward to you coming as well.” But it’s understood, he’s clearly got a lot to deal with at the minute. I wish him all the best and head out.
Moments like this always drive home to me how much this project relies on chance. Sometimes you meet someone and they’re in the perfect place to get involved. But, by the time you bring them the poem back, they can be in a completely different point in their life. It strikes me that this is part of the reason people don’t get involved in the first place. Just because someone doesn’t say yes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they would never want a poem from you. Sometimes you just catch people at the wrong time.
The Ballad of Alan Palmer
His feet leave water marks in Central Station,
his shivering body dressed in soggy rags.
His head bowed low, the hollowed cheeks unshaven,
and round his neck a weathered sleeping bag.
The people in the station look straight through,
the suits and wheelie cases circle past;
a crowd of rowdy lasses on a hen do,
pink miniskirts and feathered cowboy hats.
He spots an old piano by the door there
for anyone to play who’s passing by.
He sits down in the oak and velvet chair,
lifts the lid like he’s about to try.
A copper comes and stops him, shoulder-tapping,
he tells the man it’s time that he got moving.
But now the hens have spotted him, they’re clapping.
The copper smiles- this could be quite amusing.
“Let’s watch the tramp play something crap on here.”
The gathered hens all start to point and laugh.
“He reckons he’s all posh and that,” they sneer
and get their phones out for a photograph.
Their giggles choked, the ugly smiles are frozen,
as his filthy fingers touch the keys
and gently fill the room with sweet Beethoven,
the gloomy, knowing sound of ‘Fur Elise’.
He plays it perfect, every note is haunting,
the space becomes the London Colosseum
and down a girl’s cheek now a tear is pouring.
It breaks each heart to look and really see him.
For half an hour they listen to him shining
and get a sense of something hard to bear:
That homelessness does not mean they’re not trying,
of futures ruined by a lack of care.
That every person’s born with their own talents,
but tragic circumstances crush the spirit.
That every life is hanging in the balance
and we could lose it all at any minute.
*Julie got in touch with me on the 16/02/17 to say she was feeling much better. She also told me she got the job that she’d been interviewed for when I first met her. She said e-mail would be the best way to send the poem, so I did and I’ve put it below. I was inspired when she told me her community was a real lifeline when she was caring for her son, Reagan. I was also thinking about the work she does with Reagan Jack Rainbows.
When the unthinkable is what you have to think of
and you live your life from day-to-day.
When all is shook by stormy weather,
I will be your big umbrella
reminding brighter times are on their way.
When each step forward is a marathon,
one that you’ve been running all the time.
When you want to give it up,
I’ll be there to pick you up
and carry you across the finish line.
When the darkness leaves you scared and lonely,
you only hear the clock as it ticks by.
When it’s too much to understand,
I’ll be there to hold your hand,
reminding you’re the rainbow in the sky.