Darras Hall. The last stop on my tour around the North East. Having been to Stockton, with its reputation for unemployment and crime, I thought it would be interesting to finish on the other side of the spectrum. A few miles west of Newcastle Airport, this is a suburb of extremely lavish houses in Ponteland. In fact, Runnymede Road was named the most expensive street in the region in 2015, with the Land Registry putting the average house price at £892,000. It’s home to Alan Shearer, star of ‘kick the ball’, and also TV shows where they talk about kicking the ball.
It looked like I might have my work cut out for me here. Last year, a reporter from the Chronicle had a very difficult time finding anyone to interview on Runnymede Road; the community has a reputation for being quite insular. My Stepdad used to work as a door-to-door salesman and, when he went to Darras Hall, the police would usually come 5 minutes later, assuming he was casing the houses. And I’ve got to say, out of all the places I’ve been to, this is the one I felt the most apprehensive about. I’ve went to lots of areas in the past with a bad reputation for one reason or another, but I’ve always been pretty sure that I’m going to have a positive experience there. This time, I was worried the people would treat me like something they scraped off the bottom of their Prada heels.
But the project is about proving most people are decent. It was time to put my Arts Council money where my mouth is. After all, assuming that the residents of Darras Hall were going to be nasty before I’d even met them was prejudice, plain and simple. And, in a way, this was the final challenge for me- to tackle my own pre-convictions, even though this felt like it could go horribly wrong. I also wondered if the recent news coverage of the project might help; maybe a few people would recognise me, it might make them less wary. So, on an overcast Saturday afternoon, I hopped on a Metro to the airport to see what I could find.
Captain’s Log 18/02/17 13:47
I get in a taxi outside Newcastle Airport.
“Where you going mate?” asks the driver.
“Well, this is where it gets a bit complicated. I’m not actually going to one particular house. I’m a Door-to-Door Poet.”
“Were you on the news?” he asks.
“Yeah that was me.” We get talking about my luck today. I explain that I’m a bit worried this might be more difficult than usual.
“It probably will be,” he says. “They’re all stuck up their own arse.”
I get out the car on Runnymede Road, next to Langton Court. It definitely looks the part: Massive houses everywhere, poking out behind tall hedges. As I walk to the end of the street, they get bigger and bigger. I pass an enormous sandstone mansion, guarded by a huge black fence with ornate floral patterns on it. The one next door to it is similar, but it doesn’t have a gate. I decide I’ll start here. As I stand outside, trying to mentally build myself up for this, I realise this is scary in a whole new way to visiting Byker or Stockton. Back then, the worse-case scenario was getting punched in the face. Now, I’m worried I’ll be chased from the premises by a pack of ravenous hounds.
I walk up the cobbled drive. I’m very nervous now. The fact you have to walk so far just to get to the house, it makes it feel like I’m trespassing. I get to the door; black and twice the width of a normal one. There’s a silver lion’s head for a knocker. I take a deep breath and tap it… A man appears in shorts and a t-shirt, with a conspicuous Geordie accent.
“I saw you on the news the other day,” he says. “That was you right?”
“Yeah it was.”
“Aii, it was good.”
“Maybe I could write a poem for you?”
“No, to be honest, I’m not really very extroverted.”
“Are you sure? It could be about anything you want.”
“No. All the best with it, but no thanks.”
Well, that was weird. Being on the telly has really changed the texture of how this works. I also wasn’t expecting to find someone who looked and sounded so… normal. I wonder how often this will happen? Next, I try a white building with a brown roof. There’s no door at the front, so I go round to the back garden. This feels even more intrusive than before, but I find a door with a knocker on, I assume they must want people to use it? A very glamorous looking girl in her early twenties comes out, with glossy, straight hair and immaculate makeup.
“I’m doing an art project, have you got a minute and 10 seconds to spare?”
I do the poem and she looks really confused the entire time. Every now and again, her eyes go very wide for a split second, as if she’s trying extremely hard to process exactly what is happening here.
“So, I know a lot of people don’t think poetry is relevant,” I say. “I’ve been going around the North East asking what’s important and then writing a poem about it.”
“OK, thanks very much,” she says, as she begins to close the door.
“Well, actually, I was going to ask you what is important and I could go away and write you a poem.”
“I think we’re good,” she says, suspiciously. The door closes.
I start to think about the line in my intro poem, ‘wrote by toffs who’ve turned to dust.’* I realise this could actually be quite offensive, it’s probably best if I take that out really. I try a lot more houses, they’re all so different: One looks like a kind of worn-down, 1950’s American ranch house, with pink walls and green deck chairs outside; the next like a Georgian country manor. A lot of the houses have intercoms at the gate. At one, a lady answers and I ask if she’s got a minute.
“I’m just on my way out,” she says, “I’m really sorry, otherwise I would.” She sounds like she really means it. I try some more intercoms; often, the people say the same thing. It’s starting to feel like I’m cold calling now, like I’m more of a phone-to-phone poet.
At yet another intercom, outside a tall wooden gate, I hear a lady’s voice say hello.
“I’m doing an art project,” I explain. “Have you got a minute and 10 seconds to spare?”
“Yeah, OK.” The automatic gate starts to open… I step into the courtyard of an absolutely colossal house, done out in a mock-Tudor style with white paint and black beams. What do I do now?! I am completely out of my depth. I look around. There’s no one here. I decide I’ll just give them a knock like normal. Just as my knuckles are about to touch the wood, the door is opened by a very jolly looking man in his 50’s, with short grey hair.
“Rowan!” he says, patting me on the shoulder. “Nice to see you! Come in.”
This is Jeff. Finding someone who seems to like what I do before I’ve even met them is very strange. He leads me through the hall to a big open-plan kitchen and lounge area. He introduces me to his son, Max, his wife, Lindsay, and his Miniature English Bull Terrier, Little Frank.
“We saw you on the telly,” he says. “I’ve got to say, we had a laugh about it. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Come and get a seat,” says Lindsay. I go over to a sofa and chairs where her and Max are. “You must be cold. Do you need to use the toilet or anything?” It’s thoughtful, no one has actually ever asked me this before.
“Do you want a biscuit?” Jeff says. I feel like I’m going to get spoiled here.
Jeff comes over with my tea and a WHOLE PLATE of biscuits: Shortbreads, wafer tubes, chocolate squares. This is great.
“So what’s important to you,” I ask.
“Frank,” says Jeff, sitting down and looking at the dog, who is now running about in the middle of our circle. “People get the wrong impression, they cross the street when they see him coming. But he’s honestly the most friendly dog you’ll ever meet. He’s the most cheeky dog you’ll ever meet as well though.” I ask what the cheekiest thing is he’s ever done.
“He has to be hand fed,” says Lindsay. “If I put his roast chicken on the floor, he’ll just look at it.”
“He has roast chicken?” I say.
“Sometimes he has duck too, and roast beef.” I think Frank is living a better life than me here.
I ask what other things he does that make him cheeky.
“He sleeps in our bed all cuddled up like a baby,” says Lindsay. “He has to have an electric blanket. And when he gets too hot in the night, he barks for water. I’ve stopped getting it for him now, but he used to refuse to go and drink from his bowl, he’d make you get up for it.”
“It seems like Frank is really in charge,” I say.
“Oh yeah, the whole house runs around him,” says Jeff.
“He decides what time we’re going to wake up,” Lindsay adds. “He’s definitely the head of the household. When we ride in the car, he insists on sitting in the front now. Me and Max have to go in the back. It’s definitely a power thing, the way he just sits there and looks straight forward.”
I’m starting to get a little bit worried. It seems like this situation is one small step away from Frank locking the family in a cage and seizing the house for his own. But it’s clear the three of them are very kind-hearted, and they have a lot of love for this dog. Lindsay shows me Frank’s various coats, specifically his fleece, which she puts on him.
“Once you have a dog like this,” Jeff says, “you never want a different one. It’s hard to explain. They’re very intelligent.” I suggest that the poem could be about how Frank is in charge of the house. They seem to like it.
“I’m really excited about this,” says Linsday. “We can get it framed and put it up on the wall just there.”
“The pressure is on!” I say.
It’s been really interesting meeting this family and very different to what I was expecting when I stepped into the courtyard. I leave with a spring in my step.
“Take care Rowan,” Jeff says, as he presses a remote to open the gate for me. I look at my watch, it’s now quarter to 4. I realise I’m probably not going to find the 5 people I’m looking for today. Then again, a case of me sleeping in, combined with a broken-down Metro, meant I got here a few hours later than I was aiming for. I’m worried this could make all the difference. Another thing that makes this more difficult than usual is literally how long it takes to get from door-to-door. On a street of terraced houses, I can knock on about a house a minute. Here, it often takes 5 minutes just to knock, wait, then walk down the street and up the drive to the next one. I didn’t really plan for this.
I try some more intercoms and doors. It starts to rain in a fine mist. A few people say no, but often they seem interested and like they are genuinely busy. An old lady with a lovely smile opens her garage and comes out.
“I’m just about to go to church,” she says. I try a big red brick house where I first got out of the taxi. A lady answers in a purple fleece.
“Were you on the telly?” she asks.
“I was.” She seems really interested in getting involved, I ask her if I can write about our conversation on my website.
“Oh no, I don’t do websites and facebooks. I don’t really understand them.”
“I could send you what I want to publish so you can read it first?” She still says no. I wish her all the best and carry on.
After a few more doors, I knock on a very wide, grey bungalow with a huge pine tree in the garden. A middle-aged lady answers with long brown hair (also wearing a fleece, they seem popular around here, with people and terriers alike). I explain that I’m doing an art project, that I’m not looking for any money. I ask if I can tell her a bit more about it.
“This isn’t my house. There’s an old lady in here and she’s quite poorly, so she won’t want to talk.” Despite saying this, she looks quite interested.
“OK,” I say. “I mean, from my point of view, it doesn’t matter too much if this isn’t your house.” She looks really uncertain now, like she wants to know more but is also a bit confused.
“I don’t know,” she says, rubbing her forehead.
“If you could give me a minute, I’ll explain what I’m doing,” I suggest.
I start doing my poem. I get halfway through and she stops me.
“OK, what is this actually about?” she asks.
“Well, I’m here to make poetry more exciting…” I carry on with the poem. She stops me again.
“Yeah, but I still don’t understand. Like, what are you actually getting out of this? You’ve said you don’t want any money, so what are you doing it for?”
“I know a lot of people sort of hate poetry, I want to prove that anyone can enjoy it.”
“I don’t think people hate it, they don’t understand it.”
“Yeah and I think that’s because a lot of poets aren’t writing about things that interest people.”
Despite me trying to explain, the lady is still confused. She starts to sound more and more distressed about the concept.
“But what are you actually doing this for?!” she says. “I mean, it’s not all about the money, obviously. But I just don’t understand why you’re doing it!” The idea of someone writing a poem for nothing seems to be twisting her proverbial melon. I try hard to think of a way to normalise the situation.
“I got a grant from the Arts Council,” I say. “So it’s sort of my job.” This seems to make it more relatable. I decide not to mention that I did it for a year for nothing.
“So what’s your name,” I ask.
“And what’s important to you, Caroline?”
“I like bonsai,” she says, seeming to relax a lot more. I wasn’t really expecting this suggestion.
“Tell me more about bonsai then.”
“It’s the horticultural art form of turning live trees into a miniature,” she explains. “The only way I can describe it is if I show you a picture.” Caroline takes her phone out and shows me a tiny little tree in a pot, with moss for grass.
“What do you like about bonsai?”
“It’s art and it’s horticulture,” she says. “I’m a gardener by trade, that’s why I’m here. With bonsai, you produce a stylised image of a tree. There’s cascade trees, windswept ones that look like they’re leaning over. A tree in the wild will often have branches that snap and tear the bark off. We emulate that.”
“How do you do that?” I ask.
“Stripping the bark, in the right place, otherwise you can kill the tree.”
Caroline explains why it’s much harder than you might think.
“You’ve got to understand how a tree works,” she says. “People think it’s cruel because you hardly feed them. Far from the truth, you water them like crackers. And you’re forever tending to them, bending the branches in the right place. It’s a case of pruning and growing, pruning and growing. It can take decades.”
“Have you ever been tempted to put little figurines under the tree?” I ask. “Like little people and stuff?” She laughs.
“No, but I saw a picture of someone who put a crashed car under one.”
“I’d like to fill a room with them and pretend I’m a giant,” I say.
“Ah well, this is a common misconception, they won’t live in the house. It’s a normal tree. See any of these trees around here?” she says, pointing to the huge pine in the garden. “All those species can be made into bonsai.”
I’ve never met anyone who does this kind of thing. I ask Caroline how she got into it.
“I went to art college for 4 years. I saw it in a Woman’s Own magazine, in the gardening section, there was a little pomegranate tree and the title said ‘Why Not Try Bonsai?’ I was just captivated.”
“It’s such a unique passion to have. It sounds like you really know what you’re doing.”
“Well, I’ve just exhibited a tree at an international bonsai show.”
“Where was that?”
“Belgium.” I feel like this is a pretty left field topic for a poem, it’s exciting to get something a bit unusual. I arrange to drop it off at Caroline’s house and give her a card. “I tried to make it as an artist myself,” she says, before I go. “I know how difficult it can be, especially in the route you’re going down.” I give her a wave and head off.
I carry on, trying a lot of intercoms and doors along the way. I meet a man at a yellow brick house with (another) berghaus fleece on.
“Were you on the radio?” he asks.
“The minute and 10 seconds bit gave it away.” Does this mean I now have a catch phrase? I ask if he wants a poem. “I would Rowan, but I’m just getting ready to go out.” Later, a young mother answers her door, she’s got a plate of pasta in one hand and a fork in the other. Her toddler wanders past in the background, wearing a blue tutu.
“I’m a bit busy, could you come back next week?”
It’s now 5.30 and dark. I decide to stop. Walking through the courtyards in the pitch black makes me feel like a bit of a creep and I don’t think it’s going to help my chances. I ring for a taxi and wait in the rain. It’s a shame I didn’t find the 5 people I was after today. But this doesn’t feel like a failure either. Far from being ‘stuck up their own arse’, Jeff and his family have treat me with more kindness and hospitality than anyone so far; once Caroline understood what I was doing, she really opened up to me too.
As well as this, those who’ve turned me down often seemed like they would have got involved if they weren’t on the way out. And I wonder whether this could be one of the downsides of trying in the area? In a place where people have a much bigger disposable income, is there more of a chance they’ll be busy on a Saturday afternoon? What would happen if I came back on a weekday? Knocking here has left me with a lot of questions, I still don’t feel like I’ve quite got to the bottom of Runnymede Road…
* I’m a Door-to-Door Poet
and my hair could be much neater.
But this could be worse,
I could be here to check the meter.
I won’t be going through your cupboards
trying to take 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 freaks who’ve turned to dust
on proper manners, 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 for you,
or 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 iPhone 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.