Captain’s Log 28/02/16 12:14
I’m in another taxi in Ponteland, on my way back to Darras Hall. Today is my last ever day knocking in the North East. I was debating with myself on whether I should even come back to Runnymede Road (I only found 2 people here the last time). But I’ve got a hunch this was because it was a Saturday, so I’ve decided to give it one more go, this time on a Tuesday. The temperature is RealFeel minus 1, I’ve worn my PJs under my jeans. But, as the sun spills through the window of the car and I look out at the clear blue sky, it feels like a good day to finish on.
“Good luck around here mate,” says the driver, as we pull up on the road. “They’ve got short arms and deep pockets. You know what they call this street? God’s Waiting Room. All the people are old and their kids are just waiting for them to die so they can get the big house.” I close the door.
I pick up where I left off, next to a long tarmac lane, lined with pine trees. I get a few photos, then walk through a black gate into the cobbled drive of a bungalow.
“Stop right there!” I see an old man standing in front of the garage. He’s wearing a blue flannel shirt and a beanie hat. He looks incredibly pissed off. “This is my space! OK? My space!” I take a step back onto the public path. Things look like they’re about to get hairy.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
“I’ve been watching you out the window,” he says, storming over to me and lifting his thumb up, as if he’s about to count the crimes I’m committing one-by-one. This is it. This is the moment I get hacked to pieces by an old, crazy lumberjack. “First of all, who are you?!” he demands.
“My name’s Rowan. I’m a Door-to-Door Poet.” Something in his face changes, but his tone of voice stays exactly the same.
“I saw you on the news! I don’t want a poem!” he says. “But you’re doing a very good job… Keep it up.”
Of all the possible outcomes of this conversation, this is the one I expected the least. I don’t think he was prepared for my reply. It’s as if his thought pattern changed suddenly, but his voice didn’t have time to catch up. I now feel like an early Spider-Man, when the general public start to like him and they give him a wave as he goes past. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if he didn’t watch the news…
A few houses down, I come to a tall wooden gate that’s been left open. I cautiously step into the yard, checking for angry men in flannel shirts. There’s a massive archway made of old stone, joining together two brick buildings. It has ‘The Courtyard’ engraved on it. I walk underneath and go up to the orange door. I knock. A lad in his 20s answers in a light blue tracksuit and squared black glasses, I tell him I’m doing an art project.
“This isn’t actually my house,” he says.
“Well, from my point of view, it doesn’t really matter that much. Have you got a minute and 10 seconds and I’ll explain what it’s about?”
“Yeah.” I do the poem.*
We shake hands and he tells me his name is Craig.
“So you actually write poems for people?” he asks.
“You would have to bring it to mine, what with this not being my house.”
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“High Heaton.” I have travelled for an hour and 15 minutes to get here. The first person who wants to get involved lives less than a mile away from me.
“There’s quite a few kids in this family,” Craig says, gesturing to the inside of the house. “They’re quite arty, I’m sure they’d love a good poem.”
“How do you know them?” I ask.
“I’m their dance teacher, I’m looking after the house while they’re out.”
“What kind of dance do you do?”
“Irish dancing.” I check if that’s the one where you only move your legs. It is. I tell Craig I’ve heard it’s quite physically demanding.
“You’ve got to do a lot of training,” he says.
“What do you do to get ready for it?”
“Just dancing really. Some people do special cardio exercises, but I find dancing is the best.”
I ask Craig what made him pick Irish dancing over any other dance.
“I was quite successful at it,” he shrugs, “so I just kept going. I went away touring with a show called Riverdance, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it?” Despite my lack of Irish dancing knowledge, I definitely have heard of this.
“Wow, that’s huge, isn’t it? Where did you tour?” I ask.
“America, Australia, South Africa, everywhere. We danced for the Queen, on Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, This Morning.”
“How long were you on tour for?”
“5 years,” he says. Despite Craig’s superstardom, he’s charmingly modest.
“You’re like proper famous and stuff!” I say.
“Well, in the world of dancing, maybe. Not in the real world though.”
We get talking about teaching.
“It’s great to be able to pass on skills you’ve learned,” I say. “I do a lot of work in schools.”
“The government are pushing physical education at the minute,” Craig explains. “So they’re behind us offering different after school activities. It’s a bit of variety, instead of your standard football or tennis.”
“Suppose I’m a really stubborn child,” I ask him, “not one of these kids here obviously, and I’m saying: ‘Why should I bother doing Irish dancing?’ What would you say to me?”
“Well, it helps you keep fit; you can travel the world; it teaches you how to fail in life.”
“Well, they go to competitions and they don’t always get what they were hoping for. You learn how to hold your head up high.”
I ask Craig if there’s any tricks he can do that are particularly impressive or difficult.
“Sorry, I mean ‘moves’,” I add. “‘Tricks’ sounds a bit condescending, doesn’t it?”
“It’s more about the rhythms,” Craig says. He gives me a quick tutorial on the doorstep. He shows me a ‘drum’, where you hit the floor with the heel, then the front of your foot. I copy him in a pretty slow, pathetic manner. We both chuckle. He shows me another where you click your heels together. “But it has to be in perfect time with the music, otherwise you get points deducted.” Feeling suitably informed, I make my goodbyes. “Very best of luck to you!” Craig says, as he closes the door.
After this, I head into a muddy snicket with a big red sign on the fence declaring it’s a ‘PRIVATE ROAD’. It leads me to a series of houses. The one right at the bottom looks like it’s just been built, there’s diggers on the field nearby and unfinished walls around it. I wonder if anyone is even living here.
The doorbell is a plastic skull and, next to this huge red brick house, it looks particularly weird and out of place. I press the button and a snake pops out of its mouth, poking my finger. The skull laughs in an evil fashion. I crap myself, god I hate snakes. I tap the knocker this time and a woman answers. I tell her I’m doing an art project but she turns me down pretty quickly. She seems surprisingly reserved for someone with such a cheeky doorbell.
Most of the houses I try have intercoms. For the next half an hour, I go down Runnymede Road pressing buttons while people answer and say they’re busy. I get used to being knocked back. So, it takes me by surprise when, pressing one outside a tall wooden gate, it opens automatically before anyone has even said anything. I walk into the front yard of a big bungalow and head over to an unassuming white door on the side of the house. There’s a buggy outside.
A woman in her early 30s comes out with bright blue eyes and a fancy-looking shawl. I ask if she’s got a minute and she says yes. I do the intro poem, she laughs (I love it when they laugh). Her name is Grace.
“So what are you doing this for?” she asks, in a soft Geordie accent. “Obviously you want to tell people about poetry. But is there a reason?”
“I suppose it’s about showing that strangers really aren’t as scary as they’re made out to be,” I say.
“And is this for university or anything?”
“No, just for life.”
I ask Grace what’s important and she seems a bit overwhelmed.
“I’ve got baby brain at the minute, I’ve just had one who’s 5 weeks.”
“Wow, that’s great. Is it a boy or a girl?”
“A boy. He’s called Rafferty.”
“Is he your first?”
“No, I have a daughter already, she’s called Nancy.”
“And how old is she?” I ask.
“3. She’s a proper diva though,” she giggles. I ask why. “She just likes to be the centre of attention all the time. She’s got a lot of birthday parties coming up, she kicks off because it’s not her party. It’s her one-year-old cousin’s one soon. She said: ‘I don’t want to go. I don’t like her.’”
“I suppose that’s something you have to learn as you grow up, isn’t it?” I say. “How to pretend to be interested when other people are opening presents; that you can’t always be the centre of attention. It’s a hard thing to come to terms with when you’re 3.”
“She’s always been the centre of attention,” Grace adds. “She was our first child, the first grandchild of our parents, I’ve got 2 sisters as well who adore her. Now the new baby’s come along, it’s all changed.” Being an only child, and the first of my generation in the family, I distinctly remember my cousin being born and how it feels to not be the centre of attention anymore.
“Can you think of any other funny things Nancy has done that I could put in the poem?” I ask.
“I’m not really sure,” Grace says. “I’m a bit tired at the moment. Don’t worry if you just want to leave it.”
“No, it’s fine.” I think there’s definitely legs in the idea of not enjoying other people’s parties. I take some contact details so I can bring the poem back. As I do, baby Rafferty starts to cry from somewhere inside the house.
“I’ll go through this as quick as I can,” I say. Grace speed-fires her address and mobile number at me. “Do you mind if we get a selfie?” I ask.
“Oh god,” she says, laughing. We take the world’s quickest picture and I shoot off, leaving her to look after her newborn.
This is looking good, I just need one more person to reach my self-imposed target of 5. On the other side of the road, I walk up the tarmacked drive of a white cottage. The porch has a glass window and there’s a meter tall, gold and black statue of Buddha in it. I press the doorbell, feeling like whoever lives here is going to be interesting. A middle-aged woman answers with long purple feathers in her ears and a t-shirt that has swirly white rose petals on it.
“Have you got a minute and 10 seconds to spare?” I ask.
“As long as it’s exactly a minute and 10 seconds,” she says.
“It is. I’ve timed it.”
I get to the line in the poem that says, ‘Tell me about your life.’ She stops me straight away.
“I love craft,” she says, excitedly. “I do all kinds of craft. If you asked me what kind of craft I do I couldn’t tell you, because I do so many. I do art. I write poetry. You know what you should do? You should find a message board online called ‘Ponteland Ageing Well’. If you put up a message that says ‘Do you want a poem?’ loads of old people will get in touch with you and you won’t have to go from door-to-door.”
“Well, part of this is about finding people who don’t normally like poetry,” I explain.
“You’ll find loads of people that way,” she carries on. “I did it with crafts and I got 1,000 people interested.”
“Can I write you a poem?” I ask.
“No, not really,” she says. “I’m actually about to go out and do a craft session with some old ladies down the road. Book folding. Have you heard of that?”
“You mean making books?”
“No, you fold the pages over. Hang on,” she says, running inside. She comes back with an iPad. “I’ll show you a picture.” She swipes the screen frantically, then shows me an image of a book where the pages have all been folded so, when you close it, you see the shape of letters, spelling out the name ‘Cameron’. “The bigger the name, the more pages you need,” she says. “There’s a new method though, where you can fold it to make the letters go in, I always get concave and convex mixed up. I get the books from charity shops.”
“They’ll be dead cheap then, won’t they?” I say. “All the Jeremy Clarkson ones people have thrown out.”
“I’ve actually got one of those in the house!” she says, running back in to get it.
The woman comes back with a copy of a Clarkson book.
“Every fold is 2 pages,” she explains. “Do you know what I mean by that?”
“Not really,” I say. She opens the book and shows me where you would mark every page before you fold it. “Oh, I see what you mean, because you fold page 1 and then obviously page 2 is used as well.”
“Exactly,” she says. “And the longer the name you want to make, the bigger the book you use. But I’ve got a program that means you can make anything. I could make a picture of your face if that’s what you wanted.”
“I could write you a poem about book folding?” I ask.
“Well, it couldn’t be now,” she says.
“No, no, I’d go away and write it and then bring it back.”
“Could you email it?” I take her email.
“You can have my name as well,” she says. “It’s just promotion for me really. It’s June Reay, or you can call me mrs nutty, all lower case.”
“Would you prefer June, or mrs nutty?” I ask.
“Put June Reay, AKA mrs nutty. That’s the name I use to sell things with my online business, it’s called ‘mrs nutty’s crafty goodies’.”
“That sounds like a poem title in itself.”
“They call me The Nutter of Runnymede Road,” she says. “I sell my stuff online. Ebay is on its way out cos they charge for the transaction, everyone’s using Shpock now. Maybe you could write a poem about that.”
“Yeah maybe,” I say.
“I like your Buddha by the way.”
“Thanks,” says mrs nutty. “I got it a few months ago and it’s brought me loads of luck.” I take a picture of her standing in front of the Buddha with the Clarkson book in hand. It’s a cultural mish-mash of profound acceptance and casual racism. “My husband took me to Thailand and Dubia on a bucket holiday,” she says.
“That sounds amazing. June, do you mind if I record this on my phone?” I ask. “It’s all so interesting, I don’t want to forget it.” But, as if I’ve disturbed some kind of feathered pixie by trying to film it, she stops there.
“I need to go really,” she says.
“That’s a shame, I’d love to write your story down, it’s great.”
“If you email me, I can answer any questions you like.” And, with that, mrs nutty and her crafty goodies disappear. “That was more than a minute and 10 seconds by the way,” she says, closing the door.
I step out of mrs nutty’s yard and onto the path. As I do, Grace appears behind me, holding little baby Rafferty and feeding him his bottle.
“Are you only going to this street?” she asks. “I’ve got a friend nearby who likes poetry.”
“Thanks so much for coming out, but I’ve actually just met the last person I was looking for,” I say.
“People don’t really talk to each other around here. We’ve lived here a year and we don’t know any of the neighbours.”
“Well, if you get a chance, you should give mrs nutty a call, she’s great.” Grace waves goodbye and heads back inside. I like to think, in some tiny way, I might have helped bring this strange community closer together.
mrs nutty seems like a suitably eccentric character to finish the whole North East tour on. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to write for her yet. It would have been nice to talk to her for longer, but I sort of like the anti-climax of it all. And I figure I can do the rest by email. Either way, it seems like the taxi driver who took me here was wrong. The residents aren’t grumpy and waiting to die at all, they’ve been friendly and full of life. It’s also only took me 2 and a half hours to find 3 people, which is much faster progress than last time. It seems like my hunch was right: For the people of Runnymede Road, Saturday afternoon just isn’t a good time.
Another thing that stands out is the suggestions I’ve been given. After the politically charged comments of the people of Stockton, Darras Hall has a totally different vibe; a lot more ideas about family and crafts, as opposed to homelessness and human cruelty. It seems blatantly obvious that these two environments have had a deep effect on what is important to the residents. It has never been more clear to me that your surroundings greatly influence your identity. I think it was a good idea to go to both of these places back-to-back, to get such a mixed response to the project in such a short space of time.
I ring for a taxi. It pulls up on the road and I hop in, heading back to the Metro station. It’s sad to think this is the last place I’m going to be knocking on for at least 7 months, if not more. It’s a bit overwhelming, it feels like the end of a marathon. And, now that I know I’ve went to the last house on the trip, it gives me a real sense of closure. For the first time, my brain starts to scan rapidly through all the faces and places and experiences of the past 5 months: Chatting about defending people’s rights with Alan; visiting a mosque for the first time in Fenham; being given a new briefcase from Boris on the roughest street in Stockton. On and on it goes, becoming a blur, as I stare out the window at the sunny Ponteland countryside.
I’m immensely proud with what I’ve managed to achieve since last October. It’s been tough work. There’s been a lot of very late nights and times when I’ve wanted to give up. But having the privilege to do this for a living has been incredible and some of the people I’ve met and the lessons I’ve learned have been really life-changing. Seeing how kind and passionate a cross section of humanity can be is indescribably profound; I feel hopeful about the future, which isn’t an easy thing to say in the 21st century. And I really feel like, whatever happens in my personal life, however the political climate shifts, I’m always going to have that to hold on to. So thanks to everyone out there who buys lottery tickets, your enjoyment of low-risk gambling has paid for this ridiculous and exciting excuse for a job.
* 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.