When I told my friends I was doing Door-to-Door Poetry in Boston, they all thought I was going to America. In fact, the original Boston is a small town in Lincolnshire, known for the surrounding farming industry and for landmarks like ‘The Stump’, which is one of the largest parish churches in England.
Boston is also famous for being ‘the UK’s most Eurosceptic town’, holding the highest vote to leave at 76%. In 2016 it was also named ‘the least integrated town in the country’; one tenth of Boston’s population are from Eastern European states, such as Poland, Lithuania and Romania, and reports in the mainstream press abound with stories of a tense ‘us and them’ climate between the white British and migrant communities.
To me, this was an interesting location for Door-to-Door Poetry. The plan was to knock on stranger’s doors and find residents on both sides of the so-called ‘divide.’ When I found them, I would ask one question: ‘What is important to you?’ I’d then write a poem about it. I wanted to explore whether the media’s representation of the place was accurate. Leading questions from journalists can invite any kind of response you want, but I wondered what would happen when the subject was left completely open. Would anyone I met choose to talk about the town’s divides naturally?
The other thing I was interested in, and a bit daunted by, was the ‘B word’. In a place that voted higher than any other to leave the EU, there was a strong likelihood that I would be writing poems for leave voters. Not that this bothers me in itself- some of my family voted leave. But, as someone who voted remain, I was excited and scared by the challenge of trying to write a poem about Brexit, one that represented a person’s opinions without compromising my beliefs either. It would be an exercise in finding common ground and, potentially, one of the most difficult things I’d ever set myself up for.
So, with a mixture of anticipation and panic, I packed my briefcase and hopped on the train to Boston.
Captain’s Log 05/04/19 10:49
I’m in Fenside Community Centre, a brick building with a corrugated red steel roof in the heart of what I’m told is one of Boston’s most deprived neighbourhoods. I’m with Julie, a lady with short brown hair and an incredibly upbeat Bostonian accent. She makes me a cup of tea and takes me through to the IT room.
Before I knock on any doors, I’ve decided to do a bit of research. I haven’t got much knowledge of the way people from, say, Romania or Poland live their lives. To try and find out if there’s any do’s and don’ts, Julie has invited a lady called Wislawa to come and meet me. Wislawa is from Poland and her job involves helping Eastern European’s to integrate. She arrives in a black poncho, with long black hair and a big smile on her face- I can instantly tell we’re going to get on.
“Julie,” she asks, in a mock-tone of curiosity, making a sad cat face, “You know how we’re really good friends? Could you make me a cup of coffee?”
I tell Wislawa about the plan. I ask if there’s anything I should avoid saying or doing.
“Not really. I think the biggest problem you will have is that many people won’t speak English.” We talk about the reasons for this- the lack of community events, the pressures of work and family, how finding the time and money to learn English can be difficult. “Also,” she says, “there is not a lot of opportunities to learn here. I was studying a level 2 in English but, when I finished, I felt like I still didn’t know very much. I asked my tutor how I could learn more and he basically told me that you can’t. If you have a hunger for knowledge, you will go hungry.”
I ask Wislawa where she thinks will be a good place to find Eastern European people. She points to Taverner Road, directly outside, and explains that there’s a huge mix of residents here, including British and migrants from across Eastern Europe. But she seems sceptical about the concept.
“Can I be honest with you? And I hope this doesn’t break your heart. I don’t think this will work here. When I first heard about what you were planning, I thought you were crazy. If you can look at yourself at the end of this and honestly say that you have achieved what you set out to, I will give you a medal.”
“Will you really though?” I ask.
“I will make it myself.” We shake on it. The challenge is on.
Captain’s Log 06/04/19 07:45
I wake up in the New England Hotel. Considering the political climate, it seemed like an aptly named place to stay. I lie on the steel-framed single bed, staring up at the white ceiling. The gravity of what I’m about to do pins me to the mattress. Wislawa’s words of warning are floating around in my head like the ghost in some cheesy Disney film. But I decide that, in a few hours, I’ll know either way. And it’s got to be worth trying, right?
Outside, it’s 8 degrees and overcast as I head towards Taverner Road. To get there, I have to go through the town centre, which is bustling with people on the first day of the Easter holidays. I’ve never been to Boston before. Having read a lot about it in the news, I’ve built up this image of a town that’s on its knees; pictures of lonely children wandering down grey streets, angry looking grandmothers, discount supermarkets.
This morning, Boston looks nothing like that. 4 storey Victorian buildings with detailed roof cresting; young couples smiling and holding hands as they pass; arty restaurants and clothes shops. And ‘The Stump’. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more ironic nickname for a building- it’s beautiful in its medieval brilliance.
I take a bridge across the river and head along Fydell Street. I take a right, then a left on to Laughton Road. From here it’s just a few steps to the bottom of Taverner. Taverner Road consists of a row of red brick, terrace houses on the left hand side of the street, each with a neat little garden out the front. On the other side of the road there’s a tall metal fence enveloped in hedges and trees- it surrounds the Carlton Centre, a building which offers probation services. The road forks in two further down, with Taverner continuing off to the left and the right turning into Kyme Road. I decide I’m going to start at the bottom here and go all the way up the left hand side of the street.
This is it then. The nerves are in full flow now. I take a deep breath. I walk into the grey concrete drive of the first house. Blood rushing in my head, legs like jelly. There is a big glass window in the door, with an orange curtain hanging over it. I knock and begin to count to 45 in my head. I hear someone coming! The curtain opens. A lady with pink, spiky hair answers in pyjama shorts.
“Hi, my name is Rowan and I’m doing an art project. I don’t want any money or anything. I was just wondering if you had a minute and 10 seconds to spare while I told you a bit more about it?”
“No, sorry,” she says, smiling, “I don’t really have time.”
I try a few more doors and there’s no answer. At the next one, a girl of about 12 appears.
“Is your mam or dad in?”
“Yeah.” I wait. A boy of about 8 comes to the door. I’m pretty sure this isn’t her father.
“Is your mam or dad in?” I ask him.
“Yeah.” I wait for a bit longer. Both brother and sister come back now, with Dad, a muscular guy in a blue t-shirt. I explain the idea to him. Once I’ve finished, his son starts to translate in what sounds like Polish. The dad replies, then the son translates back for me. “He needs to do some gardening.”
A few doors on, I’m heading back down the garden path and a lady is coming up it in a red mobility scooter on her way inside.
“I’m doing an art project,” I explain, “I don’t suppose you’ve got a minute to spare?”
“Well… as long as you’re quick.” I do my introductory poem.* She shakes her head disapprovingly the entire way through. “No. No thanks,” she says. She is not impressed.
Damn. At this point Wislawa’s words are ringing in my head again. I want to give up, but I try to remind myself that this is an endurance test. I try a few more doors and there’s no one home. Then, at the next one, a lady answers in a black hoodie with a silver eyebrow piercing and blonde hair tied back. I pitch the idea.
“I’m doing some work. But I’ve got a minute, if you’re quick.” I do the poem. She starts laughing! It feels so good to hear someone enjoying this. I get to the end.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Well basically, Pauline, I’m going around the country asking people what’s important to them and writing a poem about it.”
“I do banger racing,” she replies, instantly. Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what banger racing is. But this is brilliant! I ask if it’s a special kind of car. “Yeah, I’ve got a Mark 3 Astra. You have to strip them, put in a cage, and then you race them.” She tells me the cars can go up to 70 miles an hour and, the last time she did it, she crashed into a wall. I ask her if she was scared. She just shrugs. Pauline is pretty hardcore.
At this point, she introduces me to her teenage daughter, Sandra, who takes a seat on the steps behind her. Because I’ve got no experience of banger racing, I ask Pauline if there’s any way I could have a go of it.
“Oh yeah, anyone can go along and watch,” she says. I ask if there’s any way I could sit in the passenger seat, but apparently there is no passenger seat. She tells me there’s some banger racing happening in Skegness tomorrow though, at 1pm, and I can go along and watch.
Perfect. I have to check out of the New England Hotel at 11am. I can catch a train to the banger racing and then be back in Newcastle in time for tea. I arrange for a day to drop off the finished poem and say goodbye to them both.
“Thanks so much for chatting to me,” I say. “I was starting to worry no one would.”
Result! It’s been half an hour and I’ve already got a poem to write. This puts me in a really good position to find the 3 people I’m looking for. Pauline and Sandra are, I’m assuming, white British, so I still need to find at least one person from the migrant community. But I’ve got 5 and a half hours to do this in, which I think is very doable.
I carry on along Taverner, following the road as it forks to the left and passes a children’s play park. Mostly there’s no reply. I get to one house with techno pounding out of the upstairs window. A lady answers and says she’s not interested. After she closes the door, I hear her shout upstairs.
“He’s into art or something, that’s what he’s been doing.”
Near the bottom of the street, there’s a house with a cherry blossom outside. I tap on the knocker and a lady comes out with long white hair and bright blue eyes. She’s wearing a sky blue jumper, which just highlights how incredibly bright and blue her eyes are. She says she has a minute. I do the poem and she seems interested. Before I’ve finished, she stops me. “I’ve got something I want you to write about.”
Then, in a soft voice, she says something that changes everything. And, as the words come out of her mouth, it feels like someone has slammed the breaks on at 70 miles an hour, my head flying forward with the colossal force of it.
“My daughter was murdered. She was stabbed to death.”
I don’t know what to say. What do I say? This is absolutely tragic. My head is pulling me in 2 radically different directions at once. I want to say I’m sorry, that this is horrible. But, as well as this, I haven’t even got to the part where I explain what this is all for- about recording the conversation, about the website. The idea of this poor woman telling me anything else without knowing why I’m actually here makes my stomach churn. I explain it all as best I can.
“That’s fine,” she says. “I want you to record it. Every last bit of it. How victims and their families get treated like dirt.”
Her name is Margaret and she tells me her daughter, Angela, was murdered 30 years ago. She was 15 and the killer was 16.
“I sent my son Stephen along to the shops with her, instead of me, and that was the last time I ever saw her.” At this point, her son comes to the door and Margaret asks him to fetch a picture of Angela.
What’s even more disturbing is that the killer was someone who the family all knew, he’d been in school with Angela.
“He must have been planning it for a long time,” Margaret says. She tells me how he was found guilty and went to a Young Offenders Institute for 5 and a half years, a sentence which Margaret doesn’t feel was anywhere near long enough. Since then, she’s seen him walking free in the town where it happened, something that she clearly finds very hard to cope with.
The most upsetting part of this is that it’s all still so raw after 30 years. There is no doubt in my mind that this has been the all-consuming force that has governed everything Margaret has done or said since it happened. And who could possibly blame her?
She talks about the courts and the police who dealt with the arrest and trial.
“If I could, I’d go down to London and tell everyone in parliament what I really think of them.” I ask her what she would say. She talks about the rise in knife crime, about the lack of funding for the police, the lack of support in communities for children and adults. It’s all so horrible to hear. I tell her I can’t possibly begin to understand what she’s been through, but I can help communicate a message. And this is a message that rings loud and clear.
I arrange for a day to come back with the poem. I thank her for taking the time to talk to me, for being so open and honest. I can’t believe how much Margaret is trusting me here. It feels so important that I do a good job of this, that I try and show that there is at least one person out there who wants to do a nice thing. I say goodbye and walk back down the drive.
I stand on the pavement sipping water and trying to figure out what to do next. I have never been given a suggestion this tragic or serious. The idea of knocking on doors and attempting to make friends with people now feels ludicrous. I need to sit down, to process what just happened. I check my watch. The community centre is now closed and the only place I can think to go is back in town. The idea of going back into town doesn’t feel right either.
No, as I catch my breath, it feels like I need to keep going. It would be letting the project down. I have come here to meet 3 people and let them talk about anything that is important to them, no matter what that subject happens to be. I can’t just quit because it was difficult to hear about. I decide that, if Margaret can be brave enough to cope with what she has went through, and to share it with me, I can at least be brave enough to finish this. So I take a few deep breaths and carry on.
I just need to find one more person. Margaret is white British, which means, ideally, I’d like them to be from the migrant community. I’ve reached the end of Taverner Road. I follow the path as it curves around and becomes Kyme Road. A man with a stripy blue and red jumper is drilling a hole in his fence. He tells me he’s not really into art. A lady with an angry Yorkshire Terrier says she doesn’t have time.
A few houses after this, a young lady opens the door of an upper flat with long black hair and glasses. She says she has a minute. I do the poem. She’s laughing. She seems more into this than anyone I’ve met today. As I’m talking, I see a black cat and a white cat both trying to escape down the stairs; there’s a figure at the top, desperately trying to herd them back in.
I get to the end of the poem. The lady seems amazed that I’m actually a Door-to-Door Poet, which is understandable really. At this point her partner comes into the yard for a cigarette. I shake his hand and ask if he heard me explain what I’m doing.
“I got the gist,” he says, smiling.
This is Tracey and her boyfriend Graham. I ask Tracey what is important to her.
“Mental health,” she says. I ask her if she means everyone’s mental health, or if this is more personal. “Well, I have PTSD, depression, anxiety, paranoia and bipolar. It’s quite a list. But when I tell people I work with, they sometimes don’t want to hear about it. They say it’s too much information. But I think you have to speak out about these things. If you don’t then no one will understand why you’re behaving the way you are.”
I think this is a powerful subject for a poem. And, after what Margaret has just told me, it feels right that things have led here, too. It would be wrong going from a subject so huge and emotive into a chat about budgies or hammocks or something. By this point, I’m scribbling down ideas like there’s no tomorrow. I have turned my briefcase into a makeshift clipboard and the wind is blowing the paper off like something from a Charlie Chaplin film.
“Bless you,” Tracey says. “Do you want to come in?”
Tracey and Graham don’t have a living room, so we sit in their lilac-walled bedroom and I perch on the end of the bed next to their two cats, Scrumpy and Vader.
Tracey tells me she works in care making home visits to the elderly, that there’s not a lot of support for her in terms of her mental health issues. She talks about how, if she makes a mistake, she’s called into the office for ‘a meeting’. When she asks if she’s in trouble, the boss doesn’t reply, which can greatly heighten her anxiety. “I’ve really needed help at work before too, with clients, and I’ve tried to ring my boss 6 or 7 times and got no answer. People need to understand how this can affect you.”
I find Tracey’s resilience and courage inspiring. It’s been great to meet her. I make plans to deliver the poem, then say goodbye and head down the stairs. Her and Graham stand in the doorway and wave as I head down the street.
I start to walk back to the hotel. I think about everything that’s happened today. It’s been complicated and, at times, hard to hear. It’s also been very different to anything I was expecting.
It’s interesting that Brexit never came up. Instead, I feel like I’ve gotten an insight into some of the other issues that are bubbling under the surface of this town. The last 2 suggestions I had today were 2 of the most personal and serious I’ve had in 3 years. Was it just a coincidence that they came right next to each other? Or does it point to something bigger? I don’t think it would be fair to draw any conclusions, but I can’t help but think about it.
The other thing I can’t help but think about is the fact that Tracey and Graham, I’m guessing, are also white British. I haven’t achieved my mission of finding someone from Eastern Europe. This has also been quite complicated. Based on my assumptions, I’ve spoken to 8 people who were Eastern European and all of them said no; 3 of them couldn’t speak any English.
Was Wislawa right? Was the language barrier my biggest hindrance? It’s difficult to say. What is worth noting is that I’ve spoken to 18 people from a British background, 15 of which have also said no for one reason or another. There are lots of reasons why people don’t want to get involved in this and I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that Eastern Europeans are different to any other community I’ve visited in that respect.
However, talking to Wislawa has made me more aware of the difficulties facing migrants in Boston, of the reasons perhaps stopping them from integrating. She’s asked me to text her and let her know how I got on today. I stop in the street and send a message.
“Well done,” she replies. “Your medal will be ready in 2 weeks.”
But I don’t know if I’ve earned this medal. Is this allowed? Can I really look at myself, like she said, and truly say I’ve done what I set out to? At this moment, another message comes through.
“One of the poems could be for me,” she says. “I could be your challenge.” It’s a deal.
*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 toffs who’ve turned to dust
on country manors, 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 tone of grey.
I’m here to make poetry exciting,
like bungee jumping, but less frightening,
and I’m standing here 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
or at least 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 smart phone
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.