I was interested in doing Door-to-Door Poetry in Moss Side for a few reasons. An area in Manchester with a large Afro-Caribbean and Somali community, it sounded different to anywhere I’ve been so far.
But when I told people what I was planning, I think it’s fair to say the responses were mixed. Once nicknamed ‘Gunchester’, since the 80s it’s also had a reputation for gangs and shootings. I wanted to find out what some locals thought, so I rang my friend Alex, who’s lived in the city his whole life.
“When I say the words ‘Moss Side’, what comes into your head?”
“To be honest, Rowan, I’d say it’s one of the roughest places in Manchester. I mean, I’m no sissy, but I wouldn’t be walking round there at night.”
On the other hand, articles about the more recent regeneration and investment in the area are pretty widespread. And there’s some who believe that, even at the height of the violence, it was given an unfair focus in the press.
Before I went out knocking, I sat down in a coffee shop in Ancoats with Reece, a poet and workshop leader who grew up in Moss Side in the 90s.
“I always felt safe,” he said. “There was a village mentality, that you can let people who you don’t know look after your children.”
“Within the community, what was the feeling about the place’s reputation?”
“That it was sensationalised. But it’s always going to seem other-worldly to people who don’t live amongst that.”
I spoke to lots of others about the plan. The reactions ranged from serious concern, to strong expressions of encouragement. By the time I was ready to head over, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. But there was enough mystery around Moss Side to make me want to find out for myself. So, with a head full of uncertainties, I grabbed my briefcase and set off.
Captain’s Log 18/05/19 12:05
I’m in a car, approaching Moss Side. I stayed at my friend Bee’s house last night and she’s offered to drive me there. The nerves are kicking in. But she’s put Andrew Weatherall on the stereo, and it makes a nice change to have a friendly face to talk to before I get started. We turn off Princess Street and on to Quinney Crescent. She stops the car and I take some standard precautions.
“I’m going to finish by 6pm, if you don’t hear from me by 7.30, send help.”
I get out and she drives off. I suddenly feel very alone and very stupid. I mean, inner city Manchester is massive compared to my home town of Newcastle. What the hell am I doing here? What exactly made me think this would ever work? But I’ve come this far now and it seems too late for turning around.
On my right is Quinney Crescent, which circles the entire east end of Moss Side. It consists of a seemingly endless row of terraced houses, which have narrow windows and are made of this yellowy brick, giving it the feel of a castle wall. On my left is a patch of grass and some tall cherry trees and, beyond that, the busy road of Moss Lane.
I decide to work my way down the street, heading south. As I walk towards the first door, a car comes past and I feel like the driver is staring at me. I feel like everyone passing by is staring at me. I open the gate and walk up to the door. I knock on the letterbox and count to 45 in my head. There’s no answer.
I walk to the next house. After a few seconds, I hear a voice coming from above.
“Yes?” I take a few steps back and look up. I see the outline of a face peeping through the window.
“My name’s Rowan and I’m doing an art project, have you got a minute and 10 seconds to spare? I don’t want any money or anything.”
“Yeah OK,” he says, but stays in the window.
“Do you want to maybe come down?”
After a few more seconds, a middle-aged Caribbean man opens the door with shaved hair, a white t-shirt and blue shorts. I say hello and do my introductory poem*, but I can’t really tell what he’s making of it all. I get to the end. He smiles and shakes my hand.
“You’ve come to the right house,” he says. This is a man who has asked to be referred to as ‘The Specialist’. “Can I record you doing that?” he asks. He goes to get his phone and I start the poem again, this time while he moves backwards, forwards, side-to-side, capturing the scene from all angles.
“So I’m going round the country asking people what’s important to them and writing a poem about it,” I explain. He pauses for a minute.
“I’d have to say injustice.” I ask him what he thinks the causes of this are. He talks about prejudice and stereotyping, about how all of us look at others and make a judgment.
“Like when I first looked at you, I saw your boots and I thought about skinheads. And I saw your hair and I thought about hippies. And I saw your jacket and I thought, ‘he’s a bit of an eccentric’. I don’t mean to do it, but I do. And you’ll have done the same thing with me,” he explains. I ask him if this is something we need to address. “Yes. If you’re going to get judging, get judging with yourself, y’know?”
And The Specialist is quite hands-on in his direction of the poem.
“It’s a poem about being human,” he tells me. “About being natural.” He talks about what it means to be unnatural- about isolation, the way we ignore others, about our dependence on laptops and phones. “There are people who are lonely in a house full of other people.”
I start to make my goodbyes.
“You can put this on the record,” he says before I go, and I wonder what further wisdom The Specialist is about to impart. “When you first came to the door, I thought you were an 18th century eccentric, passing through time. Like something from The Twilight Zone.” We both laugh. I make plans for coming back with the poem, then shake hands with The Specialist and head off.
That was incredible! I’ve never found someone this fast before. I’ve set myself the task of finding 3 people today and, considering I’ve found one in as many minutes, I’m beginning to think this is going to be a very good day at the office.
Instead of carrying on down Quinney Crescent, I decide now is a good time to work my way further into Moss Side. I take a right down Axon Square, which is a street of terraces quite similar to Quinney, but with bigger front yards. There’s a few no answers. At one door, a lady with a flowery orange and green tunic is on her way out. She listens to the poem. She’s laughing. I get to the end and pitch the idea.
“No, sorry,” she says, smiling, “I’ve got to go and see my friend.”
I head all the way down the street and back up the other side with no takers. I decide to turn on to Darncombe Close. I work my way along one side and there’s mostly no answers. I knock all the way up the other side and, again, nothing. I’m starting to worry that The Specialist might have been a case of beginner’s luck. At the very last door, a lady comes out with a black headscarf on.
“I’m really sorry,” she says, smiling politely, “I don’t have the time.”
As I’m walking back on to the path, I hear a voice shout from across the street.
“What’s this art project about then?” A tall, big-set man with shaved hair is stood in a yard, leaning on the gate.
“Have you got a minute?” I ask, as I walk towards him.
“Nobody has a minute,” he says, laughing, but agrees to spare me one anyway. I do the poem and then pitch the idea.
This is Nigel and he’s up for getting involved. I ask him what’s important to him.
“I’d have to say Brexit.” OK. I’ve never had to write a poem about Brexit yet. I ask Nigel what he wants to say about it. “I wish the politicians would just get their act together and get us out. It’s not a racial thing,” he explains, then smiles, “As you can probably tell, I’m black. I think we should be standing up to Donald Trump, to certain European member states who are xenophobes.” He tells me he just wants the whole process to be over with, for all the infighting to stop. “This country could do great work by itself,” he adds.
I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t really expecting this. And, as someone who voted remain, this is a challenge. I decide I need to find some common ground. I ask Nigel what he wants Britain to be getting on with.
“Being leaders in climate change, in green technology. And I would love to see major investment into the benefits of nutritional foods. I listened to something on Radio 4 and this psychologist has discovered that poor nutrition can cause psychosis.”
If what Nigel originally said was unexpected, I find this even more so. There’s certain things that I associate as ‘leave values’, things that I’ve heard debated lots of times, and what Nigel is saying just doesn’t seem to fit. It’s an opinion I’ve never been confronted with before. I think about The Specialist’s words, about not pre-judging. And, in terms of writing the poem, these are topics I can completely get on board with.
I ask him if there’s any of those subjects he’d most prefer a poem about.
“Hey, you’re the poet,” he says, putting his hand on my shoulder and chuckling, “I’ll leave it in your hands.” I start to make plans for when I’ll deliver it. Before I go, Nigel takes a minute to make sure I’m alright. “Have you got something for when it starts raining? Look after yourself OK?” It’s very thoughtful. I make my goodbyes and head off.
Well, I didn’t see that coming. But this is great. I’ve met another really interesting person and I’ve only got one more to find. I decide that, again, now could be a good time to go even further into the heart of Moss Side. I walk down Axon Square until I get to Raby Street, then take a right and walk all the way to Alexandra Road, a long street which cuts right down the middle of the estate, from the top to the bottom.
On the left hand side is a row of red brick terraces. I start here. There’s a few no answers. At one with a security cage across the front, an elderly lady comes out.
“An art project!? What’s that?” she asks incredulously.
“Have you got a minute and I’ll explain.” She considers this for some time.
Then, a few doors down, a lady in her mid-twenties appears with big curly hair, pyjama shorts and a t-shirt. She looks a bit like the singer Hollie Cook. I do the poem and she seems in to it. She tells me her name is Mikela and I ask her what’s important.
“I’m getting married in 3 years and I’m feeling stressed and scared, I’m doing all the planning on my own and I’ve got to sort out everything- the bridesmaid’s dresses, the decorations, the flowers, the catering, the music, the venue…”
I ask her what her advice would be to anybody planning on organising a wedding.
“Where would you elope to if you could go anywhere?”
“Egypt. I’ve always been obsessed with Egypt, ever since The Mummy films came out.” I’m also a big fan of The Mummy, particularly the work of Mr Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. We talk about creepy flesh eating scarab beetles and how the Egyptians might have invented the first batteries.
I ask Mikela what she’s most looking forward to about the big day.
“Marrying the loveliest man.” I ask her what she likes most about him. “His intelligence and his personality, he’s very bubbly. Even if you’ve had the worst day, you speak to him and he’ll cheer you up.” I make plans to drop off the poem and, as I do, two toddlers come peeking from behind her. I wave goodbye to them and Mikela and head off.
This feels like a great place to finish. I’ve had some really interesting and, at times, pretty unexpected conversations today, and I’ve managed to find the 3 people I was looking for much quicker than I thought. Everyone has been so welcoming, even the people who turned down the idea have done it in a really friendly way.
I’ve also felt very safe. From the point where I met The Specialist, I’ve been completely relaxed. I think back to my conversation with Reece, about how he felt growing up here, even at a time when it was painted as being one of the most dangerous estates in the country. Is this the kind of community spirit he was talking about? I can’t really be sure how much the place has changed since then, but I can be certain of one thing, Moss Side has been an absolute pleasure to visit.
* I’m a Door-to-Door Poet
and I know that sounds quite crazy,
but this could be worse though,
I could be the Avon lady.
I’m not here selling potions
to give you magic skin,
I just want to ask a question
that I hope you’ll find interesting.
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.
I’m currently touring a show about the beginnings of the project. To find out more, click here.