Captain’s Log 14/06/19 12:04
I’m standing outside Jeffrey Archer’s house. The huge metal gates are open. To be honest, I wasn’t really prepared for this. I was prepared for an impenetrable fortress, an intercom. I was expecting to press the button and hear the muffled voice of a maid politely sending me on my way. This changes everything. Now, the possibility of talking face-to-face with a human being is a lot higher. And there is a terrifying chance that this human being will actually be Jeffrey Archer.
Maybe I should explain. I’m in Grantchester, a village not far from Cambridge. It’s rumoured to have the highest concentration of Nobel Prize winners in the world; it was the home of war poet Rupert Brooke and Grantchester’s meadows have been the source of inspiration for the likes of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Pink Floyd. In fact, the list of famous visitors reads like a Who’s Who from a GCSE anthology: Lord Byron, Virginia Woolfe, J B Priestley, John Betjeman, E M Forster etc etc
And you can see why. The taxi through the village centre was like a postcard. Huge Elizabethan cottages with thatched roofs; a quaint 12th century church; Narnian lampposts and so many gardens full of foxgloves and lavender. It’s undeniably beautiful. However, having grown up in a council estate in an ex-mining town in Newcastle, this is also more out of my comfort zone than anywhere else I can possibly think of. The very concept of knocking on doors here has set my heart pounding.
It’s got to the point where I just want it to be over with now. I can’t stand outside Jeffrey Archer’s house forever, can I? I take a deep breath and step into the huge gravelled courtyard. On the right is a 17th century manor- tall red brick chimneys, the walls completely covered in thick green ivy, the windows leaded in a crisscross pattern.
I spot an old oak door and walk over to it. I tap on a knocker and start counting to 45 in my head. Then it occurs to me that, in a house of this size, you probably wouldn’t hear the knocker, so I ring the doorbell. This time, I make out the faint sound of dogs barking, followed by the crunch of quick footsteps on the gravel behind me.
A middle-aged lady in an orange cardigan appears and jumps as she sees me.
“I’m sorry to frighten you,” I stammer. “I’m going all around the country doing a project where I write poems for people and I was wondering if Jeffrey might be up for a quick chat about it?”
“Oh, he’s not in today. But if you’ve got a card I can pass it on to him.” I hand her one and ask if I can write her a poem instead. “No, I’m just the cleaner,” she says. “I live in London.”
Standing outside chez Archer again, I’m now seriously considering whether this is going to work. Grantchester is further south and more affluent than anywhere I’ve tried to do this so far. Will this effect how people respond? Then there’s the amount of highly educated residents. For the first time, I actually feel underqualified to be a Door-to-Door Poet. Which is ridiculous, how can you be underqualified to do a job you invented? But I’ve decided that a line in my introductory poem didn’t rhyme well enough and I’ve been editing it and trying to relearn it in a panic all morning.
There’s one long road here, flanked by tall hedges, which winds its way from the countryside into the village centre and then off in the direction of Cambridge. I decide I’m going to follow it, trying every single house along the way. The next one looks like the mansion out of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I get to the massive porch and pull a metal lever that looks like it could operate a whistle on a steam train. It sets off a big, brass bell, but no one comes out. I carry on.
I get to a white brick manor, hidden by a 20 foot tall sycamore tree. I walk to the entrance and press the bell. Through the window I see a man with a white beard and a grey t-shirt on. He opens the door.
“Hi there, my name’s Rowan and I’m going all around the country doing an art project, have you got a minute and 10 seconds to spare?”
“OK then.” He steps into the front yard.
I start doing my intro poem.* He puts his head down and begins to listen very intently. I get to the line that I’ve been changing this morning but, in all the excitement, I can’t remember what I’ve changed it to. I decide to go back to the old one, it’s not like anyone would actually notice. He stops me as I say it.
“‘Skin’ and ‘Interesting’ don’t really rhyme, but carry on.”
“I had a better rhyme but I’ve forgot it,” I reply, like a kid who’s lost their homework.
I get to the end and shake his hand. This is Ian and he tells me he reads a lot of poetry. I ask him what’s important to him and he points to a half-built structure to the right of the house- it looks a bit like a barn, with scaffolding around the outside.
“I’m building an eco-home,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “The idea is that it will use less electricity than it actually generates.” He takes me on a little walk to get a better look at it.
Ian is an architect and he tells me he’s been designing environmentally friendly buildings since 1978. I ask him if there was a specific moment when he became passionate about this kind of thing.
“In the 70s there was an oil crisis. I remember thinking that energy is in short supply and we oughtn’t to be using so much of it. This is before the idea that carbon dioxide might be ruining the atmosphere.”
He explains how the solar panels on the eco-home will supply energy to the grid.
“Of course, this building isn’t really going to do anything,” he adds. “What’s more important is for every building to be doing this. The only way you’re going to deal with that is to pressurise the government.” I ask Ian what he thinks about groups like Extinction Rebellion. “I’m very much in favour of it. It’s trying to push the government into recognising that 2050 is not the target. If we become carbon neutral by 2050 it’s too late, we’re stuffed.”
We make plans for when I’ll deliver the poem and Ian hands me a card.
“This is me in another guise,” he explains. It has a picture of him scaling a mountain on it and reads: Qualified to Instruct Adults and Children in Rock Climbing, Indoor Climbing and Abseiling. He’s clearly a man with many strings to his bow. As I head off, he thanks me for coming round. I find this adorable. I don’t think anyone has ever thanked me for coming round before. I give him a wave and he heads back inside.
That was great! I’m only a few minutes in and I’ve already found someone. We immediately hit on a subject we’re both passionate about too. I’m feeling like this might not be as difficult as I thought it would be.
Further along the road there’s a lime plaster farm house. A lady in a black dress comes out. I start to explain what I’m here for while she looks at me nervously.
“I’m sorry,” she says, interrupting. “I’m a midwife and I’m with a client right now.” Oh no! How pregnant must this woman be if she can’t even answer the door? What if she’s in actual labour!? Feeling like this probably isn’t the best time for a visit from a poet, I leave quickly.
I keep going until I reach the village centre. I try every single house here and there’s mostly no one home. At a huge yellow mansion, a woman answers with a black Labrador.
“We’re just about to sit down for lunch, so I’d really rather not Rowan. But good luck!”
I’ve run out of houses, so I follow the road out of town. On the left side of the lane is buildings of all kinds of shapes and sizes, on the right is a field with a herd of brown cows grazing in it. I reach a row of neat terraces with pink roses growing up the walls. I try a few doors with no reply. Then, a lady answers in her pyjamas. She says she can spare me a minute and, as I do my poem, she seems into it! We shake hands and she tells me her name is Antonina.
Antonina says she really wants to support what I’m doing. But when I ask her what she wants a poem about, she doesn’t seem sure. She shouts to her husband, who comes to the door in a blue jumper with spikey hair.
“Vladimir, can you think of something you’d like a poem about?” she says.
“Just turn around for a minute,” Vladimir says to me. I turn around. He puts one hand on my shoulder and points to the meadow across the road. “That’s important to me,” he says.
It turns out this is the famous Grantchester Meadows. I mention the Pink Floyd song.
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s the best Pink Floyd track really,” he says. “They were doing too many drugs at the time. I think writing songs was just something to do in-between trips.” I agree. I ask Vladimir what’s important to him about the meadow. “I’m not going to say anything about that actually. I’m just going to leave you with that image and let you decide for yourself. Would you like a cup of tea though?”
I head through the door into a living room with exposed floorboards and lots of bookshelves. I sit down on a white sofa and Vladimir and Antonina tell me about how they’ve lived all over the world before settling here, including France, Italy and Australia.
We get talking about the relationship between poetry and the spoken word.
“There’s something very new about performed poetry, but something very ancient about it as well,” Vladimir says. “If you look at Shakespeare, that was written to be performed.” We talk about the Romantics and Wordsworth and how he would compose poems in his head during walks, repeating them out loud until he could get home and write them down.
It turns out Vladimir lectures in English which, in a way, is kind of a relief. I was beginning to think that everyone in Grantchester just had an amazing knowledge of literature. Before I go, he stands up and walks over to one of the shelves.
“I really don’t think you should leave here without a book,” he says. He scans through it for a minute, then pulls out a collection of Trinity College poets. “Maybe this will come in handy.” It’s very thoughtful. I finish my tea, thank them both for looking after me and head out the door.
This felt like a great place to end my day in Grantchester. I’d found one less person than usual, but it wasn’t because there was no other houses, or because I’d ran out of time. At this point, I decided I was going to try and find someone in a houseboat. The idea was to take a walk through the meadow and along the River Cam. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say I walked for three hours and, in the end, the only person I found was a man in Cambridge City Centre who was chopping up dog food with a Bowie knife. He was sitting next to a tree with a Union Jack tied to it and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was very busy and was not at all interested in my poetry project.
The point is, despite my initial paranoia, I’d found the people of Grantchester to be really friendly and welcoming. As I left Vladimir and Antonina’s that day, the whole village felt like a very different place to the one I arrived at. About to set off on what proved to be a pointless mission, I crossed the country lane with a smile on my face, climbed over the turnstile and, like the stereotypical artsy ponce that I am, frolicked off into the sun dappled meadow, briefcase and poetry book in hand.
* 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 skin that shines,
I just want to ask a question
in a way that also rhymes.
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 all about the beginnings of the project. To find out more, click here.