Poems for St Basils

Captain’s Log 01/08/19 11:07

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I’m back in Milner Court, delivering some poems. I’m sat in a circle in the communal living space with Chappo, Naya, Ibrahim, Vita and a lad in a Family Guy t-shirt called Jake, who I didn’t meet last time. We’ve also been joined by some of St Basils staff- Azim, Chantel, the service manager, and a few other people from the office who’ve come through to see what I’ve been working on.

In my last post, I mentioned that Milner Court offers emergency accommodation to young people who are experiencing homelessness. Usually, when I drop off some poems, I meet each person individually and read it to them. But, because of the logistics, and the fact that we nearly had to turn away some of the residents last time, it seemed better to do this as a group sharing, so I’ve asked everyone to meet me here at 11 o’clock.

As I say hello, Vita explains that he’s decided he doesn’t want me to read his poem out to the group. It’s completely understandable, it’s about his personal life and the moment he became homeless, I can totally see why that would feel uncomfortable.

Instead, I pass him a French copy that I’ve put through Google translate. I found out last time that Vita’s originally from the Congo and he’s only been learning English for a year. I’m hoping the Google version makes sense. I mention that I could read it to him in private once I’m done and he says this would be OK.

I start to share the rest of the poems, beginning with the one I made for Naya and Chappo. There was a lot of subjects to choose from here, the school system, Brexit, promoting good mental health. In the end, I decided to write about something Naya mentioned- that 16-year-olds should be able to vote.


Second Class

I never understood the logic
when I was 16 years old:
If I worked, I’d pay my taxes,
but I didn’t get to vote.

I could join the Royal Air Force,
they might teach me how to fly,
but I didn’t get to choose
who sent me off to die.

I could get married, have a child,
move into my own place,
get drunk in a restaurant
and even change my name.

But to put a pencil cross
in a flimsy paper box
was beyond all possibility,
I was not mature enough.

As if everyone over 18
was politically zen,
as if they hadn’t made a mess of it
when it was left to them.

Like worker’s rights, the price of rent,
were just none of my business,
when there were older voters
who wouldn’t even feel the difference.

And I wondered then, as I do now,
is it part of our leader’s plan?
Are they scared of how the vote would go
if placed in younger hands?

Do they know they wouldn’t last
in power for a minute,
if they dragged the past out of the booth
and placed the future in it?


After this, I get out Ibrahim’s poem. When I met him, he told me he was training to be a PE teacher and asked for one about the positive benefits of sport. To be honest, I’ve never been very good at sport. It’s the subject I struggled the most with at school. But, after much brain racking, I remembered something I could talk about.


Good Sport

At playtime I would often fall,
I couldn’t run or kick a ball,
I was larger than a planet dipped in lard.

In PE I was always last,
from marathon to tennis match,
if moving was the aim, I found it hard.

Out on the field you’d catch me hobbling
with my manly bosoms wobbling,
the laughing stock of everyone who saw.

Sports day would make me cower,
till I learned my superpower:
See, it turned out I was great at tug of war.
Tug of war.
Yes, it turned out I was great at tug of war.

When you weigh more than an elephant,
it takes a skill unprecedented
to shift you from the spot you’re standing in.

I beat ten kids on my own,
I became a local hero,
I was the tug of war world’s next big thing.

It’s been a long time since those days,
my rope is old and frayed,
my trophies gather dust from times gone by.

But the moral of this tale is
don’t be put off if you fail,
if you can’t run, then pulling’s worth a try.

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Chantel puts out some cake and sarnies and people start to disperse. I consider asking Vita if he wants to go upstairs to the ICT room. On second thought, I figure there’s not much point. I can’t read French. And me reading the poem in a Geordie accent probably isn’t going clarify anything. Soon after this, he stands up and leaves.

Jake explains that he wasn’t quite sure what was happening today, so he wrote a poem just incase. I love this. It’s about trolls and he reads it out to us, getting a hearty round of applause once he’s done. He tells us that he wants to study script writing at uni, that he’s made a film in college already.
“It’s a noir about a can of spray paint with an untraceable kind of cyanide in it.”

We get chatting about our favourite films. Chantel mentions Pulp Fiction.
“What do you think about it, Jake? Is it good?”
“It’s timeless because it has so many quotable lines in. Like Shakespeare. Anyone can tell you the ‘To be or not to be’ line, but how many people know the context of where it comes from?”

After about 40 minutes, Vita comes back in. He looks at me and points upstairs to the ICT room.
“You want me to read it out?” I ask. He nods.

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We head upstairs and I sit down in the same chair where I met him two weeks ago. But it turns out Vita doesn’t want me to read the poem out after all… He wants to read it to me. In fact, I realise now that he probably left earlier to go and practice the English version in his room.

It’s such an emotional experience to hear a poem about something so tragic, read out by the person you wrote it for, when they’ve clearly put so much effort in to doing it, too. It’s a sharp reminder of the reality of what has brought these young people together.

I’ve had a really memorable time in Milner Court. I feel so grateful to all of the staff and residents who’ve agreed to help me do this. I think going down without a particular subject to explore has given me quite a special perspective. Instead of seeing homeless ‘cases’, I’ve seen three-dimensional people; people with huge aspirations and great personalities. I’ve found their resilience and motivation inspiring, and I know that’s something that will stick with me for a very long time.


Wait

This city caved in on him
faster than an avalanche,
sudden as a shaking hand.
From meeting friends in cafes,
tube commutes, exam results,
to sitting on a paving stone
and wondering where to sleep.

Ground zero.
It doesn’t sink in.
The people walk around him
like he’s infected,
like this is punishment for something.
And he wants to stand and follow them,
to stop them on their shopping trips,
to burst their cosy bubble,
to say: No, no, no, no,

I don’t think you understand.
I’m just the same as you,

I also had a place to be,
it all just started

crumbling

faster than an avalanche,
sudden as a shaking hand,

I was already swept up in it

by the time I saw it coming.


Rowan McCabe


I’m currently touring a show about the beginnings of the project. There’s now one date left and it’s in London. To find out more click here. 

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