My trip to Tottenham Lock left me feeling like I wasn’t quite finished in London. I couldn’t help wondering if visiting houseboats was somehow easier than visiting a house? I’d had a 100% success rate, which was unusual. And I’d been warned that there was absolutely no way this project would work in this city. I didn’t want to leave any room for doubt.
Like last time, I tried to narrow down the choice by thinking about what London meant to me. One of the other things this place makes me think about is diversity. London is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, with 18.5% of the population identifying as Asian or Asian British.
I thought about how, so far, I’ve wrote poems for Christians in Stockton, and Muslims in Newcastle, but I’ve never spoke to any Hindus. Hinduism is the third biggest religion in the UK, and nearly half of all Hindus living in this country live here. It seemed like, if I was going to meet some Hindus anywhere, this would probably be the best place to go. So I started looking for an area to visit. And that’s when I came across the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden.
Also known as the ‘Neasden Temple’, this is the biggest Hindu temple in the UK. Until 2000, it also held the Guinness Word Record for being the biggest one outside of India. It stands in a typical residential area in the North West of London, with one of the highest populations of Hindus in the city. I was interested in finding out what was important to the people who lived nearby. So, the day after visiting Tottenham Lock, I hopped on the Jubilee Line to Neasden.
Captain’s Log 24/08/19 13:42
I’m standing outside the temple. The temperature, like yesterday, is 30 degrees. Having got lost on the walk over, I am now running late, out of breath, and drenched in sweat. But the view is incredible. It’s an absolutely massive marble structure, with a huge white staircase leading up to a square building, topped with a crowd of domes. The carvings in it are mind-blowing. Every inch of stone is covered with intricate patterns and statues of Parvati and Ganesh.
A bit of me wants to head inside. But I’m here to find out what is important to the local residents. Although the temple is fascinating, it is not someone’s house. Instead, I decide to get started.
Directly across the road, and somewhat laughably dwarfed by the gigantic temple, is a row of standard-looking terraces covered in lime plaster. I take a quick drink of water, try to wipe down my forehead, and head over to the first door.
There is a neat hedge outside and a shiny silver car in the front yard. The bell is a really big button. I press it and start counting to 45 in my head. After a few seconds, a lady in her mid-twenties answers in a blue sari.
“Hi there, I’m going all around the country doing an art project and I wondered if you had a minute and 10 seconds to spare?”
“Sorry, I’m on the phone,” she says, pointing to her mobile. Fair enough.
At the end of this row, there’s a left turn onto Brentfield Road. I try along here and it’s mostly no answer. 5 doors in, an older lady with plaited hair and a red sari comes out. I pitch the idea, but she politely turns it down.
I take another left turn onto Normans Mead, which runs directly parallel to the temple’s entrance. Again, it’s mostly no answer. At a house with a large garden gnome, a lady with dreadlocks says she’s not interested. A few doors down, a man with neat, short hair and glasses tells me he’s busy painting his house. This is beginning to feel a bit harder than yesterday.
I head into a little cul-de-sac. I try some more doors and, then, in a gravelled yard with a white van outside, a man in his 30s comes out in a grey Batman dressing gown. He has light brown spiky hair and blue eyes. I ask if he has a minute and he says yes. I get halfway through my introductory poem* and he stops me.
“You’re looking for suggestions, right?”
“You’d better come in.”
I step into a living room with purple wallpaper and mystical decorations on the walls- pictures of full moons and magic trees and such. The curtains are drawn and there is a grey bulldog and a brown staffie excitedly running around. I sit down on a blue sofa, while the bulldog licks my arm constantly.
This is Jack and I ask him what’s important to him.
“Well, I’m a police officer and I’ve got PTSD. So when you ask what’s going though my mind at the moment, it’s just battling that really.” I did not expect this answer. I’m not sure how much Jack really wants to talk about this, and I’m worried that asking too many questions might upset him. “You can ask me anything you like,” he says. “I want to raise awareness.”
Jack starts to tell me about the causes of the condition.
“They say it’s like Pandora’s box. I’ve dealt with countless things- bodies rotting, stabbings, shootings. We’re conditioned to just forget about it. But something triggers it, in my case I think it was a break up, and then, bang, everything that was in that box is now everywhere. Until you can pinpoint exactly what caused it, you can’t get past it. But trying to find this out is really difficult. That’s what I’m working through in therapy.”
It’s such an emotive and honest suggestion. I ask Jack if there’s anything that needs to be changed to help people like himself.
“My supervisor would always ask if I was alright. But you don’t want to show weakness. My ex used to call me the Tin Man, because I didn’t seem to care about anything. But it wasn’t that I didn’t care. It’s the fact that I was a man, you’re not meant to show emotion. If you were taught differently from a young age, perhaps when you got older you wouldn’t suffer from these issues.”
As well as this, Jack tells me that there’s some serious problems with funding in the police force.
“You’re promised they’re recruiting 20,000 people, but more officers are leaving the job than what they recruit. A victim I had once had a slash across the arm. He collapsed and I was trying to deal with that. At the same time, the attacker was trying to steal his car and burgle him. Normally, a job like that would take 5 or 6 officers. Now there’s only 2 of you.”
It’s been 45 minutes and it feels like it’s time to go. Jack has put forward what he thinks so passionately and, although it’s been hard to hear, it feels like a message that really needs to be shared. We make plans for me to drop off the finished poem and I head to the door.
“Take care of yourself,” he says, as I step back on to the drive.
I was really not expecting that conversation. The day feels like it’s going in a direction I hadn’t really anticipated. I try the rest of the houses on Normans Mead. After this, I take a left on to some terraces on the North Circular Road, heading in the direction of the temple.
This is a massive motorway and there is an insane amount of traffic and noise. I’m not really sure anyone will be able to hear me. But I need to try as many doors as possible.
A few people answer and say no. Then, a couple of houses later, a lad in his early twenties comes out. He’s got glasses, shaved hair and a lightning bolt on his t-shirt. He seems interested, so I do the poem. He starts laughing. I get to the end and ask him if he wants to be involved.
“Yeah, I think I do actually.”
This is Sam and I ask him what’s important to him.
“I’d probably say coming downstairs in the evening and having a meal with your family. It’s that one hour you have to catch up with them, to find out what’s going on in their life.”
I ask him if conversations like these are less common than they were in the past.
“Yeah, we spend a lot more time in front of a screen. But you have to make a choice: Do you want to take time out of your day to be with your family and friends? Or do you want to isolate yourself, spend 8 hours playing a video game that ultimately goes nowhere?”
I ask Sam about the benefits of spending time with people.
“My next door neighbour comes down every day and does her Nan’s garden for her. That’s quite important. A lot of elderly people are on their own, it can be quite stressful for them. It’s nice to do something selfless. And it’s nice to see someone else’s perspective, too. Like this. This is a heck of an opportunity. If I hadn’t come down to answer the door, this wouldn’t be happening. You never know what you’re going to find.”
I think a poem about the importance of talking and listening to people is a great idea. We arrange for the delivery and I make my goodbyes.
“I wish you all the best with this,” he says, as I head off. “I hope you achieve everything you set out to.”
Things seem to be picking up. I try two more doors and there’s no reply. Then, at the next one, a lady answers with blonde hair and a stripy black and white dressing gown. I ask her if she’s got a minute.
“Yeah, just let me grab my daughter.” She opens the door again, this time with a 4-year-old girl in a frilly white dress. This is Sarah and her daughter Amy.
After I’ve done my poem, I ask Sarah what’s important to her.
“Looking after her,” she says, nodding at Amy. I ask what it means to look after someone. “Making sure they’re healthy and happy. Going out to play.” I kneel down and ask Amy what kind of things she likes to play.
“I like to play on the bouncy castle with my sister,” she tells me, in a shy little voice. I love bouncy castles. I ask her how high she can jump. “Really high,” she says.
I suggest writing a poem about bouncy castles for them. Both mother and daughter seem up for it. I make plans for delivering this, then head on my way.
I have found my target of 3 people! But it’s been a very different day to what I was expecting. I started off hoping to find some Asian Hindus. In the end, the 3 people I spoke to have happened to be white British. In the case of Jack in particular, the suggestions I’ve had have been a world away from what I anticipated.
But, as I start the walk home, it feels like this is the whole point of the project. In a place like the Neasden Temple, it’s easy to imagine that everyone nearby will be from a certain kind of background and say a certain kind of thing. Like most situations in life, the closer you look, the more complicated it becomes. As Sam said himself, you never really know what you’re going to find. Today has been a very important reminder of that.
* 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 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
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.
This trip and the subsequent blog post has been funded by national poetry organisation Apples and Snakes. Also, I am doing a performance of my show about the beginnings of the project at the Allen Valleys Folk Festival this Saturday 28th September. To find out more about the show click here, or for tickets click here.