It was Monday the 2nd of March. On the surface, everything was normal. Restaurants were still open, stag parties downed cans and sang on public transport. In amongst it, I was trying to finish my Door-to-Door project.
There wasn’t much left to do, I just needed to find 4 people to write a poem for. But I was starting to get the feeling that there wasn’t much time. The number of coronavirus cases had jumped suddenly to 39. The country’s medical director started talking about ‘limiting social contact’ very soon.
I realised I might never have the chance to do this again. And, if I really was going to say that I took it as far as it could possibly go, I needed to try something big, something stupid, something seemingly impossible.
A quick look online shows the three most expensive streets in the UK are, unsurprisingly, all in London. Kensington Palace Gardens, or ‘Billionaire’s Boulevard’, comes in at first, with an average house price of £33 million. Second or third seems more debatable, but Grosvenor Crescent in Belgravia is mentioned a lot, as well as Courtenay Avenue in Hampstead Heath.
A bit of me was sure this was doomed to fail, even without the current climate. But then, that’s exactly what I thought when I tried Grantchester, or The Byker Wall. In fact, pretty much every time I’ve set out to do this, I’ve been massively surprised by what actually happened. I had to try.
So, that day, I hopped on a train from Newcastle to London, heading for the most expensive houses in the country. And I knew exactly where I needed to start.
Captain’s Log 03/03/20 10:27
I’m stood outside Buckingham Palace, staring at the gold coat of arms on the gates. As tourists wander past with backpacks on their front, my heart is pounding and I’m wondering what I’m doing with my life.
At first, it looked like, to speak to someone from the palace, I’d have to walk through the gates and up to the building itself. In the distance, I can make out guards and armed police. I had visions of being gunned down in the courtyard before I even got close.
On further inspection, I can see there’s police at the gates themselves, too. Surely, they wouldn’t shoot me right there, would they?
I find myself walking up to an officer with a semi-automatic rifle.
“Excuse me, I’m going all around the country knocking on people’s doors and writing poems for them. I was wondering if you thought anyone in the palace might be interested?”
“To be honest mate, I don’t think so.”
“OK. Would you like a poem?”
“No. But all the best with it.”
I’m stood outside Kensington Palace Gardens, home to billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, and Chelsea FC owner, Roman Abramovich.
To be honest, Buckingham Palace was more of a personal dare. But I was feeling like, so long as there was no security, I might actually have a chance here. It’s not good news. There’s a white stone arch and, beyond that, a small brick security office, flanked by automatic barriers.
I kind of know where this is going by now. But I might as well try. I head through the arches and walk up to a security guard. Behind his head is a massive, pink mansion, partly obscured by elm trees. I explain the idea.
“I’m afraid these are mostly ambassador’s residences, sir.”
“Do you think they might like a poem?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Would you like a poem?”
I walk away from Kensington Palace Gardens, feeling like I need a change of tack. Obviously, talking to security isn’t working, but is there another way?
I take a left and find myself on a quiet street, lined with tall, 3 storey terraces. They’re all painted a blinding shade of white, with bay windows, big front yards and Victorian-style lampposts outside. Every single one is identical.
This is Palace Gardens Terrace and it runs parallel to Kensington Palace Gardens, with its back facing the street itself. Unlike ‘Billionaire’s Boulevard’, there is no security. I decide to give it a go.
At the first house, I head through a gate and up a wide set of steps to a doorway. The floor is covered in black and white tiles like a chessboard. I tap on a golden letterbox and it makes a deep, hollow sound.
A man comes out in a baseball cap and a red anorak.
“Hi there, my name’s Rowan and I’m going around the neighbourhood doing an art project. I was wondering if you had a minute and 10 seconds to spare?”
“Sorry,” he says, “I’m too busy.”
I try a few more doors, there’s mostly no answer. At one, a woman in a fur coat says she’s on her way to a meeting in a school. At another, a lady with a Yorkshire accent seems pretty annoyed about the whole concept. I leave quickly.
Then, a few minutes later, I spot a woman in her 30s in a blue parker, with long black hair and sunshades. She’s on her way inside and I stop her as she’s closing the front gate. She seems quite interested. I do my intro poem* and she laughs at the bits I hoped she would.
“Well, I don’t really like poetry,” she says. “But something me and my kids could read together would be nice.”
This is Mahika and I ask her what kind of subject she thinks would be best.
“It should be about living in London,” she says. “About all the things you can do here.” I ask her what kind of things you can do in particular. “Well, you could go to the top of The London Eye. You could visit Big Ben.”
I like the idea of it being about famous landmarks. I tell Mahika that, coming from Newcastle, I don’t really know what it’s like to live in London.
“London to me means a place for everyone,” she says. “You could meet a poet from Newcastle, you could meet someone from Afghanistan, Dubai, Morocco. Anyone is welcome here.”
At this point, Mahika’s phone rings. She answers, then puts her hand on the receiver.
“I’m really sorry, I need to take this. Have you got everything you need?” I quickly go over the plans for the delivery, then let her get off.
I can’t believe this has actually worked! I was totally prepared to find no one today and I’m already a quarter of the way there. This changes everything.
I’m standing on Grosvenor Crescent in Belgravia, a row of sandstone terraces on steroids. Supposedly, the average house price here is £19 million. There’s a massive portico at the front of every door, held up with Roman columns; the space underneath this is the size of my kitchen. The street curves off to the left like a banana and, looking along it, I can’t see any security.
I head up to the first house. There’s no knocker, just a gold intercom. This is problematic, I know from experience that it’s much harder to explain all this via intercom.
I press the button. After a minute, a man answers.
“Sorry, but this building is part of an office. I’m not sure if anyone here wants a poem.” I say thanks anyway.
At the next, identical door, I ring another intercom. A man answers.
“Hi, we just spoke before…” he says.
“Oh, is this part of the same office?”
“Yes.” I’m about to ask if every property on this street is the same, but he hangs up before I have the chance.
I consider giving in. But I’ve travelled a very long way to try this, I need to know for sure. I walk up to the next door and ring another intercom.
“Hi again Rowan.”
“Don’t hang up! Is every door on this street part of your office?”
“Yes. Maybe you could write a poem about that?” I tell him I’ll bear it in mind.
Eaton Square is only 5 minutes down the road. Over the years, it’s been home to the likes of former prime minister Neville ‘I’ve-got-a-magic-ticket’ Chamberlain, and bearded spy man Sean Connery. It looks a lot like Grosvenor Crescent, only the road is straight and much longer. It definitely feels more residential.
As I climb the first steps, I notice more gold intercoms with flat numbers. I start to work my way along, ringing buzzer after buzzer, standing for ages outside each door. Every now and again, someone answers. It’s mostly a polite no.
“That sounds lovely,” one lady says. “But I’m just in the middle of a yoga class.”
Then, a few doors down, I ring a buzzer and the door opens automatically… I wait for someone to come out, but nothing happens… I have absolutely no idea what to do next. I can’t see anybody, I get the feeling that whoever opened it is probably expecting someone else. But then, I might as well go in and explain myself in person, right?
I step into a massive hallway with a red paisley carpet, marble walls and mirrors in gold frames. It smells like an antiques shop. I reach a mahogany door and, as I approach it, an American lady answers. She looks at me bemused.
“Hi, I’m probably not who you’re expecting.” I explain the idea.
“You know what, that sounds great,” she says, smiling. “But I’m just in the middle of a conference.” I step back into the street, feeling even further out of my depth than before.
I carry on knocking. The sun is setting and I stop to take a picture. A tall man in a bowler hat and a tailcoat comes towards me. I notice he’s wearing an earpiece.
“Hi there, sir. Obviously, we’ve seen you going along the street here. Can I ask what you’re doing?” I describe the premise. “OK. Have you got a Twitter or an Instagram account we could use to keep an eye on you?” I find the phrase ‘keep an eye on you’ quite unsettling.
I pass him my card. He tells me I can carry on, so long as I don’t ring the buzzers at the next door.
“The bells here aren’t really for ringing,” he explains. I ask him what they’re for. “Well, they’re for invited guests to ring, but the residents have asked me not to allow any cold calls.”
I miss out the next house and work my way along the rest of the street. It’s getting dark and, from the corner of my eye, the shadow of the man in the bowler hat is never too far away. He doesn’t try to stop me, but it adds to the general feeling that it’s just about over. I reach the last door and decide to give up.
I walk to Sloane Square station, all the while with the sense that someone is following me. At first, I find this deeply unsettling. After a few minutes, I have to fight the urge to laugh.
I suppose I’ve finally been beat. But, y’know, I don’t feel disappointed. I just feel kind of relieved. I’ve got away with so much over the past year, it feels important to know where the line is.
And it is worth noting that I found one person today, and that a lot of the residents I spoke to sounded genuinely interested. It’s hard to say if they would have got involved if I caught them at another time, or whether it would have been different if the threat of a strange new virus wasn’t there.
All I know is, I need to find 3 more people to finish this project. So, first thing tomorrow, I’m going to need a drastic change of scenery.
* 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.
In school they taught me poetry’s bust,
wrote by bores 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.