The day after I knocked on Buckingham Palace, I got straight on a train to Essex. I needed to find 3 people to write a poem for to finish this year-long project, and events were moving faster than I’d hoped. The number of Coronavirus cases in the UK jumped from 39 to 115 in two days, there was talk of entire cities going into lockdown anytime soon.
The place I was planning to finish all this was Jaywick. Having visited the most expensive properties in the country, I thought it would be interesting to get a bit of balance. And, if you’re looking for economically challenged areas in Britain, you don’t have to spend too long on Google before the word Jaywick comes up.
Situated on the East Coast, near Clacton-on-Sea, Jaywick was a popular holiday resort in the 1930s. In the past decade, it’s gained international notoriety as ‘Britain’s Most Deprived Town’. Pictures of it have been used as a warning in President Trump’s political campaigns, and there’s even been complaints of a dark tourism industry, where people visit out of nothing more than morbid curiosity.
Personally, I wanted to go in with an open mind. I wondered if that might change the way I felt about the place. But I was worried no one would even stop to speak to me in the circumstances.
With the sense I might already be too late, I checked into a B&B in Clacton that evening. The next day, I woke up, ate a complimentary bowl of muesli, and walked to the nearest bus stop. Destination: Jaywick.
Captain’s Log 05/03/20 11:32
I’m sitting on the top deck of the number 4 bus in Clacton. When I got on, I asked the driver if he could drop me as close to Jaywick beach as possible. He fixed me with a look I can only describe as foreboding.
We drive through the suburbs into open countryside. The weather today is just about as bad as you could hope for. It is absolutely whazzing it down, the force and quantity of an actual shower. I’m wearing 4 layers, including a waterproof jacket, and I’m already soaked to the bone. It feels like today is going to be difficult.
I get off the bus. As it pulls away, I see I’m on a quiet, empty road, surrounded by a patch of grass on one side and a construction site on the other. I start the walk towards the beach and a street called Brooklands.
I chose Brooklands after looking at a map and noticing it was really long, which meant there’d be lots of houses to knock on. Also, it sits right on the shore, overlooking the beach itself, and I’ve always wanted to try this at the seaside.
As I walk along the sand a few minutes later, it’s not exactly the idyllic view I was hoping for. In fact, as the wind howls around me in all directions, it’s hard to get a view of anything. I feel like I’m underwater.
I stand at the top of Brooklands, trying to get my bearings. On my left is a row of white, pebbledash bungalows with pointy roofs. Every now and again, you spot one that’s bright turquoise, or has loads of yucca trees outside. Occasionally, there’s one that’s abandoned, with broken windows or missing doors.
Outside these is a road, then a big concrete wall, which looks like some kind of flood defence. For the first time, I notice there’s no footpath. The street is a lot busier than I assumed it was, too. I watch buses, vans and cars all try to get past each other, sending huge waves out as they push through puddles.
I decide to get started. I climb over the flood wall. At that moment, a double-decker bus comes past and covers me from head to toe. I run to the first house, my nerves outweighed now by the desire to get through this.
I step into the drive and tap on a white PVC door with a ‘Beware of the Shih Tzu’ sticker on it. There is no Shih Tzu and no answer.
At the next door, a woman with short black hair and glasses comes out.
“Hi there, I’m going around the neighbourhood doing an art project. I don’t want any money or anything, I was just wondering if you had a minute and 10 seconds to spare?”
I carry on. There’s a lot of no answers. At one house, a man with a blue polo neck tells me he’s got something in the oven. At another, a really tall lad in a baseball cap comes out. I pitch the idea. He says he has a minute, so I start doing my intro poem.*
Halfway through, he stops me.
“Nah mate, you’re not a poet, you’re a magician.” I assume this is a good thing. I carry on where I left off. “No, didn’t you hear me? I said I don’t want a spell cast on me, man.”
I’m coming to terms with the likelihood of failure now. It feels like the weather is putting people off. I’m also wondering how much longer I can physically keep this up- my jaw is rattling and my hands are visibly shaking. Every now and again, I press myself against someone’s garden wall as another bus comes past and sprays me.
Then, at a house a bit further down, I spot a woman in her 20s at the front door, with red hair and tattoos on her arms. An Asda delivery guy is dropping her shopping in the kitchen.
“I know you’re in the middle of something,” I say, “but I was wondering if, maybe when you’re finished…” She tells me she’s got a minute, so I start doing the poem from her gate.
The delivery driver looks at us both disapprovingly and gets back in the van. Halfway through, a neighbour sticks his head out of the window.
“Can you shut up with that poem please? It’s upsetting my dog.” I ask if I can stand a bit closer and carry on from the doorstep.
This is Sarah and she tells me she’s up for getting involved. I ask her what’s important.
“Well, I moved here 3 years ago,” she says. “I come from London, you don’t really get this sort of community.”
I ask what makes it different here.
“You say hello about 100 times a day. The neighbours cook for each other too, I’m making pizza pockets tonight. And, if someone hasn’t seen me, they’ll knock or text saying ‘Are you OK? Do you need anything?’” I ask how that compares with London. “Oh, I could go weeks without speaking to anyone. Not even my own Mum.”
I suppose, inevitably, Sarah turns to the town’s reputation.
“This is meant to be ‘the worst street in Jaywick’,” she explains. “We get a lot of bad publicity.” I ask if there’s anything the journalists have missed. “There’s a really pretty part of the beach further down, by the post office,” she tells me. “And there’s Ozzy’s, next to Never Say Die pub, he does the best fish and chips in the world.”
It feels like a good idea to come back to Jaywick tomorrow, to visit some of the best parts and write a poem about that. I mention this to Sarah and she seems keen. I make plans for delivering it, then thank her for stopping to talk.
“No problem,” she says, as I head back into the road.
YES! A whole new spectrum of possibilities has just opened up here. I only have 2 people left to find. As I carry on, it’s still raining, but it doesn’t feel as cold.
I try a few more houses, there’s a few more nos. At one, a man with a beard and long hair comes out completely naked. I ask him if he has a minute. He tells me he doesn’t.
Then, at a house with a bird feeder, a lady in her 60s answers in a multicoloured jumper and feather earrings. I can hear hammering and sawing coming from inside. I explain the idea and show her the poem.
“Yeah, I’d be up for that. I write a bit of poetry myself actually.”
This is Jacqueline and I ask her what’s important.
“Travelling,” she says, immediately. “I’ve got a van round the corner and I’m planning a trip at the minute, so that’s exciting.” She tells me, since she was born, she’s always moved around a lot; her dad was Romani, so it’s very much a way of life. “This house is just a base really. Nowadays, you need a base, cos of bank accounts and stuff. You never used to.”
It turns out Jacqueline’s son is a professional mountain bike racer. In May, she’s heading to Fort William to watch him compete. But she tells me there’s never too much of a pause before she’s planning another trip.
“You know when it’s time to move on, you get The Calling, the wind calls you and you have to go.”
And she explains that, when it comes to being in one place, she doesn’t really have an attachment to anywhere in particular.
“I don’t have any roots,” she says. “I don’t know where I come from, so everywhere is my roots. Wherever I am is my home.”
I find this fascinating, to be finishing a project about people’s homes, and to be meeting someone who has no belief in home as a fixed place. I suggest a poem about all of this.
“Great. It’ll be interesting to see what you come up with.” I make plans for the delivery, then wave goodbye and head off.
I can’t believe this is actually happening! I just need to find one more person and this whole journey is over. It’s taking less time now as well, it feels like I’ve got into a rhythm.
I try a few more houses and it’s no answer, but by now I’m too excited to care. Then, I get to one with a wooden balcony on the front. I open the gate, climb up the steps and tap on the french doors. A woman with long blonde hair comes to the glass and asks me what it’s about. I pitch the idea through the window; she tells me to go round the back.
I head along a little garden path and reach a yard. As I’m looking for the door, I spot a man in his 70s in a blue raincoat with a black beanie hat, lifting some tins from his boot. He looks up with an inquisitive glint in his eye.
“Hi. I just spoke to someone at the front of the house. It’s about an art project.” He seems unsure now. “Sorry, I feel like I’m intruding.”
“No, no,” he says, in a thick West Country accent. “It’s just, it’s not really her house, you see. She’s just visiting.”
I explain the premise. He seems interested. I do the poem and he stops me halfway through.
“If I told you about my life, you’d have more than enough to write about.”
This is Bill and I ask him about his life.
“Well, I fell out of a plane at 10,000 feet without a parachute,” he says, casually. Incredulous, I ask what happened. “I was in the special forces. I was the first one out and the parachute didn’t open. I bounced off a tree, broke every bone in my body. They said I’d never walk again.”
It turns out this isn’t the only scrape Bill has had with death.
“A man took a bullet that was meant for me, on the Yemen border. He saw the sniper and I didn’t, pushed me out of the way.” I suggest that must have been a good friend. “Oh, I didn’t know him,” he adds. As well as this, he’s been thrown out of a speeding van, crushed between two lorries and has recently recovered from a near-fatal blood clot.
I ask if he thinks he’s good at surviving, or if it’s just luck.
“Luck, mostly,” he replies. “But you take life as it comes. See, I’ve always been a big believer in not worrying. That’s the biggest killer, worry. How many people send themselves to an early grave, raising their blood pressure, worrying about the things they can’t change?”
The way these words hit me is palpable. I’ve worried about a lot of things this past year. I’ve worried I won’t find anyone to talk to, I’ve worried the poems won’t be very good. Now, on the last day of knocking, I’ve spent the morning worrying about the world, about what will happen to my family and friends. To hear Bill’s words, and to know this is the last message anyone is going to leave me with as a Door-to-Door Poet, it feels incredibly symbolic.
I suggest he must be good at focusing on the positives.
“Always focus on the positives,” Bill says. “People ask me why I’m always happy. I tell them ‘Because I woke up this morning.’ If you woke up today,” he holds his hands out, palms upward to the rain, “be thankful for it.”
Aware that he’s been talking to me for half an hour now, I leave Bill to go and get dry and head back towards the main road.
Standing on the tarmac in the storm, I can’t really believe it’s all over. I’m amazed people have given up so much of their time in this weather. And their suggestions have been so uplifting and interesting. I think about the other surprises I’ve had during this project, the way every conversation has been unique, the way it’s never quite gone how I expected it to.
I make my way towards the bus stop, shivering and exhausted, but smiling the entire time. I feel like, no matter what happens, I’ve finally found what I was looking for. And I’ll always have that to hold on to.
* 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 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.