OK. Before I tell you the end of this story, I need to be honest. At the time of writing, it’s been 6 weeks since the final trip. The world is a very different place. I wish I could have known then what I know now. But I didn’t.
The truth is, the day after the UK went into lockdown, I got on a train and went to Jaywick to deliver the last 3 poems. It was an act of stupidity. But, before I carry on, I just want to try and explain:
When the news broke, I was in a hotel in Kensington. The original plan was to go to Jaywick early the next day. But that, like everything else in the Western world, seemed a bit up in the air.
I was reading as much of the government’s advice as I could. To tell the truth, I was finding it a bit hard to follow. On the one hand, Boris Johnson was calling for an end to all ‘non-essential contact’ and ‘unnecessary travel’. He asked people to start working from home, ‘where they possibly can’, and avoid pubs, clubs and theatres.
But the pubs, clubs and theatres were going to stay open, along with restaurants, schools, cinemas, and a long list of others. It struck me that hundreds of thousands of people were going to get up tomorrow and travel to work- I assumed I could be one of those people.
Looking back, I just didn’t understand how serious things were getting. I’m not sure any of us did. Before I made a decision, I got in touch with Jacqueline, Sarah and Bill, asking if they still wanted me to read out their poem in person. It was a resounding yes.
So, the next morning, with the feeling that there was still time, I went to Liverpool Street and hopped on an abandoned train, destined for the Essex coast.
Captain’s Log 17/03/20 14:13
I’m outside The Esplanade Hotel in Clacton. As I check in, the receptionist tells me I’ve been upgraded to a bigger room. I get the feeling it’s because I’m the only one here.
I drop my bags off. On the way out the door, I pass the manager on the phone. I make out the words ‘wartime rations’.
I get off the bus in Jaywick and walk along the beach to Brooklands. The plan is to deliver Jacqueline and Sarah’s poem, then go back to the hotel. Bill couldn’t meet me till tomorrow, so I’m going to go over to his first thing in the morning, then head straight home from there.
Since I left London, I’ve been trying to figure out the most responsible way of doing this. It turns out the Royal Mail are still delivering letters, so I feel like posting the poems isn’t really a problem- as long as I make sure my hands are clean. When they drop off a package, they’re standing well back and you don’t sign for it. It seems like, if I keep a good distance, reading it out beforehand should be OK too.
I get to Jacqueline’s door. My knuckles are about to tap the glass when it opens of its own accord. I take a few steps back and she appears in a grey hoodie and spectacles.
“Oh, hello. I was just going to get something from the van. Come on, I’ll show you the inside.”
Jacqueline told me all about this van two weeks ago, she’s really into travelling. In fact, she’s been planning a trip to Scotland and that’s what I’ve wrote her a poem about. She slides open the door, then stands out the way while I look in. It’s got everything you need in here, a little sink and drying rack, a hob, a bed on the far side; the walls are decorated with multicoloured mandalas.
Standing on the street, I get the poem out my briefcase. I read it, then pass her a copy- making sure my hands stay as far away as possible. It seems to go down quite well.
“I’m going to put that straight in my keepsake book,” she says.
The conversation turns to the news.
“It’s weird. You read about something and then, suddenly, it’s in your town.” I ask whether the trip to Scotland is still going ahead. “Oh definitely, come May. Although they’re saying something about July now. Hopefully it’ll be OK in May.”
I get ready to leave. I mention that I’m going to see Bill tomorrow. It turns out Jacqueline knows him.
“He’s a lovely man. He’s got a lot of history, Bill. We call him ‘the knowledge of Jaywick’.” I head back into the main road, waving goodbye as I do. “I’ll send you some photos from Scotland,” she shouts. I tell her I’ll look forward to it.
Jacqueline, you’re getting the van ready,
packing your bags,
who knows where, or how long you’ll be.
Your dad, he was Romani,
this stuff is in the blood, you tell me.
The wind gives you a sign.
Jacqueline, your earrings are feathers
and your eyes are wise.
You know your house is always temporary.
You stop at any forest
or field that takes your fancy,
drinking in the peacefulness of anonymity.
Jacqueline, I wish you smooth tarmac,
I wish you starry skies,
Jacqueline, I wish you strange new foods,
and great heights.
You told me you’re unrooted,
there is no return address,
from childhood, all that’s certain is the road.
But like the wind you follow,
there’s no nations, there’s no borders
and any patch of earth can be your home.
Sarah’s house is only a few doors along. As I walk down the road, a man with a white beard passes by.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen round here with a briefcase.” I tell him I hope I’m not the last.
I get to Sarah’s and knock on the door. I wait a couple of minutes. There’s no answer. Ordinarily, I’d leave a ‘Sorry I Missed You’ note and try again the next day. In the circumstances, I decide to just post it.
When I met her, Sarah talked about Jaywick and its reputation as ‘Britain’s Most Deprived Town’. She suggested some places I could visit that might offer a different perspective. The next day, I checked them out. I had a genuinely lovely time and ended up writing about that.
I take the poem out and stick it through the letterbox, hoping it finds her well.
Yes, Jaywick, I’ll confess my reservations
before I came, your headlines I had read;
I got the bus, explained my destination,
the driver fixed me with a look of dread.
But on that morning, rambling on your beach,
the sky was clear, the sun bobbed on the waves;
the soft and golden sand was at my feet,
dog walkers smiled and went about their day.
And honestly? It took me by surprise,
your natural beauty shook away my blues,
I couldn’t help but pause and wonder why
this scene had never featured on the news.
For certain as each summer fades to brown,
the tabloids yearly come here for a snap
of what they’ve dubbed a run down, worthless town
(though who’s in charge of it, they never ask.)
They hunt for weeds and windows that need fixed,
they hover round like poachers in the road,
but do they stay for views as grand as this
before they pen their articles of woe?
Because I know you have your problems, Jaywick.
But people here are welcoming and kind
and Ozzy’s does the perfect fish and chips,
next to a pub that’s called Never Say Die.
But that won’t make the front page, nor the sea
as it glitters here above your coastal shelf,
when papers only deal in misery,
I’m pleased I found the truth out for myself.
Captain’s Log 18/03/20 07:34
I wake up in The Esplanade Hotel. I open the curtains and sit down in an armchair, looking out over the ocean. Today is the day I’m meant to be dropping off Bill’s poem, the last ever poem of the project. I’m starting to have serious doubts.
It’s been 2 days since the lockdown started. Everything is moving so fast. Theatres and restaurants have started closing. When I tell people where I am, the general response is disbelief.
I still feel like, so long as I keep a good distance, I’m not going to be putting Bill at any risk. But the whole thing seems to rest on how much he actually wants to hear the poem, too. A lot has changed since we last spoke. What if he feels obliged?
I take the bus to Jaywick. On the beach near his house, I ring Bill one last time.
“I don’t want you to do this because you feel like you have to.” He tells me not to worry about that.
I walk down the street and spot him on his balcony. He’s got his black beanie hat on, some sunshades, a fleece.
“Do you want to come in?” he says. I tell him it might be best if I stay out here. From the road to where he’s standing is a good 3 metres. This feels like it’s OK.
When I met Bill, he told me about all the times he’d nearly died in the army. I asked him about his survival skills; he said it was mostly luck, but it was also about your approach to life.
I read out what I’ve got. As I do, 2 double-decker buses and a van drive past, their collective engines drowning out my voice. As I scream the poem above the din, it definitely feels like I’ve took this as far as it can possibly go.
I pass Bill a copy.
“I know someone who’ll be glad to hear this,” he says. “She lives in London. I’ll read it down the phone to her tonight.”
He fetches a photo album and shows me some snaps he’s taken, of sailing ships and rainbows. He’s got one of a baby seal that got stranded on the beach. He tells me about helping to rescue it.
“It had a bit of fishing line in its mouth, so I took that out. It was released right here,” he says, pointing behind me to the ocean. “Somewhere out there is a seal called Jay, for Jaywick.”
I make my goodbyes and head back towards the bus stop.
That evening, I get off a train in Newcastle and find myself standing at the ticket barriers, unable to move. This is where the bubble bursts. As long as I stay here, I’m still in the project. I know when I walk though there, I’m stepping out into the unknown.
It’s been a strange trip. I’m not sure if I’ve always made the right decisions. But I feel touched that, over the past few weeks, as all of this was unfolding, Sarah, Jacqueline and Bill gave up so much of their time.
In fact, I’ve met some incredible people all over England this past year, from Moss Side to Lundy Island. I’ve spoke to protesters, teachers, travellers; people at all different points in their lives. To everyone who’s stopped to talk, or who’s helped me along the way, thank you. No matter what happens next, the world feels a lot less lonely with you in it.
I met a veteran along the road,
walking home with heavy shopping bags.
He’d reached the twilight of his years, although
behind his eyes a childlike wonder flashed.
He asked if I could half his heavy load
and, as we strolled, he told me of his past,
of all the things he’d come to understand
while fighting off in far and distant lands.
“I’ve gazed at death more times than you’d believe,”
he said, “Out of a speeding car been thrown.
A sniper fixed me in the Middle East,
the bullet hit a man I’ll never know.
My parachute failed at ten thousand feet,
I fell, broke every bone from head to toe.
The doctors said I’d never walk again,
I’ve thanked my stars and stood each day since then.”
I asked him, in these strange, uncertain times,
as the void was closing in on you,
how did you calm the tempest of your mind?
How did you hold your nerve and steer it through?
He answered, “When I was a little child,
I climbed the tallest treetop that I knew,
I fell and grazed my knee, I wasn’t scared.
It was my life. I’m pleased that I was there.”
“You see, it’s worry that’s the greatest threat,
more deadly than a bullet or a blade,
how many rip themselves apart with fret
and dig themselves into an early grave?
I fell out of that plane with no regrets,
knew panic was no comfort, could not save.
I watched the earth approach and, come what may,
was grateful that I woke to greet the day.”