Thursday, 22 January 2015
Railton Road, Herne Hill End, 2015
Late summer last year, I started writing a poem a day, about the ordinary things that happened in my daily life, occurrences, interactions, events, observations. I had written about thirty of these, all saved, probably for the first time exclusively ( I usually write in notebooks) in a file on my laptop desktop. One Thursday night we returned home to be met by an open door and the aftermath of a burglary. The thieves had stolen my laptop, among other things, containing those thirty poems, most of which, of course, I had not saved in any other form. The few that I had saved were by coincidence all about Railton Road, the street where I live. Trying to be positive, I I took the burglary as a sign from the gods and changed tack, deciding to make the collection wholly about the street.
After another month working on this I rather alarmingly began to lose impetus. I am sure this was a delayed reaction to the burglary and involved a sense of mourning for the work I’d lost, but, not for the first, or the last time in my life, I asked myself the hard questions, does anybody care about this stuff? Am I deluding myself that there is any merit in this work?
Pretty much all my work has been about observing and recording the ordinary. Maybe the truth is, I’m just boring and ordinary? I was having doubts…a crisis!
Then…one day, sitting on a wall in Railton Road, Herne Hill end, near the dangerous bend, I saw a battered paperback sitting on a wall. You know - people on our street put stuff out on the street when they don’t want it anymore…for other people to take? We do it all the time, kitchen tables, printers, cardboard boxes, car parts, jam jars,….everything we have ever put out is gone within the hour…anyway..back to the book I picked up:
It was called Miguel Street, a book of stories by Nobel Prize winner VS Naipul. It is a collection of short episodes based on the people and things remembered by the author during his childhood in Port of Spain, Trinidad. I read it and it was wonderful, full of beautifully observed details of ordinary life in that time and place. The ordinary made glorious, and wondrous, to me, to us, ten thousand miles and seventy five years hence. Life is glorious! It doesn't need to be polished with the fantastical! It is strange enough already, and sad enough and full of mythic portent.
(Later, Candy Tomlinson told me that VS Naipul lives in Stockwell now, just down the road, and that her parents had met him……)
I took all this as being signs from the Muse and continued my own project with renewed enthusiasm, eventually choosing nine poems to make into this book. Nine from about twenty all in all, chosen with some sadness for those I had to leave out. I made these into nine separate pamphlets and obtained for them a smart brown lidded box.
This is my street, now. It may be just like your street, it may be unique. it may be both of those things at the same time. I’ve tried to look and record stuff honestly, editing out floridity and honing the texts down to a kernel of significant incident and illustrating them sparely. It is not a history book, it is not meant to be objective in any way, it is just what I was looking at, one person’s view.