The camp in the woods was a poem.
What drew me first was the sign. I could just make it out through the trees. At first I thought it was a PRIVATE – NO ENTRY thing. As I got closer I could see it was part of something else, something more extempore. A lean-to made of green tarpaulin, ropes and bent saplings. Camping chairs and plastic garden furniture around a fire pit. A scattering of shovels and rakes. An upturned wheelbarrow. I saw they’d been working on a bike track, making jumps out of mounds of packed earth supported with wattle fences, water trenches on the fall-side to make it more interesting. It was an industrious scene. The tools looked suspiciously new, and I guessed they’d stolen them from the allotments near the church. In fact, come to think of it, everything looked scavenged. The sign turned out to be a whiteboard they’d nicked from the gate outside the local nuclear bunker (hilariously and ironically apologising for the cancellation of the planned open day due to ‘inclement weather’).
Whilst I was taking some pictures it struck me what a perfect analogy all this was: a nuclear bunker sign, tied to a tree next to the flimsiest of structures, so open to the elements you could imagine sitting in one of those rickety plastic chairs smoking a last cigarette as the shockwave raced towards you; a stolen iron ‘purchased’ sign hammered into the ground in front of a shelter pitched on private land; the hard work and improvisational skill taken to make the track and the jumps versus the anti-social thievery and trespass. But how much more anti-social was it to be part of a system that would countenance using a nuclear weapon – the normalisation of which underscored not just by the fact that the authorities had built a nuclear bunker next to the allotments in the first place, but now and again ran an open day (weather permitting)?
Not that I wouldn’t have been furious if I’d turned up at the allotment, found my shed broken into and my tools gone. I would’ve stamped about in my wellies, becoming even more furious waiting hours on hold for the non-emergency police line to pick-up. No doubt I would’ve entertained the same vengeful fantasies, subsiding in time into a moodily pessimistic so-this-is-how-things-are-these-days kind of wretchedness.
But isn’t what these feral bike track-kids have done just empire building writ small? Isn’t that what we as a country have done for centuries? Found a place we liked, stuck something in the ground that marked it out as ‘ours’? And then, after sufficient time had passed for us to say it had some historical patency, denied anyone else any influence there (even if it was thousands of miles from our shores and right next door to theirs)? And not just us, of course. A great many other countries have been founded on the same take & defend principle.
A colonial poem, then, writ small in stolen canvas, garden tools, and a sign apologising for the cancellation of the nuclear bunker open day.
Well – finally I did it! I performed one of my poems at a poetry slam.
Leo runs Guerrilla Poets at The Lansdown Arms in Lewes every third Sunday. It wasn’t at all as I imagined. It was so much better! The pub was full and friendly. A great mix of regulars, passing trade – and poets of every age and description. A woman who’d just written some lines on her phone. A guy who had only stopped by on his way to see his girlfriend in a pub up the road, but who happened to have four lines in his head about the philosophy of bike wheels. A woman who read a poem about the place in Mexico where Dean Moriarty died, shaking the dried rattle from a snake to cleanse the air before she spoke. A woman who used to be a punk and performed a poem about yeastiness. A little boy who skipped up and read a poem about poo and another one about not eating chicken. And me – reading Junkenstein’s Lament. It was such a warm, supportive and appreciative crowd, the perfect place to start out. It makes me want to do more (although next time I’ll make an effort to learn the poem first, so I don’t lose my place and the rhythm of it….).
If you’ve got a poem in you (and you live near Lewes) – check it out!