The Poetry Kit
An Interview with Martin Newell
Martin Newell is a working pop poet, writer, musician and broadcaster living in Colchester where, in the Spring and Early summer, he gets out his bike to take parties of tourists on a cycling tour around the countryside he knows well. Stopping regularly to talk about the area they are riding through and to read the poems he has written.
In 2006, with the support of Insite, the company responsible for bringing Essex to the notice of tourists and holidaymakers, Martin Newell started offering poetry tours in Colchester and the surrounding countryside. These proved to be such a successful idea that this year they are offering a new expanded programme of poetry cycle and walking tours enabling visitors to explore the area. Trips of up to three hours duration include walks and cycle rides through the north Essex countryside once again with poet and musician Martin Newell as the tour guide.
Obviously anything that means a poetry is reaching new listeners and readers is of interest to Poetry Kit, so recently Jim Bennett set out to track down Martin and found a poet dedicated to his craft and to developing a new audience.
Could you tell us something about your background.
I'm a working pop poet, writer, musician and broadcaster. Aged 54 now, I used to be a rock singer when I was younger. I still have a record contract and still make the occasional record. In hard times I have worked as a kitchen porter and as a jobbing gardener. I have never been on the dole although I have been homeless once or twice.
My father was a British Army officer in the Medical Corps, I went to 11 different schools between the ages of 5 and 15 when I left, with no exams taken or passed. I never went back to education. I lived in the Far East, in Cyprus, in London, Chester, Dundee, Aldershot and many other places. I have one daughter. I have a partner.
I was a fairly off-the-rails sort of teenager and was in trouble with the authorities, mainly over drug-use. I had a massive hatred of anyone who would try to govern me. This manifested itself in pranks, jokes, performances and general calculated insolence. This negative energy was eventually harnessed for good when aged 19 I became the singer in a glam rock band in Essex. It was the beginning of my salvation, generally.
That is a varied CV. How do you earn your living now?
I live off my poetry and writing, my song writing, my performances. I do this for a living. Every week I'm in the Sunday Express as resident poet. I also write features for them. For instance I was in The Falklands in February. I'm also a pop writer so I'll write about Keith Richards if he comes up in the news. For years before that, I wrote for The Independent, whom over years, I had poems on five of their front pages. I'm England's most published living poet. The Arts Council and the Poetry Society never phone.
Is there any literary history in your family?
My dad liked poetry and introduced me to the work of A.E. Housman. This was a really big thing for me. My mum and dad didn't have a lot of books as we were always traveling but they always joined the library as soon as we got to a place. They both always had a book on the go. I remember we didn't have a TV till I was about 7 and even then, my watching of it was quite strictly limited.
My mother's sister Molly Bolt, was a librarian. She also wrote poetry and when younger, she taught herself to read music and play a piano. She has a couple of collections of poetry published. She was and still is rather a heroine of mine. Her father, my grandfather, although himself a bus-driver with no formal education, always had lots of books around the house...ghost stories and history. I was very fond of reading these.
What first impelled you to write?
I've no idea, but since I was six or seven I've had this burning urge to do so. I wrote my first proper rhyming poem when I was 13, and about a year or so after that began writing lyrics to my own songs. I think I was probably destined to write...now I come to think of it.
Do you have any set place to write?
I like to write at home but experience has taught me that I can write practically anywhere. I seem never to tire of it. In fact, if someone doesn't occasionally stop me, I will make myself ill with it.
When did you start writing poetry? And why poetry?
I first had a bash at it when I was six or seven. Not very successfully. Then one day in autumn of 1966, when I was 13, in a school in Hertfordshire, a Mr Smith gave the class three options for their half term homework. One option was to write a poem ( I think, about a season) I wrote about thirty lines about the autumn. ) I remember that I was at my granddad's place. I wrote it one Friday evening on the meal-table after tea. It took me two hours. The time seemed to melt. I remember my granddad saying something like: " Come on Cocker, 'aintchoo finished that yet. It's nearly half past eight!" I realised that the poetry had come almost naturally to me. I'd never found a piece of homework so absorbing before. It was definitely a watershed moment. I was the only one in the entire class to have taken up that option. Mr Smith gave me a really good mark and was enormously encouraging about it.
How would you describe the poetry that you write?
I would describe my poetry as rhyming, scanning almost old-fashioned verse. It's lucid and often humorous. Very often it's about the countryside. I seem also to have cornered the market in long, narrative poems too. For me, there aren't enough poems like The Lady Of Shallott, Highwayman, The Raven, or In Memoriam about. I think people like them and I certainly like doing them. My poetry is I suppose, Pop Poetry.
Can you tell us about the initiative you are involved with, Spoke’n’Word, a poet on a bike is an interesting idea, how did it come about.
Spoke'n'Word came about almost by accident. I was out on a riverside path with my partner when I started reciting a fragment of poetry about the estuary where we were standing. She said that I should conduct tours, with breaks for poetry. Shortly afterwards, by sheer chance, the local cultural regeneration people asked me if I had any ideas for giving Essex a more positive cultural image.
I formulated (on a tiny budget) the idea of these psycho-geography tours, with poetry and anecdotes with me as tour guide, stopping and reading from my own poems when it is appropriate. I have never driven a car and don’t want too, but I like riding bikes so the idea grew from there. We don't just do bike rides though. We also do walks. They're about 4 or 5 miles with plenty of breaks. We go through some quite surprising countryside. It could be a model for a new type of tourism. We're now just beginning our second year and it really is very exciting.
Do you have to prepare for the rides?
I never train as such. But if I know I've got a lot coming up I might have a bit of a practice that's all. This is our second year of the tours. They mainly only about a five mile round trip with stops, so they're not very strenuous.
Will you be writing any original material for the project?
Well, material does just seem to come and is added to the set. However, there is a small 'cyclist's notebook-sized' volume of poems called 'Spoke'n'Word.' which we sometimes sell after trips and which I mostly draw upon for use..
Anyone wanting to see Spoke’n’Word in action can book onto one of Martin’s tours by phoning Colchester Arts Centre on 01206-500900.
Details can also be obtained from Insite@ExDra.co.uk
Some of Martins books can be obtained from www.jardinepress.co.uk
Visit Martin’s website run by Paul Wilkinson at www.martinnewell.co.uk
POEMS BY MARTIN NEWELL
The River Colne meanders slow
Through fecund farmlands, rainy green
A ribbon strewn across the floor
Of shallow valleys, hardly seen
Or guessed at from the Essex shore
East to Colchester and on
Its ullages and spillages
The houses and their secrets tucked
In hamlets and the villages
Around the Chappel viaduct
To Fordstreet, Fordham Bridge it goes
And idles by the Essex Way
Strengthened by St Botolph's Brook
It sidles by the road to pay
Its namesake Roman town a look
Widening there, it picks up speed
Skirting fields towards the mill
Where it stopped to pay a tithe
Beside the bridge below the hill
Before it hurried to The Hythe
Haggling with the tide for business
When the ships sailed up the Colne
Galleys, luggers, barges, smacks
Buildings plonked like Toblerone
Where they once unloaded sacks
Now the new estates are fronting
Toytown wharfs that dwarf the marshes
Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea
Wearing them like false moustaches
Edging up the estuary
Here the Saxon Sea comes hacking
While the River Colne expands
Mersea Flats and Cocum Hills
Gazing south to Maplin Sands
Where the biggest river spills
Now the blood of other rivers:
Crouch, Blackwater, Medway, Swale
Mingle, eddy, dash the shoreline
As container cargoes sail
Round the Thames's yawning jawline.
Shimmying up that serpent river
Go the humble and the great;
– Other rivers' sons and daughters,
While the bouncers on the gate:
Kent and Essex, watch the waters
Coalhouse Point to Richmond Lock
Galleon's Reach to Watney's Brewery
Flotsam, jetsam, oil and beer
Hogarth sits with Ian Dury
Dreaming Cherry Garden Pier
Underneath that dirty duvet
Of the sky, the river swells
Carrying simple craft to fame
In a carillon of bells
Drowning others in its shame.
Carrying sons of Colne to London
With a daubing or a ditty
To the busy landing stages
And the currents of the city
As it has throughout the ages.
Ma And Pa Salute King Car
Ma and Pa salute King Car
The dirty despot roars and squeals
Yummy Mummy thinks it's scrummy
When her wendy-house on wheels
Whizzes through Edwardian crescents
Past the card-less, car-less peasants
Hacking down Crimea Street
Queenie in her comfy seat
Bike-rack, bullbars, dog beside her
Sat-nav Prozac voice to guide her
Tells us why and who we are
Ma and Pa salute King Car.
Bad King Car, the filthy bastard
Far too greedy. Thanks to him
Fat despairing twenty-somethings
Have to drive – to reach the gym
Used to think that Central Locking
Was a village in the Midlands
Where they first invented twoccing
Children's school in bandit country?
Over miles of rock-strewn tundra
Is it, lady – Is it really?
– That the myth you labour under?
Four wheels favours fatter arses
Tescos deep in mountain passes
Buggered if they'll walk so far
Ma and Pa salute King Car
"Well… I don't like cars much either
But I have to have one – yaah? "
Had a transport seminar
Which is why I bought my car
Almost two whole miles from here
Travel exes all completed.
Couldn't walk. Suppose it sleeted?
– And the bus would be too dear.
Nope. Fat car's the only answer
Big fat four-wheel munter, Boy
Me puffed up in Puffa jacket
Howling at the hoi-polloi.
Politicians couln't hack it
Far too loaded for the voters
Oh they'll hammer drinkers, smokers
Over-eaters, then they'll focus
On the health and welfare issues
Blow into the same old tissues
What they won't touch is the driver
Do we have a Cycling Czar?
Course not. We won't get one either.
Ma and Pa salute King Car.
Soon we'll make a future car
The eco-lesion, suture car
One speed, two-shade, mobile shed
Yellow polka dots on red
Top speed – forty miles an hour
Chicken-shit and solar power
Need a motor? There's just one.
But no status and no fun.
Nothing there to make you proud
And the only car allowed
There's no butchness and no buzz
Gets you there, that's all it does.
Car to suit our fragile times
Fitted out with ice-cream chimes
That should make the boys feel silly
It's the car that's not a willy
And it plays a stupid tune
Be afraid. It's coming soon.
In the meantime, Superstar
Ride that roadway, tame that tar
Whack that track to hell and back
Cancer, stroke and heart-attack
Kill that walker. Maim that dyke
Knock that hippie off his bike
Pig that pavement, hog that street
Petrolhead on techno-beat
Parliament will keep you sweet
'Less he wants to risk his seat
Road Rage – V(ery) C(ross) and Bar
Ma and Pa salute King Car.