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Stephen Watts, Poet

November 30, 2010
by the gentle author

“I remember coming out of the tube in Whitechapel in 1974 and being overwhelmed,” recalled Stephen Watts affectionately, his deep brown eyes glowing with inner fire to describe the spiritual epiphany of his arrival in the East End, when coming to London after three years on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Today Stephen lives in Shadwell and has a tiny writing office in the Toynbee Hall in Commercial St where I paid him a call upon him recently.

“Migration is in my awareness and in my blood,” he admitted, referring to his family who were mountain people dwelling in the Swiss Alps on the Italian border – living twelve hundred feet above sea level – and his grandfather who came to London before the First World War, worked in a cafe in Soho and then bought his own cafe. “I realised this was an area of migration since the seventeenth century when the farm workers of Cambridgeshire, Kent and Suffolk began to arrive here, and I immediately felt an affinity for the place,” Stephen continued, casting his thoughts back far beyond his own arrival in Whitechapel, yet wary to qualify the vision too, lest I should think it self-dramatising.

“It is very easy to be romantic about it, but I think migration has been the objective reality for many people in the twentieth and twenty-first century. So it seemed to be something very natural, when I came to live in Whitechapel.” he revealed with an amiable smile. Yet although he allowed himself a moment to savour this thought, Stephen possesses a restless energy and a mind in constant motion, suggesting that he might be gone at any moment, and entirely precluding any sense of being at home and here to stay. Even if he has lived in his council house in Shadwell for thirty years, I would not be surprised if the wind blew Stephen away.

A tall skinny man with his loose clothes hanging off him and his long white locks drifting around, Stephen does present a superficial air of insubstantiality, even other-wordliness. Yet when you are in conversation with Stephen you quickly encounter the substance of his quicksilver mind, moving swiftly and using words with delicate precision, making unexpected connections. “In the Outer Hebrides the unemployment rate was twenty-five per cent and it was the same in Tower Hamlets when I arrived,” he said, informing me of the parallels with precise logic, “also Tower Hamlets had large areas of empty water then, just like the North Uist.” drawing comparison between the abandoned dockland and the Hebridean sea lochs, in regions of Britain that could not be more different in ever other respect.

We took the advantage of the frosty sunlight to make a half hour’s circuit of the streets attending Brick Lane and these familiar paths took on another quality in Stephen’s company, because while I tend to be always going somewhere, Stephen has the sense to halt and look around – indicative of certain open-ness of temperament that has led him befriend all kinds of people in pubs and on the street in Whitechapel over the years. I took this moment to ask Stephen if he chose to be a poet. “I made a choice when I quit university after a year and went to live in North Uist,” he said as we resumed our pace, “and then I made a choice to be a poet. But as a choice it was unavoidable, because I realised that it was so much part of me that not to have done it would be a denial of my humanity.”

Returning to the Toynbee Hall, Stephen allowed me the privilege of a peek into his tiny room on an upper floor, not much larger than a broom cupboard. The walls were lined with thin poetry books in magnificent order, arrayed in wine boxes stacked floor to ceiling and standing proud of the walls to create bays, leaving space only for one as slim as Stephen to squeeze through. It was a sacred space, the lair of the mountain man or a hermit’s retreat. It felt organic, like a cave, or maybe – it occurred to me – a shepherd’s hut carved out of the rock. And there, up above Stephen’s head was an old black and white photo of shepherds on a mountain road, taken in the Swiss Alps whence Stephen’s family originate and where even now he still returns to visit his relatives.

Stephen’s room is a haven of peace in the midst of Whitechapel, yet he delights to complement his life in here by working alongside Bengali and Somali poets in all kinds of projects in schools around Tower Hamlets, and pursues translation alongside his own poetry too, as means to “invite difference” into his work. Possessing a natural warmth of personality and brightness of temperament which make you want to listen and hang off his words, Stephen has a genuine self-effacing charm.“I don’t believe in being a professional poet in the sense of promoting myself, being a poet is about becoming embedded in humanity.” he proposed modestly, presuming to speak for no-one than himself, “And that’s why I lived in the East End and that’s why I still find it inspiring – because of the tremendous range of human presence in Whitechapel.”

BRICK LANE

(after the death of Altab Ali, and for Bill Fishman)

Whoever has walked slowly down Brick Lane in the darkening air and a stiff little rain,

past the curry house with lascivious frescoes,

past the casual Sylheti sweet-shops and cafés

and the Huguenot silk attics of Fournier Street,

and the mosque that before was a synagogue and before that a chapel,

whoever has walked down that darkening tunnel of rich history

from Bethnal Green to Osborne Street at Aldgate,

past the sweat-shops at night and imams with hennaed hair,

and recalls the beigel-sellers on the pavements,  windows candled to Friday night,

would know this street is a seamless cloth, this city, these people,

and would not suffocate ever from formlessness or abrupted memory,

would know rich history is the present before us,

laid out like a cloth – a cloth for the wearing –  with bits of mirror and coloured stuff,

and can walk slowly down Brick Lane from end to seamless end,

looped in the air and the light of it, in the human lattice of it,

the blood and exhausted flesh of it, and the words grown bright with the body’s belief,

and life to be fought for and never to be taken away.

Song for Mickie the Brickie

Mickie I met down Watney Street and he whistled me across.

“How are you” he said

—and of course really meant “have you a little to spare for some drink”—

but could not bear to ask.

We walked through the decayed market,

a yellow-black sun gazed down over Sainsbury’s as I went to look for change.

Ten pound was hardly enough to get him through the dregs of that bitter day.

We stood on the corner where for centuries people have stood.

Many worlds passed us by.

When he had been in hospital he’d taken his pills and been looked after and had not got worse.

Now he’s barely getting by.

He walks out of the rooming house in Bethnal Green when it gets too loud inside.

His scalp’s flaking and he needs a reliable level and a small brickie’s trowel.

That woman’s son’s inside for good.

That one’s man is a chronic alcoholic.

This one’s on her own and better for it.

But how can you know anyone’s story when every day you walk by without stopping.

Charlie Malone was a good friend. So was John Long.

Now they’re resting in Tadman’s Parlour

—and first thing in the morning Mickie’ll go and say to them words that cannot be answered.

Those are the best words, but they’re hardest to bear.

To me he says : “Always—always—stop me—always—come across.”

And what is the point of centuries of conversation if no-one’s ever there to hear.

FRAGMENT

… And so I long for snow to

sweep across the low heights of London

from the lonely railyards and trackhuts

– London a lichen mapped on mild clays

and its rough circle without purpose –

because I remember the gap for clarity

that comes before snow in the north and

I remember the lucid air’s changing sky

and I remember the grey-black wall with

every colour imminent in a coming white

the moon rising only to be displaced and

the measured volatile calmness of after

and I remember the blue snow hummocks

the mountains of miles off in snow-light

frozen lakes – a frozen moss to stand on

where once a swarmed drifting stopped.

And I think – we need such a change,

my city and I, that may be conjured in

us that dream birth of compassion with

reason & energy merged in slow dance.


Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

25 Responses leave one →
  1. chris gutkind permalink
    December 8, 2010

    Wonderful simple sensitive piece. I’m grateful you did this and introduced my friend and splendid poet to more people. There are a few more poems of his on the website poetrypf

  2. Lynn MacDonald permalink
    January 14, 2011

    Wonderful poetry. Discovered by following up a reference in Sebald’s Austerlitz.

  3. Penelope Shuttle permalink
    December 9, 2011

    So glad this was posted on Facebook, so I could follow the link to here. Thanks for this wonderful profile of Stephen, and so interesting to learn more of his background. Beautiful poems of the very real London world and its inhabitants seen through Stephen’s vision and intent. I love the description of Stephen’s writing room!

  4. December 9, 2011

    A lovely man, and a fine article on him. Thank you.

  5. December 10, 2011

    what a magnificent article/portrait of a remarkable man. ‘Embedded in humanity’ is surely a mantra for all poets in times like these ( well, there has always been ‘times like these’ throughout history). Quicksilver mind indeed.
    I felt enriched in hearing more about your life story as you are always so generous in enquiring about other poets at events etc

    Mennax

  6. December 10, 2011

    A lovely poet – we’ve published some of his work in Long Poem Magazine – and hope to publish more in the future!

  7. mark van cleve permalink
    December 15, 2011

    another visitor from Austerlitz

  8. Leah permalink
    January 17, 2012

    I am so glad I stumbled upon this portrait. I will be doing a presentation tomorrow on Brick Lane. The poem and Watts’ background are perfect for my topic. I immediately fell in love with the poem about Brick Lane.

  9. Bruce Barnes permalink
    March 16, 2012

    Lovely article, and poems very much located in the place and personality of the East End. If anyone is in a position to pass on my email address to Stephen, i would be grateful. i suggested a reading in Bradford West Yorkshire, when we last met

  10. Alison Linington permalink
    March 31, 2012

    Another reader who arrived here via Austerlitz. Whom to thank?

  11. Eric Ingouf permalink
    April 8, 2012

    Un autre visiteur d’Austerlitz. Je croyais que Sebald l’avait inventé.

  12. maya permalink
    April 14, 2012

    yet another reader from Austerlitz, in it’s Hebrew version. this is beautifull,
    and deeply linked to the book and it’s subjects. i shall come back to read this again
    and to tour around here.

    Sebald is full of secret gifts

  13. Tim James permalink
    April 29, 2012

    Yet another visitor on a detour from Austerlitz, unsure why I didn’t come from previous readings. But I came, and lingered with happiness. Not the least of many gifts from Sebald (I think they’re inexhaustible).

  14. Ken permalink
    February 6, 2013

    … And another Sebald referal!!!!!

  15. richard humphries permalink
    March 1, 2013

    Sebald was also my guide….as he took me to Breendonk.

  16. John Salmond permalink
    June 1, 2013

    Rereading Austerlitz and taking more care about some of the innumerable details, I, happily, found myself here (and in Canberra, Australia, as usual)

  17. Kate permalink
    May 29, 2014

    I came across this lovely piece after hearing heartfelt Radio 4 tribute ‘A German Genius in Britain’ on Sebald in which features Stephen Watts’ warm poet’s voice. I love Watts’ line:
    “But how can you know anyone’s story when everyday you walk by without stopping’.

  18. joan scott permalink
    July 14, 2014

    Nice to be able to find Stephen Watts via, Sebald’s handbook to understanding many important things, Austerlitz.

  19. Martens Marcel permalink
    November 21, 2014

    So did I

  20. May 18, 2015

    I didn’t realise Stephen and I were such close kin, both originating from [Italian, or in his case near-Italian?] mountain stock. I’m more from the foothills of the Abruzzi.

    Stephen is always a vital and warm presence, wherever you happen to meet him, and this is a lovely piece fleshing out the slimly elegant man!

  21. July 26, 2015

    To write like this is a gift. And one to be shared. Thank-you.

  22. Irina permalink
    January 6, 2016

    I am also from “Austerlitz”, reading it now in Russian. It’s so great to discover new poetry and connect…

  23. Shauvik Roy permalink
    February 1, 2016

    Austerlitz’s referral as well. Thankful for it.

  24. G Whalley permalink
    April 1, 2016

    So so true, Sad as it is, the art of conversation has died in London bar a small few.

  25. May 31, 2016

    Always a favourite of mine when frequently the now obsolete La Langoustine Est Morte (anthony Joseph et al) -Does anyone know how I might contact Stephen? I’d love to publish something of his in our journal RAGGED LION.

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