Stephen Watts, Poet
“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.”
(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.
… 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