LISTENING TO THE DARK
His life story is that of an
itinerant autodidact, with shades of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and
Thomas Hardy's Jude. But Peter Street has defied decades of hardship and
disability to become a war poet and BBC writer-in-residence, with four volumes
of verse to his name.
Street, 59, is about to release his
fifth volume after winning a grant from the Royal Literary Fund, the benevolent
society set up to help professional writers in straitened times. Past
beneficiaries have included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, DH Lawrence and James
Joyce. "Poetry is usually written by people who are quite intelligent and come
from good backgrounds, so I was cutting through all that," Street says.
Born in Wigan in 1948, the
illegitimate son of a cotton millworker and an Irish-Spanish glassworker, Street
was raised by his mother and a stepfather who offered her what Street describes
as a "bizarre deal", whereby she gained the roof over her head in return for
performing his household chores.
At school, Street struggled to spell
or do basic sums, and it was clear he had a learning difficulty (it was
eventually diagnosed as dyscalculia only five years ago). When he left at 15,
with no qualifications and emerging epilepsy, he embarked on an employment
odyssey, trawling for work from Cumbria to Kent, and doing jobs that included
gravedigger, exhumer, slaughterhouse worker, baker, gardener, hotel porter and
While in this last job, in 1982, he
fell off a wagon and sustained a spinal injury that disabled him for life, but
ultimately led to his reinvention as a poet. Recovering in hospital, he
befriended an English literature teacher who inspired him to learn to read and
to channel his extraordinary experiences into writing.
After belatedly failing his English
O-levels, he finally found his voice when a Liverpool University lecturer
offered him free tuition after noticing his potential through a charity that
Street had founded for aspiring artists with disabilities. Since then, he's led
a rollercoaster literary life - as war poet on a humanitarian convoy through
Croatia in 1993, writer-in-residence for BBC Greater Manchester Radio, and
co-architect of a 1998 Poetry Society project to take performance poetry into
fish and chip shops in his beloved Wigan.
So what does he think of the hand
destiny dealt him in the end? "Breaking my neck was one of the greatest things
ever to happen to me," he says, with a chuckle. "I have been able to take time
out from society and learn how to become a poet. I've had a fascinating life.
It's been amazing."
Wednesday 17 December 2008
Paperback 6" x 9" 121 pages ISBN 978-1-4717-6977-1 Published August 2012