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 tree surgeon.
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."
The Guardian, Wednesday 17 December 2008
Paperback 6" x 9" 121 pages ISBN 978-1-4717-6977-1 Published August 2012