The performance poet who writes alternatively about terrible times behind bars

MORE lyrical readers may be familiar with the work of William Topaz McGonagall, (1825-1902), author of an abominable poem on the Tay Bridge Disaster and widely regarded as the worst poet ever to traduce the English language.

“I’m a bit like him,” muses Pete Richardson. “He used to travel around all the pubs in Scotland, getting hammered. People thought he was a crank.”

Careful, now. Though these days what’s termed an alternative poet, more familiarly known as Rantin’ Richie, comparisons are dangerous. Besides, Pete drinks nothing stronger than tea.

It’s the arresting title of his first anthology, Wandsworth to Wordsworth, which particularly demands attention, though Richie makes no claim to be a Wordsworth – “I do like John Betjeman, though. Someone gave me an LP of his stuff. I could play it every day.”

Apart from anything else, William Wordsworth probably thought that the f-word was floats.

“Some of my stuff can be quite brutal, a bit in-your-face, a bit Left-wing. I make no apologies for that,” he says over his second cup. “The aggression’s still there, but now I use it in a positive way.”

Wandsworth’s the south London prison where he spent rather too much time – “fighting and drinking,” he says, vaguely – in his 20s and 30s.

“They were gruesome times, too painful to recall, very harrowing. There were some flipping dangerous blokes in there. I saw one bloke have his throat cut for being on the phone too long. I was in a very dark place.”

Richie was a Richmond lad, had what’s termed a misspent youth. Attila the Stockbroker, among the best known performance poets, writes in the foreword to his book that he thought they’d first met in 1982 – “except it couldn’t have been because he was in a youth custody centre in Northallerton at the other end of the country.”

He came home about 15 years ago, worked around the building sites, now has kidney dialysis three times a week and is both articulate and engaging. It should not be supposed, however, that “alternative” poetry necessarily rhymes – or scans, for that matter, either.

“I didn’t expect the streets of London to be paved with gold but I did think it might be a bit more exciting than Richmond,” he reflects. “Wandsworth prison’s not really what you’d call exciting.”

Inspired by Attila, for whom he’d also acted as illustrator, he began a poetry club above a pub in Cambridge Circus, a venture abruptly ended when the IRA blew up the pub.

Now 55, happily back in Richmond, he does performance poetry gigs while wearing a 1920s bowler given by a girl he once met. “Every poet needs a prop,” says Richie.

Performance poetry may not be supposed gold-paved, either, though there are plenty of gigs. “If I went to see a band I’d expect to pay, even if it was one of those tribute bands which aren’t very good. If someone came to paint my house, they’d rightly expect to be paid. With this, you’re lucky to be offered a flipping drink.”

He’s freshly smitten by the North-East – “Darlington has some wonderful architecture, I absolutely love the train station” – and it’s in the Pennyweight pub in Darlington that the book will be launched on the evening of Saturday, October 20, followed on October 27 by a second evening launch at the Sip Cafe in King Street, Richmond.

He’ll share the Pennyweight stage with fellow alternative poet Emlyn Hugill, a butcher in Darlington.

Ambition? “I suppose really to be self-financing, maybe to get a sponsor, to do some festival gigs. I don’t expect a blue plaque, but it would be nice to be remembered as an ugly bastard who wrote some half-decent poetry.”

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PETE Richardson, of course, looks like a wholly respectable citizen – but what of the apparent desperado on the left/right/above/below?

Mugged by a mug shot, it’s Chris Nettleton, an admirable official of the Gresley Society – of which I’m a member. Once again it’s the curse of the passport picture.

Chris – Darlington lad, retired Midland Bank man, now in Eaglescliffe – is standing for election as a Society trustee. The other two candidates are pictured, beaming, from the footplate of one of Sir Nigel Gresley’s apple green steam engines.

“I didn’t have much notice. It was the only photograph I could lay my hands on,” he pleads.

We catch up at an event at the North Road Railway Museum in Darlington to mark the 193rd anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington. “It looks like you’re on the run from the lifers’ wing on Dartmoor,” I suggest.

“That’s among the kinder comments,” says the ever-cheerful Chris. “Most people think I look like Jeremy Corbyn.”

He’s the best of men and has my vote – but why can’t you smile for a passport photograph?

AMONG others at the Stockton and Darlington event is John Raw, bearing what became known as a George Stephenson fiver and current from 1990-2003.

The irrepressible Jane Hackworth Young, greatly descended from the Shildon-based railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth, now hopes to persuade the Bank of England to do something similar for her forebear.

“It’s quite an easy form to fill in and it would be perfect for the 200th anniversary,” says Jane. “If they want George Stephenson they can have him, too, but not the Rocket – that had nothing to do with the S&D.”

Getting the bank to put its money where its mouth is might still be tricky. We’ve made a note of it.

OUT the back of the North Road museum, the Darlington Railway Preservation Society had opened its full-steam workshops. The society nears its 40th anniversary, former Darlington mayor and toy shop owner Barrie Lamb, now 80, involved from the start. “The great thing is that we’re getting quite a few youngsters interested,” said the admirable Barrie. The other great thing, of course, is that he, too, is still preserved.

JUST 11 weeks to go and the wonderful Wensleydale Railway is enthusiastically promoting its Christmas specials – including, promise the posters, a Santa Clause. Terms and conditions apply?

…and finally, two responses to last week’s column. Newton Aycliffe FC chairman Alan Oliver fondly remembers Jim’s Pies – as did his dogs. “I had three lurchers who lived on them for four years. You should have seen their bellies – nee good for two days after a Jim’s pie.”

Malcolm Dunstone in Darlington continues visions of Paradise with memories of a visit to that part of Birmingham while watching test match cricket this summer. “The area seemed to have made little progress since I was there two years earlier and the taxi driver thought that the tower cranes and hoardings would still be there when England play the Aussies in 2019. It’s certainly not Paradise as I thought it would be.”

All this began with a stroll around the Paradise that’s part of Witton Park. Proof next week that the Queen Mother thought it pretty rapturous, too.