Last year I moved home, into the Byker Wall estate in Newcastle Upon Tyne. It’s a place that’s had its ups and downs, the downs leaving it with a reputation that at this time is undeserved. Mostly, I’m loving being here.
Before I moved people gave me all kinds of warnings about the horrors of Byker. They tried to dissuade me from moving here, told me to move to some other part of the city. I’m sure I’d have liked those parts too – and somewhere like Fenham has more little shops that cook their own samosas and flat breads.
Close to the estate is Shields Road, the main shopping area in Byker. Last year there was a list of 1000 shopping areas in Britain, ranked from best to worst. Shields Road was on that list. In 1000th place. I think that’s completely unfair. It has a supermarket at each end but still boasts greengrocers, small food shops, a butcher and a baker. It has good charity shops, hair salons, some wonderful cheap cafes, Wilkos, and much more. It’s a great street. Not many places have somewhere as good, just a mile from the centre of a largish city.
The following is about the warnings I was given. I confess I’ve exaggerated. But not as much as you might think. I also confess that people who know Byker or know people who live here – or are people who live here – had other things to say about moving here. This is really about the bad reputation of Byker, lingering from the days of much higher crime and deprivation, of inadequate maintenance, of continued unfairly low funding from council services, and of characters like Rat Boy.
If I have time and can work out how, I’ll read this and get the audio posted to YouTube. I want to do that with quite a few short pieces that are waiting to be edited (or not edited because I’m lazy) and posted here. This writing probably works better spoken than it does on a page.
Big steps for me last night. Big step one, I attended my first ever regular spoken word event. It’s been running for 18 months and every month I’ve told one of the organisers that I hadn’t got the mental ability to go but would get there one day. Big step two, I performed something in the open mic section of the night. This piece. Roughly. In performance, words alter themselves. Those are massive steps for me and I could write a blog post about all the stories I’ve told myself that needed to be challenged before becoming exposed on a stage with my writing. All the things I told myself I couldn’t do. Where do those ideas of incapability come from? Perhaps that matters far less than challenging ideas and stories we irrationally believe.
Don’t you ever entertain the suicidal notion of moving there. Don’t be a fool.
It’s the walled, forbidden city.
All manner of evils lie behind the imposition of the wall.
Everyone’s a druggie. You can’t step outside without getting stung by HIV needles.
The wall’s full of criminals. You’ll be mugged, beaten, robbed.
You’re gonna end up dead. All gentle people die on those streets.
Or suffer worse fates, dragged into the rotting, mouldy, collapsed concrete infrastructure.
Don’t approach the wall. And don’t under any circumstance stray underneath,
Across the frontier between the civilised City of Sanctuary
Into the war-torn, no man’s land of the Wall estate.
It’s Beirut. It’s Aleppo. But worse.
Gangs roam the streets. Armed gangs.
They’ll shoot you. Gut you. Don’t go there. We fear for you.
Even ex-special forces veterans won’t live there.
They’re too frightened. And you? You’re just a wimpy nerd.
If you must go, just for a look, take protection.
Alarms. Company. Don’t dare to go alone.
Take a crack force of armed bodyguards on loan from the President.
But don’t go. Please. Stay safe.
And if you really must go, assuming you survive, make it quick.
You’ll see. Instantly. You’ll thank us for the warnings.
You’ll sign a sacred contract to warn others.
Move to Byker? Nobody would choose that dreadful fate.
Think you’ll survive? Sounding southern? Sounding posh?
You really think the scum of Byker will suffer a trans woman to live?
Not a chance. You face certain death.
Your epitaph will read, “She was warned.”
Over and over. The repeated reputation of an invisible estate.
Stubborn, I refused to listen.
I moved into that most notorious of death traps.
They were wrong.
Byker is sanctuary, beauty. It’s fragrant in unvarnished realities. It’s all kinds of poverty, full of the problems of the poor and dispossessed, pulling together into some kind of wonder. It’s multicoloured houses, stone lions, and community spirit struggling to grow in a world in which we are taught to be afraid of one another. It’s a place of artists and music where we’re all just about managing. If we’re managing at all.
It’s simple. Byker Wall estate? It’s the friendliest place in the country. And that’s official.
I moved to Byker.
I call it home.
There’s no fear.
Just overwhelming gratitude for my Byker blessings.