Dean Parkin and his Poem for Suffolk ? at Halesworth, Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket and Sudbury
Have you heard this modern Suffolk saying? ‘If it int Tesco’s, thas turbines’
Maybe it’s me, but I find a meeting with Dean Parkin a bit surreal. The last time we had a decent chinwag, a good few years back now, he was telling me about his late father’s double life.
His dad, who ran a plastics factory in Suffolk, left his family for his secretary, though he didn’t tell his wife he’d actually moved in with another woman. And he’d pop back to the family home each evening, to see his children and eat pea soup and dumplings. He’d leave at 7pm, after Crossroads, and didn’t let his new love know where he’d been, apparently.
Little surprise that when Dean became a poet it was only a matter of time before this unorthodox childhood was shared with the world.
In 2010 it spawned Dean’s Dad’s Ducks – a one-man show that went to the Edinburgh fringe. (The factory made toy ducks, among other things.)
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To this day, I’m still not 100% sure if it was a shaggy dog story or God’s honest truth, but his latest project is clear-cut. It’s a communal enterprise called Poem for Suffolk that over the past year has seen him run 56 creative writing sessions in 30 venues from primary schools to care homes and involved more than 1,100 people.
(One teacher was so excited by the sparky stuff produced by her class that a copy was given to a visiting Ofsted inspector. Dean imagines it being taken to Ofsted HQ and word coming back that “We’ve analysed it and found something called imagination…”)
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Dean being Dean, the project featured its own quirks. He lives off the A12, betwixt Blythburgh and Lowestoft. After 15 years at number three, he moved along the road in January… to number 50. “Everyone thought I was an incomer. No-one knew me,” says the poet, who admits he’s probably “the archetypal keeps-himself-to-himself kind of guy”.
He realised many of us don’t know some of our nearest neighbours.
Then there was some surreal confusion that took on a life of its own. A villager reckoned Dean was Deano, a chef in a Suffolk seaside hotel. The story spread. Even the window cleaner asked about it. The poet realised something else: it’s easy for rumours to fly around, but how many of us actually seek out the truth? (For the record, Dean did manage to track down this Deano… who looked absolutely nothing like him at all. He wasn’t a chef, either, though he was a kitchen porter.)
These things have fed into his new hour-long show – a mix of words, stories and songs that begins a short tour tonight. It’s one strand of Poem for Suffolk, which was bankrolled by Arts Council England. The project encompasses poems by Suffolk people and Dean, and a book featuring 22 of them. There will be video poems online, too.
So, what’s it all about?
The idea came after Dean was poet-in-residence a couple of years ago for a project called Managing a Masterpiece, which celebrated the landscape of the Stour Valley.
“Whilst researching John Constable I discovered that his favourite poet was called Robert Bloomfield, who it turns out is Suffolk’s forgotten ‘peasant poet’. His collection The Farmer’s Boy [published in 1800] sold a staggering 26,000 copies and was still one of the country’s best-selling poetry books nearly a century later.
“The book follows Giles the farmer through the four seasons. So, I thought, how about trying to capture contemporary Suffolk lives across a year?” As a boy born and bred on the east coast, it gave Dean “a passport to explore the whole county and also the impetus to investigate lives close to home, to write in a Suffolk voice and celebrate normally-unsung people going about their business without fuss or bother. And that, I’ve come to realise, is very much ‘The Suffolk Way’.”
One of the people Dean got to know a bit better was his local Big Issue seller. “As I said to her, I’ve bought a Big Issue from you for five years and I’ve never said anything to you more than that. Where did you come from? How long have you been here?”
Another thing that seems to lie at the heart of Poem for Suffolk is identity. For a start, there’s his own. Born to a Suffolk mother and a Yorkshire father (and therefore a “furriner”) Dean grew up in Carlton Colville. Lowestoft, where he went to high school and worked in Panda Books for 15 years, is a port and fishing town of faded grandeur that seems to exist in the seam between Suffolk and Norfolk.
When he was working on the Stour Valley project, Dean felt artists such as Constable and Gainsborough were “not quite me – because it was all a bit ‘chocolate box’. Lowestoft feels like the real Suffolk I know, and the further south you get, it becomes a different place: a bit posher”.
Learning about peasant poet Bloomfield helped. “My family on my mother’s side were labourers. My uncle was a cowman. So what it did was connect me with Suffolk, and it made me realise I’m a modern-day peasant poet!
“It’s been a journey of realising how lucky I am to come from Suffolk. I left school at 16 and never ‘escaped’. I didn’t go to university. When I worked at the bookshop, I was ‘a teenager’ for a long time – through most of my 20s, I think.
“People used to come in and buy [rural writers] Ronald Blythe or George Ewart Evans, and I used to think ‘Boring old stuff…’ Now, I think they’re great books. I read and understand. So, where do I belong? I think I’m a Suffolk poet. I’m not interested in writing ‘Ah, behold the landscape’ poems. I’m interested in people’s lives.”
Compared to outwardly-confident places like Manchester, Suffolk’s identity is a bit low-key. Many of us have lost a direct connection with the land or sea, those two great elemental forces. We’re a farming county in which fewer people are now involved in agriculture; a coastal county whose fishing industry has declined.
That said, there is a discernible Suffolk character with its own down-to-earth outlook. It’s to be valued. As Dean says, it’s not a boastful place. Its motto could easily be “Make-do. You don’t want to make a fuss.”
“You wouldn’t be in Suffolk if you wanted all the strident things of the city. You’re not going to get to places quickly. In Lowestoft, waiting for the [bascule] bridge, what do you do when you wait? You slow down. You’re not going to get anywhere fast. Hold you hard. Sit and think. Why do you need to go fast? You’ll get there…”
You get the impression that the city slickers – London-based politicians and the like – would prefer us to lose our distinctiveness and become more like them, though, don’t you? All “push” and noise.
“We might not be leaning on a farm gate with a cap on” – as we did in the past – “but we might be leaning on a farm gate with the clothes we wear now, thinking ‘You can say we’ve got to change, but I can guarantee that in five or six years you’ll be saying we’ve got to do something else – except you won’t be there, because it will be someone else saying that. But we’ll still be here, doing what we do.
“Don’t you feel there’s a pull going back to ‘local’ and locally-sourced things? There’s FolkEast and Latitude, and other local festivals. I think there’s a move back towards ‘community’; and we’ve gone down the capitalist route of getting our fish from Norway...”
This year’s a big one for Dean. In December he leaves his part-time post as creative director of The Poetry Trust, which runs the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, after 15 or 16 years there. He’s had a ball, but his freelance work has taken off. He’s already got enough work to keep him going to March.
“It’s going to be strange, but hopefully I’ll be buoyed with other projects. Alternatively, I’ll be sat at home, watching itv4 in the afternoon, eating cornflakes – in my underpants, with the curtains drawn. There’s some good programmes: Kojak, Magnum, The Sweeney, Minder…”
n Dean’s piano-accompanied show, A Poem for Suffolk, begins its tour at The Cut in Halesworth tonight (19th) before moving to the Hyndman Centre in Bury St Edmunds (23rd), the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket (24th) and the Quay Theatre in Sudbury (25th).
Walking Together in Silence
Struts along with a dirty Tesco bag, shovel on his shoulder. Where’s he gone?
My next door neighbour, Karen, has a dog who is the Boss.
Jaime lives in the flats, sits on the kerb, looks into space.
Mum strolls out the kitchen to gather her things – laptop, lunchbox,
The man, with molehills in his garden, always sitting by the window.
The goth, claret bandanna, luminescent laces, whiff of toothpaste.
Maintenance men carrying ladders and poles.
The lady down the road walking her dog, day and night walking away.
A man armed with a leaf blower, blowing leaves
from his big bellowing tree into his neighbour’s garden.
Chubby and fat, brown beard and a hat, always outside Aldis.
Angus the dog, who’s bound to end up smelly.
Frank’s fish and chip shop. Friday, the day he serves me food.
My mum, addicted to Candy Crush, always in a rush.
Sometimes me and my dad walk together. We don’t talk,
we walk in silence, walking together.
Saturday Morning Club, Woods Loke Primary, Lowestoft
What Hollesley is Made Of
Horned snakes and little apple trees
shop full of sweeties and one happy school
bus stops and foxes, conkers and concrete
houses and birds’ nests
bushes and long trees and squirrels
cats and growly dogs and toiletries
biting tortoises and squeaky mice
lizards that live in bushes
fast cars on the junction
Year 1, Hollesley Primary School
highlight of my week –
Look up to the sky!
Look out the window!
The music they play –
The Beatles, The Monkees, The Faces
and their ‘Glad Rags and Petticoats’,
I know all the words. Handbags
and Glad Rags? I’m a lazy sod
and it gets me off my backside.
John, retirement home
The Suffolk Way
See the ewld post orfice
that used t’be there, yeah, near
the phon box thas gone. Well,
yew gotta gew past that. And the fields
thas all a bloomin’ estate now.
Yew could take the new rood
if yew want gew chargin orf
but if I were yew, I’d tarn left
and left agin, cos yew dunt wunta gew
too far. Sew hold yew hard
and shut your row, yew’ll get
where yer a’gorn soon enough.