Birth of a Poet 1: The Orient Express
Commencing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
It is 21 years ago this week that I returned from the Continent as a poet. I had just been deported from Switzerland for apparent vagrancy, but unbeknownst to the Swiss I was trying to get home anyway. I have always put my lucky break down to the ways of the Muses, who had recently taken me under their wing. Landing safely at Heathrow, in my possession was what I call my first proper poem, 100 stanzas of Ottava Rima upon the Death of Shelley. After two weeks of touring Europe as far as Hungary, I then headed to Italy, Shelley’s own ‘Paradise of Exiles’ where I began my composition period in Pisa on the 16th April; concluding the poem by Shelley’s tomb a month later, at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. In between was the the great moment of validation in my life, sat on a clifftop over Portovenere, composing to the gulls & the sunset. Like a young Wordsworth over Helvellyn, I too knew I was a poet & parley to the especial feelings of universal inclusiveness which being a true poet entails.
Those six & a half weeks of travel was my very own Grand Tour. I was no aristocrat, far from it, a little half-caste drop-out from the back streets of Burnley with sudden pretensions of poethood. I should have been better off in a factory like the one in Rawtenstall I’d worked at for 3 months or so in 1996 – the shoemakers Lambert Howarths. But I was, of course, a poet, for a poet is born… & then made of course. Having realized this was my fate in early 1997, a year later I embarked for Europe where I hoped to experience for myself just a sliver of the literary domicile in Italy which Byron & Shelley had set up in exile. Just what kind of poet I would turn out to be would be heavily influenced and nourished by the experience. My only source of income, however, would be the rent money I neglected to pay in London, & whatever I could whip together in the Italian streets thro’ my guitar.
Tis the end of March & my rent is due,
But two life options lie open to me;
Break with a lover, lose friendship, split thro
Or chain myself to the servility
Of capitalism; a poet true
I yearn to be, so young, so sure, so free –
Romancing my mind with poetry’s flow,
So be it, with sure brave heart, I shall go.
“What the fuck am I doing in Hungary!?”
Think I as I search for somewhere to rest
In the dirty, bustling, car-choked, friendly
Bullet-hole-wall-lined streets of Budapest;
Architecture touched clearly by Turkey,
But laced with the consumeristic West;
I find the Mellow Mood Hostel – what luck!
For four pounds a night it’s as cheap as fuck.
My retrospective adventure begins on the 11th April 1998. I awoke in a hostel upon my last morning in Budapest, set later that day to attempt to evade fares, or trainjump, to Slovenia, from where I would head for Venice. To tell the story I shall be recreating my journal from the period day-by-day & placing this alongside any actual compositions of the Shelley poem on those corresponding days. The latter have gone through a revision process over the years, & I hope to administer them through the powers of the 41 year old poet. Pictorially, I have included a smattering of sketches from my notebook made during my time in Italy, plus a number of photographs taken in my visits to the scenes of my youthful endeavor in the two decades since. My final piece of ‘evidence’ comes from 1999, & another poem in more precise Ottava Rima concerning my trip to Europe, entitled The Grand Tour. Despite misplacing the original manuscript, this poem too has undergone several revisions & now takes pride of place at the commencement of my Silver Rose sequence.
Saturday 11th April 1998
My last day in Hungary began quite pedestrian paced, then ended in the most bizarre circumstances.
I cooked up a few eggs, mushrooms & a bit of bacon for brekky, then began to meander. I changed some money, bought a load of fags & food for my journey (I’d better watch my cash now, only got £90 left), then found some Hungarians playing chess in a square. I had a few games with a big fella who fluster’d me into losing!! I lost 400 florins altogether, but had a grand time in the sunshine.
Then I met Megan one last time & we had a few beers through the afternoon til my 5.30 train to Slovenia. After donning my electric blue sunglasses I gave an impromptu performance of songs; Hymn to Apollo, Tumbleweed & Groovy Little Sunshine – laid back in the sun at the top of an international hostel, kinda tunes – with Fools Gold as an encore.
I then packed & headed for the station. Now Geminis are known for their indecisiveness & sudden changes of plan, & as soon as I saw the ‘Orient Express’ to Paris listed, I had to get on it. That train is second only to the Trans-Siberian railway for legendary routes, & if I jumped it I would be very happy indeed. But a big conductor actually opened the toilet door, took my passport & kicked me off at Gyor (giving my passport back).
But this wasn’t too bad – I quickly got on a slower Hungarian train to the border town of Hegyeshalom. Although the toilets (& the graffiti-splattered, full of weird Hungarians carriage) were disgusting, the bay-like window was wide open & I had a wonderful, snail-paced view of the Hungarian plains, which were pretty dull, but the evenly spaced houses & churches were quite pretty.
So I arrive in the border town (its too long a word to write out every time, accurately) & lo & behold, who’s waiting but the conductor from the Orient Express. He waves his arms for a bit, gets a bit kerfuffled, so I slip the station, having two hours to wait for the next train outta Hungary.
I bought a soft drink & sat outside a mad Hungarian pub, their weird babble drifting to my ears & adding to the surreality of the situation.
Here I planned ahead! I will travel to Italy & Ravenna to see Dante’s grave, then over to Le Spazia to write poetry & chill by the beach for a couple of weeks. Then I’ll hit the Riviera, do some busking & slowly make my way up through France – walking, busking – to arrive home for my birthday (June 11th). Perhaps I can get a ferry ticket for my present!
I returned to the station, but that same conductor (& the one from the other) accosted me, demanded money & took my passport. They sat me down & waited for the Vienna train to come. Two of their cronies arrived & they began making fun of me, pretending to be soldiers & going ‘English very bad, rat-a-tat-a-tat’ Nobs! The Vienna train came & as it pulled away they all began to laugh. So I slipped on my shades, whistled Rule Britannia & high-tailed it on outta town.
I was like a soldier marching along the road to the border, my backpack heavy & my guitar like a gun. I felt so funky, tho,’ that I decided to strum by the roadside, only a few hundred metres from the border. After a while I saw a car coming & thought I might hitch outta Hungary. So I leapt to the road, stuck out my thumb, & to my surprise the car screeched to a halt & two guys in camouflage & holstered revolvers quickly leapt out. I thought at first I was gonna be mugged, but was quite relieved to be in the company of some border patrollers. They had a quick look at my passport, then bundled me into the car & drove me back to the fucking train station again.
There were about ten guards in all, proper dumb-looking & pretending to be hard, so I made the chambers feel like home. I ate, had a fag, then bought out mah geetah, & whistled & played til they gave me back my passport. I played some weird shit & spooked them – & they wouldn’t even give me a stamp as a souvenir.
I gaze on familiar boyhood star
While I walk a few K to the border,
As just by the line I thumb a police car,
They bundle me in, “Silence!” the order,
So as they check the passport my guitar
Rings out in bizarre tuning & coda,
Bemused they release me at the train station
“Gizza lift” “No!” my tour’s first frustration!
So I had to retrace my steps, & soon was making my way though the border zone. The Hungarians guards were asleep so I had to wake them! I passed some lads younger than me, wielding rifles & a big Austrian at customs. The actual area had a real sort of abandoned feel. The legacy of the Cold War – it was the East-West border – where only kids & old men inhabit. It was quite eerie walking through it into Austria.
In Austria I was manhandled by some guys who thought we were still in the war, then another guy on a bike, but all-in-all it wasn’t too bad… just 7 passport checks & ten or so kilometres of hiking.
I found the station at Nicklesdorf & bedded down behind it. Luckily it was a very pleasant night & I fell asleep to birdsong…
THE BIRTH OF A POET
Chapter 3: Florence Nightingales