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Ring, ring. Will you let Poet Pete in?

If the people won't buy poetry from bookshops, why not take the fruits of your labour to them. Jim White meets the man injecting a little lyricism into London's streets

Jim White
Thursday 09 February 1995 00:02 GMT

About nine o'clock one bitter evening last month, there was a knock at my door. Generally, at that time of night, the only knocks come from ugly youths selling dish-cloths or men in trim hair and raincoats asking if you have heard the good news y et. I opened the door cautiously to be confronted by a man with a lot of hair and a beard, apparently wearing a duvet.

"Hello," he said in a gentle tone not usually associated with door-to-door salesmanship. "I'm a poet."

There wasn't, I suggested, a lot you could say to that.

"I'm selling books of my poetry," he continued. "And I was wondering if you would like to buy one."

So I did. It was hard to resist anyone peddling poems like this: "The early bird catches the worm but the cool worm sleeps all morning."

Peter Cadle, it turns out, is Britain's only door-to-door poet. At least three nights a week he wraps himself in several layers of insulation and sets off from his north London flat to sell his work on the hoof. He will go anywhere a zones one and two travelcard will take him, accompanied only by his stanzas. He doesn't mind where he goes, even out east, down our way, where metre is something you break into when you're short of a bit of cash and where grasp of rhyme is restricted to name-calling (" 'ere, there's a right Sir Anthony on the doorstep"). He has been selling his wares this way since the late Seventies. And the odd thing is, in all that time, he has only had the door slammed in his face once.

"It was a woman, came to the door and just as I started my spiel, she slammed it shouting: `Away with your religion!' I was so surprised, I carried on talking and she must have heard the word `poet' through the letter box because she opened the door again and said, `Oh, I'm so sorry, I thought you were a Jehovah's Witness.' And then I sold her a copy of my book."

But on the whole, he has discovered, we Britons tend to be rather polite to our poets.

"It's given me plenty of opportunity to study human behaviour," he said. "Once I went to this house and the woman said, `I can't possibly buy anything from you unless my cat approves of you.' And she went and brought this massive fat ginger cat out of her front room and sat him on the mat in front of me. He just stared at me. Didn't move. And she said: `Yes, he likes you, I'll have one.' Mostly people are very courteous. The classic excuse they use not to buy is, `Not now, we're eating'. And then they usually apologise."

Cadle has heard that one so often, he wrote a poem about it: "ring ring, knock knock `yes, what is it?'

`I thought I should tell you that your house is on fire'

`oh, not now, please, we're having dinner.' "

However kind people are, though, wouldn't it be a lot easier just to get his poems published and let the bookshops do all the footwork?

"You think I haven't tried," he said. "But you may have noticed there isn't the biggest market in the world for poetry. I probably manage as well doing it myself this way as I would if I were published."

The idea for doorstep bardery came from a man called Michael Simmons, who had included lots of Cadle's verse in a poetry magazine called Fopo.

"I'd been a civil servant for two years, after dropping out of a law degree at Manchester University and I wanted to make a go of poetry and song-writing," Cadle says. "Michael just suggested that I could try to sell copies of my work myself. I thought he was crazy. But I thought why not, I'll give it a go."

He soon discovered he was not the only man out there with his metaphors. At first he had a rival, an American who stood outside Covent Garden tube station and sometimes in the middle of Cambridge in a big leather hat bearding passers-by. Generally prettygirls as it happens. "Hello," he used to say to them. "Do you like poetry? Then perhaps you'd like to look at mine."

"He just gave it up one day," says Cadle. "He said he was going back to America to make some real money. He said he was fed up with being poor. I know how he felt. Sometimes, when I've sold just one or two books in an evening, I say to myself: `Peter, you would have been much better off being a solicitor'."

Which is unquestionably true. Being a door-to-door poet is not a path to riches. On a good night, Peter Cadle can sell a dozen copies of his booklets, jauntily illustrated with cartoons by his collaborator, Lennart Akman, at £3 a throw. More usually, though, he doesn't.

"If I cover my travelcard costs, I reckon it's a good evening," he says. "You can never predict how it will go. Although you want to avoid the very rich, who are inaccessible, and the very poor who don't have any money for poems, there are no such thingsas good or bad areas. One day you can do really well down a street, sell out, then you can go back another month and not sell a thing. I've never sold all 12 copies I take with me to one person, but once I knocked at a door and this bloke offered to buyme out, finance me, do it as a business. Unfortunately, it turned out he was even more disorganised than I am."

Recently Cadle has found some success on the blossoming London acoustic circuit, singing his wry and entertaining folk songs and reciting his poems (last Tuesday he was given the ultimate accolade in the poetry world: he supported John Cooper Clarke). And Christy Moore, the Irish singer, re-corded one of his songs as the title track of his recent album Unfinished Revolution, which gives him a regular royalty injection. But it is not enough to keep him off the streets.

"I'm driven to it, I suppose, by impecunity," he says. "But in a perverse way I enjoy it. It's not creatively inspiring, trudging around, but I do get to see some sights. I once went to a very posh house in Hampstead and this butler opened the door. I could see behind him that there was a cocktail party going on and everyone was impeccably dressed. The butler looked at me and didn't bat an eyelid, he just said, `Do come in, sir'. I said, `I don't think madam would want me to come in'. But then madam came to the door and she bought a copy."

And, pricelessly, he got to sell his poems personally to Alan Bennett. And Julia Somerville, Beryl Bainbridge and several actors from EastEnders whom he recognised but couldn't name.

"I went to this house once and this bloke answered the door, and I said: `I know you. You're Simon Dee'. And he said, `No I'm not, I'm Geoffrey Something'. And I heard this voice from behind him shout out, `Yes. But he used to be Simon Dee'."

Knowing where Simon Dee lives: there must be a poem in that.

Peter Cadle will perform at the Cock Tavern, Phoenix Road, London NW1, tomorrow.

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