A Deer in a Licence Plate Shop: A Strange and Epic Saga

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The following poem is a completely true story. It happened to me two years ago, in Heaton, near Newcastle city centre, while I was on my way to work:

What I saw that day was
very difficult to explain.
Nothing quite compares
to the image of a deer
running into a licence plate shop.
I thought it was a dog,
as it shot across the busy street
causing a white van to screech to a stop.
But no,
this was an actual deer,
in a busy inner city suburb,
bolting towards the glass door,
pushing it open with its horns,
stumbling inside.

I remember getting off my bike.
I remember rushing over to the window,
peering in;
the deer, pogoing around the small square of floor;
the licence plates on the walls;
the shopkeeper behind the counter
frozen in disbelief,
his big toe standing on a very sharp pin.

A boy and girl of about my age ran over.
I remember saying something like:
“Maybe we should call the RSPCA?”
The girl suggested she call the police,
I’ll never forget the sound of that voice on the phone:
“Hello? Aii,
basically, this deer’s just gone
pure akka and ran into a licence plate shop in Heaton.”
There was a very big pause.

It was at the door now,
gazing at me
with eyes like dark sides of the moon.
It began frantically trying to escape,
rushing into the glass,
over and over and over;
it bust its nose,
a brush leaving a thick stroke of blood.
I felt every single thud.

What exactly does one do
when a deer runs into a licence plate shop?
What is the protocol for this scenario?
I looked around,
the boy,
the girl,
the shopkeeper.
No one had the answer.
So we all just…
watched it happen.

I suppose that’s how it goes.

Mankind is born free and is everywhere in chains…
like a deer in a licence plate shop.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…
like a deer in a licence plate shop.
They fuck you up your Mum and Dad…
like a deer in a licence plate shop.

As the rescue team arrived,
I realised we are all deer,
perpetually running into licence plate shops of our own making-
we are bears in office blocks,
giraffes in portacabins,
bluffing it.
But, sooner or later,
we’re going to take the wrong turn,
get trapped in something we can’t possibly understand,
seize up in the headlights,
or run desperately into the glass.

Rowan McCabe


I’ve wanted to take a copy of this poem back to the licence plate shop for a long time. It’s probably the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me, and I felt like the man in the shop might understand. In a perfect world, I would have written it in the days following the event and done it then. But, as I’m sure you can appreciate, it was all a bit confusing, and it took me about a year to really process what happened here.* By the time I’d finished the poem, it felt like the moment had passed.

However, in the year since then, I’ve had a couple of strange encounters that have persuaded me to do it. What never made it into the poem was the fact that, as we were all panicking and wondering exactly what to do, two ladies dressed in multicoloured pyjamas came running out of a café across the road. They went straight into the licence plate shop, one covered the deer’s face with a scarf and the other wrestled it to the ground.

What initially looked quite violent was actually an amazing act of heroism. The deer lay there, still kicking, but in relative safety. Without those ladies, I don’t know if it would have been alive by the time the rescue team arrived.

Last March, I got commissioned by Radio 3’s ‘The Verb’ to perform a new piece in front of an audience at the Sage Gateshead. The night before, the producer got in touch to ask if I had a second poem they could record at the end. I picked the one about the deer. After the show, a man came running over to tell me his wife, who was also in the audience, WAS ONE OF THE LADIES WHO HAD RESCUED THE DEER! But in all of the post-gig commotion, I never got a chance to go and find her.

Months later, I was sat in the café across the road from the licence plate shop. I was explaining the whole event to a friend, when a lad working there chipped in: “I wasn’t there but I heard about it,” he said. “It’s become like an urban legend.” A customer on the table next to us then joined in and said he’d also heard about it.

It made me wonder how many people still talked about this. Maybe it wasn’t too late after all? Last Wednesday, I had a day off and I decided it couldn’t hurt to try. On a cold winter afternoon, I printed out some copies of the poem and set off down the road.

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Some people find it hard to believe that there’s even such a thing as a licence plate shop. There is. It’s called Alidrew and it’s on Heaton Road. As I walk towards the door, I feel nervous. My head is filled with questions. Will the same shopkeeper be there? Does he even still work here? What if he’s left the job and there’s no way of contacting him? What if the new shopkeeper has no idea what I’m talking about? If it turns out they don’t know anything about this, I couldn’t make myself look more insane if I tried.

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I open the door and step inside. It’s a little space, no bigger than a kitchen. It’s quiet. There’s one man stood at the counter in a black jacket, waiting to be served. After a few seconds, a lady with long brown hair comes out from the back. “Hello, do you know anything about a deer that ran in here about 2 years ago?” I ask.
“Yes!”
“Were you there?”
“Yes!” By this point, a young man has come out of the back as well.
“I was there!” he says. “I was the one who helped wrestle it to the ground!”

This is Louise, and her son Connor. She’s run this family business along with her husband, Paul, for 40 years. I explain that I was there too, that I did a poem about it on the radio. “My Grandma heard that!” says Connor. “She phoned me to say ‘Remember when the deer ran into the shop? This lad has just done a poem on the radio about the exact same thing! It must have happened to someone else too!’ I was Googling it and searching for ages but I couldn’t find anything.”

I’m now very pleased I decided to do this. They begin to fill me in on the story from their side of the glass. “We didn’t know what to do,” says Louise. “We couldn’t get anyone to take it. We phoned the police. They said ‘Can you describe the deer?’ I said ‘Yeah, it’s got ears… and hoofs. Y’know? It’s a deer.’ They said ‘We can’t take that. It’s not our job’ and told us to try the RSPCA. The RSPCA said they were too busy and told us to try the vets, but the vets all wanted too much money. In the end, it was a policeman across the road who helped. He was getting a sandwich and he came over and radioed for the police vet.”

Then Louise breaks the bad news. “Do you know what happened to it? Well… it got put down. They said it was a brain hemorrhage.” This is really hard to hear. I can’t help but think that, if I had of ran in and done something, it might not have happened. But then, nobody really knew what to do. And Louise explains that one of the ladies in the pyjamas who did help turned out to be a veterinary assistant, hence why she seemed so incredibly skilled at dealing with the situation.

I wonder what the odds are of a veterinary assistant being nearby at such an unlikely event? It’s got to be a million to one. And I can find some solace in the fact that the deer probably got as lucky as it was going to get in this respect.

“There was blood all up the walls,” says Louise. “You can still see the marks on the door. The thing that got me is, there was a lady with a dog who was trying to get in and buy a licence plate when all this was going on! I said ‘You can’t fit in the shop’. She complained and said ‘Fine, I’ll have to come back later then!’”

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The conversation turns, as it usually does, to where we think the deer came from. “I think it came from the park,” says Connor. “But it was running from the other direction. So maybe it went down one way and then turned around.” But what’s confusing is, in the whole 10 years I’ve lived in Heaton, 5 minutes from the park, I’ve never once seen a deer. I ask Connor if he’s ever seen one there. He says no. It’s all still a bit of a mystery. “It was the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “I reckon I’ve got more chance of winning the lottery than that ever happening again.”

I read my poem out and offer them both a copy. They seem pleased. “Thanks for that,” says Louise. “I’ll show that to my Mam, she’ll really enjoy it. The only bit I don’t think she’ll enjoy is the swear word,” she laughs. To return the favour, Connor gives me an Alidrew branded baseball cap, which I doff as we get a picture together.

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I say goodbye and head out of the licence plate shop. It’s been good to talk to some people who were actually there when this happened. I feel like I’ve been to a support group for freak events. I head home, with the distinct sense that something has come to a close.

*It was on an Arvon course in Shropshire last year where I was encouraged to write a poem about this. I’m really grateful to everyone who was there for giving me the support I needed to do it, especially Caroline Bird for the advice, and Matt Miller for helping me edit it. In fact, Matt and Eleanor Penny, who was also on the course, wrote their own response to the story. I leave you with those words:

13 Ways Of Looking At A Deer In A Licence Plate Shop

After Wallace Stevens (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45236)

I
A man panics at a deer in his licence plate shop. A deer panics at a licence plate in the forest – the unattended scent of man.

II
Officials on the scene declared officially that physics disobeyed would have vengeance on D33R.

III
I will hold my cool hands to the rough of your forehead. I will buy for you a whole world of licence plates, if that will heal you.

IV
Oh poet, why do you stand aghast astride a bicycle at such an ordinary thing? You have flown here. Do you not see here too a creature ramming its face into the destiny of its limbs?

V
Tasked by the homing wilderness to return triumphant with a torn off piece of human worlds – or not at all.

VI
Metal. Rivet. Fur. Paint. Tooth. Glass. Blood. I will take a handful of these things and close my eyes and cast them up into the air so that they land exactly as they must.

VII
It wanted numbers to say ‘you’ to its rust brown back, unseen in the indifferent forest.
It wanted numbers it could understand.

VIII
Must a deer have a licence plate to shop? Is a licence plate shop a shop without a deer?

IX
I did not know the licence plate shop until I saw it buck and scream. I did not see the deer until I saw it flown again and again into the licence plate shop windows, bucking and screaming.

X
Life contains multitudes. The licence plate shop contains a deer, the eye of which contains a deer in a licence plate shop.

XI
Among all things, a licence plate shop. Among all licence plate shops, a deer. Among all deers, the eye in which you stand, amazed.

XII
Sometimes I feel like a deer in a licence plate shop. Sometimes the deer in the licence plate shop feels like me. Sometimes the licence plate shop feels like me in a deer. All eventualities are eventualities.

XIII
Do you not see how the deer in the licence plate shop
Is soothed under the multicoloured scarf
Of the hippies about you?

Matt Miller and Eleanor Penny

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Austerity is Over

A few months ago, Theresa May announced that austerity in the UK is now over.

I’m still annoyed about it. I made a video.

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The Trip to Work 22/11/17

A taxi driving through a suburb near Newcastle City Centre.

TAXI DRIVER:           Where you getting the train to like?

ME:                               London.

TAXI DRIVER:            Is it business or pleasure?

ME:                                Business.

TAXI DRIVER:           What do you do?

[ROWAN tries to avoid the question.]

ME:                               [Pauses.] I’m making a film.

TAXI DRIVER:           In front of the camera or behind it?

ME:                               In front. I’m a poet and it’s National Poetry Day. Someone’s paying me to go down and do a poem and they’re going to film it.

TAXI DRIVER:           [Suddenly very frustrated, his hands gesticulating wildly.] A poet? A poet?! Well you’re going to hate me then mate! See: I only think it’s poetry if it rhymes.

ME:                                A lot of my stuff rhymes actually. But I’d still disagree.

TAXI DRIVER:           I’m sure you would, mate, I’m sure you would. But I only think it’s poetry if it rhymes. Otherwise it’s just a lecture, isn’t it? See, I like classical poetry me, ‘Tiger tiger burning bright’, that sort of thing.

ME:                               Well, you know, if you read Blake’s later stuff, it was a lot more experimental, he didn’t use rhyme at all and-

TAXI DRIVER:           Yeah but I’m not talking about that. See, for me, it’s like art. I hate Picasso. I don’t want to see a nose on the side of a face. What’s the point in that!?

ME:                                Have you ever seen Picasso’s early work? He painted for a long time in a very traditional style and-

TAXI DRIVER:            Yeah but I’m not talking about that. See, I’ve got this friend, right. We always get into big arguments like this. He goes to all the modern art galleries and that. And I say to him, how is that even art?! I mean, take this cloth here [TAXI DRIVER pulls out a grease stained cloth] I could put that down there and I could say that’s art, couldn’t I?

[The sun beams onto the grease stained cloth on the dashboard, as the council blocks zoom past beyond the motorway.]

ME:                                Well I suppose you could. Maybe everything is art.

TAXI DRIVER:            You can’t say that! You can’t just say, ‘Everything is art’. That’s ridiculous.

ME:                                 OK then, look, in your opinion, what makes a good painting?

TAXI DRIVER:             Something that looks like real life. Something that looks like a photo.

ME:                                  Yeah but the camera lens bends everything though, doesn’t it? So it’s out of proportion. Photos don’t follow the laws of perspective like real life. And there’s loads of things you can’t capture with a camera either. Like a sunset. You either photograph the sun, and lose the view around, or you photograph the view and you lose the sun. And everyone sees the world in their own way, anyway. Like, in Russian, there’s two shades of blue which are classed as two completely different colours. So one person could be looking at a picture and say it’s all one colour and another might say it’s two. Everyone sees things differently.

TAXI DRIVER:             What do you mean everyone sees things differently!!? Everyone sees things exactly the same! [Long pause.] Unless there’s something wrong with you.

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Red is the New Blue Returns!

Red is the New Blue with stars website resizeI’m really excited to say that on the 10th and the 12th of February, the play I’ve wrote with Matt Miller and Matilda Neill, Red is the New Blue (or ‘Big Brother in Space’) comes back to Live Theatre. It’ll be directed by Graeme Thompson and will again star the amazing Lewis Matthews as ‘Rhino’, Matilda as Jane and me as Baz. It’s part of a double bill called Live Lab: Elevator which has also got a show called Heartbeats and Algorithms in it as well. Red is the New Blue was performed to sell out audiences in June of last year which made me immensely happy because it was the first play I’ve ever written and the first project I’ve ever collaborated on.

Red is the new blue 2In it, we follow Jane Winter, Baz Richardson and Rhino Sanders, three members of the general public who are on a spaceship on their way to colonise Mars. If this wasn’t a hard enough job in itself, the whole journey is being filmed for a reality TV show as well. The idea is based on the Mars One project, which plans to do this for real in 2026. From the start, we were really interested in how the idea is a meeting point between humanity’s desire for technological advancement and its need to watch horrifically dangerous things on reality TV. As the play goes on, we watch the crew’s relationship disintegrate, partly due to a clash between these ideas of Science vs. What Makes Good Telly.

We started working on it in January 2015 and there wasn’t really time to go into how it was going then. In fact for a good 5 or 6 months I didn’t really have much time for anything else at all. I think, without ever saying it in so many words, we decided that it was going to be ‘hard sci-fi’- in the sense that everything that happens in terms of the plot is scientifically plausible while still being completely fictional.

Red is the new blue 3There’s a problem with this though: It involves a lot of research. Months and months of our time was spent looking up everything from spaceship engineering to terraforming new planets. I don’t think any of us really realised how big of a job this was going to be. Because of all of this, the actual writing of the show was pushed right to the deadline and there was never an opportunity to test it out on an audience first. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely proud of what we did with the time we had but there was always going to be bits that needed some work, sections that were working against others.

Having had some time away from it and a good few months to make changes, the first thing that comes to mind is how insignificant the technological stuff seems now. It doesn’t really matter that there is food that astronauts would actually eat in there, or a gravity anchor system for artificial gravity designed by head of The Mars Society Dr Robert Zubrin. They all seem believable but could easily be pure fantasy, the point is that they help build up a clear world for the characters. (Although I would like to stress that they are all entirely scientifically plausible, if for no other reason than a smug sense of self-satisfaction.)

Red is the new blue 4What instead came to the fore was how this, I think, is a really well written interaction between three very different, ordinary people. A lot of audience feedback was about how accessible the show is despite the fact that it’s sci-fi. At times it’s almost a farcical comedy- feeling how much the audience laughed on the opening night in June surprised me because I’d almost lost sight of how absurd the whole situation of the plot is. But what I think really makes me proud of it is that it’s not just a straight up comedy either. Without all the sciencey stuff clouding our heads, we could really focus on this narrative journey, as the sitation gets more and more tense.

What we’ve got now is something that’s much more refined, funny and hard-hitting while still being really accessible for anyone- whether you’re a massive fan of gravity anchor systems or not.

Live Lab: Elevator, 10 Feb + 12th Feb, 7.30pm @ Live Theatre

http://www.live.org.uk/whats-on-book/double-bill-red-is-the-new-blue-heartbeats-and-algorithms 

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The New Home of Door-to-Door Poetry

SS100088NEWS. As the whole door-to-door poetry thing is starting to take on a bit of a life of its own,  I’ve made a fancy new website for it! http://www.doortodoorpoetry.com

What better way to celebrate than a post about what happened on my second trip out: How I went to Wilf Stone of Pikey Beatz street, my run in with the long arm of the law and the near death experience of a scuba diver. Just click here.

 

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Door-to-Door Poetry 2: Landing the Plane

Hi there,

Since the project took on a bit of a life of its own, this post has now moved to the official Door-to-Door Poetry website:
https://doortodoorpoetry.com/2015/11/29/landing-the-plane/ 

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Door-to-Door Poetry: A New Frontier of Daftness

Hi there,

Since the project took on a bit of a life of its own, this post has now moved to the official Door-to-Door Poetry website:

https://doortodoorpoetry.com/2015/11/29/a-new-frontier-of-daftness/

 

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