Docker poet and author has dedicated book to wife who passed away recently

On Sunday evening I asked Belfast's greatly-loved docker-poet John Campbell for his thoughts on the then imminent New Year.

Wednesday, 3rd January 2018, 9:00 am
John Campbell with sketches of his docker colleagues

“Without Barbara...,” he began.

For the first time during my 35 year long privilege of knowing John he didn’t finish a sentence.

In the corner of his cosy front-room off Belfast’s Shore Road is an empty armchair where Barbara, his wife and soulmate for 60 years, sat before illness confined her to bed several months before she passed away last August.

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Eighty-one-year-old John, author of 10 novels and collections of poems, stopped writing when her health deteriorated.

“Not a thing was written for two years,” he said. “My computer wasn’t opened.”

The shelves and walls are bustling with family portraits.

Predominant above the fireplace is a large black and white photo of glowingly-happy newlyweds John and Barbara in 1966 – married in a Belfast registry office because John wasn’t a regular churchgoer.

Almost three decades later he described the day in a poem called ‘My Girl’.

“My girl didn’t get a bridal gown

or a honeymoon in a foreign town,

Just a drive in a mini, a drink in a snug,

and tears from her dad, when he gave her a hug.”

“Barbara was the rock of this family,” said John, whose poetic debut came after the death of his father in 1948.

“I was 12 years old,” he recounted, “and we were all sitting around the coal fire with mum who was trying to write dad’s obituary for the paper.”

Much to his mother’s surprise John recited a profound little rhyme:

“You never know the moment,

You never know the day.

You’ll never know how long

Upon this earth you’ll stay.”

“Mum looked at me, baffled,” he explained, “wondering where it came from and I said I’d just made it up. I don’t think she used it because she couldn’t afford the space in the paper.”

Ten books later, and after a busy life as a dockworker, trade union representative, van-driver and family-man, he has recently published a 50-poem retrospective entitled ‘Port of Retirement’.

It is dedicated ‘To Barbara In Loving Memory.

Many of the poems are about his beloved Sailortown, a historically nautical part of Belfast that was demolished to make way for motorways, link-roads, flyovers, roundabouts and new buildings.

A poem called Once There Was a Community Here recalls York Street “before the bulldozers came”.

Back in 1999 John was shopping with Barbara in the York Gate Complex.

“I looked across at the jungle of grass and trees that used to be York Street and murmured to myself ‘once there was a community here.’

“Now commuter trains speed above my head” and the area is “virtually people-dead.”

“I don’t write poetry,” John told me ,“I write stories in verse.”

St Patrick’s Day in Dockland is about the days when “men celebrated in the shadow of the now defunct St Joseph’s chapel.

‘Smokey’, written in 1982, is about the Campbell family’s cross breed Alsatian-Collie.

“He was fearless and a great watchdog,” John explains in his author’s notes.

“When our children were young Barbara would leave them outside in their pram in good weather. Smokey lay beneath the pram and heaven help any stranger who ventured near it.”

“Binmen cringed when they saw him growl,

Coalmen quaked at his slavering jowl.

Prowlers paled when they heard him roar,

And prudently burgled the house next door.”

The Backstreet Scribbler from 1984, one of John’s favourite poems, was written “to explain the charisma” of public speakers who “don’t realize the forces they unleash with their oratorical powers”.

“Anger darkened our eyes and he made us despise,

The men who had always curtailed us.

Our souls were reborn as he poured verbal scorn,

On the champions and leaders who’d failed us.”

Campbell’s poems are often recited and discussed by Belfast folk who love the way he captures times past and the colourful characters who inhabited long-gone streets, corner shops and pubs.

They’re also quoted by the great and the good from literary circles.

“Jonathan Bardon mentioned one of my poems in his history of Belfast,” John told me, “though I didn’t know about it till years after he wrote the book!”

Belfast-born Sir Kenneth Branagh, noted actor and director, borrowed some lines from John for the introduction to his 1989 autobiography and “when I was getting wee bits in the papers John Hewitt saw them and was very enthusiastic about my poems and gave me some good advice”.

But anyone who likes reading about the lives, loves and struggles of the ordinary working man and woman will find Campbell to be an acute observer and recorder of times and communities that by and large have sadly disappeared.

John’s three children and six grandchildren were with him at Christmas and he is delighted that Port of Retirement has a photograph of his granddaughter and himself on the front cover.

“I put the book together for the wee girl Lily, the last grandchild,” he proudly admitted.

The picture of her pulling John on her scooter was photographed by her sister Victoria, a drama student in Liverpool where she also works part-time as a tour guide in the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played their first gigs.

More information about Port of Retirement, published by Lapwing Publications, is at www.lapwing poetry.com