Please welcome my #BeReal guest today, Martin Baker.
A few weeks ago I was sitting at my favourite table—corner table, right at the back—in my favourite coffee bar and got into conversation with a fellow customer about writing and literature. I learned two interesting things about the city I’ve lived in almost thirty years. First, JRR Tolkien—a literary hero of mine—used to visit his aunt and uncle here. Second, there is something called the Newcastle Literary Salon which meets once a month to share live readings.
I checked the Salon’s Facebook page. The next event was only a couple of weeks away, and the topic was to be physical and mental health. This was perfect timing, given that I’ve recently co-written a book with my best friend Fran Houston to inspire and inform people supporting friends who live with mental illness. I contacted the Salon organiser before I could change my mind, to see if I could read from our book. It turned out the May event was already booked up but there were slots available for June. Just like that, from a chance conversation in a coffee bar, I had—I have—my first live speaking gig!
Reading aloud in front of a room full of strangers is way outside my comfort zone. But holding myself open to opportunities and challenging myself to do things I’ve never done before is an important part of what being real means to me. It’s a journey of self-discovery I’ve been on for a few years now.
In that time I’ve done a charity zip wire slide from the Tyne Bridge. Twice. A live radio interview about my experiences as Fran’s friend and caregiver. A Mental Health First Aid course and the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshop. I’ve spoken to the mental health group at a major UK bank, and—biggest challenge of them all—volunteered at a Time to Change event in the centre of Newcastle. Each time it involved me stepping outside my comfort zone and facing the outside world. Each time it was scary. Each time I chose—I’m not even sure how—to do it anyway. And each time I’ve met amazing people—real people—and learned something new about myself and my place in the world.
And so, last night I went along to the Literary Salon event at Bar Loco in Newcastle to get a feel for the venue I’ll be speaking at next month. Entering a bar on my own was a challenge in itself. Walking into the upstairs room and striking up conversations with people I’d never met before was even more so. I did okay. I talked with one guy when I first arrived, and a lady who arrived a little after me. I ordered food (great food!) and a pint, and settled into being there. As our host began the proceedings and introduced the first speaker I realised I felt completely at ease. It was a great feeling!
I knew nothing in advance about any of the people who came forward to read. That in itself was an exercise in realness: to hold each person without prejudgment, to hold myself open to whatever they’d chosen to share. There was poetry, a great short story with a twist, the opening to a new novel which completely blew me away. Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people.
And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be. Two pieces in particular summed this up for me: Angela J. Kennedy’s powerful poem “Women’s Work,” and Jenni Pascoe’s “One Day I Will Die.” I spoke with Jenni at the end of the event. We discovered a mutual love of hats and she told me she’d noticed her poems seemed to resonate with me. She was right. We connected.
Connection is the third and most vital component of being real. Connected, we are more than we can ever be on our own. Fran and I are a great example of that. We live three thousand miles apart and are necessarily dependent on technology to keep the channels open, but we are connected by more than the internet. We are connected by a shared commitment to our friendship and the courage to be vulnerable.
Courage and vulnerability were out in force last night at the Salon. I heard—really heard—people sharing words from the heart, from the guts of their personal experience. I connected with people I’d never met before, who knew nothing about me and about whom I knew nothing. I had fun. I felt my heart open. I made a new friend.
I dared to be real amongst people who get what that means.
I can’t wait until next time!
Martin Baker (“Call me Marty”) was born in Liverpool in 1961. He settled in the north east of England almost thirty years ago. An ASIST trained Mental Health First Aider and member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mind and BipolarUK, he is passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues.
His Collected Poems: 1977-1984 was published in 2008. With co-author Fran Houston, Martin has written a non-fiction book (currently seeking an agent and publisher) to inform and inspire others who support, or would like to support, a friend living with mental illness. Playing at Darkness, a goth novella set in and around Tynemouth Priory and Castle, is currently unpublished.
Newcastle Literary Salon: https://www.facebook.com/NewcastleLiterarySalon