The Docker Poet and the empty chair… John Campbell's moving tribute to his recently deceased wife, the woman he called 'My Girl'
As a collection of 50 of his works is published, the acclaimed Belfast poet tells Ivan Little why he couldn't bear to have a launch party and of his fears that his beloved Sailortown will disappear forever
Everywhere you look in John Campbell's homely lounge in north Belfast the smiling faces of his family beam out from photographs, but in one corner of the room an empty armchair is a sad testimony to the painful chasm which has been ripped in the acclaimed Docker Poet's life.
For the seat, with a blanket and cushion still resting on it, was where John's beloved wife and soulmate of 60 years Barbara used to sit before her rare and debilitating illness forced her to her bed two months before she died in August.
"I haven't got the heart to get rid of the chair. Barbara loved sitting there watching her soaps on the TV and she was in charge of the remote," says John, who for almost three years before his wife's passing was her selfless and constant carer, attending to her every need as she struggled to cope with her failing health, her problems exacerbated by the fact that Barbara was epileptic.
For a long time doctors were unable to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with Barbara but eventually said that she was suffering from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), a rare condition which can cause problems with balance, movement, vision, speech and swallowing.
It's thought that a fall which had been caused by Barbara's epilepsy triggered the PSP after an artery in her head was narrowed and stopped blood getting to a part of her brain.
John says he was told that only 6,000 people across the UK have PSP and medics know very little about it.
A support group in England told John what to expect as the PSP worsened. They said the normal life expectancy was around seven years but that wasn't the case for Barbara.
John says:"The only part about PSP that remains normal is apparently your mind and poor Barbara was suffering all these indignities of losing the power of her legs, she couldn't speak or eat anything that wasn't liquidised.
"Yet even though she knew everything that was happening to her she couldn't express how she was feeling.
"We communicated through hand movements for her to let me know when the pain was worst. It was heartbreaking but she bore it all courageously."
Watching Barbara's condition deteriorate broke John's heart. He says: "She was always such a lively girl. She was always on the go and I used to joke that she had more clothes than Marks & Spencer.
"She wouldn't have wanted to be the way she was in her last years, especially when she was confined to bed 24 hours a day."
Barbara, who was taking up to 100 tablets a week, slipped away early one morning in August, leaving John and his family bereft.
The couple, who'd met as teenagers and went to dancehalls and cinemas like the Capitol and Troxy, were wed in 1966 in the registry office in Belfast after a local minister refused to marry them because John wasn't a church-goer and could be found more often in bars in and around the docks where he worked.
"Barbara eventually tamed me and turned me into the man I am today," laughs John, who was a hard drinker as well as a hard grafter. "I wrote a poem about Barbara called My Girl. And that's just what she always was, my girl."
Throughout Barbara's dreadful illness John's laptop, on which he'd written a series of earthy poetry collections and celebrated novels about life and work in the docks area of his hometown, sat unopened.
Books were the last thing on his creative mind. But now, after a strange twist of fate, a new anthology of John's poems has been published.
But, for once, Port of Retirement was launched quietly without a ceremony because John couldn't bring himself to have one without Barbara, who'd been a regular at the parties and an enthusiastic supporter of his work.
Some of the poems in the book had been penned years ago and several of them appeared in collections which have long been out of print. But a number of others which pre-dated Barbara's illness didn't see the light of the day because of problems with publishers.
However, a chance meeting in an Asda supermarket helped to re-write the John Campbell literary story.
He says: "I bumped into Dennis Greig, who runs Lapwing Publications with his wife, Rene, and when I told him my poems were gathering dust he told me to send them to him.
"He hadn't even seen them but he said he would publish every one of them."
The subjects in the new book range from Frank Sinatra to John Wayne but there are also poems about local heroes too like boxer Carl Frampton who's from the same area of north Belfast as John, who called the piece Carl the Crusader after the Jackal's favourite team.
John, who'd followed Frampton's career from when the boxer was only eight years old, wrote the poem just before Carl's first professional fight in Liverpool in 2009 and, prophetically, he said that the fighter would one day be the 'super-bantamweight king of the world'.
"I knew that even as a kid Carl was a bit special," says John, who met former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier during a visit to Belfast in the '80s.
"I've always been a boxing man," says John, who'd been able to 'look after himself' in his youth, and who can tell a tale or two about the legendary Belfast street fighters of the time like 'Buck' Alec Robinson, whom he'd seen in action.
"I was once told that he met the top man in the RUC and he asked Buck Alec for his autograph," he recalls.
Stories about a host of other colourful characters from Sailortown trip off John's tongue as he wanders down memory lane with a razor sharp recollections of the laughter and the tears in the area.
One of his funniest tales is how local people, angered by the presence of 'a lady of the night' in their street, took a hose from the nearby fire station to drive her and two men from her home.
Among John's saddest reminisces are about the impact of the Second World War on the York Street area.
He says: "I was only about five at the time of the Blitz in 1941, and people question how I remember it all so clearly. But I do."
John's family home at 51 Earl Street was devastated by the Luftwaffe but the Campbells' lives were spared because they'd gone around the corner to their grandmother's air raid shelter.
"When we got back our house was wrecked and a man was standing there. Even to this day his face is imprinted on my mind. I can still see a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and the cap he was wearing on his head. He threw down something that had been over his shoulder. It turned out it was a body that he had taken out of a house in Earl Street."
John and his family went to stay with relatives at Glengormley before being rehoused back in 45 Earl Street after a spell off the Lisburn Road.
"That was like going to Mars for us," says John, who now lives off the Shore Road and who once wrote a poem bemoaning a visit to Lusty Beg Island in Fermanagh because he got homesick and lonely 100 yards from his own front gate.
After Barbara's passing, John's three children and six grandchildren have all rallied around him and he's particularly proud that his new book has a photograph of his granddaughter Lily and him (above) on the cover.
The picture of Lily taking John for a ride on her scooter was snapped by her sister Victoria who's a student in Liverpool where she works part-time as a guide in the Cavern Club which is where the Beatles first performed.
The family gathered recently in Belfast for a remembrance service for Barbara, to whom the new poetry collection is dedicated.
Slowly but surely, in recent weeks, John has started writing again. But he doesn't know if he will ever be able to address the subject of his wife's illness or about the current situation in what's left of Sailortown.
He's written in the past about the 'disappearance' of the area which was once home to hundreds of families before the houses were demolished to make way for the Westlink and other developments.
One of the 50 poems in the new book is called 'Once there was a Community here' and it's a powerful bitter-sweet evocation of Sailortown in its heyday with its 'church pews full and cupboards bare'; music halls, holy wars, mills and Titanic shipbuilders.
Now there's even more uncertainty on the Sailortown horizon with the York Street interchange due to be built to remove the traffic bottleneck there and to improve links between the M1, M2 and M3.
John has no immediate plans to write about what impact the multi-million pound development will have on Sailortown.
"Sure, the area is gone," he says.
But the memory will live on and John has worked with local history projects in the area and provided them with his sketches of the docks as they were in the old days.
He has also reunited people with Sailortown roots with the area, including the former Vice Chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, Sir George Bain.
"I was working at Queen's at the time and I ended up taking him down to the area. His family had apparently owned Pat's Bar before emigrating to North America."
After leaving the docks, John, who was always active in the trade union movement, started off at Queen's as a porter before becoming a van driver.
But wearing his poet's hat he also gave readings at the university which was a little confusing at times for academics.
Says John: "After one of my events, a lady came up to me and said she knew my face from somewhere but couldn't place me. I told her I delivered her mail every morning."
Port of Retirement by John Campbell is published by Lapwing Publications, £10. For more information go to www.lapwing poetry.com