London Undercurrents is an ongoing collaboration between poets Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire to unearth the voices of strong, feisty women who have lived and worked in the capital city over many centuries.
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…well, on the train. Thankfully the rail strike didn’t stop us from reaching Loose Muse, Winchester. So that’s one New Year’s resolution off to a good start – we promised ourselves to get out and about more, visiting new parts of the UK and experiencing poetry readings at places and venues outside of our usual haunts.
Winchester was rather pretty, with the cathedral lit up in the 5pm winter darkness and lots of interesting architecture. The Discovery Centre where Loose Muse holds monthly readings for women writers, is a fantastic facility, with tourist info, libraries for adults and children, an art gallery and a range of educational classes. Winchester also was the home of Queen Emma – wife of both King Aethelred and Cnut – who put in place a succession of monarchs that lasted for nearly a hundred years, making her ‘possibly one of the most influential women in the history of England’.
After a quick bite to eat, it was time for us to head to the Discovery Centre and share poems based on London women who, if not as influential as Queen Emma, still have powerful stories to tell. You can read a more a detailed account of the evening on host Sue Wrinch’s blog. On the train back to London, we read through the feedback forms members of the audience had kindly filled in for us – a very encouraging experience! We must get out of London again soon…
On Monday 8th January 2018 Loose Muse began a new year with two very special ‘Guest Features’ from London, poets, Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire having braved both a train strike and the cold January weather to be with us. Unfortunately, both Helen Burke and Hilary Hares were ill and couldn’t make it so I stepped in at the last minute with some of my new poems, but first I shared the news that I had managed to sign up the excellent poet, Abegail Morley as Co-Editor for our Loose Muse Winchester Anthology! She was my first choice and I have to admit to being somewhat astonished when she agreed to work with me! Abegail is a fantastic poet, having been short listed for a Forward Prize, and named as one of the five British poets to watch in 2017 by Robert Peake in the Huffington Post. He wrote that her…
We’re thrilled to be taking London Undercurrents out on the road and doing our first out-of-London reading. We’ll be showcasing new poems and revised drafts of older poems – the results of our first two mentoring sessions.
Sue Wrinch, host and organiser of Loose Muse Winchester writes: Loose Muse will be launching Hilary Hares’first poetry collection, ‘A Butterfly Lands On The Moon’. which is sold on behalf of Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care.
Our second ‘Guest Feature’ will be two poets from London, Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire bringing work from their exciting new project, ‘London Undercurrents’.
Where do we find our London Undercurrents women? As Hilaire writes, sometimes it’s pure chance:
I was searching for something (now forgotten) in Wandsworth Libraries’ online catalogue. As I typed, one of the suggested titles that popped up beneath the Search box caught my eye: Dispute at Decca’s: An investigation into a sit-in by Asian women workers. I clicked on the record for more details and discovered it was a 13 page pamphlet published by Wandsworth Council for Community Relations in 1975. There were two copies in the Heritage Service, based at Battersea Library, so at the next opportunity I walked up there determined to find out more.
I’d made a note of the catalogue reference, but as I couldn’t find the pamphlet on the reference shelves I asked the friendly archivist for help. She hunted through a number of cardboard magazine holders before locating the item on a shelf where a lot of Wandsworth Council’s records are stored. I settled down at one of the tables with my notebook and pencil and immersed myself in this snapshot of 1970s community – and industrial – relations. One of the first details I read excited me – the Decca factory was on Ingate Place, a stone’s throw from where I live. But this was not a dispute on the same scale as the Grunwick strike, as I had briefly imagined. The sit-in lasted just over 7 hours from the evening of 14th August 1975 until the early hours of the following morning.
The Decca company manufactured weighing machinery, radar, radios and colour TVs at several factory sites, including Ingate Place. Earlier in the summer of 1975, management had decided to cease production of TVs at Battersea due to a downturn in demand. This affected about 400 staff, from a mixed workforce of West Indian, Asian and white workers. Initially the union had tried to oppose the closure, but judged that there was little appetite amongst the workforce for industrial action, so eventually accepted the decision. Then two weeks before staff were due to be made redundant, 70 Asian women workers attended an offsite meeting where they decided to return and occupy the factory, demanding redeployment or a shortened working week.
There are a number of factors identified in the Wandsworth Council for Community Relations (WCCR) report which I found fascinating. The majority of the Asian women workers were Gujarati speakers and had minimal or no English. They were also primarily Ugandan Asians, so likely to have arrived in Britain a few years earlier following the expulsion of Asians from Uganda under Idi Amin’s regime. Although several meetings were organised by management and the union to explain the closure and resulting redundancies, no official translator was brought in (despite this being recommended by WCCR) so the women relied on colleagues who spoke both Gujarati and English to translate for them. In interviews WCCR conducted in Gujarati with women who took part in the sit-in, it emerged they had not been aware they were going to lose their jobs until the offsite meeting (organised by the International Socialists) a fortnight before the closure. Apparently the Gujarati word for ‘redundancy’ carries a strong social stigma, so in previous meetings and discussions only the English word had been used. There was also confusion as the women believed management had promised they would be offered other jobs, whereas management said they would TRY to find them them other roles.
From stumbling across this blink-of-an-eye dispute, it feels like I’m uncovering dozens of interesting threads. There’s definitely the language/mistranslation angle, which could provide fertile poetic material. Then, once I realised the WCCR was not a department of Wandsworth Borough Council, but an independent organisation funded partly by the borough but also supported by the then Commission for Racial Equality – that opened another strand of research. On a subsequent trip to the Heritage Service, I looked through a history of WCCR, published in 1976 to mark their 10th anniversary, and learnt that as well as work on housing and employment issues, the WCCR ran a free nursery in Balham primarily for single parents, and published a controversial comic strip, Don’t Rush Me, promoting sex education to young people and using multi-racial characters. I returned the next day to read their 1973 report on Uganda Asians in Wandsworth, and in the same archive folder came across an undated leaflet requesting donations of money and supplies for a Hostel for Belgian Refugees on West Side Clapham Common. This probably dates from the First World War, and is another reminder of the long history of local people welcoming and helping refugees.
But then I’m drawn back to the Asian women who staged a sit-in just down the road, and their less than half-told story. Can I trace any of those who took part, or anyone who knew them? Would they want to talk to me? I’m thinking about ways I might be able to contact them, through community centres or Facebook. And there’s a bunch of WCCR papers in the National Archives at Kew – I wonder if they contain transcripts of the interviews?
One other thing I had to, once I’d established the exact address of the Decca factory as 15-17 Ingate Place thanks to the 1970 Kelly’s Post Office London Directory in the Heritage Service, was pay the site a visit. I’d never been this far into Ingate Place, and it’s another world! There’s a huge Edwardian curved building, dating from 1901, originally a depository for Hamptons and Sons furnishers, now a self-storage concern. Opposite is a small business centre in a number of units that were also originally part of the Hamptons empire. And, very briefly, in 1975, somewhere in this complex, 70 Asian women staged a sit-in. I couldn’t help but express my solidarity.
Right outside the window of the Spread the Word writing room at The Albany, Deptford the bustling street market was in full swing. We fuelled up with coffees and compulsory cake and flapjack from The Albany café, put our heads down and waited for Jacqueline Saphra’s critique and feedback on the next batch of poems in our current manuscript.
On this occasion we were both much more relaxed than in our first mentoring session and one of the first things we discussed was the many different ways of giving and receiving feedback. It was reassuring to hear from Jacqui that even the most established poets share poems with each other and have differing ideas about which bits to edit out and which bits to leave untouched. Bolstered by this knowledge, we engaged in lively discussion about individual poems and about how to make them the best they can be. Pretty soon, there was almost as much noise inside the room as out . Look, said Jacqui, you’re both making suggestions and comments about each others’ poems unprompted by me.
By the end of the day, we both had London Undercurrents poems – new and old – ready to overhaul. Some only needed a little tinkering with (technical term). Others, a complete rethink. Alongside this, we talked about research material for new poems, and just as the three of us started losing our voices, the bin men saved us by playing Christmas carols so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves think. We locked up the room (thank you Spread the Word for your hospitality) and headed out into the dark cold night energised and excited. That’s the magic of – coffee? cake? mentoring? poetry?
In the past, we’ve tended to only show each other new London Undercurrents poems when they’ve felt pretty much “finished” to the poet. Feedback from the other poet has, on the whole, been light – a typo, a misplaced apostrophe, perhaps a suggestion to change a line break.
Arguably, we’ve been too gentle, too polite with each other.
It possibly stems from when we were still figuring out how we wanted to work together and were treading lightly. No doubt I also expressed some anxiety, along the lines of ‘I’m not very good at receiving critical feedback’.
But in our mentoring session Jacqui hadn’t let us get away with remaining mute, and we were soon conversing about each other’s poems in a way we hadn’t before. She made us ‘woman-up’ and inject more rigour into our feedback.
Old habits die hard though and, once by ourselves again, I found myself falling back into remaining quiet after Joolz had given me her newly reworked poems.
While I’ve certainly got better at receiving feedback, I still find it difficult to give constructive feedback as an immediate response. So I still mm-ed a lot reading through Joolz’s new version of Hollywood comes to Holloway – but could see she’s definitely tightened it up, and the way it is now structured as couplets works really well. Her suggestions and comments on the poems I shared were all very helpful.
We talked about how we both found it harder to edit the poems that we’ve performed regularly, and know inside and out in their former form. But as Joolz showed with her Hollywood poem it can be done!
We also discussed making each poem distinctive, in both tone and form on the page. And agreed that we want to crack on with writing new poems, as well as sharpening existing ones. The most valuable feedback Joolz gave me that evening is that I need to be more forthcoming in my feedback on her poems – fewer quiet ‘mms’ and more, ‘I’m not sure what you mean here’ or ‘have you thought about switching this around?’. Message received, Ma’am!
When it comes to researching women in history, when does the local become the universal, and are the two intrinsically intertwined?
Joolz writes: I’m researching the role of daughters in the art of coin counterfeiting, known as Coining. It carried the death penalty in the 1700s, yet girls as young as 14 were an integral part of this dangerous and arduous task. Whole families were involved and as Islington was a rough area back then (and not gentrified, like today) I can imagine that counterfeiting coins was indeed something that women and young girls were involved in, in and around the borough. It’s been a tough one to prove though. The really good counterfeiters didn’t get caught. Those that did, operated mainly in the west end, so all I have to go on are reports of coiners caught in the act, in Seven Dials – several of whom were women. The punishment for women counterfeiters was burning at the stake, whereas men were hung. Gruesome. Yet it must have been an activity that drew families together in a tight-knit unit, working as one and accepting that risk was part of survival. For a young girl of 14, at times, it must have felt a far, far better option than many of the other illegal ways of earning money. This universal theme of ‘it’s this or prostitution’ is still prevalent for women even today. It’s not just an issue facing 14 year old girls in 18th Century Islington – or at any other given point in history. The local and the universal are one and the same, a tight-knit connection.
As part of the research for London Undercurrents poems, old and new, both of us have sat red-faced as we realised that a few of our poems contain incorrect facts and figures. (Some of those factually-incorrect poems have actually been published too!) The shame. But also, the splendour. We’ve brought to life, and given voice to, women’s unheard stories – both real and imagined – and held audiences in thrall, despite getting a date wrong here and a historical reference wrong there. One north London Undercurrents poem, Hollywood comes to Holloway, is dated 1939 and contains references to the film It’s a wonderful life, which wasn’t made until 1946. Darn it. But it gets a great reaction from audiences and invokes the liberation of the cinema, even though the filmic references are wrong. A south London Undercurrents poem, CharlotteDespard Gets My Vote, is in the voice of a working class women voting for the very first time in 1918. However, it’s been pointed out that at this time only women over 30 who owned property could vote, and most working class women couldn’t vote until 1928. Yet the feeling of victory and freedom is palpable, despite the historical inaccuracy.
The saying goes; don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. After our first mentoring session with Jacqueline Saphra, the poems that stood up to rigorous discussion and interrogation by all three of us, were the ones that had a strong voice, great attention to detail and an emotional pull. So now comes the delicate balancing act of fine-tuning, revising, rewriting, and creation while fact-checking and cross-referencing dates. Getting it right, so that each woman’s voice sings out, while firmly placing her in historical context and rooting her physically in the world where she belongs.
Coffee and biscuits? Check. Pencil case? Check. Award-winning, T. S. Eliot prize-shortlisted mentor Jacqueline Saphra? Check. Our first mentoring session took place on Sunday. It was intense, great fun, rewarding and a privilege.
After much discussion and insightful, clear and inspiring feedback – and being encouraged to feedback to each other about our poems, something we hadn’t done as yet – several of our existing London Undercurrents poems are well on their way to being the best they possibly can be. Roll on mentoring session 2 in a few weeks’ time.
Hilaire writes: Ever since I first came across the fascinating story of Ida and Louise Cook, I’ve thought there must be a London Undercurrents poem in there. They were opera mad spinster sisters, living in the family home in Morella Road, Battersea, who jaunted off for weekends to 1930s Germany on a mission to help Jewish families escape Nazi persecution.
Where to start though? I read Louise Carpenter’s long Granta article, detailing her research into their lives, and subsequently borrowed Ida’s auto(duo?)biography Safe Passage from Battersea Library. The book was originally published under the title We Followed Our Stars – a much better title in my view, and truer to the spirit of the way the sisters lived their lives. This turned out to be a very entertaining read! Which shouldn’t have surprised me, after all, as Ida was one of Mills & Boon’s most successful authors, publishing over 100 novels under the pseudonym Mary Burchell.
But when I sat down to try to write a poem about them I encountered the same problem I’d had with Charlotte Despard. Too much information! Such long and varied lives, so many different strands and possible angles to take. The opera star crushes, and years of scrimping and saving to travel on their own to New York in the 1920s. Ida’s unexpected trajectory as a romantic novelist, while Louise continued a steady civil service career. The contrast between their staid home life and the extraordinary risks they took with their refugee work. Their lifelong intense closeness as sisters, and in later years their deep interest in spiritualism.
It was overwhelming. I wondered about ways to contain or focus the detail. I printed off a list of all 112 Mary Burchell novels, thinking I might be able to construct something using only the titles. Or perhaps I could frame the poem as a synopsis of an unwritten opera about the sisters. Neither of these ideas came to much.
One bright morning I cycled up to Morella Road, at the furthest corner of Battersea, just off Wandsworth Common, and stood outside number 24, looking up at the attic where Ida had typed out all those Mills & Boon romances. The bedroom the sisters shared for most of their lives would have been on the floor below. It’s a quiet, tree-lined street, and strange to think of the sisters returning to this ordinary home after smuggling valuables out of Nazi Germany, in order to provide financial security for fleeing Jewish refugees.
I realised I wanted the poem to be centred on this part of their lives. Reading Safe Passage, I was struck by Ida’s mostly brisk, matter-of-fact style (‘Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot’) and the occasional burst of rapturous prose when writing about the opera stars they worshipped. And I kept coming back to an anecdote Ida related in the book, of returning to Morella Road after a particularly harrowing trip to Germany. She walked into the kitchen and found her mother making pastry. ‘…which is, after all, one of the basic things in life. I can see her now, with the flour on her arms. I began to tell her what we had seen and I burst into tears.’ Mrs Cook ‘simply went on making pastry’, and a few minutes later Ida dried her eyes and was able to continue her account.
I had a sense of Ida’s voice. But I needed an imaginative space, to allow a poem to grow. In Safe Passage, Louise is present but not very vocal. Ida, by her own admission, was the more garrulous of the two. Louise is a given, often absorbed into ‘we’. But at night, in their twin bedroom, they must, surely, have expressed some of the anguish and despair, during those dark days leading up to the outbreak of World War 2, which they otherwise managed to keep under wraps.
So I had a starting point at last, and have written a poem in the form of an imagined dialogue between Ida and Louise, late at night when sleep is evading them. In the first flush of composition, there was relief and excitement. Now, I’m not sure how strong the poem is, whether it stands on its own without all the background information I’ve absorbed and left out. But at least there’s a draft I can work on, and share with Joolz for feedback. Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot – now I come to think about it, that sounds like a great summation of London Undercurrents!