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.
View all posts by London Undercurrents →
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Hilaire joined a guided walk focussed on Notable Women of Lavender Hill. Here’s her account of an illuminating tour.
Jeanne Rathbone led this informative walk around the Lavender Hill area, organised as part of the celebrations of the centenary of some (not all) women getting the vote. Jeanne is a member of the Battersea Society, and a formidable champion of women who have made a significant impact in our area but are now largely forgotten.
The tour began outside Battersea Arts Centre, as we assembled on the steps and donned Votes for Women sashes. The vast majority of blue plaques in Battersea honour men so Jeanne had smaller blue plaques made up, which were held up at appropriate locations along our route. The first of our Notable Women was Jeanie Nassau Senior, who lived at Elm House, on the site of what is now Battersea Arts Centre.
Sunday 22nd April, the date we’d chosen for our workshop, Exploring women’s history through the power of poetry, asanother of our public engagement commitments for our Arts Council funded Research & Development project.
Our north London venue was just round the corner from the Emirates Stadium and we’d checked there was no home game. Then we invited a small group of women to be our guinea pigs. With only a few days to go we discovered Arsenal’s home game against West Ham, originally scheduled for Saturday 21st, had been moved to the Sunday, kicking off at the same time we’d planned to start the workshop. Don’t panic! We would start an hour later, once the game was underway, and then we’d finish well after the match was over. We emailed everyone with the new start time, and assurances that the football wouldn’t interfere on the day. But would they still come?
Yes they would. They braved the vagaries of Sunday travel. They soldiered through the unseasonably hot weather and London marathon crowds. Across London they came; our five intrepid workshop participants, undeterred by the Premier League football match taking place only a few streets away. And once everyone was settled round the dining table, we were off, delivering our first London Undercurrents workshop.
We warmed up with five minutes of free writing, and then spent some time looking at poems each written by a female poet in the voice of another woman, rather than their own voice. In particular we discussed the poet’s choice of writing in first, second or third person and how this affected us as readers.
Another exercise involved choosing two postcards from a pile spread out on the table, all of which featured a woman or women from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and eras; writing in the first person as if you were the woman in one of the cards; and then writing in the second person, as the woman in the other card addressing the first. This generated some great responses and interesting discussion.
Before a break for tea, coffee and biscuits, we shared some of our London Undercurrents experiences researching women in our patches of London, with examples of materials and books we’ve used on hand for everyone to browse. Then after the break, it was back to more writing, with a wonderful focussed hush in the room, and the occasional roar of Arsenal fans in the background.
Let’s read our poems along the 19 bus route, we said. It joins Islington and Battersea together – the two areas that we’re writing about, we said. It will bring the women we’ve researched and created to a wider audience, and help support and celebrate International Women’s Day 2018. We said.
As we got ready to embark upon the outreach part of our ACE funded project, we wondered why on earth we had said this. It seemed slightly crazy now. We joked that the most we could hope for was that someone would actually glance in our direction for a second then look away. We couldn’t begin to imagine that a 5 or 6 stanza long poem about a woman from the past would be welcomed during the wait for the bus to arrive.
With trepidation we donned our purple sashes outside Finsbury Town Hall, almost chained ourselves to the railings in an attempt to avoid having to read poems to complete strangers out in the real world of London town, but resisted. Instead we read a London Undercurrents poem each – one from north London, one from south – about suffrage to mark the beginning of our journey. Our official photographer for the day, Rene Eyre, geed us on with words of encouragement. Galvanized we headed off to the bus stop.
It was 11.30am and we’d both not had nearly enough coffee. It was cold, windy and threatening to rain. What’s more the next 19 bus was 5 minutes away. Just enough time to give an impromptu reading and get warmed up for the day ahead. Joolz tentatively asked a young woman who was waiting for the bus if she’d like to hear a poem about an Islington explorer called Mary Kingsley for International Women’s Day? The young woman looked up and said yes. Over the next few minutes as Joolz read the poem, the young woman looked almost directly into Joolz’s eyes, listening attentively and earnestly. What’s this? Eye contact with a complete stranger in London? At a bus stop? When the poem came to an end, the young woman said thank you, then got on the bus and went on her way. We felt emboldened – an audience that may not be expecting poetry on their commute were actually receptive to the idea if you approached them nicely.
Next, Hilaire read her poem about a female clippie in the First World War, as we stood up on the bus (holding tight of course). A couple of passengers watched bemused but interested. So Hilaire asked one of them if they’d like a reading. They said yes. Again, a complete stranger, who may or may not be interested in poetry, gave us the time of day and actively listened as we shared our poetry with them. Then another passenger asked us about what we were doing so we handed out our flyers so that they could find out more about our ACE funded project. They took them, read them then put them in their bags. No discarding, or leaving them on the seat. It was all really touching. It was empowering. It was also great fun.
During the rest of the journey south, time after time, we got the same response from the people we read to. There were a couple of firm ‘no thank yous’ but no rudeness or ignoring us. We hopped on and off at several stops along the way we finally made it over Battersea Bridge in the afternoon. Then we headed back north.
Join Against the Grain Press and our fantastic guest readers at the launch of S. A. Leavesley’s pamphlet at The Poetry Café on the 31st March. A little bit of Easter magic for all!
S.A. Leavesley (Sarah James) is author of four poetry collections, two pamphlets, a touring poetry-play and two novellas. Her poetry has been published by the Financial Times, the Guardian, The Forward Book of Poetry 2016, on Worcestershire buses and in the Blackpool Illuminations. She runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint was Overton Poetry Prize winner in 2015.
Linda Black is an award-winning poet, a visual artist and a dyslexia specialist. Her pamphlet The beating of wings (Hearing Eye, 2006) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. Her fourth collection, Slant, was published by Shearsman in April 2016.
Hilaire’s poetry and short stories have been published in both British and Australian magazines and anthologies. Her novel Hearts on Ice was published…
Catch us if you can! On Thursday 8th March – International Women’s Day – we’ll be doing a series of guerrilla poetry readings along the route of the 19 bus. Why this particular route? Well, the 19 bus runs between Battersea and Islington, connecting our home patches. We’ll be reading to passers-by and waiting passengers, sharing poems based on some of the amazing local women we’ve unearthed during our research into our two areas.
Starting out from Finsbury Town Hall around 11 a.m. we’ll be hopping off at bus stops between there and Battersea Bridge South Side, and as far north as Finsbury Park Interchange. Look out for us along the route – we’ll be the ones in purple sashes!
On International Women’s Day, March 8th, we’ll be doing a series of guerilla poetry readings along the number 19 bus route in London, supported by funding from Grants for the Arts. We’ll be hopping on and off the bus, reading poems about women in Islington and Battersea to the unsuspecting public. Eek! So that we’re identifiable as poets, we’ll be wearing specially designed London Undercurrents sashes. Joolz will wear a north one and Hilaire a south. Will we swap at the end, like Premier League footballers? Possibly.
We’ve had fun using the interactive tool on the sash manufacturer’s website. Then the thorny issue – should the sashes be different colours? Should we invoke the north/south of the river rivalry? We headed to the International Women’s Day website for ideas. It was obvious – both sashes should be the same colour, we’re standing together. Not on different sides of the river. Purple sashes ordered, we can’t wait for them to arrive so we can try them on for size.
Hilaire writes: Monday was not a good day. Maybe I was overconfident. The previous week, inspired by our most recent mentoring session with Jacqueline Saphra, I’d reworked roughly two poems each day. It felt like I was getting better at the editing process, at taking on board feedback and dissecting my poems with a cool head.
Monday morning I sat down to work on the short poem Sacked from Cook’s Confectioners, previously published on Ink, Sweat & Tears. Jacqui had suggested it could do with a bit more story; to try expanding it and perhaps include a few more references to the dance craze that swept the UK in the 1920s. And to think about the ending, as the narrator sounds almost defeated, which was not my intention.
So, I sat at my desk, reading through the nine line poem, writing and rewriting lines and feeling storm clouds closing in around me. I reread some of my source material – a passage in For Love and Shillings, and the chapter in Girl Trouble on flappers. I googled the names of 1920s dance moves. I crossed out, rewrote, crossed out, and hated everything I scratched on the page.
I knew, logically, that my reaction was disproportionate, but logic is no use in this kind of state. I forced myself to go for a run in the park; my storm clouds jogged along with me. I tried another change of scene, walking a quiet route up to Battersea Library. In the Heritage Service upstairs I checked the Kelly’s Post Office Directory for 1922 and found (muted hurrah) there was a Lyons ‘refreshment rooms’ in Battersea, on St John’s Road. I’d begun to think that rather than ending up packing biscuits in Fulham, my dance-mad protagonist might like a turn as a waitress in Lyons, where she could shimmy between tables. Over the road, I had a coffee in Battersea Arts Centre’s café, and had another go at reworking the poem. It still didn’t come right, but a few little chinks of light poked through those gloomy clouds.
I walked home under a deepening blue sky and a rising, nearly-full moon. Sat down at the computer and edited the poem on the screen. Maybe it was the coffee, the walk, the piece of chocolate cake placed quietly by the mouse, the calm after the storm; all these things combined to allow a new version of the poem to come together. Three five-line stanzas. A poem I felt friendly towards. A poem I’ve since shared with Joolz, and which I’m still tinkering with. Definitely an improved poem. I think it was worth the pain.
…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’.