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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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unheard stories – both real and imagined – and held audiences in thrall, despite getting a date wrong here and a historical reference wrong there.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!
Joolz writes: To get ourselves ‘unstuck’ and actually start the ‘R’ part of our ACE funded Research and Development project, Hilaire and I met at London Metropolitan Archives on Saturday afternoon.
Hilaire got there ahead of me and set up on the large tables where we’d sat during our first visit – so it felt familiar and less daunting to me, at least. She was already making notes and reading a book that she’d taken from the shelves nearby, and I felt a rising panic that maybe I should be doing the same. We each had our plastic bag filled with notebooks and a trusty pencil (you’re not allowed pens in the LMA) and it felt tempting to ask her to help me work out what I should do next. But I made a conscious decision to ‘do my own thing’. My first step into the ‘D’ part of Research and Development too?
I headed to the information desk and asked the assistant where I could find information about brick-makers in the Islington area and the women who had worked in them. The assistant was really helpful and answered me in a loud voice, which surprised me as I had whispered my question to her in the assumption that it’s like being in a library. She pointed me in the direction of an old-fashioned set of wooden drawers holding yellowing reference cards with typed words on them. Typewritten, by hand. It felt like time travel.
Once I’d found some reference books that seemed like they could be a good match, I made a note of them, in pencil, then couldn’t actually bring myself to ask for them to be brought to me. Instead I joined Hilaire at the table where we were immediately surrounded by a tour of people being shown how to use the archive. They animatedly pored over maps of bomb damage to areas in London during the Blitz. They were there for ages and it started to encroach on our headspace. Then off they went, and I couldn’t help but leave my seat and get more maps out of the drawer dating back to the 1880s. I found Islington and Holloway and the areas I’m writing about for London Undercurrents. Hilaire joined me and found Battersea and Nine Elms and the areas she’s writing about.
Then a bit of magic happened. Here! Here was Mrs Nichol’s Cattle Farm on Liverpool Road, Islington where I set my poem Milk, Cheese and Cream. Look there! There’s Currie Street where Charlotte Despard lived, the women’s rights pioneer who features in Hilaire’s poem Charlotte Despard Gets My Vote. The two and a half hours flew by very quickly and I didn’t get to write much, but we were both almost jumping up and down with renewed energy and both of us had the look in our eyes that says: there’s a poem forming in the back of my mind.
Needless to say, we’re over the moon. Jacqui is an accomplished poet who we’ve both long admired.
Jacqui describes herself as: an editor, agitator, enthusiast and poet, but not in that order…also an enthusiastic collaborator, working with composers, musicians and visual artists…and organising large scale poetry events. Her pamphlet, Rock’n’Roll Mamma was published by Flarestack; her first collection, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions was published by Flipped Eye and is available from amazon. She’s also no stranger to collaborations and performed poems to a special musical ‘miniatures’ for ‘cello and piano by Benjamin Tassie. It won the ‘Best Collaborative Work’ in the Saboteur Awards 2015. Her latest collection All My Mad Mothers is published by Nine Arches.
Joolz says: Jacqui may not know this, but she was the first ‘proper poet’ I spoke to when I first attended a poetry reading to try out an open mic. I was struck with her warmness and openness, and her brilliance as a performer and writer. A few years later I got one of my first paid gigs as a poet and was a Poet in Residence in Leicester Square tube station as part of the Travel Better London campaign. Jacqui was stationed (sorry!) in Canary Wharf, and we had great fun swapping stories of puzzled looks on commuters faces as we read poetry to them. Most recently, I read at The Persisters Present Holding the Line fundraising event for women’s domestic violence charities, which Jacqui organised and co-founded. So I’m thrilled Jacqui’s our mentor.
When we were working on our Grants for the Arts bid, we approached Jacqui to ask her if she would consider mentoring us. She generously agreed to meet for an informal chat, where we filled her in a little about our project and what we hoped to gain from mentoring. We came away from that short meeting feeling sure that Jacqui would be the right fit – warm, nurturing, but willing to challenge and push us. It spurred us on to refine and polish our bid even further, to make it as strong as possible.
We’ve now sent Jacqui our manuscript of around 40 poems and wait with a mixture of fear, trepidation and sheer excitement for our first mentoring session with her.
Saturday was our first chance to catch up in person since the official start date of our ACE funded research and development project two weeks ago. We met at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in the early afternoon. This year, as we were both feeling a bit below par, we dipped, rather than dived, into the Fair.
We had a quick look around the main hall, made a couple of purchases, and enjoyed two memorable readings. In the Brockway Room, we heard Karen McCarthy Woolf and Pascale Petit read from their collections, Seasonal Disturbances and Mama Amazonica, both recent PBS Selections. Both poets held the room with their poised and powerful performances from what sound like two essential collections. A short while later, we sat outside by the Garden Café in Red Lion Square to listen to three Hearing Eye poets, Pauline Sewards, Peter Phillips and the indefatigable Hylda Sims. A relaxed reading in tranquil surroundings – and that was enough for our 2017 Poetry Book Fair experience.
On then to sit outside a café on Theobald’s Road (yes, it was just about warm enough for al fresco coffee) and to properly check in with each other. And to confess we were both feeling a bit… stuck. After the high of learning we’d been awarded ACE funding and sharing the news – why were we feeling flat? Why weren’t the poems pouring out of us?
But hang on. We are only two weeks into our six month R&D project. We planned our project taking into account other commitments and trying to be realistic about what we can achieve in that timescale. We’ve allocated 15 dedicated days each for researching and writing over that period. No doubt we will do more, but that’s protected time to focus on London Undercurrents. And, we agreed, once we’ve had our first session, later this month, with our amazing mentor (who we can’t wait to reveal), then we’ll really be on our way.
Already, we could feel that LU energy returning. We have started. We’re reading, thinking, angsting – this is all part of the process. And the great thing is that we’re in this together. We can pick each other up and keep ourselves on track. Helped, of course, by chat, coffee and chocolate.
The LMA is a wonderful resource for books, pictures, original documents and other material about London. We’ve visited a couple of times to check out the facilities and familiarise ourselves with searching the collections – that may take a little time still! It’s a friendly and welcoming place and the staff are enthusiastic and keen to help. It’s both exciting and a bit overwhelming to realise how much material the Archive holds – what you see on the open shelves in the Information Area is the tip of a very large iceberg – so we know we need to focus in on very specific areas of interest when we visit.
Another great thing about the LMA is that it’s on the 19 bus route, which runs between Battersea and Islington, so it’s only a bus ride away for both of us!
Six months. That’s how long it took us two London Undercurrents project co-founders to fill out and submit our bid for Arts Council Funding. Six long months. We agonised over every question – what did it mean and what was the ‘magic’ answer that would guarantee success? And whhhhhyyyy were there so many questions in the first place?
We spent hours on the phone to each other and going back and forth via email. We spoke to poet friends who had been successful in their Grants for the Arts funding bid. We met with lovely, encouraging people in positions to help us understand what it is the Arts Council are looking for in an application, and how to give real value for money to any recipient of the activities the funding would support. They championed us and gave us such a boost in confidence. And on top of that they were lovely people, to boot. But most importantly, we interrogated – between the two of us – what we both really wanted the grant for, so that if we were actually – gulp – successful, we could be 100% sure of enjoying the activities we had proposed. Because this wasn’t just an exercise in form-filling. It was a real chance to work out why our project matters to us, why we must keep on going and why we feel it’s vital to share everything about London Undercurrents with the whole wide world.
Hilaire kindly said she’d be the primary name on the application, which meant she took the brunt of Grantium tedium. Joolz cheered her on from the sidelines, and provided an ear to lean on as Hilaire…err…what’s this bit…is this where I fill in…where on earth is…damn and @@@**!!! -ed over the phone. Together we took what felt a lifetime to finally….press….shall I press it? OK I’m going to press it…I’m pressing it….to press SUBMIT.
Screeeeeeeaaaaaam. We did it. We submitted what felt like a strong proposal which we really, really want to go ahead and deliver. We crossed fingers, toes and anything else that could be crossed. And waited…
Five weeks later, an email arrived with the enticing subject line Your decision letter is available for review. With shaky fingers and pounding heart Hilaire logged into Grantium and found her way to a screen where… DRUM ROLL… those magic words Offer letter danced before her eyes. Success!
All that to-ing and fro-ing, asking and listening, refining what our project is about and how we want to move it forward has paid off. We have funding for a mentor and for some time to research and write new London Undercurrents poems. We’re going to share our progress via this blog and other outlets, and we have a few activities planned for early 2018 which we’re very excited about!
Thanks to everyone who has helped us get to this point, especially Laura at Spread the Word. Now all we have to do is deliver!
Joolz writes: As much as we love reading at The Poetry Cafe, it’s been a real delight to discover new venues while the cafe is being renovated.
Fourth Friday has relocated to Bar 48 in Brixton during the Poetry Cafe’s hiatus, and promoter Hylda Sims was worried that FF’s loyal fans wouldn’t be tempted out to this new venue. Her worries were unfounded – a warm and eager crowd turned up, and the hustle of the bar and relaxed atmosphere (comfy chairs!) added a ‘proper gig’ vibe to the evening. Lively. That’s how we like our poetry readings.
Seeing as it was our second feature at Fourth Friday together, we decided to mix things up a bit by reading our solo stuff as well as London Undercurrents poems. I read first and unleashed a new set of poems about the sea onto a guinea pig audience. This included a bawdy sea shanty, which I greatly enjoyed reading. Then Hilaire read a batch of beautifully crafted and lyrical poems about gardening and gardens. Lastly we both read north and south London Undercurrents poems that have been published most recently (Lunar Poetry and Brittle Star).
The other featured artists were fabulous – folk singer Leon Rosselson‘s satirical songs were deceptively cheery while delivering relevant and timely social and political comment. Poet Abe Gibson delivered deeply moving poems with a delicate musicality that was spellbinding. To top the evening off, the food was amazing. It’s well worth putting this monthly event in your diary, every fourth Friday.