Over at Well Versed we’ve got two poems about the fight for women’s suffrage, looked at from different perspectives – a suffragette being force fed in Holloway prison in 1913, and a working class woman casting her vote for the first time in 1918, for the visionary campaigner Charlotte Despard.
And on Ink Sweat & Tears two young women from different eras remain agents of their own lives despite lowly jobs. On the north side, a lady’s maid in 1814 enjoys her day out on the frozen Thames. While in Battersea in 1923, a dance-crazy worker kicks her heels up in a confectionery factory.
Let’s hear it for all the amazing women who continue to inspire us today!
Some postcodes are richer than others, it seems, when it comes to north London Undercurrents poem locations, writes Joolz.
I’ve plotted each poem location on the map and numbered it with its corresponding position in our manuscript. N1 wins so far, with five poems written in and around its confines, including Chat with a clipper(6) and Picking oakum in the poor house (23).
But I’m sure that once word gets out amongst the other postcodes, plenty of other unheard women’s voices (from the past and present) will seep up through the clay and push themselves forward so they can feature in a London Undercurrents poem too.
Even in today’s hard times, Joolz reflects, these words still don’t have the same meaning in modern, gentrified Islington as they did back in the days of The Workhouse.
I’ve been researching what it must have been like for women residing in north London Workhouses in the 18th century for a new London Undercurrents poem, and found this fantastic reference point: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Islington/
It has uncovered some distressing but interesting facts, and given me some shocks too. The biggest shock came from seeing a picture of a Workhouse in Islington that was built in the late 1700’s. I did a double take – it was the beautiful redbrick house in leafy Barnsbury that I’ve gazed at often and coveted for many years. It blew my mind.
According to a report made in 1865, the building had an infirmary with a “thoroughly bad edifice with wards ill built, too small, too low, badly lighted and badly ventilated…”
Thankfully, the report goes on to say that the wards “…have yet an aspect of cheerfulness and comfort. The walls were coloured cheerfully; there were prints hanging on the walls, and a few ornaments about the fire-places. In every window were a few flower-pots or flower-boxes.”
It does however throw the grim reality of life in Workhouses that weren’t so cheery, into stark relief. Poor people.
And lo, the 27th of March arrived, and people gathered in the basement of the Poetry Café, and there was music and there was poetry and it was Fourth Friday.
And, after a mostly mellow set of songs based on First World War poetry from LiTTLe MaCHiNe, we took to the floor and unleashed the voices of more than a dozen London women, alternating north and south, and jumping back and forth in history. Joolz, championing north London, performed poems featuring, amongst others, a fearsome punk snarling on her way to see The Pistols at the Hope and Anchor, a lady’s maid tiptoeing adventurously out onto the frozen Thames, and a determined suffragette enduring force feeding in Holloway prison. Carrying the banner for south London, Hilaire read poems that included a lady cyclist daringly zooming round Battersea Park in the summer of 1895, the young Catherine Boucher willingly taking on William Blake as they married in St Mary’s Church, and a group of rowdy Battersea women on their annual trip to the seaside in 1947. It was great to share these London Undercurrents poems with such an appreciative audience.
In the second half of the evening, Jill Abram gave an assured and engaging reading, with poems about family, memory, tea and – maybe – herself. And LiTTleMaCHiNe rounded off with a rousing set including a fantastic prog-rock version of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. All in all, a storming evening. Our thanks to Hylda Sims and Dix Schofield for making it happen!
… the woman who grew asparagus in Battersea, the prostitutes of Islington, the gas mantle girls of Wandsworth and the cinema goers of Holloway, plus many more voices of the feisty women who’ve lived and worked in north and south London over the centuries.
We’ll be reading at Fourth Friday this Friday 27March from 8pm at the Poetry Cafe, Betterton Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9BX. Entry is £8/£6
Jill Abram and LiTTLe MaCHiNe will also be performing so it should be an excellent evening. Hope you can come along!
Prompted by a (nice) comment from Peter Ebsworth – co-editor of South Bank Poetry magazine – that our London Undercurrents poems had taken up four pages in the latest issue, I started thinking about the constraints of format and length.
Up until now, I’ve been letting the north London Undercurrents women speak for as long as they want, and if they take 40 lines of a poem, or more, then that’s up to them.
But this time, I wanted to see what happened if I gave my next speaker as short a time as possible. After all, she is a Londoner and used to pushing in and jostling to be heard, no matter how small or overlooked she is.
As part of the project, I’ve been researching the Jones Brothers department store, which opened on the Holloway Road in 1899. It was a stylish and much-loved shopping venue until its closure over a hundred years later. I wanted to discover what life could have been like for one of the many ‘shop girls’ and how they enjoyed a new independence through working there, in any number of departments.
So I’ve put the short poem challenge to one of these women, who worked behind the counter soon after the shop opened, before the turn of the last century. She did well, with just nine lines of pure pith.
And now it’s south London’s turn – over to you Hilaire.