Despite an unexpected hitch, we had a full and lively audience at our reading at Clapham Books a fortnight ago. The Northern Line had been suspended between Kennington and Morden… Continue reading A great turnout at Clapham Books
On Wednesday 17th July we read at Battersea Power Station. Woohoo!
Hilaire writes: Okay, not actually inside the Power Station itself, which is still being restored, but in the nearby Marketing Suite.
To be seen. To be heard. To be understood. It’s made us a bit teary at times. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed our book – and thank you to all our readers. It’s what we did it all for – to communicate with our fellow human beings. If you’d like to review, or buy, our book you can contact Bernadette at Holland Park Press.
“London Undercurrents offers a cornucopia of female experience across four centuries, from spirited cockneys and land girls, to factory workers and women in service. The result is both fascinating and educational… Back-street abortions, lead poisoning, sit-ins by Gujarati workers, frost fairs on the Thames, 18th century lavender harvests, knitting for the Spanish Republicans – wherever women have tilled, toiled, laughed, suffered or survived, Hilaire and Sparkes follow, with empathy and imagination… The poets have tapped into a rich array of character and circumstance and transformed it, with exuberance and clarity, into poetry which is fresh and accessible.”
Claire Booker, Ink Sweat and Tears
“Gathering and grouping the poetic products of Sparkes and Hilaire’s combined research […] thematically as opposed to chronologically or separated into two authored halves of the North and South of the city, allows each piece and each voice to converse in a way that builds connections; by-lines that travel between the experiences of women through the landscape of the city and into the past… these poems feel full of possibility even in desperate situations, and in other moments, gleeful and utterly joyous… The richness and variety, intrigue and emotion, together provides an illustration of London as a tumultuous and exhilarating place, occupied by women throughout its history who have built and shaped its terrain from the bottom up and from the top down.”
Laura Tansley, Litro Magazine
“The Thames runs through it. North and south of the famous river lie the “hidden histories” of mostly forgotten women. London Undercurrents brings them vividly back into our literary consciousness in this remarkable collection, written and compiled by two of the city’s female poets… What emerges through these evocative and accessible poems is a unique urban chronicle that is a joy to engage with.”
Karina Magdalena, Cape Times, 7 June 2019
“Many of these poems are exuberant in their experimentations with dialect and linguistic play… there is no shortage of poems that deal with serious subjects in witty, light-hearted, accessible language… This volume of poems kindles curiosity, as it sheds light on the underground lives of women, their determination and humble struggles, across different periods and places in London.”
Jennifer Wong, Magma issue 74
“…an intriguing, worthy collaboration that focuses on histories in two specific areas of London. The poems imaginatively give voices to stories often overlooked from those who usually go unheard. Both poets, Hilaire and Joolz Sparks, have distinct but complementary voices but share the ability to use selective details to bring their subjects to life in an engaging manner.”
Award-winning reviewer Emma Lee, blogpost https://emmalee1.wordpress.com
“This collection scores highly because of its unusual subject matter, its slice of social history, striking vocabulary and clever wordplay. Above all, it fills a gap in our understanding of the conditions under which women worked north and south of the river. Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire have not only come up with a brilliant idea, they have executed it with panache.”
Neil Leadbeater, WriteOutLoud
Last Friday was the centenary of some women being able to vote for the first time, and also the first time women could stand for election to Parliament. In Battersea, Hilaire attended two events held to honour local suffragette and campaigner Charlotte Despard, who was one of the 16 women to stand as candidates in the general election held on 14th December 1918. Continue reading A blue plaque, and a knees-up
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.
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.
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.
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.