Category Archives: South

Poetry, song and Eritrean food

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.img_6377img_6380

What’s in a street name?

Quite a lot, Hilaire discovered, when it comes to a street on her estate named Charlotte Despard Avenue.

Hilaire writes:
For years, I’d vaguely wondered who was behind the unusual name of an otherwise nondescript street, which stretched the meaning of ‘avenue’, being neither broad nor tree-lined. So when Joolz and I came up with the idea of writing poems based on women who’d lived in our different neighbourhoods, one of the first names I jotted down in my notebook was Charlotte Despard.

My initial rudimentary research – a few brief mentions of her in local history books – left me feeling ambivalent towards her. A wealthy widow who, in 1890, took up residence in what was then the slum of Nine Elms in hope of improving conditions, but retreated to the family estate in Surrey at weekends. I put Charlotte Despard on the back burner, thinking perhaps I could write a poem from the point of view of a recipient of Mrs Despard’s good works; someone bridling with resentment at being patronized.

Then last May I went to a talk at Battersea Arts Centre on ‘Battersea’s political heroes’. In half an hour, Professor Penelope Corfield completely changed my view of Charlotte Despard. Yes, she was wealthy, but by the end of her very long life – she died aged 95 in 1939 – she was bankrupt, having poured her money into any number of causes and social initiatives. She was pragmatic, setting up free mother and child clinics in Nine Elms, supplying boots to children who would otherwise go about barefoot, and organising the provision of free meals at local schools as she understood that well-nourished children were better able to learn. She was also a vigorous campaigner on many issues and was deeply involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, earning a couple of stints in HM Prison Holloway. At the end of the talk I asked my burning question: how did the locals regard Charlotte Despard? The answer, according to Professor Corfield, is that she was loved and venerated. I had a new heroine.

Subsequently, I read the two available biographies – Charlotte Despard: A Biography by Margaret Mulvhill (Pandora, 1989) and An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist & Sinn Feiner by Andro Linklater (Hutchinson & Co, 1980) – and amassed copious notes. Charlotte Despard was and did so much more than a short blog post can do justice to. Many of her causes were unpopular at the time, and she must have cut an eccentric figure in her mantilla and sandals. Certainly, she was flawed and complex, but her energy and commitment to social justice and equality are truly inspiring.

I knew then that I definitely wanted to write a London Undercurrents poem about Charlotte Despard. Trying to channel her voice, though, felt both impossible and overwhelming. Interestingly, Despard was something of a spiritualist and occasionally consulted Giuseppe Garibaldi for advice via her planchette!

In the end I decided to come at her slantwise, so to speak, imagining a Nine Elms matriarch casting her vote for the first time in 1918, when Charlotte Despard stood as the Labour Party candidate for Battersea. You can read the poem here on Well Versed along with a poem by Joolz, in the voice of a suffragette being force-fed in HM Prison Holloway.

Since the poem was published, it’s been pointed out that most working class women weren’t able to vote until 1928. The biographies I drew on as my main sources mention the age restriction in the 1918 Representation of the People act (women aged over 30), but not the property qualification, which the UK Parliament site describes as ‘minimum property qualifications’. I’ll have to present my poetic license here, and trust the spirit of the poem is true to this amazing woman.

SW11 is streets ahead

You can take the poet out of data analysis, Hilaire writes, but you can’t take data analysis out of this poet.

SW postcodes map

Location of south London poems – numbers indicate position in London Undercurrents manuscript

Following on from Joolz’s count of poems per north London postcode, I’ve carried out a similar data collection and analysis exercise for my south London poems. And I can reveal that SW11 has romped home as the winner, with an amazing thirteen London Undercurrents poems. SW8 is a poor second, with three poems. Sharing the wooden spoon with one poem each are SW4, SW17, SW18 and off-the-map SE16 – home of the former Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, where the poem Prunella Clough, Sketching (12) is set. In the 1950s, Clough sketched women working on the Peek Frean production line, later painting a number of canvases featuring female factory workers in her Chelsea studio. Arguably, then, this poem also has a connection to SW3.

Which raises the thorny issue of double counting. The keen-eyed amongst you may have spotted that poem 18 (Clippie, Route 19, 1917) is mapped to both SW17 and SW11. Meet the World War 1 bus conductor, released from domestic service, and relishing her daily back and forth across the river and ‘southbound far as Tooting Bec.’ Poem 22, mapped to SW4, also has links to SW8 (Nine Elms) and SW12 (Balham). Sometimes, it’s hard to pin our women down.

Tricky stuff, data. Almost as tricky as poetry.

Marching onwards

March is Women’s History Month. Today is International Women’s Day. So we’re delighted to add some of our London Undercurrents voices to the celebrations of women’s achievements and place in the world.

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!

A ‘stunner’ on Lavender Hill, and a bit of poetic licence

Before the recent South Bank Poetry launch, Hilaire writes, I looked back through my notes to remind myself of the background to my poem Battersea Pre-Raphaelite Diptych, which is published in the current issue of SBP.

The poem is in two parts. The first is in the voice of Pre-Raphaelite painter and model Marie Spartali Stillman, as she remembers an idyllic and culturally stimulating childhood, growing up in a villa called The Shrubbery on Lavender Hill. The second part is written in her mother’s voice as she addresses Marie, who was to become a renowned beauty, or ‘stunner’ in Pre-Raphaelite parlance.

My interest was first piqued a couple of years ago when I came across a reference to The Shrubbery in a local history book, which mentioned that the villa and its extensive grounds had been leased in the 1860s to a wealthy Greek merchant whose daughters had modelled for Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As a paid-up philhellene, I was intrigued to learn that there was a small ex-patriot Greek community in south London at this time. As I dug around a bit more, I was excited to discover that not only had Marie Spartali Stillman modelled for Rossetti et al, she’d been a successful painter in her own right. She was not a tragic figure; on the contrary, she seems to have been determined and self-assured, which was another factor that drew me to write about her.

Marie and her sister were educated at home and their father Michael encouraged Marie’s artistic tendencies. Michael Spartali was interested in the arts and politics and often entertained prominent figures at The Shrubbery, which was lavishly decorated and hung with Old Masters. Less appears to be known about their mother Euphrosyne, but I imagine her as a quiet and steadying influence.

Writing the poem, I tried to use mostly words with Greek roots. I remember the process as quite long, stitching the poem together, but linguistically rewarding. When I came to review my notes recently, I realised Marie must have been 18 or 19 when the family moved into The Shrubbery, not a young child as I’ve suggested in the poem. This is where I brandish my poetic licence. After all, when were the Pre-Raphaelites ever concerned with historical accuracy?

The Shrubbery today. The villa has been divided into luxury flats, but the grounds have long since been built upon.
The Shrubbery today. The villa has been divided into luxury flats, but the grounds have long since been built upon.

Discovering Angela Carter

Back in February, Hilaire recalls, I attended an event at the London Review Bookshop featuring Deborah Levy and Kirsty Gunn in conversation about the short story. Among the  notes I made, there’s a very excited one, surrounded by asterisks: Angela Carter in her study in Clapham. Kirsty Gunn, I think it was, made a passing reference to a photo of Angela Carter in her study in Clapham, typewriter on the desk, and a wastepaper basket overflowing with screwed up drafts.

I knew, of course, who Angela Carter was, and many years ago I’d seen and loved the film The Company of Wolves, adapted by Carter and Neil Jordan from one of her short stories. But I hadn’t actually read any of her work. Suddenly, the realisation that she’d lived, and written many of her books, in my neck of the woods ignited my interest. A bit of online research revealed the street she’d lived on as The Chase, and I made a short pilgrimage to go and stand outside her house and wonder what she would have made of the changes to the local area in the twenty plus years since she died.

I borrowed a couple of books from the library, and quickly devoured The Bloody Chamber, which I was bowled over by. It felt like my eyes were on stalks as I read, drinking in Carter’s sumptuous prose and rococo imagination. On then to The Magic Toyshop, an early novel, which is a dark and claustrophobic tale of a young girl’s coming of age. Much of it is set in south London, pre-decimalisation, and Carter conjured up, in my mind at least, scenes with the colour and texture of Edward Ardizzone drawings.

A couple of articles I came across mentioned that Carter had, early on in her career, written poetry, including a poem Unicorn published in 1966. Googling ‘Angela Carter Unicorn’ brought up a link to a rare book seller who has a copy of this small single poem pamphlet available for £1,350.00 – free shipping worldwide! I had a more sensible thought then and searched The Poetry Library‘s catalogue. Bingo! They have a copy of Unicorn and another 1966 pamphlet, Five Quiet Shouters: an anthology of assertive verse, with Carter one of the five featured poets. Understandably, both these items are held in the library’s rare books section and are not available to borrow. I emailed a request, and last Wednesday I visited The Poetry Library to view them.

I was allowed one item at a time, and had to sit where I could be seen by the librarians on the front desk. It was a real privilege to be able to handle and read both pamphlets, and Unicorn in particular was a delight. It was published by Tlaloc press in Leeds in an edition of 150 copies. Its seven printed pages are stapled between thin pale green card covers. And the contents are set out more like a micro drama then a traditional poem, the main characters being a unicorn and a young girl who is ‘all white and naked’ but also ‘raw and huge and her breasts are like carrier bags’. It is witty and knowing, grotesque and bawdy, in so very few words. Many of Carter’s tropes and themes are already there, distilled.

One of the surprises in Five Quiet Shouters, which includes five poems by Angela Carter, was to discover two of her poems concern a white cat: My Cat in her first Spring and Life Affirming Poem about Small Pregnant White Cat. Though, when I remember the gleeful tomcat narrator in her Puss-in-Boots story from The Bloody Chamber perhaps I shouldn’t have found this so surprising. Another two poems deal cuttingly with love and marriage, while the last Poem for Robinson Crusoe is more in the vein of Unicorn – Crusoe teaches ‘the lacquered flocks of parrots… to remind him of his identity (Robin Crusoe!)/and hoarsely to mock his self-pity (‘Poor Robin Crusoe!’)/and thus he alienated his self-pity after the manner of Brecht.’ On the evidence of these poems, Carter was fond of long lines and brackets, and already had access to some very rich and sensuous imagery.

All of this I hope, somehow, will feed into a new London Undercurrents poem. There’s still a lot more to read. I picked up a copy of Wise Children in a local charity shop this week, and also bought Susannah Clapp’s short memoir A Card from Angela Carter. And a trip to the old Granada cinema Tooting , now a bingo hall, is a must. Carter went to this cinema regularly with her father after the family settled in south London following the Second World War. Whether or not I manage to write a poem worthy of such a towering subject, I’m incredibly glad to have discovered that Angela Carter used to be a near neighbour.

Storming Fourth Friday

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.

Joolz reads a north London poem
Joolz reads a north London poem
and Hilaire reads a south London poem
and Hilaire reads a south London poem

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!

Jill cropped
Jill Abram at Fourth Friday
Little Machine at Fourth Friday

Come and hear about

… 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!


Pared down

Hilaire writes:

I admit I was a little anxious about the short poem challenge Joolz set us at the end of last year. As our London Undercurrents project has progressed, I seem to have been writing longer and longer poems. One poem ended up a whopping 78 (absolutely necessary, you understand) lines.

My first attempt at a shorter poem, in the voice of a Clapham Clippie working on Route 19 during the Great War, came in at 24 lines. When Joolz and I met and swapped our ‘short’ poems, hers was an impressively compact and punchy nine lines. I’ve since revised the Clippie poem down to – ahem – 23 lines.

So to my second attempt. The starting point, as with my poem Nightlight Wicking at Price’s (featured recently on Proletarian Poetry), was the invaluable For Love and Shillings: Wandsworth Women’s Working Lives. As I read the book, I made a note of the different reasons local woman had left their jobs. Many were sacked for offences that now seem ridiculous. For example, a waitress was sacked for swapping her hours with a colleague so she could have the day off on her 21st birthday. It was common, too, well into the twentieth century, for companies to oblige women to leave when they got married. Congratulations – you’re fired! I considered constructing a poem called The Sack, weaving together some of the accounts from the book, but thought it was in danger of turning into another not-very-short poem.

Instead, I focussed on one case – a woman sacked from Cook’s Confectioners on Battersea Rise. Looking back many years later after the event, she gave a very matter-of-fact account of the circumstances that led to her dismissal. It painted a striking image in my mind and she fitted the bill for one of our feisty London Undercurrents women. A bit of online research into 1920s dance crazes, a few false starts, then I got a first phrase that rang true – I never pilfered – and bingo! Nine lines. Snap!

SBP launch at Clapham Books

Why have one launch, when you can have two? South Bank Poetry held another launch reading for issue 19 at Clapham Books on Thursday evening. A smaller affair than the event at the Poetry Café last Friday, but the standard was just as high, and the setting, in one of south London’s best independent bookshops, friendly and intimate.

As Joolz was away researching Viennese Torte, Hilaire carried the banner for London Undercurrents. There wasn’t room to take a theatrical step from one side of the river to the other as I alternated between our poems, but I certainly felt the connections between the different voices in these pieces even more strongly through performing Joolz’s work.

London, of course, took centre stage in many of the poems aired last night. Martin Jones read a number of wry poems drawing on his memories of bohemian London in the 50s and 60s. His mention of Finch’s in Fulham prompted a nod of recognition from Angela Kirby, who also remembers drinking there back in the day. Angela’s set included her bittersweet poem Down Brixton Way from the current issue of SBP and three powerful poems rooted in her family’s losses over the last century of world conflicts. Some of the poems Chris Hardy performed also touched on war and loss, in particular the shiver-inducing Silent Meeting and this issue’s Red, White and Blue. Lisa Kelly began with two moving poems about her parents’ deaths, six months apart, followed by several that deal with the world of work. There’s a great punch to both the poems themselves and Lisa’s delivery. Harrods Beauty Hall fizzes with controlled anger. Sian Williams read an extended version of her contribution to SBP 19, Rear Window in Balham, as well as her own take on Dylan Thomas’s The Hunchback in the Park, reworked in the vein of Do not go gentle into that good night. That’s some ambitious mash-up! And Pauline Sewards treated us to mix of sensory experiences from the seedily exotic Fine Dining in Soho to the lush decadence of Synaesthetes night out at Cafe Oto. SPB founder and co-editor Peter Ebsworth started and ended the evening with a few of his own poems, ranging from a gently comic one based on his much older brother’s escapades rummaging through London bombsites during the Second World War, a racy poem that Peter was pleased to learn recently had made Kathryn Maris laugh out loud, to the poignant Split Seconds. Before leaving, he also made sure Clapham Books is well stocked with copies of South Bank Poetry, so if you’re in the area pop in and check it out. Indie bookshop, quality poetry mag, savvy punters. Perfect combination.

Hilaire reading at Clapham Books
Hilaire reading at Clapham Books