Itchy feet

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Back in November we saw a call for submissions on the theme of ‘wanderlust’ for the online journal Severine. It struck a chord. We’ve both experienced wanderlust ourselves – having migrated individually to London many years ago from Australia and Reading (one, further than the other!). And we had a couple of London Undercurrents poems we felt sure would fit the bill, featuring women driven by wanderlust too – one travelling physically around the world at a time by herself when this was unheard of, and the other woman travelling away emotionally from her lot in life as a tea girl serving others.

And now you can meet these women in the digital pages of Severine’s third issue, along with a feast of other travel inspired poems and tales.

Joolz’s poem Where is your Husband? Mary Kingsley replies is based on the pioneering life of former north London resident Mary Kingsley, who was born in Islington in 1862. Rendered an orphan when her parents died one after the other, Mary seized the opportunity to travel the world with her new found freedom, which was unheard of for a woman to do at this time unless she was a missionary’s wife. Adventure and exploration was seen as ‘unfitting’ for women. But Mary didn’t let current opinion or the stultifying layers of Victorian clothing get in her way, and she even paddled a canoe up the Ogooué River in the Gabon discovering three new types of fish as she went. She didn’t however see herself as a feminist, and passionately declaimed the idea, which I found interesting. So I chose the form of a villanelle for her poem, to show the conflicting elements of freedom and adherence to a rigid structure that Mary seems to represent.

By contrast, the young woman in Hilaire’s poem Tea Girl in Battersea Park can only dream of escape. In the summer of 1895 there was a cycling craze amongst middle and upper class women, and Battersea Park was one of their favourite places to practise what was regarded as quite a risqué activity. This was the inspiration for the poem Lady Cyclist, published in Brittle Star issue 36. But Hilaire, a keen cyclist herself, felt there was another voice longing to tell a different side of this story. The cycling craze was a very social activity, with the ‘lady cyclists’ gathering  for breakfast or lunch at refreshment stalls in between bouts of riding around the carriageways. Who was serving them tea? Working class women couldn’t afford bicycles at that time – so the new freedom their wealthier sisters were experiencing was still beyond their reach. The ‘tea girl’ in Battersea Park covets a bicycle of her own but also dreams of travelling way beyond her immediate surroundings – not for her a few tame circuits of Battersea Park.



Mixing it up at Loose Muse

Lucky Dip

With over thirty-five (and counting) London Undercurrents poems to choose from, we couldn’t decide which ones to read during our feature spot at Wednesday’s Loose Muse. So we thought we’d let fate determine our set list.

Several themes have revealed themselves, subconsciously and consciously, whilst our poems have come into being. These themes have made it clear to us that women’s lives have been affected by fundamentally the same issues throughout the centuries, both north of the river and south of the river, and are still being affected by them today.

So we jotted these themes down (in cryptic form) on postcards and put them into a London themed bag (authentic tourist swag purchased from a shop near Piccadilly Circus) and bob’s your uncle – a London Undercurrents lucky dip for the audience to choose from.

It worked a treat and was great fun. The audience got to feel more involved by picking what we read and it kept us on our performance toes. The twenty minutes flew past and we managed to get through only four themes (pictured – can you guess what the poems would be about?) …and sadly nobody picked Sex and the City, but that can wait for next time.

As always Loose Muse, hosted by the wonderful Agnes Meadows, was filled with strong readings from women writers from the floor, who treated us to poetry, short stories and excerpts from books and plays. Sharing our feature spot was the talented singer Lillith who captivated and invigorated us with her guitar playing and unique voice. She even gave away a free tote bag – hmmm…maybe we can use that for our next lucky dip? Us girls have a great habit of helping each other. And long may that theme continue.

The Beyond Words buzz

2016 got off to a flying start for us with a feature spot at Beyond Words, the poetry night hosted by Angela Brodie and Caroline Vero at the Gipsy Hill Tavern. Held on the first Tuesday of every month, it’s a welcoming and uplifting evening, with candles on the tables and a raffle at the end with a prize of a bundle of poetry books.

In the first half, Donald Chegwin performed a set of surreal and hilarious poems – once you’ve heard his poem Kingdom, you’ll never look at a king prawn in the same way again. Ted Smith-Orr followed, reading a  selection of poems both funny and occasionally poignant, his subject matter ranging from football heroes to kerbside skips. Poetry is found everywhere!

And then it was our turn in the second half, after another strong group of open mic poets. The fifteen minutes allotted to us seemed to fly past as we read poems uncovering London women from the past, and explored themes such as the struggle for the right to vote, daring to travel independently and asserting control over their own bodies.

There was a lovely warm vibe in the room and our poems were well received. We can’t wait now to unleash more of our London Undercurrents voices at Loose Muse this Wednesday 13th January from 8 pm at the Poetry Café. Hope you can join us – as Loose Muse’s host Agnes Meadows says, come, share the passion, share the joy!

Beyond Words, Gipsy Hill Tavern, 5 January 2016

January’s hotting up


We’ve been quiet for too long. That pesky old business of earning a living. But fear not – we’re back with not one but TWO readings in January, to brighten up the dreariest month.


Tuesday 5th January we’ll be performing a 15 minute set at Beyond Words at the Gipsy Hill Tavern, 79 Gipsy Hill SE19 1QH. The event starts at 7:30 pm. Just a minute from Gipsy Hill Station, this is a warm and welcoming poetry night, with lots of open mic spots.

Wednesday 13th January we have a 20 minute feature spot at Loose Muse, London’s premiere women’s writers’ night, at the Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street WC2H 9BX, starting 8:00 pm. This is always a lively and varied event. Men are welcome in the audience, but only women are invited to read.

Hope to see you at one or other – or both! – of these events. Our feisty north and south London women’s voices are clamouring to be heard.


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.

Shuffling for The Shuffle

We were both delighted to be invited by Peter Raynard to read at his Proletarian Poetry curated Shuffle back in June. Unfortunately the event clashed with Hilaire’s holiday to Greece. So it fell to Joolz to represent the south London Undercurrents contingency too.

Joolz says:

The night was hot and sultry, (not unlike Greece, but without the beach) and the line-up was scorching. Jo Bell, Hannah Lowe, Inua Ellams, Owen Gallagher and Malika Booker.

Proletarian Poetry is a home for poets and poems that portray working class lives from many different angles. And includes all forms of poetry, persona, plain, lyrical, vernacular and performance. The Shuffle certainly had all that, that night.

Owen Gallagher is from the Gorbals, Glasgow, and lives in London. He read from his collection Tea with the Taliban, opening the evening with quietly spoken pith.

Jo Bell was born in Sheffield and lives on a canal boat. Reading from her second collection Kith, she encouraged us to sing along to a ‘chorus’ and to be ducks demanding bread, now, now and now. Warm, inclusive and compelling.

Malika Booker was born in London to Guyanese and Grenadian parents and is founder of the writers’ collective Malika’s Kitchen (which I am a member of). She read from her collection Pepper Seed, harkening to an ancestry and again, encouraging us to participate along as she intoned a mantra of her mother’s ‘pain’.

Hannah Lowe’s tall elegance defies her strong working class accent. She read from her first collection Chick – candid reflections on growing up with her Chinese-black Jamaican father who amongst other things was a professional gambler.

Inua Ellams was born in Nigeria, lives and works in London, is founder of The Midnight Run, and owner of many fantastic hats. His lyrical voice brought us powerful stories, dipping in and out of his many projects.

And me – reading from London Undercurrents, both north and south parts.  I stopped short of doing my best Aussie accent! There was no need – Hilaire’s poems were steeped with her quietly powerful stillness. Each word, precise, nothing wasted.

Vive le prolétariat!

Des res, N1

Poor people. The poor.

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:

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.

South Bank Poetry comes of age

The 21st issue of South Bank Poetry was launched at the Poetry Café last Friday. There were cupcakes with blue icing, balloons, a raffle – and of course oodles of urban poetry. SBP’s expanded remit of ‘Poems from the Cities’ extends as far afield as Riga and as far back as the ancient city of Siracusa. The latest issue, as ever, is a great mix of new and familiar voices, with poems to make you laugh, that tug at your heart strings or help you see the city from a new angle.

And, to our delight, we have two more London Undercurrents poems published in the magazine. We gave these an outing at the beginning of the second half. Hilaire’s poem Battersea Pre-Raphaelite Diptych is based on the Pre-Raphaelite model and painter Marie Spartali Stillman, whose family lived for a time in a villa on Lavender Hill. Milk, Cheese, Cream by Joolz explores the dairying lives of three women in north London ranging in time from 1865 back to 1575. It was great to share these poems and also to celebrate South Bank Poetry’s continuing and evolving presence as a home for urban poetry.

Joolz reading at SBP issue 21 launch, 31 July 2015
Joolz reading at SBP issue 21 launch, 31 July 2015
Hilaire reading at SBP issue 21 launch, 31 July 2015
Hilaire reading at SBP issue 21 launch, 31 July 2015
Half time in the basement, Poetry Café, 31 July 2015
Half time in the basement, Poetry Café, 31 July 2015

In print again, reading again!

We’re dead chuffed to have two London Undercurrents poems included in the Summer Issue 21 of South Bank Poetry. And we’ll be reading, along with a number of other contributors, at the magazine’s launch this Friday 31st July at the Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX, from 7:45 p.m.

SBP’s launch events are always lively and varied, so come along and immerse yourself in some fine London and urban poetry. Admission £6.50/£5.50 concs. includes a copy of Issue 21, hot off the press!