Come hear us read!

We’re delighted to have been invited back to read at Fourth Friday again, this coming Friday 23rd September from 8pm. As the Poetry Café is closed for refurbishment, Fourth Friday is taking place at a new venue – Bar 48, a wine bar and Eritrean tapas restaurant, at 48 Brixton Road SW9 6BT. Nearest tube is Oval.

With the change of venue, we thought we’d mix things up a bit too. We’re planning to each read some of our own non-LU poems, and finish with a few London Undercurrents poems. Poetry tapas, in other words! It should be a tasty evening, with more poetry from Abe Gibson and music from Leon Rosselson, plus voices from the floor. Entry is £6 or £5 concession. Hope to see you there!


Lunar Poetry issue 10 launch

We’re delighted to have two London Undercurrents poems published in the latest issue of Lunar Poetry. With Joolz away at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, it was down to Hilaire to fly the flag for both sides of the river at the launch reading on Tuesday evening. Here she reports back.

The event took place at the Peckham Pelican, a light and spacious café bar with a relaxed atmosphere. Lunar Poetry editor Paul McMenemy started proceedings by picking out the opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra on an upright piano – an acrobatic feat as he had to stretch across a table to reach the keyboard.

I was first up on the stage and read both poems included in the current issue: In the Ether, which reflects the experience of a young woman working in a gas mantle factory in Wandsworth in 1931; and Joolz’s poem Coining factory, N1, told from the point of view of a 13 year old girl helping in the family coin forging business in the 1880s. Staying north, I performed Joolz’s Thames freeze, north side, 1814. I love the young maid’s voice in this poem, so it’s a pleasure to read it aloud, despite the maid reporting that her ladyship is loathe to cross to the south / at all costs. I returned south with my poem Lady Cyclist, whizzing around Battersea Park in the summer of 1895.

There were strong readings from several other poets in this issue, including Lizzy Palmer, Rishi Rohatgi, Dennis Tomlinson, Gboyega Odubanjo and Christopher Williams; and a real mix of voices from the open mic readers, covering topics from the EU referendum fallout (in a haiku sequence) to a Dulwich Hamlet fan’s search for a plain honest Shippam’s Paste sarnie. Paul rounded the evening off with a few of his own fierce and funny poems.

The magazine is a bargain at £5 or £2.50 for the ebook version, and is back on track to publish monthly (hence ‘Lunar Poetry’). Launch readings are on the first Tuesday of the month at the Peckham Pelican, free entry, and plenty of open mic spots. Definitely worth checking out!

Reading at the Peckham Pelican, 5th July 2016
Paul at piano
Paul McMenemy playing Strauss

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!

Postcode lottery

Some postcodes are richer than others, it seems, when it comes to  north London Undercurrents poem locations, writes Joolz.


Graphic pencil_NorthLU.

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.

“I’ll still be dreaming about you Croydon…

…especially in the cold and rain.” So sang Captain Sensible, which we discovered when we were guests on Croydon Radio’s monthly poetry show, Poets Anonymous. It was one of the London-themed records on the show’s playlist, and was chosen especially to fit in with our London-based project. We’d met the show’s hosts – Peter Evans and Ted Smith-Orr – when we featured at Beyond Words this January in Gipsy Hill, and were thrilled to be asked to guest on their show.

Listen to the full show here.

The journey to Croydon involved some nightmarish one-way systems, watch-out-for-that-tram moments and multistorey car park angst, but eventually deposited us safely into the welcoming warmth of hippy-chic Matthews Yard, where the radio station is based.

There was time for a quick run-through of the structure for the hour long show, then we went into the studio, got mikes and headphones sorted and waited for the longest 5 minutes known to woman or man before we went on air.

The programme was kicked off by Peter reading The Very Leaves of the Acacia-Tree are London by Kathleen Raine, then it was our turn, reading poems that wove from north London to south and back again, and slipped between different centuries. We had two generous ten minute reading slots at either end of the programme, and a relaxed interview with Ted halfway through, when we talked about the evolution of our project and the research behind some of the poems. We each read a favourite poem, too, and listened to great music tracks by George the poet, Mr Sensible and Phil Minton singing a setting of William Blake’s poem The Fields. That hour flew past. Today Croydon, tomorrow the rest of the world!

Listen to the full show here.







Itchy feet

Screen shot 2016-01-27 at 16.11.27

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