Tag Archives: poetry

A sit-in down the road

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.

Dispute at Decca's coverI’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.

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Second mentoring session

Right outside the window of the Spread the Word writing room at The Albany, Deptford the bustling street market was in full swing. We fuelled up with coffees and compulsory cake and flapjack from The Albany café, put our heads down and waited for Jacqueline Saphra’s critique and feedback on the next batch of poems in our current manuscript.

On this occasion we were both much more relaxed than in our first mentoring session and one of the first things we discussed was the many different ways of giving and receiving feedback. It was reassuring to hear from Jacqui that even the most established poets share poems with each other and have differing ideas about which bits to edit out and which bits to leave untouched. Bolstered by this knowledge, we engaged in lively discussion about individual poems and about how to make them the best they can be. Pretty soon, there was almost as much noise inside the room as out . Look, said Jacqui, you’re both making suggestions and comments about each others’ poems unprompted by me.

Progress!

By the end of the day, we both had London Undercurrents poems – new and old – ready to overhaul. Some only needed a little tinkering with (technical term). Others, a complete rethink. Alongside this, we talked about research material for new poems, and just as the three of us started losing our voices, the bin men saved us by playing Christmas carols so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves think. We locked up the room (thank you Spread the Word for your hospitality) and headed out into the dark cold night energised and excited. That’s the magic of – coffee? cake? mentoring? poetry?

Albany_Theatre_in_Deptford
The Albany, Deptford.  Photo by Silk Tork. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

 

 

Beefing up our feedback

Hilaire writes: Joolz and I met up last week to review our progress so far and to share the poems we’ve reworked following our first mentoring session with Jacqueline Saphra.

In the past, we’ve tended to only show each other new London Undercurrents poems when they’ve felt pretty much “finished” to the poet. Feedback from the other poet has, on the whole, been light – a typo, a misplaced apostrophe, perhaps a suggestion to change a line break.

Arguably, we’ve been too gentle, too polite with each other.

It possibly stems from when we were still figuring out how we wanted to work together and were treading lightly. No doubt I also expressed some anxiety, along the lines of ‘I’m not very good at receiving critical feedback’.

But in our mentoring session Jacqui hadn’t let us get away with remaining mute, and we were soon conversing about each other’s poems in a way we hadn’t before.  She made us ‘woman-up’ and inject more rigour into our feedback.

Old habits die hard though and, once by ourselves again, I found myself falling back into remaining quiet after Joolz had given me her newly reworked poems.

While I’ve certainly got better at receiving feedback, I still find it difficult to give constructive feedback as an immediate response. So I still mm-ed a lot reading through Joolz’s new version of Hollywood comes to Holloway – but could see she’s definitely tightened it up, and the way it is now structured as couplets works really well. Her suggestions and comments on the poems I shared were all very helpful.

We talked about how we both found it harder to edit the poems that we’ve performed regularly, and know inside and out in their former form. But as Joolz showed with her Hollywood poem it can be done!

We also discussed making each poem distinctive, in both tone and form on the page. And agreed that we want to crack on with writing new poems, as well as sharpening existing ones. The most valuable feedback Joolz gave me that evening is that I need to be more forthcoming in my feedback on her poems – fewer quiet ‘mms’ and more,  ‘I’m not sure what you mean here’ or ‘have you thought about switching this around?’. Message received, Ma’am!

sharpening drafts
spare me the red pen!

Coining; a family affair

When it comes to researching women in history, when does the local become the universal, and are the two intrinsically intertwined?

Joolz writes: I’m researching the role of daughters in the art of coin counterfeiting, known as Coining. It carried the death penalty in the 1700s, yet girls as young as 14 were an integral part of this dangerous and arduous task. Whole families were involved and as Islington was a rough area back then (and not gentrified, like today) I can imagine that counterfeiting coins was indeed something that women and young girls were involved in, in and around the borough. It’s been a tough one to prove though.  The really good counterfeiters didn’t get caught. Those that did, operated mainly in the west end, so all I have to go on are reports of coiners caught in the act, in Seven Dials – several of whom were women. The punishment for women counterfeiters was burning at the stake, whereas men were hung. Gruesome. Yet it must have been an activity that drew families together in a tight-knit unit, working as one and accepting that risk was part of survival. For a young girl of 14, at times, it must have felt a far, far better option than many of the other illegal ways of earning money. This universal theme of ‘it’s this or prostitution’ is still prevalent for women even today. It’s not just an issue facing 14 year old girls in 18th Century Islington – or at any other given point in history. The local and the universal are one and the same, a tight-knit connection.

 

 

Will the truth spoil a good poem?

As part of the research for London Undercurrents poems, old and new, both of us have sat red-faced as we realised that a few of our poems contain incorrect facts and figures. (Some of those factually-incorrect poems have actually been published too!) The shame. But also, the splendour. We’ve brought to life, and given voice to, women’s unheard stories – both real and imagined – and held audiences in thrall, despite getting a date wrong here and a historical reference wrong there. One north London Undercurrents poem, Hollywood comes to Holloway, is dated 1939 and contains references to the film It’s a wonderful life, which wasn’t made until 1946. Darn it. But it gets a great reaction from audiences and invokes the liberation of the cinema, even though the filmic references are wrong. A south London Undercurrents poem, Charlotte Despard Gets My Vote, is in the voice of a working class women voting for the very first time in 1918. However, it’s been pointed out that at this time only women over 30 who owned property could vote, and most working class women couldn’t vote until 1928. Yet the feeling of victory and freedom is palpable, despite the historical inaccuracy.

The saying goes; don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. After our first mentoring session with Jacqueline Saphra, the poems that stood up to rigorous discussion and interrogation by all three of us, were the ones that had a strong voice, great attention to detail and an emotional pull. So now comes the delicate balancing act of fine-tuning, revising, rewriting, and creation while fact-checking and cross-referencing dates. Getting it right, so that each woman’s voice sings out, while firmly placing her in historical context and rooting her physically in the world where she belongs.

First mentoring session

Coffee and biscuits? Check. Pencil case? Check. Award-winning, T. S. Eliot prize-shortlisted mentor Jacqueline Saphra? Check. Our first mentoring session took place on Sunday.  It was intense, great fun, rewarding and a privilege.

After much discussion and insightful, clear and inspiring feedback – and being encouraged to feedback to each other about our poems, something we hadn’t done as yet – several of our existing London Undercurrents poems are well on their way to being the best they possibly can be. Roll on mentoring session 2 in a few weeks’ time.

How do you solve a problem like the Cook sisters?

Hilaire writes: Ever since I first came across the fascinating story of Ida and Louise Cook, I’ve thought there must be a London Undercurrents poem in there. They were opera mad spinster sisters, living in the family home in Morella Road, Battersea, who jaunted off for weekends to 1930s Germany on a mission to help Jewish families escape Nazi persecution.

Where to start though? I read Louise Carpenter’s long Granta article, detailing her research into their lives, and subsequently borrowed Ida’s auto(duo?)biography Safe Passage from Battersea Library. The book was originally published under the title We Followed Our Stars – a much better title in my view, and truer to the spirit of the way the sisters lived their lives. This turned out to be a very entertaining read! Which shouldn’t have surprised me, after all, as Ida was one of Mills & Boon’s most successful authors, publishing over 100 novels under the pseudonym Mary Burchell.

But when I sat down to try to write a poem about them I encountered the same problem I’d had with Charlotte Despard. Too much information! Such long and varied lives, so many different strands and possible angles to take. The opera star crushes, and years of scrimping and saving to travel on their own to New York in the 1920s. Ida’s unexpected trajectory as a romantic novelist, while Louise continued a steady civil service career. The contrast between their staid home life and the extraordinary risks they took with their refugee work. Their lifelong intense closeness as sisters, and in later years their deep interest in spiritualism.

It was overwhelming. I wondered about ways to contain or focus the detail. I printed off a list of all 112 Mary Burchell novels, thinking I might be able to construct something using only the titles. Or perhaps I could frame the poem as a synopsis of an unwritten opera about the sisters. Neither of these ideas came to much.

Attic

One bright morning I cycled up to Morella Road, at the furthest corner of Battersea, just off Wandsworth Common, and stood outside number 24, looking up at the attic where Ida had typed out all those Mills & Boon romances. The bedroom the sisters shared for most of their lives would have been on the floor below. It’s a quiet, tree-lined street, and strange to think of the sisters returning to this ordinary home after smuggling  valuables out of Nazi Germany, in order to provide financial security for fleeing Jewish refugees.

I realised I wanted the poem to be centred on this part of their lives. Reading Safe Passage, I was struck by Ida’s mostly brisk, matter-of-fact style (‘Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot’) and the occasional burst of rapturous prose when writing about the opera stars they worshipped. And I kept coming back to an anecdote Ida related in the book, of returning to Morella Road after a particularly harrowing trip to Germany. She walked into the kitchen and found her mother making pastry. ‘…which is, after all, one of the basic things in life. I can see her now, with the flour on her arms. I began to tell her what we had seen and I burst into tears.’ Mrs Cook ‘simply went on making pastry’, and a few minutes later Ida dried her eyes and was able to continue her account.

I had a sense of Ida’s voice. But I needed an imaginative space, to allow a poem to grow. In Safe Passage, Louise is present but not very vocal. Ida, by her own admission, was the more garrulous of the two. Louise is a given, often absorbed into ‘we’. But at night, in their twin bedroom, they must, surely, have expressed some of the anguish and despair, during those dark days leading up to the outbreak of World War 2, which they otherwise managed to keep under wraps.

So I had a starting point at last, and have written a poem in the form of an imagined dialogue between Ida and Louise, late at night when sleep is evading them. In the first flush of composition, there was relief and excitement. Now, I’m not sure how strong the poem is, whether it stands on its own without all the background information I’ve absorbed and left out. But at least there’s a draft I can work on, and share with Joolz for feedback. Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot – now I come to think about it, that sounds like a great summation of London Undercurrents!

Ida & Louise Cook - Notes
Where to begin???

And our mentor is…

JS7 BW
…the brilliant Jacqueline Saphra.

Needless to say, we’re over the moon. Jacqui is an accomplished poet who we’ve both long admired.

Jacqui describes herself as: an editor, agitator, enthusiast and poet, but not in that order…also an enthusiastic collaborator, working with composers, musicians and visual artists…and organising large scale poetry events. Her pamphlet, Rock’n’Roll Mamma was published by Flarestack; her first collection, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions was published by Flipped Eye and is available from amazon. She’s also no stranger to collaborations and performed poems to a special musical ‘miniatures’ for ‘cello and piano by Benjamin Tassie. It won the ‘Best Collaborative Work’ in the Saboteur Awards 2015Her latest collection All My Mad Mothers is published by Nine Arches.

Joolz says: Jacqui may not know this, but she was the first ‘proper poet’ I spoke to when I first attended a poetry reading to try out an open mic. I was struck with her warmness and openness, and her brilliance as a performer and writer. A few years later I got one of my first paid gigs as a poet and was a Poet in Residence in Leicester Square tube station as  part of the Travel Better London campaign. Jacqui was stationed (sorry!) in Canary Wharf, and we had great fun swapping stories of puzzled looks on commuters faces as we read poetry to them. Most recently, I read at The Persisters Present Holding the Line fundraising event for women’s domestic violence charities, which Jacqui organised and co-founded. So I’m thrilled Jacqui’s our mentor.

When we were working on our Grants for the Arts bid, we approached Jacqui to ask her if she would consider mentoring us. She generously agreed to meet for an informal chat, where we filled her in a little about our project and what we hoped to gain from mentoring. We came away from that short meeting feeling sure that Jacqui would be the right fit – warm, nurturing, but willing to challenge and push us. It spurred us on to refine and polish our bid even further, to make it as strong as possible.

We’ve now sent Jacqui our manuscript of around 40 poems and wait with a mixture of fear, trepidation and sheer excitement for our first mentoring session with her.

Stuck in the blocks

Saturday was our first chance to catch up in person since the official start date of our ACE funded research and development project two weeks ago. We met at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in the early afternoon. This year, as we were both feeling a bit below par, we dipped, rather than dived, into the Fair.

We had a quick look around the main hall, made a couple of purchases, and enjoyed two memorable readings. In the Brockway Room, we heard Karen McCarthy Woolf and Pascale Petit read from their collections, Seasonal Disturbances and Mama Amazonica, both recent PBS Selections. Both poets held the room with their poised and powerful performances from what sound like two essential collections. A short while later, we sat outside by the Garden Café in Red Lion Square to listen to three Hearing Eye poets, Pauline Sewards, Peter Phillips and the indefatigable Hylda Sims. A relaxed reading in tranquil surroundings – and that was enough for our 2017 Poetry Book Fair experience.

poetry book fair haul
Obligatory Poetry Book Fair pic

On then to sit outside a café on Theobald’s Road (yes, it was just about warm enough for al fresco coffee) and to properly check in with each other. And to confess we were both feeling a bit… stuck. After the high of learning we’d been awarded ACE funding and sharing the news – why were we feeling flat? Why weren’t the poems pouring out of us?

But hang on. We are only two weeks into our six month R&D project. We planned our project taking into account other commitments and trying to be realistic about what we can achieve in that timescale. We’ve allocated 15 dedicated days each for researching and writing over that period. No doubt we will do more, but that’s protected time to focus on London Undercurrents. And, we agreed, once we’ve had our first session, later this month, with our amazing mentor (who we can’t wait to reveal), then we’ll really be on our way.

Already, we could feel that LU energy returning. We have started. We’re reading, thinking, angsting – this is all part of the process. And the great thing is that we’re in this together. We can pick each other up and keep ourselves on track. Helped, of course, by chat, coffee and chocolate.

Arts Council logo white

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.