Tag Archives: poetry

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.

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.

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.

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: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Islington/

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.

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

Fourth Friday March 27: Jill Abram, Joolz Sparkes, Hilaire + LiTTLe MaCHiNe – 8pm at the Poetry Cafe, Betterton Street, Covent Garden, £8/£6

We’re excited to be reading at Fourth Friday later this month. With Jill Abram and LiTTLe MaCHiNe on the same bill it should be a great evening. Hope to see you there!

fourth friday

littlemachine_300609_ 2615LiTTLe MaCHiNe are 3 wonderful musicians and a true ‘poetry band‘ interpreting poems old and new, well-known and unknown, in great foot-tapping style. We are delighted to have them playing again at Fourth Friday     www.little-machine.com

Jill(1)Jill Abram is Director of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen – a collective of writers who focus on craft, community and development – and a member of Tideway Poets.  She is a prize-winning poet, writes as well for page and mind as she does for ear and audience.  She writes a lot about her own life, friends and family …but it isn’t all true…

photo (3) (1)Hilaire and Joolz Sparkes are working together on an ongoing poetry project – London Undercurrents – to unearth the voices of strong, feisty women who have lived and worked in the capital city over many centuries.  Each poet focuses on her different patch of London – Joolz north of…

View original post 144 more words

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!