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.
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unheard stories – both real and imagined – and held audiences in thrall, despite getting a date wrong here and a historical reference wrong there.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, CharlotteDespard 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.
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.
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.
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!
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 2015. Her 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.
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.
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.
You can take the poet out of data analysis, Hilaire writes, but you can’t take data analysis out of this poet.
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.
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!
Some postcodes are richer than others, it seems, when it comes to north London Undercurrents poem locations, writes Joolz.
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.
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.