how my breakfast inspired a prize winning poem

I won first prize in the City Harvest Holiday Poetry Competition! My first first prize, and City Harvest’s first poetry competition. And it all came about thanks to the local surplus food project, Waste Not Want Not, that Nick and I have benefited from over the last couple of years.

WNWN circulated details to all their contacts a few weeks ago inviting us to enter City Harvest’s poetry competition. The theme was “What Food Means to Me”, with the top three winners receiving a crate of goodies from City Harvest, including a turkey. I’m vegetarian, so the turkey was not a draw, but the idea of a hamper of foodie treats just before Christmas was very tempting. The deadline was quite tight though – 1st of December – and I often struggle to write to a theme.

Nevertheless, I sat at my desk one morning, determined to give it a go. Eating my breakfast and thinking about food and what angle to take. I’m lucky never to have experienced hunger. Food can be one of the great pleasures of life. And one of the things I love about the surplus food we get from WNWN is having to be creative with the ingredients that end up in our bag. Food is definitely more than fuel in my book. So I mused, munching on my piece of tahini on toast. And lo and behold, a poem started to take shape on the page.

I emailed it off, and last Friday received the wonderful news that I won first prize! It was too late to save the turkey, but it won’t go to waste. Hadas from WNWN is planning a shared community Christmas dinner, where the turkey is sure to be enjoyed by the meat-eaters amongst us.

Huge thanks to City Harvest for running the competition, to Howard Altmann for judging it, and to Waste Not Want Not for prompting me to enter, and more importantly for keeping dozens of Battersea households supplied with fantastic food that would otherwise end up in landfill.

Here’s my prize winning poem:

More than Fuel

A piece of toast
to start my day

from which a world expands
in every bite

a crunchy thought
to chew upon

and savour distant
olive groves

whose drizzled oil
anoints my toast

and with tahini
slathered on

thoughts shift
to countless seeds

and what each sesame
may open —

a hoard of ancient knowledge
dancing on my tongue.

 

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prize winning breakfast
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breaking the dream drought

There was a long stretch when I didn’t seem to be dreaming. Certainly, I couldn’t remember any dreams when I woke in the morning. I can’t pinpoint when this began, but it bothered me.

There’d been a period, many years ago, when I’d kept a dream diary of sorts, but I’d fallen out of the habit. I’d still dreamt, but at some point in the last year or so the dreams seemed to have dried up. It didn’t feel right.

Then, in early September, we spent a week in rural France, visiting Nick’s dad. I ignored emails, and hardly looked at my phone. My holiday reading included Josephine Corcoran’s wonderful debut collection What Are You After? Some of her poems are directly framed as dreams in the title. Many more have a dreamlike quality, with richly strange detail, or the odd logic of dreams. I felt more keenly what I was missing.

And then – hallelujah! – I started dreaming again. It was so dark and so quiet at night and I slept like the proverbial log. And when I woke in the morning, I jotted down my dreams in my holiday notebook.

Since we’ve been back in London, I’ve allowed the emails, the phone, to encroach again. I don’t always sleep well. But I have a notebook by my bed and when I wake, if there are dream fragments still floating around in my head, I scribble them down. I can’t prove it, but it feels like recording my dreams helps me to remember more of them. I don’t know if I’ll turn any of these into poems or stories, but I feel a little more anchored, somehow, knowing my subconscious is whirring away while I sleep. And how delightful to wake this morning and recall I dreamt about kittens last night:

a rambling friendly house  summer feel  long grass  wooden verandah
kittens – tabby, & one that was black with a leopard pattern in its fur – so silky – trying to catch them & bring them inside

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Poetry and dream diary

Weird Wandsworth Workshop

The Balham housewife who transcribed compositions dictated to her by dead composers including Liszt, Chopin and Brahms. Mock mayoral elections held on Garratt Lane in the 18th century, accompanied by much debauchery. Donkey racing and pigeon shooting on the banks of the Thames, where  Battersea Park now stands. These are some of the weird and wonderful gems from the local history treasure trove that is the Wandsworth Heritage Service.

For Libraries Week, I’ll be running a free poetry workshop drawing on the rich resources of the Heritage Service. We’ll use books, pamphlets, maps and photos from the archives as source material for new poems, and explore different approaches to writing poems inspired by the past. The Weird Wandsworth Workshop is on Wednesday 10th October, 6-8pm, at Battersea Library. Book online or email heritage@gll.org to book a place.

Of course it’s on a Wednesday – all the Ws. Nothing weird about that.

Ashburton House
Ashburton House. Image supplied by Wandsworth Heritage Service

Hell of a Summer

For several weeks now, I’ve had a particular song going round in my head. It’s by The Triffids, one of my  favourite ever bands, and appropriately, the song is Hell of a Summer. You can listen to it here on YouTube, and maybe listen to the rest of their classic album Treeless Plain.

It’s certainly been an extraordinary summer so far in the UK, the longest sustained period of hot weather I can remember since I moved to London, and the driest. Thankfully, temperatures haven’t reached much above 30, but it’s still energy-sapping. The ice cube tray is topped up once a day or more. Mugs of black coffee have been replaced by tumblers of iced coffee. It looks like I’m going to get through a whole bottle of sunscreen in one summer. And those habits of a Melbourne childhood kick in – lowering the blinds against the blazing sun, walking on the shady side of the street (if it happens to be a street with any shade!), checking before I leave the flat: sunhat, sunglasses, sunscreen, water.

Much as the blue skies lift the spirits, and I’m enjoying outdoor swims in Tooting Bec Lido, the lack of rain is worrying. In the community roof garden, we’re struggling – failing – to keep everything watered. I keep reminding myself how resilient nature is. So far, the cats that hang out in the garden seem to be doing okay, unlike the lawn. It’ll only take a couple of downpours before we’re complaining about the miserable weather. Until then, Dave McComb will keep singing Hell of a Summer to me.

Black cat dead lawn over shoulder

 

Despardmania

There was a flurry of local events in June highlighting and celebrating the life and work of Charlotte Despard, and her lasting impact on Nine Elms and Battersea. As I’ve written before, she’s up there in my pantheon of great women, for her tireless campaigning, her commitment to social justice, and for her very practical and progressive community initiatives (e.g. providing free school meals decades before this was government policy). I also love the fact that she was shaking her fist at the establishment, and warning against the rise of fascism, right into her 90s. If only she were alive now!

I’m a reluctant Facebook user, but I have joined the Facebook group Battersea Women Celebrate the Centenary of Women Getting the Vote, or COWs for short, which is a forum for publicising news and events in this important centenary year. On the 15th of June, a small group of us gathered outside the new US Embassy in Nine Elms, to celebrate what would have been Charlotte’s 174th birthday. The embassy is built on the site of Despard House, formerly 2 Currie Street, where Charlotte Despard lived and ran many of her projects from. When she left the area for Ireland shortly after the First World War, she gave the house in perpetuity to the people of Battersea. It continued to provide support and facilities to the local community until the house was demolished in 1960 as part of a slum clearance programme.

The centrepiece of our event on 15th June was an amazing cake sculpture in the form of Charlotte Despard’s head, complete with black lace mantilla, such as the widowed Charlotte used to wear. The cake was made and decorated by local artist Phillippa Egerton, and has been such a hit it is going to be displayed at various locations in the borough, including local libraries.

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Jeanne Rathbone gave a brief overview of Charlotte Despard’s long life, and why she is so important to Battersea. Jeanne is spearheading a campaign to get a statue of Charlotte Despard erected locally, preferably on or near the site of her former home, and depicting her in the famous clenched fist pose as she addressed an anti Fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in 1933.

I read my poem What’s Mrs Despard Ever Done for Us? and also Joolz’s poem Cat and mouse, from our London Undercurrents project, and recently published in The Pocket Poetry Book of Suffrage from Paper Swans Press. And then we all posed in front of the Charlotte head cake, clenching our fists and looking determined. A few passers by stopped to find out what it was all about, and it was a lovely evening to be sipping wine from a plastic cup and discussing radical politics in this “lousy” part of London.

P1070163 pose Jeanne

Then on Saturday 23rd June we had Tea with Charlotte Despard. This was an event organised by members of COWs and Wandsworth Radio, as part of EqualiTeas, a Houses of Parliament led initiative to mark 90 years since the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act became law.

Several banners were on display, including a beautiful banner designed and sewn by local women working with the artist Ruth Ewan for Processions 2018.  The slogan BELIEVE IN DISCONTENT is based on a Charlotte Despard quote ‘I have always believed in discontent’. Local food surplus initiative Waste Not Want Not supplied tea, cake and sandwiches. It was an intergenerational event, and began with a wonderful routine from an older people’s dance group from the Katherine Low Settlement. They danced to the song Sister Suffragette from the film Mary Poppins, and by popular demand did the whole routine a second time.

Wandsworth Radio’s Arts Editor Lesley Strachan interviewed a number of people about why Charlotte Despard is important to them, including Battersea MP Marsha de Cordova, and actor and poet Blair McAlpine, whose great-grandmother was a suffragette in Vauxhall. Blair also performed a poem inspired by her great-grandmother. I read both Joolz’s and my suffrage poems, and at the end of the event there was a rousing rendition of Ethyl Smyth’s anthem The March of the Women.

Believe in Discontent March of the Women

Hot on the heels of Tea with Charlotte Despard came the Wandsworth Radio documentary Finding Charlotte, written and produced by Lesley Strachan. I’m honoured that Lesley has included my poem What’s Mrs Despard Ever Done for Us? in the programme, and it’s a delight to hear it performed in a proper south London accent by Blair McAlpine. There are interviews with Jeanne Rathbone, artist Liz Sargeant, Dr Naomi Paxton and moi. Do have a listen!

March, march—many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.
—from The March of the Women, words by Cicely Hamilton

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By Our Own Hand – first outing

Last Friday was the  preview of the very first showing of By Our Own Hand, a collaborative artwork devised by the artist Richard Grayson. It was also the  first exhibition in Matt’s Gallery’s new space in Nine Elms – a double celebration!

Whole work

The finished artwork is made up of 42 panels designed and stitched primarily by members of the local community, which spell out the phrase BOREDOM IS ALWAYS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY. We have Guy Debord to thank for that provocative statement. Merci, Guy, je suis d’accord avec vous.

After so many months last year working on my own panel, and becoming very attached to my letter A and the stitching process itself, it was wonderful to see the finished piece and, briefly, be reunited with my panel. I’m inordinately proud of my contribution, and found my involvement in the project very rewarding.  Once again, I was struck by the skill and variety of approaches the other participants brought to their panels. Overall, it’s a visually stunning piece, I think, and joyous, and humbling. There’s also a beautiful catalogue, with a full colour page devoted to each panel, all the participants credited, and comments from most of us at the back.

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All my own work!

The work was only on display for the weekend, as the new gallery space is still under construction. I went back on both the Saturday and Sunday, to marvel again at all the work that went into creating this piece, and also to have a nose around the new and yet-to-be-completed development of the wider site. I’m ambivalent about much of it, but the arrival of Matt’s Gallery in my neighbourhood is very welcome. If nothing else, they throw a good preview!

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listening to speeches

busy elsewhere

Three months to the day since my last blog post! What on earth have I been doing?

My biggest news, in case you missed it, is that fellow poet Joolz Sparkes and I have been awarded Arts Council research & development funding for our London Undercurrents project. This has been my main focus since September, and will be for the next few months, so this is where most of my blogging and writing energy is going. Do check out our blog for regular updates, and we’re also on Twitter: @L_Undercurrent

garden chair cropEarlier this year I took on the role of Chair at my local community garden. I’m learning a lot, not necessarily about gardening (though it’s funny how some of my fellow volunteer gardeners suddenly look to me as though I’m an expert), and it’s an ongoing struggle to balance the admin and organising with the core purpose of the garden – which is to promote the use and enjoyment of a beautiful green space to the community.

Perhaps one day, there’ll be a tell-all memoir My Life as a Garden Chair.

I’ve also been busy stitching an A3 size panel as part of a community art project devised by Richard Grayson for Matt’s Gallery. I saw a call out for participants earlier in the year, and as the workshops were being held locally and no previous experience was required I thought I’d give it a go. There are 42 separate panels, designed and stitched by individuals from different backgrounds and with a range of stitching or textile experience (zilch, in my case), and together they will make up the phrase BOREDOM IS ALWAYS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY. That’s a quote from a text by Guy Debord, and is one of the factors that attracted me to the project. I was pleased to find that I’d randomly been given the letter A to design and stitch, given that I was a complete beginner. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process and, having stitched my last stitch just a few days ago, I feel a great sense of Achievement. The full phrase will be exhibited locally early in 2018.

Then there was the (paid) role I applied for but didn’t get… though I came close, having jumped through quite a few hoops, or over a few hurdles… but I think I’ve got enough in my plate for the time being.

proud stitcher - finished

 

 

 

on the wireless, in print, reading

I have quite a bunch of garden-themed poems now, thanks to my recent residencies with Thrive in Battersea Park, as well as my ongoing involvement with my local community garden. And it’s rewarding to see some of these poems emerging into the world, like seedlings planted months ago starting to bear fruit.

During Thrive’s week of events for Chelsea Fringe Festival back in May, a reporter from Age UK’s radio station The Wireless came along and interviewed some of the participants. You can listen to the broadcast here. There’s an interview with one of Thrive’s horticulturalists, which gives a really good flavour of the great work the organisation does. Mel Barry, who curates the Art Hut in Thrive’s main garden, describes some of the artwork on show and talks about creativity. And, around the 25 minute mark, there’s a short interview with me and I read one of the poems I wrote as part of my residency. (The reporter misheard my name so introduces me as Claire.)

Three more poems from my Thrive residency will be published in South Bank Poetry issue 27, and I’ll be reading them at the launch event this coming Friday 15th September. It’s at the newly refurbished Poetry Café. Doors open 7:15 for a 7:30 start. More details here. It promises to be a lively evening, so hope to see you there!

Horse Chestnut
Horse Chestnut, Sun Gate, Battersea Park, May 2017

my favourite three things about being in London, revisited

I reached for my 1997 Time Out London Guide recently, and remembered why I have a copy of this edition, and why I have kept it. Twenty years ago, the guide’s editor, Nicholas Royle, asked 20 or so Londoners, including me, our favourite three things about being in London. These were then compiled, anonymously, to form the introduction to the guide. Our reward: a free copy of the guide, and a name check at the front of the book.

I’m sure I must have been dead chuffed to have been asked, especially to be identified as a Londoner. And I have a vague memory of enjoying the task of reflecting on and nailing down the top three things I loved about being in London. So as I opened my copy the other day, I wondered how easily I could identify my trio of London faves, and what that might reveal about me back then, and now.

1) Walking through St James’s Park at dusk, when the ducks and squirrels are at their friskiest.
2) Sitting in the front seat on the top deck of a Routemaster bus.
3) Sampling olives and other delicacies in Selfridges food hall.

Easy-peasy. That was me, twenty years ago. Now, Battersea Park has supplanted St James’s Park, as I’ve become much more interested in and attached to my immediate area. Back then, the walk through St James’s Park was often on the way to the ICA, for a film, exhibition or other cultural event. I haven’t been to the ICA in yonks. As far as Selfridges is concerned – those days are well over! But sitting front seat top deck of a double-decker bus – now, that is definitely still up there as one of my three favourite things about being in London. In 2017, that looks like this:

1) Spending time in Battersea Park in all seasons; walking, cycling, sitting taking it all in, always noticing something new, changed or changing.
2) Sitting top deck front seat on a double-decker bus.
3) The river Thames, at high tide, low tide and everything in between; in all weathers. Watching the river from the middle of one of the bridges, from riverside walks, from the top of a double-decker bus as we cross from south to north, or even better, from north to south.

I’ll finish with the same question Nicholas Royle posed at the end of the 1997 Time Out London Guide: What are your favourite three things about being in London?

 

TO London favourite things

walking to art

I’m lucky to live within walking distance of both Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Neither is a short walk – about 40 minutes to Tate Britain and closer to an hour to Tate Modern – but if the weather is fine it’s great to combine mild exercise with some culture, and along the way take in the ever-changing Thames riverfront.

The Sunday before last we walked to Tate Britain to see the Queer British Art exhibition. I enjoyed this show a lot, and found it both moving and uplifting. It’s a mix of art and sociological history, telling an important story of the gradual and often painfully won changes that have led to a greater valuing and acceptance of different gender identities and sexualities. The curators don’t claim the exhibition is comprehensive – much queer art has been lost or destroyed – but part of an ongoing conversation to recover previously hidden artworks and life stories of queer British artists.

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Rainbow flags on the railings outside Tate Britain

As far as the art itself is concerned, I was particularly drawn to the semi-abstract paintings of Keith Vaughan, a new discovery for me. The show is on until 1st October, so I’m hoping to visit again.

Then on Thursday afternoon, we sauntered in the heat to Tate Modern, and feasted our eyes on the stunning work of Fahrelnissa Zeid. I’d never heard of her before, and the exhibition is a revelation. She was a major 20th century artist, whose work draws on a number of traditions, including Western, Islamic and Byzantine art. Her life was nearly as colourful and kaleidoscopic as her art, spanning most of the last century, with periods spent in Istanbul (where she was born into an Ottoman family), Berlin in the 1930s, London, Paris and finally Amman in Jordan, where she taught painting to young women and encouraged their involvement in art.

She painted huge abstract canvases that pulsate with colour and energy. Towards the end of her life she moved away from abstraction to paint a series of very striking portraits. I love an exhibition which gives me goosebumps and makes me smile – this show did that in spades. I will definitely be returning, more than once, before it finishes on 8th October.

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post art drinks on the terrace

Time then for a debrief and refreshing drink on the southside roof terrace of the members’ room, before wandering slowly back to Battersea along the riverfront.