Three readings, a workshop, a virus and a Fun Day

That was my May, and I’m still recovering.

I eased into the month with a double reading at Loose Muse on 8th May. In the first half, Joolz Sparkes and I read from our joint collection London Undercurrents, recently published by Holland Park Press. Over the five or so years that we’ve been working on our project, we’d performed earlier versions of some of these poems at Loose Muse, and Agnes Meadows, the dynamo behind Loose Muse, has been tremendously supportive. So it was wonderful to return with our book and share reworked poems, and also answer questions from the audience about our journey to publication. After the break, and more readings from the floor, I read poems and short fiction from my individual practice. Then listened to my writing pal Joolz perform some fabulous poems, mostly developed from sessions she’s attended as part of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen collective. Loose Muse is on again this Wednesday 12th June, upstairs at the Sun Pub, 21 Drury Lane WC2B 5RH, and will feature Nancy Charley, a truly spellbinding performer, as well as Susannah Rickards, and a special guest all the way from Atlanta, Georgia – “blonde bombshell Dame Colleen”. Doors open 7:30 for 8pm start. Should be a cracking night!

Just over a week later, on 16th May, Ink@84 bookshop hosted a London Undercurrents reading as part of Feminist Book Fortnight. You can read Joolz’s account of the evening here. It was a really uplifting event, and the icing on the cake for the south London posse (Nick and me) was a swift journey home on the 19 bus.

PoemAThon

Two days later I was in the air-conditioned basement of the Poetry Café, kicking off the Poem-A-Thon to raise funds for The Poetry Society. Over 10 hours, sixty poets performed for 8 minutes each. The whole shebang was recorded for posterity, and you can listen here to the first 2 hours (I’m up first). Further 2 hour chunks, plus other listening gems from The Poetry Society,  are available here. And you can still donate online to support all the work The Poetry Society does to promote poetry and poets!

[Enter stage left: The Virus]

I had two more tasks on my May horizon: helping to organise the annual Fun Day for my local community garden; and preparing a creative writing workshop on the theme of Endangered Species. I had not factored in the arrival of a particularly nasty virus. Cue aches, pains, congestion, and a cough that made me sound as if I smoke 20 Woodbines a day. I’ve recovered enough now to sound like I’m down to 10 a day. And with the aid of an array of legal remedies, and a pinch of bed rest, I survived – in fact almost enjoyed – the Fun Day, helped in no small part by the sun coming out to play on the day.

The following afternoon I headed over to the Thrive main garden in Battersea Park to run my first Endangered Species creative writing workshop, as part of The Popsy Set ‘Rarely Seen’ series of creativity sessions. I’d spent quite a bit of time researching endangered species on the IUCN red list, in particular those where the Conservation Actions Needed include  ‘Education and awareness’. The headline statistics are shocking to the point of being almost mind-numbing: more than 27,000 species are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN. And the range of threats species face is far wider then “simply” climate change; pollution, invasive species, habitat depletion, agriculture and more. I narrowed the focus for the workshop to six British species that are under threat, a mix of flora and fauna. I found Magma’s Climate Change issue helpful in thinking about different approaches to writing creatively in response to this overwhelming crisis. I’d put together an info sheet for each species; gathered some thought provoking quotes about responding creatively to the global crisis; tried out the exercises I’d devised. And though I was still feeling below par, the adrenalin kicked in and I was able to deliver the workshop satisfactorily. Tick. In fact, I had some lovely  feedback, reassured that I’d got a good balance between information and creative exercises, and praised for being ‘a skilful and sensitive workshop leader’.

Now, pass me another Woodbine.

If you are interested in attending an Endangered Species workshop in the future please email buy@popsyset.com to check available dates. Workshops are held on Sundays at 2pm and must be booked in advance. Requires a minimum of six bookings to go ahead.

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crazy May

My month ahead, I mean, not the Prime Minister. No, no, no. May is looking a bit crazy for me, but I’ll get through it. Scratch that. I’ll ENJOY it! (Thanks, Joolz, for the ‘be more dog’ tip!)

First up, on Wednesday 8th May, Joolz Sparkes and I are featured readers at Loose Muse, London’s Premiere Women’s Writers Night, upstairs at the Sun Pub, 21 Drury Lane, WC2B 5RH. We’ll be reading from our recently published collection London Undercurrents, and also reading from our individual work, poems and perhaps some short fiction. There are open mic spots for women writers (men are welcome in the audience), and it’s a very friendly and welcoming night. Doors open 7:30 for 8pm start. £6/£5 concessions.

Just over a week later, Joolz and I will be appearing at the lovey Ink@84 indie bookshop and café in Islington on Thursday 16th May from 7pm. It’s part of Feminist Book Fortnight, and we’ll be reading from and talking about London Undercurrents. The event is free to attend but please book in advance. And support indie bookshops by buying a book or two and/or a drink at the café on the night.

Hot on the heels of that reading, I’m first up at The Poetry Society’s Poem-A-Thon on Saturday 18th May at The Poetry Café. From midday until 10pm you can experience a fabulous line-up of sixty poets, donating our time and talent for free with the aim of raising much needed funds to support The Poetry Society’s amazing work. Entry by donation on the door and you can dip in and out as you please. You can also donate online here. Each poet is reading for 8 minutes. I’ve got the first slot so I’m thinking of reading poems about beginnings, early starts, coffee…

Rounding off my crazy May month, I’m leading a creative writing workshop on the theme of Endangered Species, as part of The Popsy Set’s Rarely Seen series of workshops. It’s on Sunday 26th May from 2pm for 2 hours, plus a 10 minute break, at the Art Hut in Thrive Main Garden, Battersea Park. We’ll explore some of the endangered flora and fauna of Britain and try different approaches to highlighting their plight, using short forms such as haiku and prose fragments. Cost is £30, and the workshop must be booked in advance. For enquiries and bookings please email: buy@popsyset.com

I’m enjoying researching and planning the workshop, and will write a bit more about this in another post.

I just realised I could have titled this post Three Readings and a Workshop. But I’ll stick with crazy May. Current mood, and all that.

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prep for Endangered Species creative writing workshop

on your marks… for The Poetry Society’s Poem-A-Thon

I’m taking part in The Poetry Society’s second Poem-A-Thon, which aims to raise funds to help the Society continue their fantastic work promoting poetry and supporting poets across the country. The event is on Saturday 18th May from 12noon to 10pm at The Poetry Café, and features SIXTY poets, reading for 8 minutes each.

Having expressed a preference for being on earlier in the day, I’ve landed the actual starting gun spot – 12 noon! Please come and support me supporting The Poetry Society, and start your Saturday with poetry! Entry is by donation on the door, and you can come and go as you please. There’s an amazing lineup of poets, and you can see the timetable here. You can also support the campaign by making a donation to The Poetry Society online.

The Poetry Café is at 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX. Hope to see you there!

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a month away, & looking ahead

It’s a week now since I got back from a month away in Australia, visiting family in Melbourne. I’m finally over the jet lag, and getting back into the swing of London life. I was very glad that Nick could come with me on this trip, my first “home” in nearly 3 years. It makes such a difference having a companion on the long plane journey, and while our time in Melbourne was pretty much full on family stuff, we had a few days away together, which was great.

I’d thought I might write a little while I was away, or revise some poems, but apart from writing my journal and a few postcards there was no time or head space for creative writing. Yes, it was summer and the weather mostly fantastic. But there were days when you could smell smoke from bushfires burning several hours’ drive from Melbourne, and official figures (reported in The Age on 2 February) showed the mean monthly temperature across Australia exceeded 30 degrees for the first time. This is not good news.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed eating al fresco: breakfast, lunch, dinner (though we suffered from mozzie bites). We imbibed rosé (me) and local pale ales (Nick). I was quickly addicted to the iced coffee and gelato at Il Melograno.

 

We went to a fascinating free tour at the State Library Victoria, focussed on archive material about the Kelly Gang that the library holds, including some of Ned Kelly’s armour and one of his boots. I remember years ago sitting in the circular domed reading room of this beautiful library, feeling like a fraud as I tried to write. I still haven’t completely shaken off that feeling.

At Heide Museum of Modern Art, we took in the Mirka Mora exhibition, an affectionate retrospective of an artist who had a long creative life, showcasing in particular her distinctive drawings and soft sculpture dolls. A life-affirming show!

 

Towards the end of our trip, we headed down to Port Fairy for a few days on the Shipwreck Coast. Highlights included walking to the lighthouse on Griffiths Island, a tranquil and other-worldly place, where we saw black wallabies up close. Shearwaters hatch their chicks in burrows in the sand here, so you have to stick to the designated paths. We also watched some of the Commonwealth Championship Sheep Dog Trials, which happened to be on at Gardens Oval in Port Fairy when we were there. I was surprised the dogs only had 3 sheep to herd, but then that seemed hard enough. I found it quite mesmerising, another rather other-worldly experience. And I swam in the sea every day. Very invigorating.

 

Although it took me longer to adjust to being back than I expected, and despite the toxic political climate in Britain at the moment, London is still the place I want to be. It feels like the beginning of the year to me, and I’m very excited that Joolz Sparkes’s and my poetry collection, London Undercurrents, is being published by Holland Park Press on 28th March. The day after Nick and I got back, I received advance copies of the book – it’s a real book, with a stunning cover, a spine, and more than 5 years’ worth of research and writing inside. WOOHOO!! We’ve had our first review, thanks to Emma Lee, and in a couple of weeks’ time we’re going to be reading from and talking about our collection at the London Book Fair no less!! The days are getting longer, my community garden thinks it’s already spring, so, yes, I’m grateful that there’s quite a bit for me to look forward to in the next few weeks and months.

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homecoming

 

ABBA in Battersea!

A long time ago… briefly… but it’s true, ABBA alighted in Battersea in 1976, when they were promoting their album Arrival.

Back then, I was a teenager in Melbourne, an ABBA fan, and although London was on my radar, I doubt I’d heard of Battersea. There’s a photo of me on Christmas morning, delightedly clutching my just-unwrapped copy of Arrival. The following year, with my sisters and cousin, I went to my first ever concert – ABBA at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. It was both scary – so many people! – and incredibly exciting.

A few years later, my brother and I saw The Birthday Party at the Seaview Ballroom on Christmas Eve, and ABBA and everything I’d seen and heard before was out the window. My year zero. Rip it up and start again, as Orange Juice sang.

Fast forward to 2017. I’d been living in Battersea more than half my life, and had long since rediscovered the joy of ABBA’s music (whilst still enjoying the odd dose of discordant guitar and strangled vocals). I noticed the Southbank Centre was recruiting guides for its ABBA: Super Troupers immersive exhibition and decided to apply. To my amazement, I got through the first round and was shortlisted for interview, where I also had to deliver a short overview of ABBA, including interesting facts.

EEK!! Luckily I had a copy of ABBA by Harry Edgington, which I trawled through making copious notes – and then struck a nugget:

They put on the style in London to launch their LP, ‘Arrival’. From London Airport, they flew in Abba-labelled helicopters – to match the helicopters on the cover of the album – and came in to a press reception at the Thames-side heliport.

Thames-side heliport?? Surely that must have been the heliport in Battersea? I searched online and came across a clip from a TV programme called Young Nation in November 1976. We see the group arriving at Heathrow, then travelling by helicopter, and about 4 minutes in – yes! – they touch down at the Westland Heliport (now London Heliport) in Battersea. On the History page of the heliport website, although there is no mention of this momentous visit, some of the archive photos clearly show Fulham Power Station (now demolished) on the opposite bank, which is also briefly shown in the Young Nation clip.

In the end, I wasn’t offered a job as an ABBA Super-Trouper tour guide. I wasn’t too downhearted as around the same time I was getting very busy working on London Undercurrents with Joolz Sparkes. And I still think it’s pretty cool that ABBA, however briefly, set foot in Battersea. Perhaps I should get onto the heliport and suggest a blue plaque… imagine the unveiling!

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London Heliport, December 2018

 

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

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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