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.

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.

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.

reading beneath the trees

On Friday, Chelsea Flower Shower was in full swing, and over the river in the much less frenetic environs of Battersea Park, I gave a poetry reading under the gum tree in Thrive’s main garden. This was part of Thrive’s week of Chelsea Fringe events, and an opportunity for me to share some of the new poems I’d written following my week’s residency in the Hut.

I could hardly have wished for better weather – sunny and warm-verging-on-hot – and the gum tree provided just enough shade for me to read my 15 minute set sans sunglasses. A couple of the poems were inspired by artworks that were on sale in the nearby Art Hut, curated by Mel Barry of Popsy Set. Others were prompted by images that had struck me as I wandered about the park, or from thinking about what a phrase such as ‘companion planting’ might mean. And, of course, I had to write a poem about that magnificent gum tree:

Far from home, like me.
Long acclimatised and

rooted in London soil…

Main garden 26May17
under the gum tree, Thrive main garden, 26 May 2017

Then, Tim from Thrive asked if I’d mind reading a few poems to a group of clients working in the Herb Garden. I’d brought extra poems, and I could hardly refuse the offer of a lift in one of the buggies used to travel between different parts of the park. The group I was to read to consisted mainly of people with learning disabilities, so in discussion with Tim I chose four poems, including one I’d written last year about the Herb Garden.

The group was gathered under the generous shade of a black walnut tree, working on potting up seedlings. When Tim introduced me and explained I was going to read a few poems, one of the clients exclaimed ‘Oh no!’ I promised it wouldn’t take too long or be too painful. As it turned out, everyone listened closely, applauded after each poem, and some asked for copies of the poems. It was a privilege to read in such beautiful surroundings, and to such an appreciative audience.

Herb garden 26May17
under the black walnut tree, Thrive Herb Garden, 26 May 2017

a week in the Thrive Hut


This hut, in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park, was my home for five days last week. Well, between around 10 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon. No sleeping over!

In the run up to Thrive’s Chelsea Fringe week of events at the end of May, invited  local artists have had the opportunity to use the Hut as a base for producing new work, which will then be on display during the festival week.  Mel Barry, who’s curating the Art Hut, asked if I would like to make use of the Hut ahead of my reading on Friday 26th May. A small space, away from day-to-day distractions, and a chance to gather material and hopefully write new poems. Yes please!

So, last Monday I headed over to the park with a few essentials: dictionary, thesaurus, scrap paper, notebook, pen and pencils, a few gardening themed books, ground coffee and a coffee plunger. Thankfully, I could use the kitchen and loo in Thrive’s office, and once I’d signed for the key to the Hut I could come and go as I pleased.

I wrote or made notes in the mornings, went for walks, chatted to some of the staff and volunteers, read extracts in The Writer in the Garden and random poems from Flora Poetica – sometimes out loud, on my own in the Hut. I welcomed a couple of visitors. I took photos on my phone, and resisted checking emails. Every day I had a tasty sandwich for lunch – thank you, Nick!

Mel mentioned that some of the artists whose work will be on show in the Hut have incorporated found objects or foraged material in their pieces. I thought this might be an interesting approach for me to try, so I jotted down scraps of conversation I heard as I was walking round the park as well as phrases and texts from signs and notices. I’ve written one poem which is a partial collage of words selected from two of the books I had with me – a variation on a challenge set for my next Stanza group meeting. Another is a mix of overheard snippets, found text and visual juxtapositions. More ideas are bubbling under.

At the end of the week, I packed up, tidied the Hut as best I could and returned the key. Then I met Mel and some of the local artists she works with, including a couple of talented teenagers, in a nearby hostelry, for an hour’s conversation about nature, art and poetry. Mel had brought some small art works to show me, and I shared a few poems with the group. All in all a stimulating week, and one which should yield more poems in the coming weeks.

I’ll be reading new and nearly-new garden-themed poems in Thrive’s main garden on Friday 26th May at 1pm. Come along, browse the art, eat cake and listen!

My thanks to Thrive for the use of the Hut, and to Mel at Popsy Set for facilitating this.

The poet hard at work


what I told the canvas

I tell myself I can’t draw, that I’ve got no visual sense. So what was I doing in an art workshop called Tell the Canvas on Saturday morning? Testing myself a little, and enjoying myself quite a lot.

This was a one hour drawing and collage session facilitated by Mel Barry, and held in Thrive Battersea’s main building as part of their open day. The workshop was a taster version of a session Mel has run for a number of different groups. Mel is curating the Locals Art Hut pop-up in partnership with Thrive for their Chelsea Fringe week of events in May, when I’ll also be giving a reading on Friday 26th May around 1p.m. So by way of warming up for my participation I thought I’d sign up for the workshop. One hour didn’t seem too daunting, and nor did the session feel rushed.

The broad theme of the workshop was to think about collective needs and imagine a positive change in any community – from local to global – with the aim of communicating that vision via a drawing or collage. Mel had asked me if I’d like to write a haiku in response to the theme, and this was posted on the wall along with quotes from artists Gerhard Richter and John Baldessari and some images to get us thinking.

A vision for our neighbourhood

pavement crack daisies
win prizes. we serenade
birds. sun burns through cloud.

It was a small group and relaxed atmosphere. Mel provided all materials including scrap paper, coloured pencils, pastels, paints and magazines and newspapers to plunder images from. We started with some quick warm up exercises and by the third I definitely felt freer in my approach to filling the page. I had fun trying out pastels and charcoal and not worrying about trying to make a perfect image. Then we were ready for the main task – composing a picture or collage that would convey a vision of a beneficial change to a community. No small task. We had half an hour and a piece of art board each. I started with a few images from magazines of nature in an urban setting, and built up a collage from there. A bit of green and red paint, some colouring in, a couple of phrases. A sense of achievement in making something that is broadly coherent (I think!).


And there was time at the end for conversation about our ideas and how we’d found the process. Overall a positive experience. Deep down I know I have a visual sense (it’s there in my writing, after all) but the long-held belief that I don’t is hard to shake. Mel’s workshop is more than a start.

workshop table

If you’re interested in hosting your own workshop for a group of neighbours, friends, colleagues etc you can enquire with Mel about booking a 1 hour or two hour session at a location of your choice: buy@popsyset.com It could be for a private or public group, for a minimum of 10 and maximum of 20 participants. Ages 6+ up to any age. Workshop fee applies.

Mel will be running Tell the Canvas for under 10s on Saturday 20th May, 11am until midday, at the Locals Art Hut in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park. £5 each. All children must be accompanied/supervised by a parent/guardian for the hour.

notes towards a blog post

notes for blog post

scatterbrain I’m not feeling very focussed at the moment.

ARTEMISpoetry Hurrah! I have a poem accepted for the next issue of ARTEMISpoetry, due out in May.

Re-Mixed borders e-pamphlet It seems a long time ago that I was poet-in-residence at Thrive in Battersea Park for Open Gardens Weekend 2016. Now The Poetry School has published an online pamphlet with contributions from poets who took part in last year’s Mixed Borders scheme. You can view the pamphlet here. It’s well worth a wander through this virtual poetry garden, or you can skip straight to my patch on pages 54-56.

Orbis joint second/third readers’ prize Woohoo! My poem Apology, published in Orbis issue 176, was voted 2nd or 3rd (the email was a bit unclear) in the Readers’Award for that issue. A small but welcome cash prize, and a lovely glow of appreciation. Each issue of Orbis features readers’ comments on poems from the previous issue they’ve voted for and it’s interesting to read the different interpretations people bring to a poem.

Dangerous Women This was a brilliant year-long project from the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. They posed the question: ‘what does it mean to be a dangerous woman?’ and then posted different responses every day, from International Women’s Day 2016 until IWD 2017. I wrote a piece about Unica Zürn, the German surrealist artist and writer, whose work and life have fascinated me for a long time. I was delighted to be involved in this project and all of the contributions will remain on line for at least a year.

Thrive Chelsea Fringe I’m very pleased that Thrive have invited me to take part in their week of events for the Chelsea Fringe Festival, running from 20th to 26th May. I’m hoping to write some new poems and plan to give a short reading in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park on Friday 26th May. I’ll post more details once our plans start to take shape.

gardening & admin I find it tricky sometimes balancing the different pulls on my time (many of which are ones I’ve signed up to and feel committed to). I get a lot of joy spending time in my local community garden, helping maintain it and seeing it flourish. This time of year is exciting, noticing changes every time I go up to the garden. The admin side of things is harder graft, a necessary toil, but the outcomes are often less immediately tangible. Lots of parallels with writing (when it’s going well and you’re ‘in the zone’) and the chores of submitting work and putting oneself out there.

morning is sacred My new mantra. Basically, don’t check emails, social media etc. first thing. Sit at my desk and write or do some writing related activity (such as making notes towards a blog post…). Also known as writing first. Easy to say, harder to put into practice. But I’m practising.

Instagram & Pinterest I’ve recently diversified my potential sources of anxiety and distraction by becoming active on Instagram and Pinterest. I’ve been on Pinterest for a while actually, but prompted by the Dangerous Women project I started pinning images of or about amazing women who have inspired and influenced me. Scrolling through that board makes me smile and reminds me there is hope. So far I have found Instagram fun and not too time consuming.

Which brings me back to scatterbrain. I wonder why I’m not feeling very focussed at the moment?

nice bit of kit

Much as I love nature and spending time in parks and gardens, I also find heavy industry and construction work aesthetically interesting. Stimulating, even! So one of the highlights of my week was being invited to a viewing of the Tunnel Boring Machines at the Northern Line Extension’s Battersea site, before the TBMs were lowered into the ground to begin their 3.2 kilometre London-clay-eating journey towards Kennington. The Northern Line Extension will see a branch line from Kennington serve two new tube stations, Nine Elms (for the American Embassy) and Battersea Power Station.

A group of interested locals gathered in the site’s first floor Portacabin project office for a short presentation about the tunnelling process, before ascending to the viewing platform to gaze upon these two Things of Beauty. The TBMs have been named Amy and Helen, after Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, and Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut in space. Local school children chose the names from a shortlist, and I think it’s great that two pioneering women have been honoured in this way.

Helen (left) and Amy (right)

How can I explain my excitement? Yes, these are amazing feats of engineering, way beyond my understanding. I like some of the jargon and all those boggling facts. The TBMs will be tunneling at depths of up to 30 metres, and operating non stop with a crew of 35 working in shifts. The clay, apparently, is quite stiff, so will be injected with water and foam to make it more of a porridge consistency. This waste or ‘muck’ is channeled back out the tunnel, onto a conveyor belt that takes it to a barge, and from there to Tilbury to restore arable farmland. As the TBM progresses, carriages are added at the back, so staff continue to enter at the Battersea station box and muck goes out the same way. This is all happening down the road from me! And then look at them. They look like sophisticated space capsules, but also like something you’d find in a Kinder Surprise egg.

750 tonne crane

A special crane was being assembled as we watched, which can lift up to 750 tonnes. The TBMs weigh 650 tonnes each. Once the TBMs have been lowered into place in the station box (this weekend if all goes well), the crane will be disassembled and removed.

Station Box

We had a good view down into the station box, where Amy and Helen will begin their underground excavations. The idea that the tube would be extended to Battersea has been around for some time, certainly since 2008. I doubted it would happen. Then, there was talk that it would be completed by 2020, which seemed way off in the future. Now, it looks like it really is going to happen.

Battersea Power Station development site

The scale of the surrounding development is astonishing. I’ve mentioned before how ambivalent I feel about the rate and extent of change, and the impact on the local community. I still feel this. But there is also part of me that is exhilarated by the activity, and fascinated by the beauty of those cranes and their ever-changing angles; the magnificence of the Power Station; and the contrasting colours and Lego-writ-large aspect of the construction site. Now, excuse me while I write an ode to Amy and Helen.

both ordinary and extraordinary

I went to a talk recently, organised by the Battersea Society, about an unlikely pair of spinster sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who helped at least 29 Jewish people escape Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The invited speaker was Louise Carpenter. She’d researched the sisters for a potential biography but eventually realised there wasn’t enough verifiable material to justify a full length book. She did though write a long article for Granta about the sisters. Carpenter described the sisters as both ordinary and extraordinary, which helps explain why they and their story are so fascinating. What they did to help refugees flee persecution is also profoundly relevant today.

Born in Sunderland in the 1900s, the sisters lived most of their life in Battersea in the family home. According to Carpenter it was an almost Calvanistic household and their upbringing, while Christian, was ‛emotionally austere’. There was no music at home. The sisters had an incredibly close bond, and when Ida much later wrote a memoir it was almost entirely written in the first person plural – we. They followed their father into the civil service, working in clerical and typist roles.

Their first extraordinary moment seems to have been when, in their early 20s, they attended a lecture and heard an aria from Madam Butterfly. The world of music, and opera in particular, opened up to them. They saved up and bought a gramophone, bringing music into the family home as they collected opera records. They started attending live opera, queueing for hours for cheap seats, which was all they could afford on their small civil service salaries. Carpenter spoke of the sisters developing ‘celebrity crushes’ on certain opera stars. In 1924, they hatched a plan to travel to New York to hear a singer whose voice they loved perform. After two years’ scrimping and saving they had sufficient funds to book third class berths on a boat to New York, taking with them gowns and capes for the opera that they had sewn themselves. This adventure must have emboldened them, proving what they were capable of achieving if they put their minds to it. If they could travel to New York to attend the opera, why not the continent?

Jump forward to the 1930s and the Cook sisters were frequent visitors to European opera houses and welcomed into opera circles. Ida had started writing short pieces for a fashion magazine and subsequently found her literary calling as one of Mills & Boon’s most popular authors. Through opera friends, the sisters gradually realised the increasing danger faced by Jewish people under the Nazi regime. At this point Jews were allowed to leave Germany but without taking any money or possessions with them. They also faced obstacles trying to find a country that would accept them. Britain, like many countries, required sponsors and financial guarantees. Having helped the daughter of opera friends settle in Britain, the Cook sisters could not turn their backs on other cases that came to their attention. Their continental opera jaunts became a cover for smuggling out jewellery and other valuables that would provide financial security.

Carpenter recounted how the sisters would travel down to Croydon airport on a Friday evening (Louise taking leave for the Saturday; Ida had left the civil service as she was now earning much more from her romantic novels), fly to Cologne and then catch an overnight train to Frankfurt. They would spend the weekend meeting potential cases through an agent and collecting the valuables they were to smuggle out; as well as, of course, attending the opera in the evening. They arrived in dowdy clothing wearing no jewellery, and brought with them labels from British fashion houses to sew into the designer clothes and fur coats they returned to England in – travelling back by train and overnight ferry so as to leave by a different port and minimise the risk of arousing suspicion. Much of their spare time was taken up with organising sponsors and gathering small donations and subscriptions that together would cover one refugee’s financial guarantee. They ploughed most of Ida’s Mills & Boon earnings into their efforts to help individuals escape.

In her memoir We Followed Our Stars (now republished as Safe Passage) Ida reflected:

Until you refuse to recognise defeat, you never learn how much an individual can do.

People sometimes said to us, “But what an extraordinary idea! What do you think private people can do? This is a matter for governments and international committees.”

We always replied, “We will go on until something completely stops us. Why not?”

That something was the outbreak of the Second World War. By then, they had helped at least 29 Jewish people flee Nazi Germany. They never felt fear, Carpenter said, going on to explain that she meant they felt no fear towards the people they were helping. Just as today people (even Presidents of so-called freedom loving countries) are fearful of those seeking refuge from the most desperate circumstances, in the 1930s Jewish refugees were often viewed with suspicion, resentment and outright hostility.

Yesterday, I was amazed to see a story about the Cook sisters featured on the BBC news website, originating from the Tyne and Wear region. On Friday, Holocaust Memorial Day, Sunderland Council unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Ida and Louise Cook at the entrance to their childhood home. Plans for a similar plaque outside their Battersea home have apparently fallen through. I’m happy though for Sunderland to share the story of two ordinary sisters who did some pretty extraordinary work. It’s a story that can’t be shared enough.