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 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 Mugs of black coffee have been replaced by tumblers of iced coffee.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



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.


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


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.

Pointing close
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!

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.

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