I wanted to be Nancy

On World Book Day, I’m remembering one of my most mortifying school experiences. It was my first year in secondary school, Melbourne, the winter term, 1975. There was a day excursion, though to where I can’t now remember, and we didn’t have to wear school uniform. For some reason I decided I was going to dress as my favourite character Nancy, the fearless pirate captain of the Amazon, in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons.

I’d been obsessed with Arthur Ransome’s books for several years. I vaguely remember writing a play in primary school which borrowed heavily (ahem) from Swallows and Amazons. My parents had paid for sailing lessons on Albert Park Lake, and bought a Mirror sailing dinghy kit, which my Dad and brother built in our back garden, and we sailed on school holidays when we stayed at Anglesea on the southern Victoria coast. My Nanna even knitted me a red woollen pirate hat, just like Nancy’s.

I don’t know what possessed me to dress as Nancy for the school excursion. There wasn’t an instruction to dress as a favourite character from a book – World Book Day hadn’t been dreamt up then. I was excited though. Mum had made me a pair of dark blue corduroy knickerbockers – Nancy wore knickerbockers. I also wore a brown shirt, like Nancy, and my red pirate hat. But my pirate pride was rudely squashed when I turned up outside school by the waiting coach and saw my peers in all their fashionable get-up. In that moment I realised I was quintessentailly a dag – the polar opposite of cool. I don’t remember the rest of the day – just that realisation and the sneers and laughter of the cool girls.

Thankfully that experience didn’t put me off Arthur Ransome’s books. I still hold them dear, and in the last couple of years have reread Swallows and Amazons and one of my favourites (though Nancy doesn’t feature) We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, and have been transported all over again. I still have the pirate hat Nanna knitted for me, though it’s too small for me to wear now. One day I may get it framed. As for school – I’m glad those days are well and truly behind me.

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Twelfth Night afterglow

The Battersea Society would normally host a Twelfth Night supper at a local restaurant on the sixth of January. But these are not normal times. Instead, the Society’s events committee invited me to give a poetry reading on Zoom at 6pm for about half an hour.

I was delighted to have been asked, but also a bit apprehensive. Half an hour felt like quite a long time to fill. I hadn’t given a ‘proper’ reading since Joolz and I read at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair after party back in February 2020. We’d featured as part of Wandsworth Library Poetry Week in September, which was great fun, but it was prerecorded. For the Twelfth Night reading, I decided to read three pairs of poems from London Undercurrents, and then built the rest of the set around that.

I’d also been asked to provide some images to accompany the reading, and I really enjoyed finding a photo or picture for each poem and creating a PowerPoint presentation for the reading. I remembered, too, that Joolz had recorded one of the London Undercurrents poems I’d planned to read, Dodging the Doctor, for Holland Park Press’s YouTube channel, so I was able to include that clip instead. I practised reading, clicking through the slides at home, but thankfully Sara Milne, the event organiser, took charge of the tech side on the night.

During the afternoon before the reading I had a lot of nervous energy, so I decided to expend some of that with a bit of manic housework. In the olden days, there would be the journey to the event venue, and I’d usually walk part of that, and then maybe hop on a bus – so by the time I got there, I probably still felt nervous but also a bit hyped and ready to go. The housework seemed to do the trick, and when I sat down at my computer and logged into Zoom I felt quite centred.

There were around 18 people in the audience, including Joolz and most of my fellow Battersea Society Heritage Committee members – friendly faces! Sara introduced me, muted everyone else, and off I went. I started with a couple of ‘seasonal’ poems, based on memories of Christmas and the long summer school holidays in Australia, which take place in January. Following that, I read a few short poems from indoors looking out accompanied by images of the pages that Stephen Graham created for the booklet. Then poems from London Undercurrents, starting with the clip of Joolz reading, after which I took up the reins again, and enjoyed inhabiting these poems that we put so much love and work into. And finally I read some of the many poems I’ve written inspired by Battersea Park, and finished with the short mesostic poem I wrote for the Nine Elms Advent window collaboration with the artist Luke M. Walker. The Battersea Society sponsored our window, so it felt fitting to end here.

There was time for a few questions and I was suddenly interacting with the audience! I could see their faces again – during the reading I could only see the slides and one small square screen of someone I didn’t know. Lots of smiling faces! And some interesting questions and lovely encouraging feedback. Then boom – meeting ended and I felt a rush of euphoria – what an amazingly intense experience, and I ruddy did it. I also had a little flurry of congratulatory texts and emails, and it was so heartening to experience people’s kindness and appreciation, and to know that my poems resonate with others.

If you live, work or have an interest in Battersea, it is well worth joining the Battersea Society. Standard membership is only £15 per year, for which you get a quarterly magazine, Battersea Matters, regular updates, lots of events (all online at the moment), and support the Society’s work to promote Battersea’s heritage, community and environment. The next event, also on Zoom, is a talk by the wonderful Jeanne Rathbone on Battersea’s Riverside Industrial Heritage on Thursday 21st January at 6pm. More details here.

My thanks to the Battersea Society for inviting me to read, Sara Milne for organising it all, and everyone who came along!

Screenshot of Zoom reading by Joolz Sparkes

towards dawn

. . . and here it is – the advent window Luke Walker and I have created for the Nine Elms Advent Window Trail. Our window officially ‘opened’ at 5pm today and I’m very excited to share it. Please enjoy a virtual chocolate 🍫 in celebration. You can read more about the background to this project here.

All the windows are now installed and if you live in the Nine Elms/Battersea area there are several walking trails you can follow to take in the beautiful artist-designed windows. All the windows will be in place until 2nd January. The theme ‘Light in the Darkness’ seems particularly appropriate this year.

Here are a couple more photos from last week, when Luke and I went along to see our window soon after it had been installed.

Our window is no. 14 on the Advent window trail. It’s located near the south-west chimney of Battersea Power Station on Circus Road West, at the end of Circus West Village. Thanks again to the Battersea Society for sponsoring the window, and Nine Elms Arts Ministry for organising this wonderful celebration of light in dark times.

Photos by Luke M. Walker

windows (& some words) lit large

The Nine Elms Advent Calendar launches today, an initiative organised by the Nine Elms Arts Ministry, following on from their inaugural Advent Window trail last year. Back then, when we could all huddle together outside sipping mulled wine and singing carols, there was a grand unveiling each evening of a new window over the 24 days in the run up to Christmas. This year, the Advent trail has been rethought, with all the windows in place by 5th December (fingers crossed) and local people encouraged to walk the trail in their household or bubble. A different window will be highlighted each day on social media.

And, to my delight, I was invited to work with the artist Luke M Walker on a design for a window on the Battersea Power Station site. We had an initial Zoom meeting with Alex Baker from Battersea Power Station and Rev. Betsy Blatchley from the Nine Elms Arts Ministry, who between them outlined the theme – ‘Light in the Darkness’ – and roughly where on the construction site they hoped our window would be. The contractor Sir Robert McAlpine had agreed to host an Advent window in one of the yet to be completed apartments in the Foster + Partners building Battersea Roof Gardens. I was pinching myself. The idea of seeing my words, in whatever form, lit up close to Battersea Power Station, is, frankly, thrilling.

Luke and I had a chat on the phone to exchange a few first thoughts and learn a little more about each other’s practice. We share a love of walking, and have also both followed the development of the Power Station site closely over the years. Then only a few days later we went on a site visit to check out two possible locations for our Advent window. Several years ago I led tours of the Battersea Power Station construction site on the occasional Sunday afternoon (another of Alex Baker’s community initiatives) and it turns out Luke had been on one of those tours – small world! We had now to go through a similar health and safety run-through before getting decked out in hard hats, hi-vis vests and safety boots.

We set off then in a socially distanced line led by the Community Manager from Sir Robert McAlpine, with representatives from various other departments and subcontractors. We crossed a footbridge and then via a security turnstile accessed the vast construction site, with highly skilled labouring going on all around us, mud underfoot, and the structural innards of new buildings towering above us. We entered what will be Battersea Roof Gardens at the Battersea Park Road end, walking through long void spaces, up a few storeys in a construction hoist, down several rough flights of stairs (me running a hand along the safety rail, trying to focus on each step and NOT think about the time I fell on the stairs at home), and finally to the north end of the building, right near the south-west corner of the Power Station, where the first apartments are being finished and windows are already in place.

There followed discussions between Luke and the different operatives about the best way of installing our design (once we’d come up with it!) and how to light it. We looked at the two options and agreed on our preferred one – the apartment with two floor to ceiling windows next to each other. Luke took lots of measurements and then we headed back to the Sir Robert McAlpine reception to return our safety gear. I was buzzing from all the stimuli on site, so it was good then to walk together through the publicly accessible parts of the site and see the building – and ‘our’ windows – from the outside. They’re a couple of storeys up, so I knew whatever I wrote would have to be quite short so the words could be printed large enough to be visible from the pavement opposite the building. We got a takeaway coffee and sat on the coaling jetty in front of Battersea Power Station discussing ideas and more broadly the changes we’ve both seen locally over the years.

The following day I sat at my desk and started jotting down some words. Part of our brief was to include the word LIGHT somewhere in the design. I was thinking too about how to write a text that would work across the two windows. I played around with some short forms and finally settled on a mesostic – a variation on an acrostic, in this form the letters in the middle of each line spell out a word when read downwards. I emailed it to Luke and happily he loved it! Since then, most of the work has been on Luke’s plate. He’s come up with a beautiful design, going for a ‘less is more’ approach; and then there’s all the technical and logistics side, how to print it and apply it to the windows, how to light it, and liaising with the different contractors involved. We’re hopefully on track to have it in place by 5th December and I really can’t wait to see it up there, beaming out to passers-by.

location of the windows

As soon as it’s up I’ll post some photos. In the meantime, if you’re local to the Battersea/Nine Elms area do check out the Advent Window Trail. There’s a wonderful variety of responses to the theme and it’s been very uplifting to be involved. It’s also a great way to find new corners of this part of London. And if you’re not local you can still follow the trail online, via the Nine Elms Arts Ministry’s social media channels:

Twitter @9ElmsArtsRev
Instagram @NineElmsArtsMinistry  
Facebook page /NineElmsArtsMinistry 

plus regular project updates via the Facebook Event page

My thanks to Alex at Battersea Power Station, Betsy at Nine Elms Arts Ministry, The Battersea Society, and contractors at Battersea Power Station for this opportunity and making it happen. Thanks for your light in these dark times!

the story of a story

I am delighted to welcome into the world my short story The Red Suitcase, published as a beautiful limited-edition chapbook by Nightjar Press.

I keep track of my submissions on index cards (I know, it’s old school). I first sent the story out in March 2012. I kept trying off and on, so many times I had to turnover and start using the back of the index card. I got my 13th rejection earlier this year. 14th time lucky!!

Eight years, then, before I got an acceptance. The story is just over 5,000 words, so too long for many UK magazines, though I submitted to some that do publish longer stories. I tried a few competitions, online and US magazines. I tinkered with the text, wondered about the title. But I didn’t want to – couldn’t – give up on the story. I can’t now recall the circumstances of writing The Red Suitcase. I know the roots of the setting, and some of the other elements. Did I know how the story would end when I started writing it? I don’t think so.

And now it has found its home, and I couldn’t be happier for it. Nightjar Press, run by Nicholas Royle, has been publishing single short-story chapbooks for over a decade. Each chapbook is signed by the author. The stories all have an unsettling, sometimes weird, ambience, a Nightjar je-ne-sais-quoi. I’ve got eleven Nightjar chapbooks, and had wondered about sending my story to the press but wasn’t sure if it was quite the thing Nicholas Royle was looking for. The other factor holding me back was that I’ve known Mr Royle for many years and value him both as a great supporter of writers and happily also as a very good friend. Back in the day, before my writing shifted to focus mainly on poetry, Nick had included several of my short stories in anthologies for which he was the editor. He’d also turned down at least one story, very gently. How would I feel if he said no to The Red Suitcase?

Then one afternoon this summer Nick walked across London to meet my Nick in Battersea Park to give him two CDs, and to catch up, at a social distance of course. I joined them a bit later and Nick asked how my writing was going. I told him about indoors looking out and, though poetry isn’t really his bag, he promised to tweet about it. As we were about to part, I screwed up my courage and asked him what was the maximum word count he would consider for a Nightjar story. The cat was out of the bag then. I told him I had a story I’d been trying to get published for years, that I’d love it to be published by Nightjar Press but I wasn’t sure if it was quite right for him. I also mentioned I was unsure about the title, but when I told him the title he said he loved it and not to change it. He wanted to read it. If he didn’t take it, it would be because it wasn’t a good fit for the press.

Over the next week I reviewed The Red Suitcase. I made a few edits, mainly to the opening. I’ve definitely got better at editing my work since writing more poetry, and specifically thanks to the mentoring Joolz Sparkes and I received from Jacqueline Saphra as part of our Arts Council funding for London Undercurrents in 2017/18. On the 8th of August I emailed The Red Suitcase to Nicholas Royle. The following day he replied saying he loved it and would love to publish it. YES!! My hand was shaking with excitement when I wrote that on the index card.

Nick came back with a few additional edits, all of which I was happy to accept. Then last Tuesday he brought over boxes of hot-off-the-press chapbooks for me to sign. I’d cleaned the dining table and turned on the heating. I felt a bit nervous, and also unsure as to what type of pen to use. I prefer my fountain pen but it turned out not to be compatible with the paper – no ink flow. So I went with the rollerball pen instead (biro is always a last resort for me). I’d put on a favourite CD of piano music, The Transcendalist, performed by Ivan Ilić, and after 47 minutes (Nick timed me) I had signed 200 copies. Do check out Nightjar Press chapbooks – there are three other new stories published alongside mine, which all sound gripping.

elusive equilibrium

Yesterday was not a good day. The weather in my hometown Melbourne can be so changeable we say it has ‘four seasons in one day’. My mood is often like this too, but yesterday it was relentless cold drizzle with a major storm brewing. Anxiety that I could not shift until early evening when I gave myself a good talking to in my journal, pinpointing and writing down what was feeding these anxious feelings – some of which are in my control, such as obsessive checking of social media; and others which are not – other people’s behaviour, for example.

So I’m reminding myself of the things I know help to keep me grounded, such as writing first thing, before checking emails or social media; reading after lunch; reading when I can’t sleep; making lists; exercise. Earlier this year I attended some free Mindfulness and Writing sessions on Zoom, run by Adrienne Hannah and Bev Schofield. It was a wonderfully supportive and stimulating experience, and the mindfulness practices in particular I found really helpful at a time when I was feeling very stressed.

I also recently stood down as Chair of the committee that manages my local community garden, after three and a half years in the role. I’m still involved, as a committee member and regular volunteer, so it’s not a clean break, and for various reasons I don’t yet feel I’ve fully dumped that load. But it’s definitely lighter. I’m not though ready to write my tell-all memoir My Life as a Garden Chair – that one will have to wait for a while!

Of course, in the background – well, no, mostly in the foreground – are the ongoing pandemic and the incompetent (to put it mildly) management of that situation by the government; climate crisis hasn’t gone away; and this year, for me, several personal griefs. So it feels strange to experience highs alongside this – wrong, even – but they are there. So, if you’ll forgive me, here are a few good things that have happened for me recently. I hope there are some good things happening in your life too.

Wandsworth Poetry Week 2020 took place between 28th September and 2nd October. Every evening a reading and conversation with a different poet premiered on the Wandsworth Town Library Facebook page. On Wednesday, Joolz Sparkes and I read from and discussed our London Undercurrents collection. We had great fun recording our reading and chat with librarian Kate Halabura, and I think this comes across in the video. It was a fabulous series of events to be involved in – all the videos are on the library’s Facebook page and will be available on YouTube soon – do check them out.

Last year, I organised a last minute reading at a local café for National Poetry Day. This year, I emailed the Wandsworth Art team to suggest they feature some of Wandsworth’s poets on their new website, which celebrates arts and culture in the borough. Happily, they were up for that! I suggested some poets to include, and they added some more. You can read the feature here.

I was delighted that Emma Lee reviewed indoors looking out on her blog recently. I also had some lovely feedback from a friend:

Re-read your Indoors Looking Out collection. I really like the birds and animals – freer than us. Favourite decoration is ‘Middle distance, fog . . .’ Love it. Another favourite ‘day by day, more light . . .’, the line ‘human life alone kept on ice’. Glad to have it – thank you. – Sharon 

illustration and script by Stephen Graham

Lastly, I am every-cliché-for-delighted that my short story The Red Suitcase is going to be published later this month by Nightjar Press. I’ll write more about this shortly, so watch this space.

Our National Poetry Library could be axed – please sign the petition — Robin Houghton

Please don’t ignore this! What the Southbank Centre’s management are proposing amounts to cultural vandalism in my book.

This is no exaggeration. There doesn’t to be much hope for the National Poetry Library on London’s Southbank, since the Chief Exec is apparently determined to move the library out of the building “in order to monetise more of the Southbank Centre’s space”. First of all, anyone who’s ever visited the Poetry Library knows it’s…

Our National Poetry Library could be axed – please sign the petition — Robin Houghton

in – out – in Mslexia

I’ve subscribed to Mslexia – the magazine for women who write – for many years. It’s packed full of interesting articles and useful tips, and showcases new writing by women. The magazine also pays contributors – not huge sums, but an important recognition of the value of the writer’s words.

And probably for about as long as I’ve been a subscriber, I’ve been trying to get a piece accepted for Mslexia. Recently, the magazine opened up more paid writing slots for women writers. I made myself a mug of coffee, settled at my desk and had a go at two of the new submission opportunities. Bear necessities asks for 50 words plus a photo about an object that helps with the writing process. I wrote about my olive green mug filled with magic black coffee.

For Eyeverse, the requirement is a short poem of no more than four lines accompanied by an original illustration of some kind. After some thought, and more coffee, I chose a photo I’d taken of one of the stray cats who live in my community garden, and crafted four lines in response.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I was excited to see an email pop into my Inbox from Mslexia with the subject: Eyeverse.

Dear Hilaire
I’m delighted to let you know that your Eyeverse poem Cold Turkey has been selected for publication in Issue 87 of Mslexia.

My excitement turned to perplexity. The title of the poem I’d submitted was Papped. Had they got the title wrong, or had they emailed the wrong poet? My query elicited a quick and very apologetic email – my poem and photo had made the shortlist, but another poem had been chosen.

My disappointment was somewhat alleviated a few days later when I had a DM from Mslexia on Twitter asking if they could reproduce one of my tweets on their letters page. Yes of course! So I’m in the new issue of Mslexia, but yet to fulfil my goal of a paid publication spot in the magazine. Here’s my tweet:

And here is my Eyeverse poem that nearly but didn’t quite make it into Mslexia:

Papped

One cool cat lazing
on sun-baked paving.
Ears twitch;
check your distance.