May I introduce you to my teapot? I made this teapot when I was a teenager, still living at home in Melbourne. In fact, the date I inscribed on the bottom of the pot tells me it was on the eve of my 18th birthday that I crafted this rather lovely object.
I have very vague memories of going to pottery evening classes with my younger sister. I don’t think I ever really got to grips with using the pottery wheel, but this project was different. Pieces of clay were cut out and presumably shaped around a mould. The inside is glazed and there are strainer holes where the spout is attached to the pot. Look at that cute lid! It seems miraculous to me now that I created this teapot. I had so little confidence then, especially in any physical or practical activity I undertook.
For a long time the teapot resided in my parents’ kitchen. At some point it travelled overseas and joined me in London. My best guess is that my brother, an expert packer, packed it for me to take in my hand luggage on one occasion when I was travelling back to London after a trip home. Then for another long time it sat on my kitchen bench, unused, apart from a period when Nick and I deposited spare change in it as a way of saving holiday money.
Then last year, concerned about microplastics in tea bags, we switched from tea bags to loose leaf tea, and suddenly my teapot came into its own. We have a couple of individual tea infusers, as we’re not always in synch with our tea intake, but most mornings we start the day with a pot of tea. It’s so civilised.
I wrap a couple of napkins around it as a makeshift tea cosy, though the pot seems to retain heat pretty well on its own. The little green jug, which I bought from a charity shop, holds our oat-based milk alternative. And then, with the radio tuned to BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast programme, we’re set for a couple of cups of tea each in bed before we face the day.
Recently I’ve been working on a collaboration, indoors looking out, with the artist Stephen Graham, and I’m delighted that some of our work has been selected for the online exhibition Covent-19 – Voicing Responses Under Lockdown. You’ll be able to view the exhibition on Instagram from 8th May to 5th June.
The collaboration began on the eve of lockdown, as an informal artistic exchange, with no idea as to where, if anywhere, it might lead. I know Stephen through our community garden. He’s a regular visitor to the garden and our artist-in-residence, creating a beautiful hand-designed pamphlet for the garden a couple of years ago. With the garden closed to the public during lockdown, I suggested to Stephen that I could try to write a short poem each day, and then text it to him to illustrate or interpret as he saw fit. Stephen was up for this, and so our collaboration began.
I haven’t written a poem every day, but more often than not when I’ve sat at my desk in the morning, I’ve managed to produce something. I’ve found the restrictions of the short Japanese forms of haiku and tanka a good frame to work within, and the subject matter is mostly drawn from observations from my second-floor window. Stephen’s pieces in response vary from abstract designs to loose illustrations; each one includes the poem in Stephen’s ‘odd letters’, as he describes them.
It’s just over a week ago that I saw the call out on Instagram for creative work in response to the lockdown, and suggested to Stephen that we submit several pieces. We’re grateful to the Covent-19 curators, Faryal Arif & Nadin Hassan, for this opportunity to share some of our work. And we’re now working towards publishing a booklet. Do check out the online exhibition if you can. I’m looking forward to seeing how people around the world have responded creatively to these current weird/difficult/strange/whatever-you-call-them times. I feel lucky to have this focus and creative outlet – I know many people are struggling. Hope you and your loved ones are keeping safe and well.
Thought I would share the poem I wrote on Sunday and took to my Stanza group on Monday – now looking like this will be our last gathering for some time. Hope you are managing to stay grounded and safe.
small piece of glass
soothing to roll
plucked from park grass
green easing to yellow
light as itself
emptied by words
faded to blues
still holding my gaze
For some time now, Nick and I have taken it in turns to read a poem aloud before we get up. I’m not quite sure when this habit started, and we don’t stick to it every day, but more often than not now we start the day with a poem.
Sometimes I’ve read from The Poetry Review, which I get as part of my Poetry Society membership. Then there was a period when Nick read poems from Out of Everywhere – linguistically innovative poetry by women in North America & the UK edited by Maggie O’Sullivan, and published by Reality Street Editions in 1996. That had its challenges! How to read aloud a poem with very strong visual elements? It was also a revelation, the anthology packed with exciting work by poets and performers such as Susan Howe, Denise Riley and Carlyle Reedy.
At the moment, I’m reading poems from Making Your Own Days – The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry by Kenneth Koch. In the first part of the book (which I confess I started but haven’t finished), Koch sets out his ideas about the language of poetry (making the case that poetry should be considered a separate language from day-to-day language) and suggests ways to approach reading and writing poetry. The larger part of the book is taken up by an anthology of poems selected by Koch, ranging from Homer and Sappho to Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. Each poem or extract is followed by a short commentary by Koch. Once Nick has had a go at guessing the poet (his hit rate is impressive!) and we’ve briefly discussed our responses, I read out Kenneth Koch’s take on the poem, which is often illuminating or helps us appreciate something in a poem which is otherwise not to our taste. And of course we don’t always agree. It’s very rewarding and we’ve made discoveries, for instance the extracts from Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, are wonderful. They’re on our list to read aloud together once we’ve finished Don Quixote (currently stalled… ).
The selection of poems contains a fair few translations – good; and a fifth of the poets included are women – could have done better. Shakespeare gets four entries – extracts from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet plus two poems – which is hard to argue against. On the other hand, including four poems apiece from Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams seems surprising to me. Nevertheless, we’re enjoying the journey, and I might even go back and read the first part of the book in due course.
Wowee. I’ve been busy. I sat down yesterday morning and began a list of things I’ve been up to since I last blogged:
Words for the Wild – I’ve had two poems published on this beautiful site, as part of their autumn ‘Fruit’ themed issue. I love the mix of poetry and fiction, and the gorgeous images that complement the words. There are recordings of the writer reading their work on many of the posts too. Words for the Wild is open for submissions on their winter theme – Gift. And if your work is selected, the editors send a proof for you to check before it’s published online – it’s something I always appreciate, and shows the care that is taken with each author’s work.
Severine – another online journal that publishes both fiction and poetry. And I was delighted to have a short fiction piece I submitted accepted and published in a very quick turnaround. You can read it here, it’s the first short story I’ve had published in over two years!
Nine Elms boards – along the stretch of river between Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and Vauxhall, there are several display boards with news and information about the evolving Nine Elms area. The Battersea Society has been contributing articles for the boards about the rich and colourful history of the area, in particular the industrial heritage. I’m on the heritage committee of the Battersea Society, and when the committee chair was looking for someone to write a new article for the boards, I put my hand up. I thought I’d write about the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company, which I’d first heard about when I was a tour guide on the construction site at Battersea Power Station in 2017. The Power Station was built on land formerly owned by the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company, and I’d come across several references to the notoriously poor quality of their water supply. As I researched more deeply for the article, I decided to focus on this aspect, and in particular the deadly cholera outbreak of 1854, which claimed over 10,000 lives across London. Nearly half of these occurred in households supplied by the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company. It was the physician Dr John Snow who carried out the detailed investigation and analysis which established the link, and effectively proved his theory that cholera was a water-borne disease. There is a lot more I could write about this, but for now it’s satisfying to see my words up on the boards, sharing this important story with passersby.
Small Publishers Fair – I should know book fairs are dangerous. We went on Friday 16th November, early afternoon, and after a couple of hours I emerged, lightheaded, and definitely light-walleted. Four Bad Betty Press Shots; two intriguing and beautifully produced books from the Lost Rocks series published by the Tasmanian press A Published Event; the irresistible Wollstonochlincraft by Annabel Frearson; and more…
Veganism – I’ve been vegetarian for most of my adult life, but have always said I didn’t think I could become vegan. That I’d find it hard to give up cheese, yoghurt, eggs… but after joining the Global Climate Strike on 20th September, seeing the hundreds of thousands of determined, passionate and rightfully angry young people protesting in central London, seeing the evidence daily of the catastrophic situation we are lurching towards – well, changing our diet seems the least that we can do. So Nick and I have started on a journey towards veganism. I’ve been surprised by some people’s reactions, but overall we’re feeling fine and enjoying adapting and discovering new tastes. A small step, but hopefully part of a much bigger wave of change. I often post photos of our meals on Instagram! If you’re interested, you can find me at: @hilaireinlondon
QEH LRB – A different kind of poetry night, part of the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the London Review of Books, held at Queen Elizabeth Hall. A friend who had a spare ticket invited me along. Billed as Paul Muldoon’s Against the Grain, we were treated to music from Nico Muhly – a name I recognised but wasn’t sure what to expect, thankfully I liked what I heard!; imperial presence and poetry from Anne Carson; poetry and song from Amit Chaudhuri; and sophisticated conversation between Paul Muldoon and his guests.
Louise Michel talk –Housmans– this was a fascinating talk about about the French anarchist Louise Michel, focussed on her later years spent largely in London, where she set up an international anarchist school in Fitzrovia, for children of political refugees. Although I knew a bit about Michel, thanks to Nick’s interest in the Paris Commune, the two speakers, Martyn Everett and Constance Bantman, drew a much fuller picture of her life and radical activities. Her utter commitment and tireless campaigning reminds me of Charlotte Despard, though their backgrounds were so different. Another inspirational woman to add to my pantheon.
Fourth Friday – Joolz and I headed to the Poetry Café on the 22nd, for the last ever Fourth Friday. For 15 years, the wonderful Hylda Sims hosted a monthly evening of poetry and acoustic music, and as many people attested on this last night, she’s one of the most encouraging and supportive figures on the scene. Hats off to Hylda!
NPG – Pre-Raphaelite Sisters – on my birthday, we went to see the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s stunning, moving, inspiring, so good I took out a membership and have already been to see it again. There’s a room devoted to Marie Spartali Stillman, one of my Battersea women featured in London Undercurrents, so it’s especially thrilling for me to see her work in the flesh.
Sunday Service – last Sunday afternoon, my LRB QEH poetry friend and I ventured up to Soho for this new poetry reading series at the newly opened Boulevard Theatre. In the bijou auditorium Helen Eastman, the tour-de-force behind Live Canon, introduced readings by Hannah Sullivan and Antony Dunn. Contrasting styles and subject matter, both consummate performers and a relaxed-but-stimulating way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Now, I’m looking forward to December being a quieter month. Ho ho ho . . .
I’m feeling very lucky, and rather giddy, and very grateful. My poem A Cure for Rosesickness is one of three highly commended in this year’s Live Canon International Poetry Prize, judged by Zaffar Kunial. It’s also published in the competition anthology, which features all 50 longlisted poems.
The giddiness may be due in part to a certain amount of Prosecco I imbibed at yesterday’s anthology launch/performance/prize-giving bash at Greenwich Theatre. It’s the performance part which makes this competition so special. All 21 shortlisted poems were performed, from memory, by three members of the Live Canon Ensemble – on this occasion Guy Clark, Jim Scott and Rebecca Hare. What an amazing achievement by these super-talented actors, who brought each poem vividly to life at such short notice – the shortlist was only announced on Friday! It was a privilege to hear Rebecca read my poem so beautifully. You can get a flavour of the Live Canon experience on their YouTube channel.
And after the performances, the prize announcements. The Borough prize for a local Greenwich poem was awarded to Steph Morris, for his funny and sharp poem Keep calm and cross off, one of several poems tilting at the current political climate. I’d come to enjoy the afternoon, and still couldn’t quite believe my poem was on the shortlist. So to hear it was highly commended – gasp! Really?? And by a poet whose work has moved me to tears . . . oh my word! Also highly commended, and coincidentally next to each other in the anthology, very fine poems by James O’Hara-Knight and E. E .Jones. The overall winner, for her wonderful poem Ouroboros, was Ella Duffy.
Then there was more Prosecco in the bar, catching up with poetry friends and making new ones, while I was still in a disbelieving daze that the poem I’d written over 4 years ago for a Mixed Borders residency that didn’t happened, that I’d sent out nine times before without success, was now, not just out in the world, but highly commended.
Thank you, Live Canon. Thank you, Zaffar Kunial. Thank you, well wishers everywhere. And congratulations to everyone who made it into the anthology, onto the shortlist, my fellow ‘commendees’, and especially Ella Duffy. What a super Sunday afternoon!
I woke up yesterday morning thinking about National Poetry Day, which is next Thursday 3rd October. I’m going to a reading the night before, but had nothing planned for the day itself, and wasn’t aware of anything happening locally. And then I thought why don’t I do something myself? Something that wouldn’t take too much organising at short notice, something local, informal.
There’s a lovely cafe that opened on the estate a couple of years ago, with an upstairs room which I’ve often thought would be a good space for a reading or workshop. Maybe they’d be up for hosting an informal poetry reading? I did my best to dampen the chattering doubts and nerves, and after lunch I popped into Vibes Cafe and put my embryonic idea to Chauntelle, one of the managers: an hour in the afternoon, I’d read some of my own poetry, plus other poems relating to ‘truth’ (this year’s NPD theme), and invite people to bring and share a poem they’ve written or a favourite poem. Chauntelle said yes!
So now I’m committed, and mostly excited, and nervous of course. I’ve made a poster and started sharing details on social media. I’ve no idea how many people will turn up – it may just be me and my latte. But it’s worth a punt. If you’re nearby on the day, please do drop by!
When: Thursday 3rd October, 4:00-5:00pm Where: Upstairs at Vibes Cafe, 293 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 4LX
Bring a poem you’ve written or a favourite poem to share, or simply sit and listen!
I find this very difficult. To do nothing. Switch off. Be in the moment. I’d like to get better at it. It’s been a busy year, and mostly for wonderful reasons – visiting my family in Melbourne at the start of the year, then the excitement of launching and promoting London Undercurrents, the poetry collection Joolz Sparkes and I had been working on together for five years. And devising and running a poetry workshop on endangered species, reading, writing, and not doing my accounts. On the downside, not sleeping well, taking ages to recover from a virus, only to feel ill again a short time later. Maybe my body is trying to tell me something?
I was looking forward to a quiet August. But then my local community garden got funding from Wandsworth Council to run a programme of events for the community over the summer holidays – hurrah! The only catch being that we had a very short period to organise everything, promote the programme, deliver it – with a small team of volunteers. August has been busy. And stressful at times. Anyoldhow, I am trying to ease off, and to learn to do nothing once in a while.
And it just so happens, one of the “activities” on offer in the garden’s summer programme is a Do Nothing Club on Thursdays 4-7pm. Nick and I came up with this idea a while back, walking home one evening and discussing ways of trying to get more people to visit the garden. I recalled my first visits to the garden, bringing veg scraps for the compost, and not knowing what else to do, though I loved the place and the idea of a community garden. Nick talked about feeling uncomfortable sitting reading, for example, while others are working in the garden. How about promoting the idea of Doing Nothing, a time to simply enjoy being in the garden without any pressure (real or imagined) to do something. Of course, doing nothing as a valid and important pastime is not original. I spotted Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, in a bookshop window recently. I’m sure there’s a plethora of texts, theories and ancient wisdom on the topic. But sometimes personal experience is the best teacher.
So on the first Thursday of the Do Nothing Club, I headed over to the garden around 5pm. I took my journal with me. I sat in a favourite spot, on a bench in the herb maze, and the quiet, polite leader of the Club, none other than Nick, brought me a fresh mint tea, then left me in peace. I stretched my legs out, sipped mint tea, wrote an account of my day in my journal. Listened to the bird song – swifts, I think. Noticed a ball of string tucked between branches of the gorse bush. Left it there. Gazed at the weeds growing between paving stones. Left them alone. Spotted Nick picking blackberries. Decided that must be okay, since he’s the Leader. It was hard, doing nothing, but got easier. I felt the joy of being in that unruly beautiful urban space – simply being there. Practice makes perfect, I guess. I’m off there now, for the last session. And soon, a week away in rural France. Où je fais rien, peut-être.
On Tuesday I was privileged to go on a free tour of the National Trust property 575 Wandsworth Road. This was part of an event for the National Park City Festival, a week of events to celebrate London being declared the first National Park City in the world, and encouraging Londoners to get out and discover more of London’s green spaces.
575 Wandsworth Road is a 200 year old terraced house, which was purchased in 1981 by the Kenyan-born polymath Khadambi Asalache. He was a poet, novelist, artist and civil servant, who had travelled widely and also held an MPhil in the Philosophy of Mathematics. The property had previously been squatted, but Khadambi saw its potential, and it was also conveniently located on the route of the 77A bus, on which he travelled to his job in the Treasury. In 1986 he started decorating the interior of the house with hand carved fretwork. The original impetus was to cover up a persistent damp patch on a wall of the lower ground floor dining room, but soon his intricate designs began to spread through the house.
Over 20 years, Khadambi completely transformed the interior of his home. All the fretwork was carved by hand. Almost every surface has been decorated with carvings, painted patterns, or stencil effects which were actually painted by hand. There are eclectic collections of inkwells, lustreware, Coptic crosses, African bracelets, neck rests and more displayed throughout the rooms. In the rear sitting room, a painting by Frank Bowling hangs by the window that overlooks the back garden. The painting originally stood in the garden, near a mimosa tree planted by Khadambi, which unfortunately had to be cut down in 2011 as its roots were undermining the stability of the house. The back garden is not accessible to the public, but it’s clear that the garden was a very important place to Khadambi.
Khadambi left his house to the National Trust after he died in 2006. They took ownership in 2010, and the interior has been fully restored and appears as he left it. Tours are restricted to a maximum of six people at a time, and are usually fully booked well in advance. For National Park City Festival, the National Trust partnered with my local community garden to offer free tours to local people, followed by a workshop in the community garden. It was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss, and the tour of the house more than lived up to my expectations. The care, dedication and joy in Khadambi’s handiwork and his selection of objects and details are truly inspiring.
After the tour we walked back in the rising heat to the roof garden, where Think Outside led workshops encouraging each of us to plant and decorate a mobile ‘veg trug’, inspired by some aspect of 575 Wandsworth Road and Khadambi Asalache’s creative life. The variety of approaches and the sheer enjoyment participants got from this activity was wonderful to see. The mobile veg trugs, complete with a small watering can each, will be on display at Battersea Arts Centre from early August.
And Battersea Arts Centre was Nick’s and my destination on Saturday afternoon, for a BBC Proms performance in the recently restored and RIBA award-winning Grand Hall. We weren’t sure what to expect, as the programme featured contemporary composer-performers, all of whom were new to us. Three stages were set up around the hall, and the fully restored Hope-Jones organ ready to go.
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and introduced with panache by Georgia Mann. Jennifer Walshe opened proceedings with a bravura performance of her piece G.L.O.R.I.- a sort of vocal cut-up of popular song lyrics, which had me grinning from ear to ear. Next, Any’s Responses, by Neil Luck, performed by the composer and Musarc, ‘one of the UK’s most progressive choral collectives’, according to the programme. This was witty and unnerving in equal measure.
Later in the programme, there were two more pieces by Neil Luck. Deepy Kaye included images and short film clips projected onto a screen behind Neil and members of Musarc, as well as a live audio description of Neil’s actions, which included shuffling cards and spinning coins on a dinner plate. Somewhere in there was a narrative, based on fan fiction if I heard correctly; as a performance it held my interest, and it wasn’t too long (!), but I wondered what the audio experience was like without the visuals. His last piece, Namesaying, had members of Musarc stationed on each stage, pronouncing nonsense words or names in drawn out phrases, while Neil signalled changes by hitting two wooden sticks together. I found it intriguing and would definitely like to hear this piece again.
Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian, one half of electronic folk duo Crewdson & Cevanne, was there performing solo arrangements from the duo’s debut album, BRACE. I loved her performances and stage presence. She sported a ‘sonic bonnet’, a bespangled turban incorporating a midi-controller, which she operated by pressing metallic buttons on the headdress to trigger rhythms or effects. Her last song, Sisa’s Well, includes field recordings of the hum from Sizewell nuclear power station, which resonates with her harp. We were near the stage she performed on, and I noticed two little girls right at the front, watching Cevanne and utterly entranced, tapping their heads and moving their arms, imitating her gestures. Two future composers I hope!
There were two more pieces from Jennifer Walshe, the last of which, NATURE IS A MACHINE, inspired by a quote from US entrepreneur Marc Andreessen in which he described reinventing himself every so often as ‘upgrading his operating system’, became gradually hypnotic. Then it was time for the Hope-Jones organ to take centre stage.
The organ itself was positioned in the auditorium, towards the back. Up on the balcony, the magnificent pipes and bellows were uplit in dark pink. Kit Downes saddled his steed, so to speak, and drew forth some magnificent sounds from the revamped organ, which was originally installed in 1901, when the building was Battersea Town Hall. It’s a powerful beast.
The afternoon’s programme rounded off with five pieces performed by cellist-composer Oliver Coates, who apparently has opened for Thom Yorke and provided the score for a Karl Lagerfeld show, amongst many other credits. I wasn’t really taken by the mix of plangent amplified cello over sweeps of synth sounds and digitised beats. His last piece however, Reunification, was much more to my taste, just the cello with lots of feedback and dirty noise – the opposite of the sweet and mellow sounds usually associated with the instrument (and which I love in many contexts); his Blixa Bargeld moment winning me over at the end.
And a lovely coincidence I found when I read through the programme notes this morning – Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian was Composer-in-Residence with the London Symphony Orchestra at 575 Wandsworth Road in 2015-17!