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 . . .
It’s a week now since I got back from a month away in Australia, visiting family in Melbourne. I’m finally over the jet lag, and getting back into the swing of London life. I was very glad that Nick could come with me on this trip, my first “home” in nearly 3 years. It makes such a difference having a companion on the long plane journey, and while our time in Melbourne was pretty much full on family stuff, we had a few days away together, which was great.
I’d thought I might write a little while I was away, or revise some poems, but apart from writing my journal and a few postcards there was no time or head space for creative writing. Yes, it was summer and the weather mostly fantastic. But there were days when you could smell smoke from bushfires burning several hours’ drive from Melbourne, and official figures (reported in The Age on 2 February) showed the mean monthly temperature across Australia exceeded 30 degrees for the first time. This is not good news.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed eating al fresco: breakfast, lunch, dinner (though we suffered from mozzie bites). We imbibed rosé (me) and local pale ales (Nick). I was quickly addicted to the iced coffee and gelato at Il Melograno.
We went to a fascinating free tour at the State Library Victoria, focussed on archive material about the Kelly Gang that the library holds, including some of Ned Kelly’s armour and one of his boots. I remember years ago sitting in the circular domed reading room of this beautiful library, feeling like a fraud as I tried to write. I still haven’t completely shaken off that feeling.
At Heide Museum of Modern Art, we took in the Mirka Mora exhibition, an affectionate retrospective of an artist who had a long creative life, showcasing in particular her distinctive drawings and soft sculpture dolls. A life-affirming show!
Mirka Mora cat doll
Koala by Mirka Mora, 1972. Charcoal and pastel on paper
Towards the end of our trip, we headed down to Port Fairy for a few days on the Shipwreck Coast. Highlights included walking to the lighthouse on Griffiths Island, a tranquil and other-worldly place, where we saw black wallabies up close. Shearwaters hatch their chicks in burrows in the sand here, so you have to stick to the designated paths. We also watched some of the Commonwealth Championship Sheep Dog Trials, which happened to be on at Gardens Oval in Port Fairy when we were there. I was surprised the dogs only had 3 sheep to herd, but then that seemed hard enough. I found it quite mesmerising, another rather other-worldly experience. And I swam in the sea every day. Very invigorating.
Black wallaby, Griffiths Island
sheep dog trials
Port Fairy Bay
home from home
Although it took me longer to adjust to being back than I expected, and despite the toxic political climate in Britain at the moment, London is still the place I want to be. It feels like the beginning of the year to me, and I’m very excited that Joolz Sparkes’s and my poetry collection, London Undercurrents, is being published by Holland Park Press on 28th March. The day after Nick and I got back, I received advance copies of the book – it’s a real book, with a stunning cover, a spine, and more than 5 years’ worth of research and writing inside. WOOHOO!! We’ve had our first review, thanks to Emma Lee, and in a couple of weeks’ time we’re going to be reading from and talking about our collection at the London Book Fair no less!! The days are getting longer, my community garden thinks it’s already spring, so, yes, I’m grateful that there’s quite a bit for me to look forward to in the next few weeks and months.
I won first prize in the City Harvest Holiday Poetry Competition! My first first prize, and City Harvest’s first poetry competition. And it all came about thanks to the local surplus food project, Waste Not Want Not, that Nick and I have benefited from over the last couple of years.
WNWN circulated details to all their contacts a few weeks ago inviting us to enter City Harvest’s poetry competition. The theme was “What Food Means to Me”, with the top three winners receiving a crate of goodies from City Harvest, including a turkey. I’m vegetarian, so the turkey was not a draw, but the idea of a hamper of foodie treats just before Christmas was very tempting. The deadline was quite tight though – 1st of December – and I often struggle to write to a theme.
Nevertheless, I sat at my desk one morning, determined to give it a go. Eating my breakfast and thinking about food and what angle to take. I’m lucky never to have experienced hunger. Food can be one of the great pleasures of life. And one of the things I love about the surplus food we get from WNWN is having to be creative with the ingredients that end up in our bag. Food is definitely more than fuel in my book. So I mused, munching on my piece of tahini on toast. And lo and behold, a poem started to take shape on the page.
I emailed it off, and last Friday received the wonderful news that I won first prize! It was too late to save the turkey, but it won’t go to waste. Hadas from WNWN is planning a shared community Christmas dinner, where the turkey is sure to be enjoyed by the meat-eaters amongst us.
Huge thanks to City Harvest for running the competition, to Howard Altmann for judging it, and to Waste Not Want Not for prompting me to enter, and more importantly for keeping dozens of Battersea households supplied with fantastic food that would otherwise end up in landfill.
Here’s my prize winning poem:
More than Fuel
A piece of toast
to start my day
from which a world expands
in every bite
a crunchy thought
to chew upon
and savour distant
whose drizzled oil
anoints my toast
and with tahini
to countless seeds
and what each sesame
may open —
a hoard of ancient knowledge
dancing on my tongue.
There’s not been much let up since my Thrive residency came to an end. On Sunday 26th June I travelled far north (for a south London gal) to perform at Finchley Literary Festival‘s closing event, the Poetry and Music Palooza hosted by Anna Meryt. The locals were friendly and it was a fun and uplifting evening, despite the drizzle and recent events. Here’s a YouTube clip of my reading. Thanks to Anna for inviting me to read, and to David Gardiner for filming the event.
Then on Wednesday 29th June I took part in my first Stanza Bonanza at the Poetry Café. Billed as a ‘war of words’ between the Clapham and Reading Stanza groups, I was a little nervous, as I’m not keen on poetry as a combative activity. Thankfully, it was all very good-natured, and I volunteered to read first for Clapham so I was able to relax then and enjoy the rest of the evening. The winner? Poetry, of course! And, well, half the Reading team seemed to have connections to south London, so really…
After a bit of a London Undercurrents lull (Joolz and I have both had a lot going on) we’re pleased to have two poems published in the 10th issue of Lunar Poetry magazine. The launch reading was on Tuesday in Peckham and as Joolz was away, I read for both of us.
I’ve also got two poems in issue 13 of morphrog, which has just gone live. Hurrah!
The community roof garden is keeping me busy in a very rewarding way. It’s not just the produce, but the strawberries and raspberries taste fantastic and we’ve had some delicious beetroot. There’s also been a football tournament taking place in France, you may have noticed. And on Monday I was filmed reading a poem in a polytunnel. But more about that another time.
It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque setting for a poetry reading than the Old English Garden in Battersea Park. Here, on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I read some of my garden themed poems as part of Thrive‘s Chelsea Fringe Festival week of events.
The weather was kind to me, with warm sunshine breaking through on both days. I had a small but attentive audience on each occasion, including some of Thrive’s hardworking gardeners and volunteers. The poems I read broadly reflect my own ongoing journey into gardening, and it was lovely to share some of the poems I’ve written over the last few weeks as I’ve spent time in the gardens Thrive manages.
It’s only three weeks now until the Open Garden Squares Weekend on 18th and 19th of June. By then I hope to have a decent crop of new poems. For now, here’s a recent haiku, plucked from the Thrive Herb Garden:
tall mauve irises,
poodle-proud. one rainbow shade
in time-lapse garden.
Poor old January. Too often a long dark month to get through. Now you’re behind us, and February’s here, the shortest month whose lengthening days speed us towards spring. So it snowed overnight on Monday, and the wind is Siberian, but there are snowdrops in the park, and buds on the magnolia trees.
This bright morning I walked down to Battersea High Street to check out Raynsford’s greengrocers, following a friend’s recommendation, and was not disappointed. Blood oranges, four for a pound. Blood oranges! Sunshine wrapped in citrus peel.
And this afternoon, for the first time since I fractured my right thumb, I ventured out on my bicycle. I’ve been itching to get cycling again, though my thumb’s not yet restored to full flexibility, and I’m still building up its strength. So this was a trial run, in the relative safety of Battersea Park. Four circuits, varying the pace, practising gear changes, making sure I could brake, battling headlong into that Siberian wind. How exhilarating it felt! But, being a cautious bod, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to tackle peak hour traffic, especially after dark. That will come. And beyond this, I’m hatching plans. Changes are afoot. February is definitely looking up.
About a year ago, our local greengrocer closed temporarily for a radical refurbishment, including the addition of a flat over the shop. We resigned ourselves to several months of mildly-aggravating and bit-more-expensive fruit and vegetable shopping in the nearby supermarket, softened by the anticipation of when-Thurgoods-reopens, hoping it would be perhaps a little smarter but still a good and proper greengrocers. With the odd stray apostrophe. Scaffolding went up. A new storey went up. Months passed. Scaffolding came down. Metal shutters covered the shopfront. Estate agent sign appeared: Maisonette for sale. The maisonette sold. Every time we passed, the shutters were down. Only today, as I headed up Queenstown Road, I noticed a light, the shutters up, and this sad notice taped to the window:
So, farewell, Dave and family. There is so much I will miss. Already miss. Loose bunches of fresh spinach, that came with their roots still intact, mud on the leaves and the occasional small stone. The brief appearance of blood oranges early in the year that told me spring was on its way. The cheap bunches of daffs or scented narcissi – 3 for £2 – too good a deal to resist. In late May, bundles of English asparagus, tender spears perfect for roasting or adding to risotto. Then Cyprus potatoes caked in red earth, and the excitement of sighting the first Brussel sprouts of the season. Brown paper bags for mushrooms. Choosing one or two onions, a handful of carrots, just the amount we needed and no excess packaging. And Dave with his friendly welcome, and always remarking that we brought our own bags. A bit of chat about the weather, or football – they were Fulham through and through – while Dave weighed and packed and son Joe or Mrs Thurgood (ashamed to admit I never learnt her first name) rang it all up on the cash register. Have we kept a receipt? And no more Brussel sprout Christmas card slipped into our bag beside the pots and sprouts and parsnips in chill December. The shop is empty, newly painted. I rather dread what its new incarnation will be. Patisserie? Charcuterie? Designer-boutique-whateverie?
Here are some snaps and snippets from my recent trip home. Home? To the city where I was born, where I grew up, that I made a conscious choice to leave many years ago. London is home now. Melbourne is family, a few friends, home-but-not-home. What’s that line from a Gang of Four song? ‘At home she feels like a tourist.’ I need a map, I’m given a Myki, sometimes I can’t understand what the shop assistants are saying.
I sliced through my thumbnail whilst shredding lettuce for a salad. Cut thumbs seem to be the poet’s injury of choice – witness Sylvia Plath’s Cut, and more recently Josephine Corcoran’s post. Luckily, it was my left thumb, and the friendly fireman who lives across the road from my brother and sister-in-law bandaged my thumb up expertly.
I helped my brother construct a squirrel-shaped cake for my niece’s ninth birthday. This was a big hit, and also a lot bigger than any real squirrel, so entirely appropriate in the Australian context. When I first arrived in London and saw squirrels darting about in the parks I was surprised at how small they were. I’d expected them to be a similar size to possums. And hedgehogs – well, they must be about the size of an echidna, surely?
Quality feline time with Mr Mao. Note also the fancy footless tights I acquired from a shop in Port Melbourne.
On this trip, I only visited a couple of bookshops. In the Brunswick Street Bookstore I bought issue 3 of Melbourne based story magazine The Canary Press, which I read on the flight back to London. Some great yarns accompanied by gorgeous illustrations. I also bought Liquid Nitrogen by Jennifer Maiden, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. I have a poem by Jennifer Maiden pasted onto the first page of the first journal I wrote in when I came to London. And I picked up the Text Publishing edition of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride since I couldn’t track down a copy in London. Books for Cooks on Gertrude Street is packed with mouthwatering foodie books, both new and second-hand, so just the place to lay my hands on a very reasonably priced first edition of Donnini’s Pasta Book. My brother had made pasta with Donnini’s Garlic and Oil Sauce – simple and delicious – so I thought this recipe book was a must-have for my chef at home in London.
Coffee is practically a religion in Melbourne. The latest cult is the pour over, and I was initiated into its ritual preparation at the Victoria Market outlet of Market Lane Coffee. It’s a rather gentle and quiet process, but requires precise measurements (weight of coffee grounds, volume of water, optimum temperature) and some classy equipment (ceramic filter cone, stainless steel kettle with a slender spout ‘for precise pouring’, glass jug). It was a pleasure to watch the measuring and timing and the circular pouring; and then to savour the delicate porcelain mugful of 100% Rwandan Nyarusiza bean pour over coffee, on an unhurried Monday lunchtime. And while they sell most of the equipment, and bags of beans, and Market Lane aprons, the Bolivian hats on the whitewashed walls are for display only.
I enjoyed other coffees too. I stole a couple of hours for myself one afternoon, and sat in Barry on High Street, Northcote, with paper and pen and a good latte, and cobbled a few sentences together. And jotted down my exchange with the waitress.
Waitress: “What can I get you?”
Me: “Just a latte please.”
I think this packed week off is catching up with me. Deep breath…
So, Wednesday night to Loose Muse at the Poetry Café. I wavered, feeling tired and a kind of non-specific low-level anxiety, and then the intermittent flurries of snow did little to improve my mood. But I convinced myself to go, and the walk to Sloane Square and sight of the new moon above Albert Bridge lifted my spirits. And I’m so glad I did go, as it proved to be an invigorating evening. Margaret Eddershaw, now resident in Greece but visiting London, read a short selection of poems, including Like George, based on an encounter with a mixed race man in Alice Springs, a powerful and troubling poem. Morgen Bailey, introduced by Agnes as a ‘prolific blogger’, shared tips and insights into the world of blogging: why you might want to blog, how often to do so (she puts me to shame!), how she got started, the downsides as well as the upsides. In addition to her main blog, she has set up five on line writing groups, and posts inteviews and podcasts with other writers. Her energy, generosity and support for other writers – established and starting out – are formidable and admirable. Notes from her talk are, of course, available here on her blog.
As ever, the open mic spots were popular, and it’s fascinating to hear the variety of work being written and performed by women, and mostly of such high quality. The evening concluded with Rosemary Harris talking about and reading extracts from her novel The Invisible Riot, currently with an agent, hopefully to be snapped up by an astute publisher soonest. Harris explained that she wanted to write about the suffragettes, and particularly the very militant and violent struggle in the years immediately before the First World War. The novel has a fractured narrative, written from a number of viewpoints, including a constable involved in violently breaking up the suffragettes’ protests. The extracts Harris read were gripping, and it sounds like an important and exciting book. It prompted quite a discussion about writing about violence, the importance of trying to understand the mindset of someone who enjoys such acts, Harris’s use of the second person as a means of exploring that character, and the way this particular part of the suffragette movement and how empowering it was for many women has effectively been written out of history. A truly stimulating evening.
As to the rest of my week, I wrote a little; thought more about my writing; started reading The Garden Book by Brian Castro; continued reading the latest Magma, Mslexia, London Review of Books; had a naughty-but-delicious fried egg on toast for lunch on Thursday, good fuel for the afternoon’s walk to Tate Britain and another rewarding look around the Schwitters exhibition; just about kept on top of my journal; updated my blog. If only I had another week off now to recover.