January was my August

I’ve been thinking about that ‘back to school’ feeling that many on this side of the world associate with the end of August and the beginning of September. For me, as I grew up in Australia, January was the long summer school holidays and the new school year began in February. August was winter, and we had two weeks school holiday in September, as the days grew longer and signs of spring appeared.

It definitely feels like summer is ending here in England now. There’s a distinctly autumnal feel to the air, and a creeping sense of melancholy. In Australia, it’s still summer in February, when schools return, and I remember sweltering hot schooldays in February and even March. In primary school, the quarter pints of milk for morning playtime were left outside, in direct sun (according to my memory), which put me off milk for a long time. I think our mother asked the school to excuse my younger sister and me from this warm, souring, drink.

But back to January. I wrote a poem about this month, as part of a South Bank Poetry workshop I did several years ago, led by Katherine Lockton. The poem was published in Brittle Star issue 39, and I thought I would share it here.

Summer Hols

January was paddleboats,
mint choc chip in a stale cone,
sunburn dressed in cold black tea,
French cricket on the beach
and the mad zigzag dash
provoked by march flies.
January was salt and sand
and high hot winds delivering
a peppery frisson of bushfire smoke.
January was Back to School sales
in town. January was endless
like boredom. One long 
Sunday evening of
low-level dread.

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.

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

meet my teapot

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.

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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.

teapot cropped

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.

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Cheers! Drinking tea in bed

a month away, & looking ahead

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!

 

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.

 

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.

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homecoming

 

ABBA in Battersea!

A long time ago… briefly… but it’s true, ABBA alighted in Battersea in 1976, when they were promoting their album Arrival.

Back then, I was a teenager in Melbourne, an ABBA fan, and although London was on my radar, I doubt I’d heard of Battersea. There’s a photo of me on Christmas morning, delightedly clutching my just-unwrapped copy of Arrival. The following year, with my sisters and cousin, I went to my first ever concert – ABBA at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. It was both scary – so many people! – and incredibly exciting.

A few years later, my brother and I saw The Birthday Party at the Seaview Ballroom on Christmas Eve, and ABBA and everything I’d seen and heard before was out the window. My year zero. Rip it up and start again, as Orange Juice sang.

Fast forward to 2017. I’d been living in Battersea more than half my life, and had long since rediscovered the joy of ABBA’s music (whilst still enjoying the odd dose of discordant guitar and strangled vocals). I noticed the Southbank Centre was recruiting guides for its ABBA: Super Troupers immersive exhibition and decided to apply. To my amazement, I got through the first round and was shortlisted for interview, where I also had to deliver a short overview of ABBA, including interesting facts.

EEK!! Luckily I had a copy of ABBA by Harry Edgington, which I trawled through making copious notes – and then struck a nugget:

They put on the style in London to launch their LP, ‘Arrival’. From London Airport, they flew in Abba-labelled helicopters – to match the helicopters on the cover of the album – and came in to a press reception at the Thames-side heliport.

Thames-side heliport?? Surely that must have been the heliport in Battersea? I searched online and came across a clip from a TV programme called Young Nation in November 1976. We see the group arriving at Heathrow, then travelling by helicopter, and about 4 minutes in – yes! – they touch down at the Westland Heliport (now London Heliport) in Battersea. On the History page of the heliport website, although there is no mention of this momentous visit, some of the archive photos clearly show Fulham Power Station (now demolished) on the opposite bank, which is also briefly shown in the Young Nation clip.

In the end, I wasn’t offered a job as an ABBA Super-Trouper tour guide. I wasn’t too downhearted as around the same time I was getting very busy working on London Undercurrents with Joolz Sparkes. And I still think it’s pretty cool that ABBA, however briefly, set foot in Battersea. Perhaps I should get onto the heliport and suggest a blue plaque… imagine the unveiling!

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London Heliport, December 2018

 

Melbourne, Berlin, London, Coventry & Beirut

Poetry can take you to many places. On Wednesday night we travelled to all these cities without leaving the discomfort of the Poetry Café’s infamous orange plastic chairs. I was one of four invited readers at South Bank Poetry magazine’s First Wednesday event, along with Norbert Hirschhorn, Peter Raynard and Amy McAllister. The time allotted to each featured poet is generous – twenty minutes in total, split between the two halves of the evening.

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First Wednesday, Poetry Café, 2nd March 2016

I began my first set with one of my few Melbourne poems, remembering the Seaview Ballroom where I saw bands such as The Birthday Party, The Scientists and The Go-Betweens. Unhappy days but life-changing music. Then two poems that came out of the six months I lived in West Berlin (as it was) way back when. A necessary bleakness. Cheers, the first poem I had published in South Bank Poetry, hopefully lifted the mood. I felt myself to be a Londoner when I realised I was saying ‘cheers’ unselfconsciously, in that ‘thanks’ and ‘see you’ kind of way. After a few poems from Triptych Poets, I finished my first half set with a poem about the job I quit just over a year ago. No regrets!

In the second half I performed some fairly new poems, including a few horticulturally themed ones, and enjoyed giving these poems an airing.

I first met Peter Raynard at a South Bank Poetry launch a couple of years ago and remember being impressed by his confident performance, and surprised to learn that he’d only started writing poetry relatively recently. He’s since set up Proletarian Poetry, an online anthology of poetry of working class lives, and his own poetry has gone from strength to strength. He provided the Coventry connection, with several hard-hitting poems set in his home town. There’s a visceral quality to many of Peter’s poems, but also great wit.

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Peter Raynard

Amy McAllister described herself as a ‘cavewoman’ as she doesn’t do Facebook or other social media, though she had a very funny poem about why she’s not on Facebook. Her background is in slam poetry and her poems – mostly, but not exclusively, about boys – are fast-paced, bursting with wordplay, and often take the poem’s central idea to an extreme. She’s also lived in Berlin and her reference in one poem to a kebab-strewn pavement definitely resonated across the years for me. An energetic performer, she’s capable too of those poignant ‘aah’ moments no poetry reading should be without.

Norbert Hirschhorn brought us the smells, sounds, tastes and heartache of Beirut, where he lives some of the time. His are beautiful and generous poems, full of humanity and sensual detail. These are poems I will be seeking out, to read and savour again on the page.

All in all, a cosmopolitan and well travelled night.

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Norbert Hirschhorn

devouring Barracuda

The book: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Start time: Thursday 14th May approximately 11 p.m.

Finish time: Sunday 24th May approximately 8:45 a.m.

Number of pages: 513

This is fast for me. I’d wanted to read this for a while but it looked like a chunky novel and not one I could easily carry around with me. I’ve been a Tsiolkas fan ever since I read Loaded many years ago, and I’ve written before that I think he’s one of the most important contemporary Australian writers around.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry recently – pamphlets, collections, magazines – and had a  real hankering to read fiction, to be immersed in a novel. On that Thursday 14th May, we had a good friend staying over, a fellow writer and expat, who’d read Barracuda in a couple of days the Christmas before last. Her enthusiasm prompted me to dive in, and I read in long chunks, mostly in bed, at the start and end of the day. The writing is vivid and gripping, and what I love about Tsiolkas is that he tackles difficult issues – or his characters do – head on. They have conversations and arguments. They live in the real world, and struggle with what it is to be human, and as the blurb says ‘what it is to be a good person – and what it takes to become one.’

The novel is about dreams for success and what happens when failure strikes. The central character, Daniel Kelly, is on course to become an Olympic swimmer when that dream implodes. The book deals with class – and despite what many people seem to think, Australia is not a classless society; the violence that simmers and occasionally erupts in social interactions, and which is reflected in a coarseness of language; the ambivalent role of sport in Australian society; and the complexities of family and home. There are wonderful passages describing the experience of swimming, and Tsiolkas draws parallels between reading and swimming as Kelly later finds stillness and meaning through books: ‘words were the water and reading was swimming.

Tsiolkas is a thoroughly engaged – and engaging – writer. Barracuda left me feeling, not homesick exactly, but wishing that I could write about London the way he writes about Melbourne. Is anyone doing that?

off to the charity shop

I bid farewell to an old favourite the other day. A school satchel that has seen better days, and for the last few years, if not longer, has hung, not quite forgotten, on a hook on the back of the door that hides our hot water tank.

satchel
last outing

I bought it decades ago, before satchels became trendy and expensive and available in all sorts of funky colours and patterns. It’s not from my school days, but the start of my working life, before I’d ever been overseas. I don’t remember now exactly where I bought it, somewhere in Melbourne, but I do remember why. I was obsessed with someone a little older than me, unavailable, rarely encountered. He carried a satchel around, like this one, dangling off his shoulder. Not aiming for cool or making a statement; just different, and he probably hardly thought about it. But I thought about him and part of him was this satchel-wearing. So I sought out and bought a plain leather school satchel. I guess it made me feel connected to him in some tiny way. And when I couldn’t shake off my obsession and decided to buy a one-way ticket to London in order to force a change in my life, the satchel came with me.

So it’s a mixed bag, if you’ll pardon the pun. It started in obsession, unhappiness and despair. But I’ve never regretted the decision to come to London, and although it’s not always been  easy, I’m certainly much happier now than I was back then. And so on Thursday afternoon the satchel came on one last outing with me, to a local charity shop. Maybe it will be picked up by another restless soul or maybe it will be ragged. Whatever its fate, it was more than time for me to let it go.

 

Melbourne scrapbook

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.

Sliced thumbnail, April 6th 2014
Sliced thumbnail, April 6th 2014

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Squirrel cake, April 7th 2014
Squirrel cake, April 7th 2014

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?

Mr Mao teaches me relaxation techniques
Mr Mao teaches me relaxation techniques

 

 

Quality feline time with Mr Mao. Note also the fancy footless tights I acquired from a shop in Port Melbourne.

 

 

 

 

 

modest literary purchases
modest literary purchases

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.

Bolivian hat, Market Lane Coffee, April 14th 2014
Bolivian hat, Market Lane Coffee, April 14th 2014

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.”
Waitress: “Awesome.”

Yes, I thought, I am a stranger in my home town.