Just a few weeks ago I met up with my fellow 2021 Manchester Fiction Prize judges Nicholas Royle and Simon Okotie to decide on the overall winner from our shortlist of six stories. Over the previous months we’d read hundreds of stories, and then gradually whittled our unofficial longlist down to six via email. It’s been a long process, which culminated in a civilised discussion of the shortlisted stories, weighing them against each other and arriving at our winner in just under an hour. No fisticuffs or hissy fits involved. And though it felt a huge responsibility, it was also thrilling to know we have chosen a brilliant story, and that its writer will be fittingly rewarded.

The whole process was anonymous, so it was only after our shortlisted stories, and the overall winner, had been confirmed with the administrative team that we found out who the authors were. The fiction and poetry finalists were officially announced on Monday and their shortlisted stories and poems are available online to read now. And on Thursday 26th May I’ll be heading up to Manchester for the Gala Prize-giving Ceremony, full of excitement and maybe a few nerves. The event, which includes readings by all the shortlisted writers, is free and open to the public but advance booking is essential.

No sooner had I packed away my judge’s wig, than my focus shifted to planning the found text poetry workshops I’m delivering in June as part of my found ~ flow ~ flux commission from Wandsworth Council. I’ve devised three different walk routes, one for each workshop, each one passing through or alongside several of the new developments in Nine Elms. I’ve also made a poster to distribute locally, and set up registration details on Eventbrite, which went live earlier this week. The next steps are to finalise the content of the workshops and continue promoting them.

I’ve also created a task list with approximate dates, so I can see what I need to get done in the following couple of months. July looks like being busy, as I collate and edit poems for the booklet! But before that, I need participants for the workshops. If you can help spread the word – or decide to sign up yourself – I would really appreciate that.

that live vibe

What a buzz it was to read to a real live audience last Thursday. Around 16 people attended my reading at Putney Library and it could hardly have gone better. There was applause! There were smiling faces! There was even a Bravo!

I split my set into three sections, reading first from Triptych Poets, followed by some of the short poems in indoors looking out and a few urban nature themed poems. And for the last section, I read poems from London Undercurrents, reading poems from the north side of the river as well as the south, as Joolz couldn’t make it to Putney that evening. It was her poem What Did You Do in the War, Granny? that elicited the Bravo! I was a bit overwhelmed at the end, unused to live applause, and I think I made a little bow. Afterwards, there was time to chat to some of those who came and to sell and sign some books*. No wonder I was buzzing!

And it was great to have three guest readers from Clapham Originals, the monthly poetry workshop group I belong to, reading a couple of poems each to add some variety and show what a talented bunch the Originals are. My thanks to Claire Collison, Steve Hoy and Clapham Originals’ ringleader Tessa Lang for their contribution to a fizzing evening of poetry. A big thank you to the Putney Library staff, too, for being so welcoming and hosting the event.

*I have copies of indoors looking out and Triptych Poets available from my Shop page.

Putney Library 3rd February 2022
Reading from indoors looking out
Reading my poem Lone Piper in Battersea Park from the Words of Wandsworth anthology

Photos: Nick Rogers

a display, a reading, and a little poetry news

Late last year Stephen Graham, with whom I collaborated on the booklet indoors looking out, mentioned he was planning a show of new work at Putney Library, and that there was an empty display case in the library, which he suggested I could use to showcase some of my books and any related visual material.

The idea appealed to me, so I paid a visit to the library to check out the display case, and also spoke to one of the library staff, who was encouraging and also supportive of me doing a reading in the library.

Then last week I gathered up copies of a range of books my work has appeared in, including Paper Swans Press’s The Pocket Book of Suffrage, Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories 2021, my one published novel, Hearts on Ice (Serpent’s Tail, 2000), various poetry and short story anthologies, and of course London Undercurrents – over five years of research and writing with my poetry mate Joolz Sparkes packed into that handsome orange Holland Park Press book. I also ransacked our bookcases for books that are close to my heart, by writers who have influenced and inspired me. And how could I not include some of the music that fundamentally changed me, in my miserable late teens and early twenties? Bands such as The Birthday Party and The Triffids, who’d relocated to London, whose lyrics were burnt into my brain. London – the destination on my one-way ticket when I felt I had to force a change in my life. So, yes, I packed some vinyl. Nick helped me carry all those heavy books to Putney Library and set them up in the display case. Stephen’s Graham’s show of new work, which he describes as word or poem pictures, is on in the library until 6th February, alongside paintings by Gary Chappell. You can check out my book-and-record display until then, and maybe spot a few quirky items in there too.

To coincide with the display, I’ll be reading a selection of poems from my œuvre (please allow a little pretentiousness, the giddy delight of seeing my work in a display case has gone to my head) in Putney Library on Thursday 3rd February, 6:30 to 7:30pm. There’ll be some guest readers too, for added variety. It’s free, all welcome but please wear a mask unless you’re exempt. And make sure you check out the library’s Gallery space, showing Stephen Graham’s word pictures and Gary Chappell’s paintings.

Lastly, I was thrilled to be selected as one of the winners of The Poetry Society’s Members competition on the theme of ‘Survival & Extinction’, judged by Sujata Bhatt. She had to read 668 pages of poetry and could only select six poems as the winners, so it is quite an honour. The winning poems are published in the winter issue of Poetry News, which is sent to all members of The Poetry Society. The poems are also available on the Society’s website – you can read my poem Late Questions here.

Best British Short Stories 2021

I’m beyond delighted that my short story, The Red Suitcase, is included in Best British Short Stories 2021 edited by Nicholas Royle and published by Salt Publishing.

The Red Suitcase was originally published as a limited edition short-story chapbook by Nightjar Press in October 2020, but is now sold out.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading one story a day from the collection and have now read all of the 20 stories, bar my own (I know what happens in that one). What fabulous company to be among! From the opening story, Rings by Tom Bromley, which caught me off guard with its perfectly judged brevity, to the final story, 99 Customer Journey Horror by Iphgenia Baal, a nightmarish accumulation of property developer jargon, there are stories to enthral and intrigue you, unsettle and even inhabit you. Particular highlights for me included Leather by A. J. Ashworth (compellingly strange, à la Angela Carter), Wendigo by Julia Armfield (glad I read this one during the day, not right before sleep!) and Hair by Isha Karki, a disturbing tale of sexual politics, where boys climb girls’ hair.

Reading this anthology has made me even more excited for my role as one of the judges for the 2021 Manchester Fiction Prize. I’m really looking forward to reading a (very large) bunch of short stories, and seeing what kind of journeys those stories take me and my fellow judges on. The competition is open for entries until 5pm (UK time) on Friday 28th January 2022, so if you’re thinking of entering get writing, editing and polishing now. Good luck!

June Review

June was a busy and rewarding month for me. The Wandsworth Heritage Festival, postponed from last year, kicked off at the end of May, and on the third of June Joolz Sparkes and I gave an online reading from our co-authored poetry collection London Undercurrents. We’d chosen poems that related in one way or another to the Festival’s theme of Homes and Housing, and accompanied each poem with one or two images. And although we hadn’t given a live reading together for quite some time, as soon as we started it all seemed to flow and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. More importantly, so did the audience! The reading was recorded and is available to view on Vimeo, thanks to the Battersea Society who hosted our event.

I attended several other Wandsworth Heritage Festival events, and continue to be inspired and excited by the area’s rich heritage. A number of online talks are still available on Wandsworth Libraries’ YouTube channel, and I’m particularly looking forward to watching A Tooting Childhood, with best-selling author Beryl Kingston sharing memories of growing up in Tooting.

Nine Elms was a featured destination of this year’s London Festival of Architecture. Alongside all the new buildings going up, new public spaces and through routes are being created. One of these is Arch 42, under the Nine Elms to Waterloo railway viaduct, which is being opened up as part of a new pedestrian route through Nine Elms. I was commissioned to research the history of Arch 42 and the impact of the railways on the local area for a webinar as part of the London Festival of Architecture. The timescale was tight, which made it quite a challenge, but I quickly felt that buzz of delving deep into obscure corners of history and suddenly becoming a bit of railway nerd! Once again, too, I felt so grateful for library and archive resources, and the patient staff dealing with my requests and queries. I was surprised at how many books about the railways there are in Wandsworth’s libraries, though I shouldn’t have been, given the huge impact they had on the area’s development, and Battersea in particular.

The next challenge was whittling down all that research into a five minute talk for the webinar. On the day, I was pretty nervous, but took some deep breaths to calm the nerves, and delivered the talk without any waffle or hiccoughs. There was also a panel discussion and I surprised myself by feeling quite relaxed as I contributed, helped no doubt by knowing my subject quite thoroughly by then. The history of the railways, and their infrastructure, is really fascinating, and I now view the numerous railway bridges and viaducts near where I live with a deeper appreciation.

I hardly had time to catch my breath before my next challenge – delivering an online workshop for Capital Growth. I’d seen their callout for online workshops earlier this year, and pitched my idea for a workshop themed around writing about gardens and gardening as a way to create a deeper connection with your garden and nature. The process then of developing my initial ideas into a full presentation including some writing exercises I found rewarding, though I did have to tune out of those doubting voices in my head, which love to undermine my ideas. I did a couple of practice runs with my willing guinea pig, Nick, to check the timing and test the content. Again, some deep breaths needed before the workshop started, and then the hour and a half flew past. Although I’d suggested after my first couple of slides that participants could unmute and chip in (it was a manageable sized group), this didn’t really happen until the end, so it was hard to gauge as I went along how engaged people were. But there were a few favourable comments in the chat, which encouraged me, and, as we wrapped up, in person too. And Capital Growth forwarded more lovely feedback afterwards. There are a few things I will do differently next time, for instance one of the participants pointed out that the Chat function on Zoom is useless for people who are visually impaired. But I’m definitely giving myself a pat on the back for delivering my first online workshop.

I’m also, in a very small way, involved in this year’s Wandsworth Arts Fringe. Nine Elms based creative duo WHABBstudio asked for community responses to the question ‘How do you feel about climate change?’ I sent in a reworked version of a short poem I’d posted on Twitter in response to Poets for the Planet’s #BeginAfresh prompt last year. You can see this and other responses online and at various sites around the borough during the Fringe. My poem is on display at Downshire Field, Alton Estate SW15 4PS.

Lastly, my absolute cultural highlight of June was the Women Making History exhibition at London Scottish House. This is a display of over 100 banners made by groups of women in 2018 for PROCESSIONS to mark the centenary of some women in the UK getting the vote. The variety, creativity and passion displayed in these banners is uplifting and inspirational. They are also a reminder that the fight for equality is not won. As Charlotte Despard enjoined, we must BELIEVE IN DISCONTENT. The exhibition is on until 11th July – do see it if you can.

Nine Elms banner for Processions

a run of knock-backs & keeping going

Despite the pandemic, last year was a pretty good year for me in terms of publication acceptances and other creative projects. This year, so far, has felt like a drought. I’ve submitted to quite a few magazines and not had a single acceptance. I’ve applied for numerous paid opportunities and, bar two or three, not made the cut. I know it’s a lot worse for many people, and I’m lucky to have a secure roof over my head, but even so dashed hopes still sting.

Nevertheless, I have a few events coming up that I’m looking forward to. On Thursday 3rd June at 7pm Joolz Sparkes and I will be reading from our poetry collection London Undercurrents as part of Wandsworth Heritage Festival. It will be the first live reading Joolz and I have done together for ages and we’ve enjoyed selecting poems that speak to the Festival’s theme of homes and housing, and sourcing images to accompany them. The event is online via Zoom, kindly hosted by the Battersea Society. More details including how to book here. It would be lovely to see your friendly faces there!

Then on Bloomsday, Wednesday 16th June, I’m running an online workshop for Capital Growth, London’s food growing network, on the theme Write Your Garden. Writing and gardening have been intertwined for me for some time now, so it feels a natural progression to explore the connections and share some of my writing approach through this workshop. More details including how to book, should you wish, are available here.

Also keeping me going is the monthly Clapham Originals Stanza group, where we bring a poem to share for feedback (online for the time being). It’s a good discipline to get me writing at least one new poem a month, and the discussion and sharing of other members’ poems is always stimulating and enriching. Writing, reading, being outdoors in nature – these are the things that keep me going. How about you?

Photo: Nick Rogers

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.

starting the day with a poem

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.


End of November round-up

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!

P1070901Nine 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…

Then there was the Musicians Against Homelessness fundraiser where Joolz and I read from our London Undercurrents collection, and we also ventured to the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to watch our very first women’s football game – a North London derby, no less!

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 FridayJoolz 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 . . .