We had a busy Saturday in the Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden recently. A shared harvest lunch, followed by an inspiring and practical workshop, Growing Edible Plants in the City, led by Sue Sheehan of Incredible Edible. And then, in the community centre downstairs, the first screening of the film A Song for Nine Elms, made by artist Lucy Cash with involvement from the local community – including me. I wrote a poem for the project, and appear in the film reading the poem as I sit in the polytunnel in the roof garden.
I want to write here about my experience of working on this project and some thoughts about the film after that first screening. I’ll write a separate blog post about the actual process of writing the poem for the film.
I first heard about the project, under the title Nine Songs for Nine Elms, when Lucy Cash, and Anna Ramsay from UP Projects, visited the roof garden last winter to meet the Wednesday gardening group and tell us about the project. It’s funded by Berkeley Homes, one of the big developers in the Nine Elms area, with UP Projects curating the commission in partnership with Wandsworth Council and the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership’s Cultivate programme. I was immediately sceptical. I’m very ambivalent about much of the development happening on my doorstep, and its impact on the local community.
Lucy talked a bit about her ideas for the commission – to create a song cycle for Nine Elms, which would also be a film – and that she wanted to involve local people and incorporate their stories and memories of the area. I wasn’t forthcoming. I wanted to get on with gardening and, frankly, I felt distrustful. Who are these people? Why are they trespassing on my territory?
Over the following weeks, Lucy occasionally dropped by the garden, offering to help and also introducing us to the composer Fraya Thomsen who would be writing the music for the song cycle. Aside from my caution about the corporate funding, I couldn’t really grasp what the ‘end product’ of the project might look like. I remained guarded, though I warmed towards Lucy and Fraya, who showed a genuine appreciation of the roof garden and its place and role on the estate.
Then one cold Wednesday afternoon in spring, there were just two of us in the garden when Lucy and Fraya called by. We chatted and I opened up a bit about my reservations, which Lucy understood, and then I completely let my guard down and fessed up to being a writer. My fellow gardener Enid expressed similar sentiments, while revealing that her talents include acting and singing. Lucy wanted to work with both of us, and Enid is the narrator on the film, her mellow voice linking the different sections together. And here’s a story – Enid and I have lived in the same block for many years but only got to know each other last year through our involvement with the roof garden.
I was busy for the next couple of months with my residency at Thrive in Battersea Park, but I met up with Lucy and Fraya a couple of times to discuss how the project was evolving and what my input might be. We agreed that I would aim to write a poem from the point of view of the garden (approximately!). By early July, I had a poem, and we spent an afternoon filming in the garden. I was rather nervous but tried to focus on reading the poem well and not rushing. After three takes, Lucy was happy, and we moved on to the most fun part for me. One of Lucy’s ideas for the film was to include shots of people posing as Charlotte Despard in different locations – standing with the left arm bent and resting on the hip, and the right arm raised and fist clenched, echoing the striking photo of Charlotte Despard, in her nineties, addressing an anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square. I donned the long black skirt Lucy had brought along, clambered onto a low brick structure and struck the pose. How fierce I felt!
Cut now to the Doddington & Rollo Community Centre and the premiere of A Song for Nine Elms. The nerves were back – would I die of embarrassment? – but also excitement and curiosity. Other locals who’d participated, including children from one of the primary schools, and volunteers and friends of the garden, were also in the audience. The film did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful, lyrical piece, with the garden at its centre. It honours the history of the area, starting with its pre-industrial era, when an orchard flourished on the site now occupied by New Covent Garden Market; embraces Battersea’s radical heritage, perhaps best exemplified by Charlotte Despard (who I’ve written a London Undercurrents poem about); and reflects some of the concerns felt by local residents about the rapid changes taking place in the area – as well as our sense of connection to this place. One of the songs features Battersea’s motto ‘Not for me, not for you, but for us’, and the film ends with a quiet manifesto sung by local children. I’m so glad now that I got involved. And thankfully, I didn’t die of embarrassment.
The film is showing at StudioRCA Riverlight on Nine Elms Lane from 2nd to 9th November between 12 noon and 5pm. If you’re in the area, do drop in. More details here.