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!

Poetry taster workshops – TICK

On Tuesday, I led the last of five poetry taster workshops at Battersea Park Library. Considering I first started planning these with the library staff nearly two years ago, this feels like quite an achievement. We’d aimed to start in early spring 2020, but we all know what happened.

Personally, it’s also an achievement, as I’ve not run many workshops, and still struggle with that inner voice that tells me I’m a fraud. So a big pat on the back for me. And guess what? I really enjoyed the sessions and it seems the participants did too! We had some good discussions about the sample poems I brought to each session, and it was great to hear the different ways individuals responded to the exercises. There was also quite a lot of laughter. Phew! Writing poetry can be fun, as well as serious.

I spent a lot of time planning the sessions and searching for poems to share. All of this enriches my own practice, of course. I scribbled away during the free writing and other exercises in each session too, so have some material of my own to work on. Our librarian has offered to display some of the poems written as part of these sessions in the library, which will be rewarding to see. And judging by feedback from my attendees, there is definitely appetite for further poetry writing sessions.

After Tuesday’s session, I spent a bit of time reflecting on how it all went and what I can learn form the experience. My top ‘takeaway’ has to be that I need to learn to trust and have confidence in my ideas. Second on the list: an hour is not very long!

I must also say a big thank you to Troy, one of Wandsworth Libraries’ staff and an accomplished poet in his own right, who assisted with the sessions, keeping an eye on timings and generally being on hand for anything I needed, as well as offering his own poetic insights! Long live libraries and poetry!

writing local / local writing

I’m happy to have a poem included in a new anthology, Words of Wandsworth, edited by Emily Zinkin, and supported by Wandsworth Libraries and Heritage Service and Moishe House. The anthology includes poems, short stories, art and photography by Wandsworth residents, with each contribution featuring an aspect of the borough of Wandsworth in some way. My poem, Lone Piper in Battersea Park, is one I’ve being trying to find a home for for quite some time, and has undergone the odd bit of tinkering and then a hard pruning, before finally landing safely in this local anthology.

The anthology was launched with an outdoor party on Wandsworth Common a couple of weeks ago, and it was great to meet some of the other writers and artists, some of whom were seeing their work in print for the very first time – always a special moment. There was fizz, cake and even a bit of sunshine. You can find out more about the anthology, order a print copy, or download a pdf version for free on the Words of Wandsworth website.

I’ve also contributed a poem to the Royal Society of Literature’s Write Across London Map. This project aims ‘to create a poetic snapshot of the city at an historic moment in its life’, with poems reflecting Londoners’ experiences of the pandemic and lockdown. Anyone living in London is invited to send in a poem for the map, with submissions closing on National Poetry Day, Thursday 7th October. You can read my poem In Other News here.

And in other other news, I’m preparing to run a series of free poetry taster workshops at my local Battersea Park library, starting on Tuesday 2nd November. The sessions are designed for adults with little or no experience of writing poetry to take their first steps in an informal and supportive environment. Spaces are limited so please contact the library if you are interested on 020 7720 4122 or batterseapark.library@gll.org

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.

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.

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