reflecting on A Song for Nine Elms

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.

overdue debut

Last Saturday I braved the downpour and headed up to Kings Cross for a special evening at SLAM – the launch of four Green Bottle Press pamphlets. I’ll declare my bias at the outset.*  I was there for one poet – Claire Booker – and this post is mostly about her pamphlet Later there will be Postcards. Overall, it was a lovely event in a great venue. Green Bottle Press publisher Jennifer Grigg introduced the evening and read three poems from Radish Legs, Duck Feet by Sayuri Ayers, who lives across the pond, so wasn’t able to make the launch. The two other pamphlets launched that evening were Life Room by Ivonne Piper, reading in front of an audience for the very first time; and Teaching a Bird to Sing by Tracey Rhys, tough and touching poems arising from her son’s diagnosis of autism. Four very different voices, from an adventurous new press.

But back to the star attraction of the evening, as far as I was concerned. I’ve known Claire for several years, having met her at Loose Muse when I first got back into writing and performing poetry. Claire’s poetry is often wickedly funny but she can equally write biting satirical poems (not easy to carry off, but Claire manages it with flair) and subtly powerful poems of loss and anguish. Claire is also a generous supporter of other poets, and encouraged me to join the Clapham Stanza group, the Original Poets, which I’ve found very beneficial. So it was great to see lots of support for Claire at the launch – my London Undercurrents buddy Joolz Sparkes, Agnes Meadows from Loose Muse, some Clapham Stanza stalwarts, and faces from Beyond Words, which Claire also regularly attends. After the readings, there was a rush to buy her pamphlet and we formed a disorderly queue at Claire’s table to get our copies signed.

This week I’ve been reading her pamphlet and finding new layers and resonances in poems I thought I already knew, as well as savouring poems that are new to me. Though many of the poems deal with aspects of grief or a loss of some kind – parents, a fading or changed love, childhood – they are never maudlin. Claire’s interest in visual art feeds into her poetry, and her poems are rich in telling  details and striking colour and imagery. Dreams provide surreal and dark material, as evidenced by the opening poem The Night Mare. There are no ‘filler’ poems here; this is a substantial pamphlet, the work of a mature poet, who knows when to wield her wit and when to let the gaps – the unsaid – say it all. A long overdue debut. Congratulations, Claire!

*I think this is known as ‘Full Disclosure’, which sounds like the title of a Claire Booker poem.

autumn makeover

Don’t panic!* I’ve finally bitten the bullet  and revamped the look of my blog. It’s been on my mental ‘to do’ list for ages. My top ‘want’ was a larger and more readable font. I’ve gone for a similar layout and taken the opportunity to change the header image – something I may do more regularly now. I’ve also added a search option and changed the blog post archive to a neater drop down list. I’ll probably make a few more tweaks over the next week or so. If you notice anything missing or links that don’t work and so on do let me know.

*Instruction to self. Panic over.

strung

On Wednesday afternoon I witnessed a thought-provoking performance, strung. It took place in the grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital, and tied in with the opening of the Bethlem Gallery‘s Reclaiming Asylum exhibition.

strung was devised by artists Jane Fradgley and Shane Waltener and performed by dancer Laura Glaser and sound artist Zoë Gilmour. A video iteration of strung is showing in the gallery, created with the videographer Antonia Attwood. One element, then, of strung is collaboration.

Another element is the magnificent cedar tree, site and heart of the performance. The Reclaiming Asylum brochure refers to it as a ‘Lebanese cedar tree.’ I’m not an expert, but having checked my RHS Encylopedia of Plants and Flowers, I’m inclined to think it’s a Blue Atlas cedar, with its silvery smoky blue foliage.

The sound element of the piece was provided by Zoë Gilmour. Beneath the wide skirts of the cedar tree, to one side of the trunk, she’d set up with her cello, a small amp, some effects pedals, microphone and minimal percussion. For the two hours of the performance she created a subtle slowly changing soundtrack of looped cello phrases and percussive sounds. Plucking, strumming, brushing her bow on the cello strings; shaking a rattle; whispering into the microphone. Sometimes the sounds carried and sometimes they didn’t. Wind blew through the tree, dislodging clouds of fine dust. Traffic passed on the nearby hospital road. Under the tree Zoë responded to the movements of the dancer or was it the other way round? How much was improvised, thought out on the go, and how much choreographed and mapped out beforehand?

On the other side of the tree trunk dancer Laura Glaser – dressed in white trousers, white plimsolls, white long-sleeved top and wearing her long straight brown hair loose – moved back and forth between the lower branches, weaving a net with red twine. Her hands made small quick skilful movements, tugging, knotting, testing and stretching the twine. She seemed purposeful, focussed. I walked around the circumference of the tree, glimpsing the performers between the spreading branches. The tree gave off a spicy scent. And then unexpectedly (to me, anyway), Laura climbed through an opening in her woven net and began clambering over it. These were slower, tentative whole body movements as she navigated and extended the net structure. Rolling, grasping, tumbling into the cocoons and hammocks of the red twine web. Stretching and contorting herself, like a cat exploring and inhabiting a confined space. Lying along one of the branches. Climbing higher and continuing to unravel the twine and twist and knot triangular pockets between trunk and branches. As Laura tested and stepped from one spot to another the lower branches rippled like the hem of a flamenco dancer’s dress and the tree released another waft of dusty spicy scent. The cedar is also a performer.

The afternoon was warm and sunny; the eve of the autumn equinox. People lingered, soaking up the golden light and immersing themselves in the unfolding performance. We wandered through the hospital grounds for a bit, holding our thoughts, as far as the small orchard where apples lay quietly rotting in the long grass. Heading back towards the performance, I could hear the mellow tones of the cello carried by the wind. I liked the correspondence of the plucked cello strings with the rhythmic weaving. The dancer’s agility and fragility. I thought about trust – as a performer, trusting the twine, trusting her skill, trusting the tree will hold her. Tree climbing as emblematic of childhood freedom; innocence. The woven structure reminding me of cat’s cradles and also a safety net. We stood and watched the end of the performance, as Laura climbed down through the net one last time and walked out from the sheltering reach of the cedar tree. Something quite beautiful and moving happened that afternoon.

The video version of strung is showing at the Bethlem Gallery until 11th November.

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strung 21 September 2016

 

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strung 21 September 2016

 

 

farewell, unknown gardener

When did I first notice the magical little world contained in a front garden on Macduff Road? I can’t remember exactly, but for years it’s been one of my local landmarks, a spot I’ll swing past on my way back from the park, wondering what’s changed, stopping to gaze in childish delight. The front garden is little more than a small rectangular bed behind the low front wall of a rundown single-fronted terrace house. Between two bushy trees, a small riot of horticultural juxtaposition: moss, ivy, African violets, trickling water, cut flowers, tinsel, toy ladybirds, painted acorns. The details changed regularly, often reflecting the current season or festivities. Here’s a photo of part of the garden several years ago. There’s a Christmas card tucked in as a backdrop and silver Christmas trees from a garland creating a fenced pathway to the house on the card.

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Detail, front garden, 10 Macduff Road SW11. January 2013

I hardly ever saw the gardener. A glimpse, perhaps, of a stooped figure in the doorway on a summer’s evening. The front window, mostly obscured by foliage, always had the curtains drawn. And at the top right, a toy panda, somehow pinioned against the glass, and encircled by silver stars.

Recently, the garden’s looked a little neglected. Fewer seasonal details. No more cut flowers skilfully knitted into the scene. Then, on Wednesday evening, after a stroll around Battersea Park, we swung past 10 Macduff Road and the fairy garden is no more. Ripped out. The panda gone, too. The house cleared, it seems. Such a sad, sad sight. And the fate of the gardener? I can only guess. I hope she knows, or knew, that some in the local area treasured the magical world she created. I’ll miss it, for sure.

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Devastation, 8 September 2016

 

chaps

When I was growing up, my family referred to our soft toys as ‘chaps’. As far as I’m aware, this is a family coinage, rather than a generally accepted term for teddies and other cuddly beings. I’m not, on the whole, nostalgic for my childhood, which says a lot more about me than about my family. But when I hear or read the word ‘chaps’ my primary association is a comforting/comforted feeling.

I still have my teddy, who is simply called ‘teddy’, and is FEMALE as were all my chaps. I remember this strongly – I chose or decided to identify them all as ‘she’s. There was also one rather chunky and not so cuddly four legged creature, that had been removed from a set of wheels – I guess a walker of some sort – which I concede now was a dog but as a child I insisted was a cat. We always had cats in the family, never dogs.

I can’t now remember whether teddy came with me when I first travelled overseas or whether I smuggled her into the UK at a later date. Most of the time she sits on top of a box on top of the filing cabinet in my studio. A quiet, comforting chap, she is.

teddy

in Time Out 20 years ago

Nicholas Royle wrote some lovely words about my writing in Time Out back in 1996, as part of a feature profiling four up-and-coming London writers. I’m still not there yet (wherever ‘there’ may be) but the support of people like Nicholas Royle is what keeps most writers (wherever they are) plugging away. My novel The Sea Between never saw the light of day – a good thing in retrospect. A few years later though my next one, Hearts on Ice, did make it into the bookshops. Nicholas Royle is still a great champion of writers and a darn good writer himself. Happy Throwback Thursday!

Scroll right down for an enlarged extract of the bit about me.

Time Out 1996 1

Time Out 1996 2

TO extract

Twenty-four hours in Ledbury

I overcame my PoFestPhobia and travelled up to Ledbury on Saturday for a brief taste of the largest poetry festival in the UK in this, its 20th year. And I have to report, it was a rather joyful experience!

First stop after we arrived late morning: the Walled Garden, where we caught the tail end of the Poetica Botanica reading, with contributors to Adam Horovitz’s project reading their ‘healing herbs’ poems to an audience seated on a semicircle of straw bales. We hooked up with my friend Joolz Sparkes, who was on Day Nine of the festival, and seemed relaxed and not in the least crazed after all that time in a poetry bubble.

After a spot of lunch, it was on to the Panelled Room in The Master’s House for 20 minutes with Matt Kirkham. We arrived at the almost packed out room just in time, and Nick and I found ourselves sitting front row centre, less than a yard from the lectern. This was the closest I came to a poetry panic, but I soon calmed down and enjoyed Matt’s reading, which included poems from his forthcoming Templar collection The Dumbo Octopus. Two poems that struck me strongly were The Whip and The Driver’s Mother, saying so much through the telling detail of one moment or image. Matt shared a poem by Ashraf Fayadh, as part of a joint initiative by the Ledbury Poetry Festival and English PEN to highlight ‘poets at risk around the world’. And he finished with a short extract from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, written in 1938, but sounding chillingly contemporary.

Next up, a visit to the Emergency Poet and her ambulance parked on the High Street. While Joolz and someone-very-close-to-me went for a full consultation, I helped myself to a poetic pill to counter Existential Angst from the Cold Comfort Pharmacy, overseen by the charming and calming Nurse Verse.

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Cold Comfort Pharmacy

We booked into our B&B in time to see Serena Williams win the Wimbledon Singles Final – a record equalling 22nd Grand Slam title. The BBC coverage included a sequence with Serena reciting the poem that has apparently inspired her magnificent achievements: Still I rise by Maya Angelou. A great testament to the power of poetry.

A walk up into Dog Hill Wood for a beautiful view beyond Ledbury of the Herefordshire countryside; a tipple or two in the poets’ hangout, the Prince of Wales, where a weathered local silenced the bar with his impromptu and moving rendition of a folk song based on the myth of Odysseus and Penelope; chips eaten sitting on a bench outside the Market House while the world slowed down; then time to head over to the Comunity Hall for a Gala Evening of poetry and music, with Carol Ann Duffy and Friends.

The Gala Evening was compered by the ubiquitous and inimitable Jill Abram, one of the many volunteers at the the festival who keep the whole show running. In the first half, Carol Ann Duffy read  a selection of her poems interspersed with virtuoso horn and pipe playing by John Sampson and the occasional witty or acerbic aside from Carol Ann. After the interval LiTTLe MaCHiNe owned the stage, giving their all in a storming set that included versions of Byron’s We’ll go no more a roving and a progrocktastic take on Jabberwocky. They can mine a mournful vein too, as with Gillian Clark’s Overheard in County Sligo or Adlestrop by Edward Thomas. What better way, though, to end their encore than with the rousing rabble cry of John Rety’s A poet offers his wares?

The main event of the festival for me, though, was the following morning, back in the Panelled Room for  20 minutes with Joolz Sparkes: Me Old China. Joolz themed her set around celebrations and relationships,  and had written some of her poems on china plates, cups and saucers as a nod towards the Festival’s 20th anniversary – china being the traditional gift for this occasion. There were cup and saucer haiku, and a poem by Mahvash Sabet, currently imprisoned in Iran, read from a plate. Joolz talked about the feeling of being part of a community that the Festival engenders, before performing her Girls’ Night Out poem, which celebrates close female friendships. Barnacle is a short tender meditation on sticking things out. And reminding us to notice and cherish those things we take for granted, Joolz read her ode to the humble plastic bag. It was an assured and heartwarming performance. Brava, me old China!

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view from Dog Hill Wood

 

 

 

busy in a good way

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…

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Clapham versus Reading

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.

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Battersea berries!