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

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

towards dawn

. . . and here it is – the advent window Luke Walker and I have created for the Nine Elms Advent Window Trail. Our window officially ‘opened’ at 5pm today and I’m very excited to share it. Please enjoy a virtual chocolate 🍫 in celebration. You can read more about the background to this project here.

All the windows are now installed and if you live in the Nine Elms/Battersea area there are several walking trails you can follow to take in the beautiful artist-designed windows. All the windows will be in place until 2nd January. The theme ‘Light in the Darkness’ seems particularly appropriate this year.

Here are a couple more photos from last week, when Luke and I went along to see our window soon after it had been installed.

Our window is no. 14 on the Advent window trail. It’s located near the south-west chimney of Battersea Power Station on Circus Road West, at the end of Circus West Village. Thanks again to the Battersea Society for sponsoring the window, and Nine Elms Arts Ministry for organising this wonderful celebration of light in dark times.

Photos by Luke M. Walker

windows (& some words) lit large

The Nine Elms Advent Calendar launches today, an initiative organised by the Nine Elms Arts Ministry, following on from their inaugural Advent Window trail last year. Back then, when we could all huddle together outside sipping mulled wine and singing carols, there was a grand unveiling each evening of a new window over the 24 days in the run up to Christmas. This year, the Advent trail has been rethought, with all the windows in place by 5th December (fingers crossed) and local people encouraged to walk the trail in their household or bubble. A different window will be highlighted each day on social media.

And, to my delight, I was invited to work with the artist Luke M Walker on a design for a window on the Battersea Power Station site. We had an initial Zoom meeting with Alex Baker from Battersea Power Station and Rev. Betsy Blatchley from the Nine Elms Arts Ministry, who between them outlined the theme – ‘Light in the Darkness’ – and roughly where on the construction site they hoped our window would be. The contractor Sir Robert McAlpine had agreed to host an Advent window in one of the yet to be completed apartments in the Foster + Partners building Battersea Roof Gardens. I was pinching myself. The idea of seeing my words, in whatever form, lit up close to Battersea Power Station, is, frankly, thrilling.

Luke and I had a chat on the phone to exchange a few first thoughts and learn a little more about each other’s practice. We share a love of walking, and have also both followed the development of the Power Station site closely over the years. Then only a few days later we went on a site visit to check out two possible locations for our Advent window. Several years ago I led tours of the Battersea Power Station construction site on the occasional Sunday afternoon (another of Alex Baker’s community initiatives) and it turns out Luke had been on one of those tours – small world! We had now to go through a similar health and safety run-through before getting decked out in hard hats, hi-vis vests and safety boots.

We set off then in a socially distanced line led by the Community Manager from Sir Robert McAlpine, with representatives from various other departments and subcontractors. We crossed a footbridge and then via a security turnstile accessed the vast construction site, with highly skilled labouring going on all around us, mud underfoot, and the structural innards of new buildings towering above us. We entered what will be Battersea Roof Gardens at the Battersea Park Road end, walking through long void spaces, up a few storeys in a construction hoist, down several rough flights of stairs (me running a hand along the safety rail, trying to focus on each step and NOT think about the time I fell on the stairs at home), and finally to the north end of the building, right near the south-west corner of the Power Station, where the first apartments are being finished and windows are already in place.

There followed discussions between Luke and the different operatives about the best way of installing our design (once we’d come up with it!) and how to light it. We looked at the two options and agreed on our preferred one – the apartment with two floor to ceiling windows next to each other. Luke took lots of measurements and then we headed back to the Sir Robert McAlpine reception to return our safety gear. I was buzzing from all the stimuli on site, so it was good then to walk together through the publicly accessible parts of the site and see the building – and ‘our’ windows – from the outside. They’re a couple of storeys up, so I knew whatever I wrote would have to be quite short so the words could be printed large enough to be visible from the pavement opposite the building. We got a takeaway coffee and sat on the coaling jetty in front of Battersea Power Station discussing ideas and more broadly the changes we’ve both seen locally over the years.

The following day I sat at my desk and started jotting down some words. Part of our brief was to include the word LIGHT somewhere in the design. I was thinking too about how to write a text that would work across the two windows. I played around with some short forms and finally settled on a mesostic – a variation on an acrostic, in this form the letters in the middle of each line spell out a word when read downwards. I emailed it to Luke and happily he loved it! Since then, most of the work has been on Luke’s plate. He’s come up with a beautiful design, going for a ‘less is more’ approach; and then there’s all the technical and logistics side, how to print it and apply it to the windows, how to light it, and liaising with the different contractors involved. We’re hopefully on track to have it in place by 5th December and I really can’t wait to see it up there, beaming out to passers-by.

location of the windows

As soon as it’s up I’ll post some photos. In the meantime, if you’re local to the Battersea/Nine Elms area do check out the Advent Window Trail. There’s a wonderful variety of responses to the theme and it’s been very uplifting to be involved. It’s also a great way to find new corners of this part of London. And if you’re not local you can still follow the trail online, via the Nine Elms Arts Ministry’s social media channels:

Twitter @9ElmsArtsRev
Instagram @NineElmsArtsMinistry  
Facebook page /NineElmsArtsMinistry 

plus regular project updates via the Facebook Event page

My thanks to Alex at Battersea Power Station, Betsy at Nine Elms Arts Ministry, The Battersea Society, and contractors at Battersea Power Station for this opportunity and making it happen. Thanks for your light in these dark times!

indoors looking out – out now!

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Fanfare!! Here it is, the fruit of my collaboration with the artist Stephen Graham, an A5 booklet of haiku and tanka written under lockdown. The poems draw on observations from my second-floor window of minute changes and fleeting interactions.

Stephen has created a new script inspired by a book of St Cuthbert’s held in the British Library and the Nagari script used in parts of India. There are 28 full colour pages, one poem per page, and the booklet is decorated throughout. Our local printers, PowerPrint, have done a wonderful job. The booklet, in my totally biased opinion, is lush. The look, the feel – and the words, well, you can judge for yourself if you buy a copy.

I really love Stephen’s artwork. At one point during our exchange – mostly carried out by text message – Stephen texted me: ‘our styles fit – you push people to find your meaning, and my odd letters slow people down to thinking pace!’ That’s spot on. Collaborating on this project has given both of us a focus during difficult days. We hope what we’ve made together will resonate with other people.

I am donating £1 per sale to Refuge and Stephen’s proceeds will go to UNHCR for Syrian refugees.

Archives at home, part 15 — Wandsworth Heritage Service

When Wandsworth Heritage Service’s Archivist asked if I would answer a few questions about the community garden I’m involved with, as part of a series of ‘Archives at home’ blog posts, I was happy to oblige. Read on to find out my favourite, and least favourite, gardening tasks…

This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival. Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly. The theme of this year’s festival was to […]

via Archives at home, part 15 — Wandsworth Heritage Service

indoors looking out

Recently I’ve been working on a collaboration, indoors looking out, with the artist Stephen Graham, and I’m delighted that some of our work has been selected for the online exhibition Covent-19 – Voicing Responses Under Lockdown. You’ll be able to view the exhibition on Instagram from 8th May to 5th June.

The collaboration began on the eve of lockdown, as an informal artistic exchange, with no idea as to where, if anywhere, it might lead. I know Stephen through our community garden. He’s a regular visitor to the garden and our artist-in-residence, creating a beautiful hand-designed pamphlet for the garden a couple of years ago. With the garden closed to the public during lockdown, I suggested to Stephen that I could try to write a short poem each day, and then text it to him to illustrate or interpret as he saw fit. Stephen was up for this, and so our collaboration began.

I haven’t written a poem every day, but more often than not when I’ve sat at my desk in the morning, I’ve managed to produce something. I’ve found the restrictions of the short Japanese forms of haiku and tanka a good frame to work within, and the subject matter is mostly drawn from observations from my second-floor window. Stephen’s pieces in response vary from abstract designs to loose illustrations; each one includes the poem in Stephen’s ‘odd letters’, as he describes them.

Covent19 E-invite-page-0

It’s just over a week ago that I saw the call out on Instagram for creative work in response to the lockdown, and suggested to Stephen that we submit several pieces. We’re grateful to the Covent-19 curators, Faryal Arif & Nadin Hassan, for this opportunity to share some of our work. And we’re now working towards publishing a booklet. Do check out the online exhibition if you can. I’m looking forward to seeing how people around the world have responded creatively to these current weird/difficult/strange/whatever-you-call-them times. I feel lucky to have this focus and creative outlet – I know many people are struggling. Hope you and your loved ones are keeping safe and well.

National Poetry Day Vibes

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about National Poetry Day, which is next Thursday 3rd October. I’m going to a reading the night before, but had nothing planned for the day itself, and wasn’t aware of anything happening locally. And then I thought why don’t I do something myself? Something that wouldn’t take too much organising at short notice, something local, informal.

There’s a lovely cafe that opened on the estate a couple of years ago, with an upstairs room which I’ve often thought would be a good space for a reading or workshop. Maybe they’d be up for hosting an informal poetry reading? I did my best to dampen the chattering doubts and nerves, and after lunch I popped into Vibes Cafe and put my embryonic idea to Chauntelle, one of the managers: an hour in the afternoon, I’d read some of my own poetry, plus other poems relating to ‘truth’ (this year’s NPD theme), and invite people to bring and share a poem they’ve written or a favourite poem. Chauntelle said yes!

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Upstairs at Vibes Cafe

So now I’m committed, and mostly excited, and nervous of course. I’ve made a poster and started sharing details on social media. I’ve no idea how many people will turn up – it may just be me and my latte. But it’s worth a punt. If you’re nearby on the day, please do drop by!

When: Thursday 3rd October, 4:00-5:00pm
Where: Upstairs at Vibes Cafe, 293 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 4LX
Bring a poem you’ve written or a favourite poem to share, or simply sit and listen!

NPD 2019 Website Banner

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

 

Despardmania

There was a flurry of local events in June highlighting and celebrating the life and work of Charlotte Despard, and her lasting impact on Nine Elms and Battersea. As I’ve written before, she’s up there in my pantheon of great women, for her tireless campaigning, her commitment to social justice, and for her very practical and progressive community initiatives (e.g. providing free school meals decades before this was government policy). I also love the fact that she was shaking her fist at the establishment, and warning against the rise of fascism, right into her 90s. If only she were alive now!

I’m a reluctant Facebook user, but I have joined the Facebook group Battersea Women Celebrate the Centenary of Women Getting the Vote, or COWs for short, which is a forum for publicising news and events in this important centenary year. On the 15th of June, a small group of us gathered outside the new US Embassy in Nine Elms, to celebrate what would have been Charlotte’s 174th birthday. The embassy is built on the site of Despard House, formerly 2 Currie Street, where Charlotte Despard lived and ran many of her projects from. When she left the area for Ireland shortly after the First World War, she gave the house in perpetuity to the people of Battersea. It continued to provide support and facilities to the local community until the house was demolished in 1960 as part of a slum clearance programme.

The centrepiece of our event on 15th June was an amazing cake sculpture in the form of Charlotte Despard’s head, complete with black lace mantilla, such as the widowed Charlotte used to wear. The cake was made and decorated by local artist Phillippa Egerton, and has been such a hit it is going to be displayed at various locations in the borough, including local libraries.

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Jeanne Rathbone gave a brief overview of Charlotte Despard’s long life, and why she is so important to Battersea. Jeanne is spearheading a campaign to get a statue of Charlotte Despard erected locally, preferably on or near the site of her former home, and depicting her in the famous clenched fist pose as she addressed an anti Fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in 1933.

I read my poem What’s Mrs Despard Ever Done for Us? and also Joolz’s poem Cat and mouse, from our London Undercurrents project, and recently published in The Pocket Poetry Book of Suffrage from Paper Swans Press. And then we all posed in front of the Charlotte head cake, clenching our fists and looking determined. A few passers by stopped to find out what it was all about, and it was a lovely evening to be sipping wine from a plastic cup and discussing radical politics in this “lousy” part of London.

P1070163 pose Jeanne

Then on Saturday 23rd June we had Tea with Charlotte Despard. This was an event organised by members of COWs and Wandsworth Radio, as part of EqualiTeas, a Houses of Parliament led initiative to mark 90 years since the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act became law.

Several banners were on display, including a beautiful banner designed and sewn by local women working with the artist Ruth Ewan for Processions 2018.  The slogan BELIEVE IN DISCONTENT is based on a Charlotte Despard quote ‘I have always believed in discontent’. Local food surplus initiative Waste Not Want Not supplied tea, cake and sandwiches. It was an intergenerational event, and began with a wonderful routine from an older people’s dance group from the Katherine Low Settlement. They danced to the song Sister Suffragette from the film Mary Poppins, and by popular demand did the whole routine a second time.

Wandsworth Radio’s Arts Editor Lesley Strachan interviewed a number of people about why Charlotte Despard is important to them, including Battersea MP Marsha de Cordova, and actor and poet Blair McAlpine, whose great-grandmother was a suffragette in Vauxhall. Blair also performed a poem inspired by her great-grandmother. I read both Joolz’s and my suffrage poems, and at the end of the event there was a rousing rendition of Ethyl Smyth’s anthem The March of the Women.

Believe in Discontent March of the Women

Hot on the heels of Tea with Charlotte Despard came the Wandsworth Radio documentary Finding Charlotte, written and produced by Lesley Strachan. I’m honoured that Lesley has included my poem What’s Mrs Despard Ever Done for Us? in the programme, and it’s a delight to hear it performed in a proper south London accent by Blair McAlpine. There are interviews with Jeanne Rathbone, artist Liz Sargeant, Dr Naomi Paxton and moi. Do have a listen!

March, march—many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.
—from The March of the Women, words by Cicely Hamilton

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