Two poets explore the hidden histories of women based north and south of the river Thames in London through poems with Joolz Sparkes focusing north of the river, and Hilaire south. Poems are grouped by theme so chronologically they jump around and are marked N or S to indicate the writer. Some poems feature a named subject. Others look at a class of women, e.g. “Dodging the Doctor” subtitled “The White Lead Works Factory, Islington, 1892” and labelled N,
“It’s out job they once said for girls
didn’t get poisoned like men.
But now a doctor visits regular,
warns us to Take a bath once a week.
Any sign of sickness
we’re sent home,
our pay docked.
To avoid diagnosis,
I drift silently in blizzard,
invisible in the powder-fogged air,
up the drying scaffold,
hide at the top on rough planks.
Hup I go.”
Through ignorance, it was a historical belief that women were not affected by lead poisoning to the extent that men were therefore it was safer for them to work with lead powder, used in white paints. Once it was realised this wasn’t the case, a bizarre compromise of sending a doctor in to access workers’ health was introduced. To the workers, who need their wages, this compromise seems more punishment than help. Getting colleagues to warn of the doctor’s visit and help hide each other a measure of solidarity. Move forward to the 1970s and solidarity is still needed, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” subtitled, “Sit-in at Decca’s Colour TV Factory, Ingate Place, 14th August 1975” and labelled S (the image in the text is the Gujarati word for redundancy which also translates into English as futility),
“They lied to us. They lied with untranslated words. Redundancy. Spit it out in Gujarati We hear it as futility. They translate us into no job in two weeks. . Our insignificant bodies occupy their factory. They nail up the toilet doors. They send our food away. They brand us with the stigma of barrenness. Together we’ve assembled hundreds, thousands of colour TVs. Between us, we feed dozens upon dozens of dependents. Why close our black and white TVs in our crowded, borrowed homes? We are seventy strong.”
In 1991 in “Permitted to Play” set in Arsenal Football Stadium, a girl’s voice asks,
“Teacher says I’m better than the boys.
Dad, Dad, I can beat them on this pitch.
With you and mum eating hotdogs
in the red seats, waving scarves.
On telly, they only show the men’s.
Dad, when can I play for Arsenal? When?”
The women’s team play most of their home matches outside London in Hertfordshire rather than at the Emirates Stadium in north London. Moving back to 1977, a similar note of defiance is uttered in “On the Way to See The Sex Pistols Play at the Hope and Anchor” where the speaker ends, “We’re pretty in black,/ mother, daughter, sister, Punk.”
“He was a Lovely Boy” subtitled “Somewhere on the Estate Essex Road, 1969” and labelled N, is about the Kray twins,
“My lad, my son, my blood.
Brought him up nice, polite.
His second birth tore me apart.
Both halves twinned together –
could’ve ripped them in two
with my teeth, but this one
kept the peace, stayed respectful,
never swore. Class. Stuck to his code:
just his bare hands grappling
in back rooms of pubs.
Knives or guns?
You choose you lose.”
It could be just as relevant today. “On the Marriage of Catherine Boucher to William Blake” subtitled “St Mary’s Church Battersea, 18th August 1782” and labelled S,
“We say our vows
bathed in a splendor of light.
And when he signs his name –
William Blake – in the register
I believe this to be true,
unable to decipher
those marks that flow
so swiftly, serpent-like,
from his pen. This X
I make, crooked, unfamiliar,
symbol of my freely given hand,
he swears he’ll take and soon
have learnt me how to read and write.
To sign my own proud name:
It’s a touching reminder of how women weren’t educated and therefore reliant on husbands or fathers to speak for them. There’s a reminder of the women’s suffrage movement too, “Cat and Mouse”, Holloway Prison 1913, N,
“for cheeks to hide histories of hands
that forced open a mouth to gag
on rubber pipe. This waiting affords me
respite at home, soft boiled eggs, a glimpse
of headlines. Then they’ll start again. But we,
my sisters, we will wait no more.”
The so-called cat and mouse act allowed hunger-striking women prisoners to be sent home under house arrest and returned to prison when they were deemed strong enough to serve the remainder of their sentence. Many were also forcibly fed to prevent starvation.
Personally, I would have preferred the poems in chronological order because I feel this would have reflected the growth of the city and allowed historical echoes of current day concerns to emerge. However, this is just a personal preference.
“London Undercurrents” is an intriguing, worthy collaboration that focuses on histories in two specific areas of London. The poems imaginatively give voices to stories often overlooked from those who usually go unheard. Both poets, Hilaire and Joolz Sparks, have distinct but complementary voices but share the ability to use selective details to bring their subjects to life in an engaging manner. The poems suggest both poets love their city and want to share its stories with a wider readership.