London Undercurrents – two poems by Hilaire and Joolz Sparkes

It is said of Truman Capote that his book, In Cold Blood was the first non-fiction novel. Based on in-depth research, the book tells of a family murdered by two young men in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. It was part of what became known as the New Journalism by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion, who used literary devices to tell factual stories. Today, this type of writing has become known as creative non-fiction. Their approach was a form of social archaeology, where the writer is led by the subject, often taking them into strange situations (read Hunter S Thompson for more of that).

Poetry being the most (ahem) truthful of writing forms, I think could be described as creative non-fiction. It often tells true stories either of the poet or others’ lives, and relevant to PP giving voice to to people who are rarely heard or depicted truthfully; Anna Robinson did this beautifully on this site when portraying the lives of the women who were killed by Jack the Ripper.

joolzforPPHilaire for PPThe same is true of the two poems featured here by Hilaire and Joolz Sparkes as part of their London Undercurrents project; this is a fascinating ongoing poetry project to unearth the voices of strong, feisty women who have lived and worked in the capital city over many centuries. Each poet focuses on her different patch of London – Joolz north of the river and Hilaire, south – bringing to life the imagined, real, everyday and extraordinary women whose untold stories lie just beneath the surface.

The two poems featured here I think complement each other well in telling the tales of the young women at work and play. In Joolz’s Hollywood Comes to Holloway, it’s all about the weekend and the cinema, with all the glitz and glamour of the golden era of Hollywood films. “Here, in the dark,/the love story lasts an hour not years and it has an end./And THE END is happy. Men light cigarettes for you,/or pull down the moon.”  Whereas with Hilaire’s Nightlight Wicking at Price’s, it is the drudgery mixed with the friendship of the factory where, “You’d go doolally/’cept for Music While You Work./Us wickers sing our lungs out/to the rafters/and my sisters’ hollering voices/cheer me/as they never do at home.”

Here, Joolz and Hilaire give some background to the poems.

The Holloway Road (the A1) is a long, ugly scuffle of a road, lined with hotchpotch shops and forming a sound tunnel of police and ambulance sirens. The only thing of particular beauty along its route is the Holloway Odeon cinema – a proud, cream, art deco building which has stood on the corner of Tufnell Park Road and Holloway Road since 1938. It began as the Gaumont, and was decorated with ornate mirrors, chandeliers in the foyer, fine walnut panelling, with a grand staircase and a Wurlitzer organ. Most of this was destroyed during World War II when it was bombed twice, but it’s still a gaumont cinemabeautiful working cinema today. Researching the Odeon, I discovered that Islington has been home to at least ten cinemas since the turn of the last century. So I was keen to explore the effect that the introduction of ‘the movies’ must have had on the local women, who suddenly had increasing access to a shared escapism wrapped up in the American dream. It led me to unearth an ordinary, working class woman whose eyes have been newly opened to possibilities that simultaneously soothe her, and create dissatisfaction with her lot in life.

: Price’s Candle Factory was a Battersea landmark long before I moved to the area in the late 1980s but has always intrigued me. After I quickly exhausted the handful of local history books in my branch library, I went to Wandsworth Heritage Service in Battersea Library, where I was shown ‘For Love and Shillings: Wandsworth Women’s Working Lives’ by Jo Stanley and Bronwen Griffiths, published by the London History Workshop in 1990. It includes first-hand accounts from women who worked in Battersea and Wandsworth in the first half of the 20th century. A chapter on Price’s Candle Factory showed it to prices candlesbe one of the largest employers in Battersea, and often several members of the same family would be employed there in different parts of the factory. Girls aged 13 or 14 usually started in packing, or putting the wicks into nightlights. This was repetitive work, but they had to be fast at it as it was paid as piecework. One of the women interviewed in ’For Love and Shillings’ mentioned the detail of being laid off in the summer when the wax started to melt and ‘we just took it’, and that sometimes a gang of them would then go swimming at Latchmere Baths. What comes across strongly in many of the recollections of women who worked at Price’s and other local factories is a sense of camaraderie, and how this lightened often tedious work. I wanted to convey some of that feeling in this poem.

Joolz Sparkes grew up in Reading and migrated to north London. She was shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize 2010, is published in South Bank Poetry magazine and Loose Muse Anthology and has featured at Fourth Friday, Loose Muse, Ronnie Scott’s Bar and The Windmill. She was Poet in Residence at Leicester Square tube station, is part of Apples and Snakes’ Gas Club and a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen.

Hilaire grew up in Melbourne but moved to south London half a lifetime ago. Her poetry is published in Brittle Star, Orbis, Magma and South Bank Poetry, and has been displayed on London buses. In 1998 she appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Apples & Snakes, and more recently has been a featured writer at Loose Muse and The Shuffle.

Hollywood Comes to Holloway
(Joolz Sparkes)

But now I want to be a Yank, drawling outta
the side of my lips like Lauren. Or looking up
misty-eyed like Betty. Or swooning in the arms
of Clark after he’s slapped me full in the face,
then kissed me like there’s no tomorrow.

Saturday night at The Empire we queue round the
block for half an hour in kitten heels, twinsets and
headscarves. We push our coins – saved up from the
kids’ dinner money and our bingo winnings ­­­­– through
the grill at the clerk with the quiff and the easy leer,
and we run like teenagers to the front.

Outside there are trams and rain and kitchens,
and three kids. But in here there are plush red seats,
a staircase as grand as Scarlett and Rhett’s and there’s
black and white instead of grey. Here, in the dark,
the love story lasts an hour not years and it has an end.
And THE END is happy. Men light cigarettes for you,
or pull down the moon.

Tomorrow when the house is empty I’ll try my hair
in that style she wore. I’ll drape myself over the
arm of the settee bought on HP. I’ll dream of
the man who smells freshly pressed, and speaks
of worship; who calls me ma’am not luv.

The man who doesn’t leave his socks on the floor or
try it on when he’s back from the boozer. The man
with the hat tipped to one side, who’ll walk me
arm-in-arm from the Holloway Road and into
the sunset, like an American.

Nightlight Wicking at Price’s


One step up from packing,
Jeanie reckons, though you’re still
standing start to finish.

I’ve learnt to be quick
so’s to earn enough
to pay Mum my keep,
stash a few shillings
for powder and soap.

Quick with the hot needle
to pierce each nightlight,
deft at threading the wick,
swift to lam it in the tin –
totting up as I go until
I’m counting nightlights in my sleep.

You’d go doolally
‘cept for Music While You Work.
Us wickers sing our lungs out
to the rafters
and my sisters’ hollering voices
cheer me
as they never do at home.

So who’d complain those days,
come high summer,
when the heat warps the wax
by lunchtime and we’re laid off
for the afternoon. You take it.
Nothing to be done but
leg it down to Latchmere Baths
as if we’re dodging school.
I’m first in, last out,
part mermaid, Jeanie teases,
part stewed prune. I’ll feel the pinch
on payday but tonight I’ll be dead
to the world, my dreams
numberless, fluid, deep.

(Both poems were first featured in South Bank Poetry: Issue Nineteen)


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