Today we have the second Bad Betty poet Kate B Hall. She writes a fascinating account of her personal experience of living in the lockdown as a person over 70, and the reminiscences of growing up in privation. It’s accompanied by an evocative poem, from her collection ‘The Story Is’, which you can buy here:
“A lot has happened since my book ‘The Story Is‘ was published. Events both sad and happy have changed me and my life. My second son died at 53, after a lifetime of illness, his son was born a few months later, and now we have the Coronavirus lockdown. Because I’m nearly 75 and my health has been compromised by lung cancer, I have only been out once in six weeks, when we went to post a letter and walked round the block at about 9.30 one night. The streets were almost completely deserted but it still felt quite dangerous. The one person we passed, at a safe distance, smiled and said Hello.
Life seems so very different to the one I described in my poem Avenue (below), yet it is the same place but neither of us go out, everything we need is delivered. The same people live in the street and join in clapping on a Thursday night, I know some people think it’s a pointless gesture and what all the front line staff need is a proper wage and suitable PPE, but for me having signed endless petitions and talked to people on social media and the phone, it is my only way of saying thank you and feeling like we are doing this tiny thing as a community. We are amazingly lucky, our rented housing trust flat has a garden and a front balcony. I can only imagine how dire this lock down must be for people who do not have these things.
I try to watch the news once a day; more than that and it is really depressing. Alternatively it is infuriating, why do we need to see Royalty clapping in an obviously posed way with their children outside their front door which does not appear to be in a street where anyone else lives. When have they ever used the NHS?
Yesterday I made marmalade, from one of those tins of prepared Seville oranges; I knew they were good because my mother used them, rather secretly as she saw it as cheating. When I was quite small I remember going, in our fathers cab, to pick blackberries in Epping Forest, the making of bramble jelly the next day. If there was enough, some would be bottled for use when fruit was expensive in the winter. The jars joined shelves of preserves and pickles all made when things were in season, so cheaper than usual. Sharing a couple of jars of marmalade with neighbours refreshes the memory of how my history in this street began.
I feel now that I am looking through my collection with different eyes, until the poet Joelle Taylor commented on the back cover that my poems were ‘recording the history of marginalised women in the UK’ I hadn’t really seen that aspect of my work clearly. Now I think of times when the lockdown would have been incredibly difficult for me as a single parent, or for my sister when she first developed Alzheimer’s and was constantly angry, or for my parents who were often strapped for cash when we were children.
My partner and I are both of an age where a store cupboard is normal. Our parents lived through the war so there were always a few tins and packets kept for emergencies. We order our shopping delivery fortnightly and have a kind of general store. We are trying not hoard and so far have managed to get roughly what we need. When our delivery arrives it gets washed, dried and put away. Sometimes the way we talk about what is happening reminds me of my childhood when food was still rationed and my parents were not very well off. My mother was a genius at making things stretch not just food but clothes too.
Writing a book about my working class roots was not particularly conscious, but in hindsight how could it be any different. The poem about my school uniform with its let down hem surprised a lot of younger people who have always thought of uniforms as a leveller, but it certainly didn’t work like that when I was at grammar school. One of the few teachers whose name I remember from over sixty years ago gets a poem in the book and my thanks, even though I’m pretty sure she must be dead by now. There was another teacher’s name that I remember but haven’t as yet written a poem about, who I rather prophetically had a massive crush on, she taught English.
Big thanks to my wonderful editor Amy Acre for pulling the book together and supporting me through the whole process. Many of the situations in this book reflect a working class background, just after the Second World War, followed by what my father would have called pulling myself up by my boot straps. I finished an Open University degree in Social Sciences in my early thirties; it changed my life not because of the qualification but because of the new confidence having BA(hons) which I have never used, after my name.
Recently, in my early seventies, I finished another OU course this time a Creative Writing MA. I still haven’t stopped strutting. But I don’t use MA after my name, no one does, but sometimes I have a whisper of inappropriate longing to show off.”
About ‘The Story Is‘:
‘A glorious mix of the historical, quotidian, humorous and tragic. Kate B Hall confronts the often-devastating realities of life and death with a surprising lightness of touch, a beguiling and intimate directness.’ Jacqueline Saphra
Frank, funny and poignant, Kate B Hall’s new collection is a lifetime in the making. From her wartime beginnings as a ‘difficult child’ to the tentative joy of early great-grand motherhood, the power in these poems shines through in the tension held between the tough and the tender. Finding no truth untouchable, Hall squares up to mortality, dementia and unloving mothers, yet almost always unearths a seedling of hope growing amongst the wreckage. Resilient and playful to the last, this is a book that loves hard, a long-awaited chronicle from a well-loved writer.
Here where trees make an avenue,
where a hundred years ago,
before the Thames Barrier, someone drowned
when the river got ideas above its station.
Where, forty years ago squatters moved in
to keep the bulldozers out, made homes,
formed associations, demanded licences
and were sold on to a Housing Trust for one pound.
Now much older, more respectable people,
who were once us, pass each other with a wave.
Here where I have lived for over half my life
where my daughter grew up and all her childhood
memories begin and end,
where my sons tumbled into our female world
once a month, with a clatter and their sweaty trainers.
Here where I have lived with you, for all of our life together
our kitchen, infused with the smells of coffee and cooking;
my breakfast with the Guardian crossword, at the table
by the window, looking out to see the world go by.
Here is where we sit to plan the day or discuss holidays,
to decide on dinner and to think about our lives,
to sort things out or not and sometimes agree to differ.