Writing London Writings from WEA learners at the Museum of London 2012-2013
The Workers’ Educational Association 'WEA' is a charity registered in England and Wales, number 1112775, and in Scotland, number SC039239, and a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, number 2806910.
Contents: Elizabeth Sarkany
Famous for Fifteen Minutes
‘That’s the boy with the chrome Vespa’
His story (The Proposal)
Louise Adele Prince
Horseferry Road, Westminster, 1967
Jessie Small, our local washerwoman
Psalm of Protection
Maria Claudia Bada
Six‐segmented pomander against the plague
Why she stole it
Preface by WEA tutor, Elizabeth Sarkany In its second year, the Writing London course has gone from strength to strength. This web book contains only a very small sample of the writing produced by the learners, who have each chosen their own work to submit. The material ranges from the purely imaginary to that produced when an exhibit has a particular resonance with the writer’s own experience. Much of it, fictional or not, has been meticulously researched. Part of its success, I think, is that it rarely feels clogged up by facts. You will see that the writers on the Writing London course have often been drawn to embody the voices of the lonely and marginalised: we come upon the brooch of a young Roman soldier, discarded in the dust; we have glimpses into the minds of a Victorian bodysnatcher, a twentieth century Jewish refugee and a young woman fighting to survive the plague. Louise Prince describes the existence of a traumatised former intelligence officer, now laying low. Sozen Ismail explores contemporary social exclusion. But there is the explicit quest to break away too, to be separate from the crowd in order to be something special and free: Christina Parry’s ‘Famous for fifteen minutes’ and Dennis Gardner’s ‘That’s the boy with the chrome Vespa’ exemplify this, together with stories about the social rigidity of the nineteen thirties in London (‘His story (the proposal)’), a community stalwart who did things her way (Jessie Small), and Brian Garfield’s ‘bucking bronco’ in the sky. At the core of each piece of work is something that matters to the writer. That has to be the case if we, the readers, are to care about what they are telling us. And so we do. I’ve been continually impressed by the willingness of the writers here to hold their breath and jump in so wholeheartedly. Nothing much would happen otherwise. I feel very lucky to have been a part of it again.
Christina Parry My writing is motivated by the desire to liberate my imagination and style, and find my unique creative voice, which has been well and truly swamped by a lifetime of report writing. I am using the inspiration of the Museum's collection, the creative tools suggested by tutor Elizabeth, and the helpful feedback from class participants to create plausible cameos which might spark a wry smile or tender memory. And to explore characters who live in memory or dreams and who must surely echo from earlier generations, whose descendants walk the streets of London today.
Famous For Fifteen Minutes It was all John Major’s fault. Usually, people pick something stupid or trivial, like an old flannel or a photo, but not him; he has to go and pick Lord’s Cricket Ground. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, remember that radio programme, Desert Island Discs, and you have to choose one luxury to take with you, that’s got no practical use? And he’s the only one who’s got a luxury that everyone still remembers. That’s the style that gets you noticed, makes them sit up, take you seriously. Bit different from where I came in. I was just about the most invisible man in London, with no style at all. It was when I was a doorman at Guildhall. For years I’d been working overtime over the Lord Mayor’s show weekend in November. It was always freezing. I’d watch the great and the good parading up and down in their chains and robes, swanking with their friends and hobnobbing with judges and aldermen, bankers and wankers. Then came the procession, when they all lined up on carts and floats to parade the new Lord Mayor round the City in his state coach. One after the other they rode by, while my eyes were always glued to the coach. An enormous contraption, the front and back larger than the carriage itself. I was jealous of the coachmen and pikemen who got to ride pillion. I just loved the gilt and gold, the red velvet, the cherubs on the frame, the painted panels on the doors. Gleaming and glowing fit for Cinderella herself. One November, after that year’s show, I was on night duty. This meant patrolling round Guildhall every hour as night watchman, though I was never quite sure what I was supposed to do if anything happened. Phone the police I suppose. But nothing ever did. Just about summed up my life, locked in a grinding routine of scratching a wage, turning up at all hours to do not a lot, and my not‐so‐wild nights out at the local. I saw the future stretching out like an endless suburban street,
one day, one year indistinguishable from the next. Put like that, I didn’t seem to have too much to lose. My brother‐in‐law wasn’t too keen. But not too bright either. When I offered him a hundred quid he couldn’t bring his truck round quick enough. At three in the morning, City quiet as you like – no terrorists in them days – I opened the back gates, and in he drove. We hitched the coach to the lorry, and out we went, lorry, coach, night watchman and all. What a lark. I only wanted the chance to be Lord Mayor, sitting in state, waving to an imaginary crowd. And that’s what I did, all the way back to Sid’s lock‐up. I knew it couldn’t last long, and sure enough, before any time at all the police were knocking on the doors. I was hauled off to the station and the rest is history. But more history than you might expect. I was as famous as the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo. I became the man who was Lord Mayor for a day. My fifteen minutes of fame. It made my fortune, just like Dick Whittington’s. I sold my story to the Daily Mail. It was made into a film. I travelled the world. Not bad for the Lord Mayor’s doorman. Inspired by the Lord Mayor’s ceremonial coach and adjacent exhibits. City Gallery.
Dennis Gardner Dennis Gardner was born in London in 1945, growing up in the post‐ war period, which led in turn to the changes evolving in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Since joining Writing London in autumn 2012, he has started to achieve his ambition to chronicle his own experience during those years. His knowledge of the time, particularly the music, films and clothing of the era is apparent to everyone he knows, but closest to him are the people themselves, the characters who shaped the London he writes about. A lifelong lover of jazz, Arsenal FC and a decent glass of wine, Dennis lives in Highbury.
‘That’s the boy with the chrome Vespa’ When I left school in 1961, the world was in the throes of a wave of positive change. The austerity of the post‐war years was now passing and, for young people in particular, there seemed to be a whole new upbeat outlook. It was our turn. I was happy to have left school. Although I was fairly academic, I had become bored and restless, eager to get out into the world with some money in my pocket and the freedom to do what I wanted. My brother‐in‐law procured me a job in a ladies’ fashion factory he part owned and over the next few months I set about assembling some of the accoutrements of ‘living the life’, as I assumed it to be. First on the agenda: the right clothes. Even as a child I was quite fashion conscious, having an older brother who was always beautifully dressed and who impressed upon me the importance of ‘looking good’. As soon as I had saved enough money, I took myself to Berwick Street in Soho, where the tailor Sam Arkus was very much the flavour of the day. The style was a short, box‐cut jacket, single‐ or double‐breasted, with slim lapels and narrow, tapered trousers. A look inspired by the clothes worn by Italian waiters in the Soho restaurants. My first suit from Sam was navy blue, double breasted with a silk stripe weave. Twenty‐eight pounds. A month’s wages. Four weeks later, after two fittings and a lot of anticipation, it was ready. Proudly clutching my smart cardboard case, suit safely and perfectly folded inside, I walked through to Shaftesbury Avenue to finish off my new look with a pale blue shirt and a dark knitted tie from Cecil Gee and a pair of slim, black Italian brogues from Topper. Just a few doors away from Sam’s in Soho was Lui’s, where Lui Pelledri and his two cousins presided over the best barbershop in town and every three weeks for the next few years I was part of a twenty‐yard queue on Saturday mornings. That in itself was a sort of fashion parade, with all of us holding forth on what we would be wearing that evening and what new items of clothing we
planned to buy. I always spent too much of my pay on clothes and shoes, but didn’t regret it, and before long had a good choice of things to wear. All the girls loved a smart boy. I was now mixing with not just friends I had known from schooldays, but with people I knew from work. The factory, Goldmans, was in Well Street, Hackney.On my first day, standing there with a steam iron in my hand, looking at six rows of twelve sewing machines manned by various females aged between fifteen and sixty‐five, I was absolutely terrified. And believe me, those girls knew just how to terrify a young, shy new recruit. Goldmans truly was ‘The school of hard knocks and the university of life’. However, I soon managed to cope with this wonderful humiliation and before long anticipated each day’s work with great pleasure. This was a good time in a good place and, fifty years later, I still remember so many of these people, several of whom shaped certain small aspects of my life. A group of us from work socialised regularly, usually at pubs in and around the East End. One such was the Denragon Arms, hosted by a darkly sardonic comedian, Ray Martine, whose razor sharp wit would later take him on to television. Others, the Aberdeen, the White Horse and, most of all, the Rising Sun in Roman Road, Bethnal Green, were always packed with customers and provided entertainment of a remarkably high standard. One Sunday evening in the Rising Sun, known as ‘The London Palladium of entertainment pubs’, four of us were enjoying the last drink of the weekend listening to a very good pseudo Frank Sinatra, when a group of six people walked in, one of whom, quite unbelievably, was Judy Garland. Drinks were bought by the pub’s owner and, after some pleasantries had been exchanged, she took to the stage and sang four songs, ending with Somewhere over the Rainbow. Even now I feel a tingle just thinking about it. She had been filming I Could Go On Singing with Dirk Bogarde and had been seen in all the West End nightspots. But the Rising Sun? On the Isle of Dogs, the Iron Bridge tavern, run by a formidable woman called Queenie Watts, was a regular venue for us and was later used in the film Alfie for a spectacular fight scene. Another was the Waterman’s Arms, owned by the journalist and TV reporter Daniel Farson. It had the aura of an old‐time music hall and one of the most memorable characters was a singer and comedian called Tommy Pudding because his signature tune was a very old song called Put a bit of treacle on your pudding Mary Ann. His real name was Tommy Wright and he actually lived in the next street to me in Islington. His wife, Lil, was a friend of my mum’s and I was at school with his three sons. Women in those days always had names like that: Lil, Flo, Vi, Elsie. Well they did, didn’t they? At closing time, a good Chinese would bring the night to a comfortable end. ‘Old Friends’ in Limehouse was an old shop at the apex of two streets and the three floors above which would have been living accommodation were used as dining rooms. The décor was basic: Lino flooring, plastic‐ topped tables and a collection of old chairs. No matter, to this day, quite the best Chinese I have ever tasted – and everyone knew it. If you went during the week, not at the weekend, because that’s when all the hoi polloi would be around, there would usually be one or two famous faces enjoying the fare. On a good night, you may have seen the actor Terence Stamp and his stunning girlfriend Jean Shrimpton. Even in a baggy sweater and rolled‐up jeans she was sensational, with a perfect face and a heartmelting smile seldom seen in David Bailey’s photographs for Vogue and Town. Bailey, too, was a regular, as were the film director David Lean, Bobby Moore, and Antony Newley, to name a few. Collectively, aged between seventeen and about thirty, we shared another unbridled passion. I refer, of course, to the Arsenal football Club. We would attend every home game and all
other fixtures in the London Area. Travelling by tube to an away game one Wednesday evening, we were joined by a young Irish boy, Tommy Mahon, who had recently started at Goldmans. He had never used the Underground before. Upon seeing an escalator for the first time, he uttered, in his broad County Wexford accent, a remark that stays with me forever: ‘Fucking Jesus, the stairs are moving!’ Thus established, my thoughts moved towards the acquisition of a motor scooter. Vespa and Lambretta were the most popular ‐ more Italian style. I knew a rather charismatic character called Gerry Huxham, good looking, well dressed and never without a gorgeous girl on his arm. He had a Vespa and had spent some serious money having it completely chrome plated. The saddle and spare wheel were covered with real fur from an old musquash coat belonging to his mother. A five‐foot chromed aerial was fixed behind the pillion, topped, naturally, with a fox’s tail. One evening in the pub, Gerry announced that he was buying a car and would be selling the Vespa. ‘I’ll have it,’ I said, not even knowing the price. We settled on £75 and two Saturdays later I took possession of this magnificent machine, which would enhance my reputation and open the door to the company of the best looking girls. What I had not taken into account was the fact that I had never ridden anything more lethal than a push bike. My journey home from Gerry’s house at King’s Cross was terrifying. I wobbled up York Way, my throttle control leaving much to be desired, which meant that the engine stalled three times. By some miracle I came away unscathed, but my relief at getting home was enormous. Back on the horse the next day, and the day after, I soon got the hang of things and before long was riding quite expertly. I added a few more embellishments to the scooter: tassels on the handlebar grips and metal badges on the front; the pride and joy of which was a vintage AA badge, which I had unscrewed from a Rolls Royce in Berkeley Square. That summer, as always when looking back to your youth, was full of sunshine and good times. Riding down to the coast in a group of ten or twelve bikes, with the tight skirt and high heels behind me clinging on for dear life, I could have been driving along the French Riviera. Just to think: a year before, my biggest concern had been my maths homework. When I think of the girls we hung around with, most unfairly and ungraciously referred to as ‘pillion fodder’, I am struck by how old‐ fashioned their names sound these days. In fact they could be straight from the script of The Likely Lads ‐ Shirley Treadwell, Valerie Baggott, Maureen Drew ‐ dear Maureen; quite literally the good time that was had by all ‐ Linda Briggs and, of course Diane Clarke. Diane was an attractive girl, tall and slim, with long, slender legs and a wide‐eyed, smiling face. We were quite friendly and went out together occasionally, usually to the cinema or La Bambina coffee bar at Highbury Corner. What she really loved, however, was to ride on the pillion of the chrome Vespa. I had read in a magazine that if you sprayed hair lacquer on to the end of the exhaust pipe while on the move it would ignite and produce a sheet of flame. We decided to give this a try. Diane worked in a hairdresser’s, and one night produced a can more than fit for the purpose. High‐octane, industrial‐strength stuff. As we were about to get on the scooter, she fixed me with a steely look in her eye. ‘Before we get started, there’s something I want to tell you.’ What did she want to say? Was this to be some iconic statement that would change my young life? ‘If I get a scorched arse, you will be in big trouble.’ I smiled with relief. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘Nothing with will go wrong. In any case, I could always put some Nivea cream on your bum.’ There followed a brief, rather pleasant moment during which we were both alone with our thoughts.
In the event, it worked perfectly. We drove down Upper Street at a reasonable speed. Both Diane’s arms were round my waist, her right hand clutching the aerosol. At the given moment she turned in the saddle and sprayed the exhaust pipe. The next few moments defy description. In my wing mirror I saw a four‐foot jet of flame flaring away at the back of the bike. Diane was whooping and shrieking with delight and at one point held the spray to the pipe for about ten seconds, giving the effect of a mobile flame‐thrower. I remember somebody shouting and calling me a flash git, and I probably was, but it was good fun and we repeated it on many occasions with, so sadly, never a need for the Nivea. Although we had some good times, Diane and I were never going to last forever as we both liked a little variety in our dealings with the opposite sex. We eventually just drifted apart and saw or heard very little more of each other… Until thirty odd years later, by which time I was happily married with three sons, a dog, a house and a Volvo estate. I sat one morning enjoying my breakfast and the Sunday papers. Shuffling through the various sections, looking for the sports pages and the magazines, my eyes came to rest on the front page of the News of the World. I know that face. I don’t believe this. There, smiling at me, was the lovely Diane, a woman now of a certain age, with so very much more to her than the seventeen‐year‐old that I had known. Then I read the article. She had been a principal witness in a trial at the Old Bailey involving an MP, two peers of the realm and various foreign diplomats on a matter of state security. Upon cross examination in the dock at the Old Bailey, she was revealed to be the woman referred to during the course of the trial as ‘Diane the Dominatrix’ and would be telling her story in the News of the World over the following two weeks. The article ended, ‘Miss Clarke is now married to an architect and is living a respectable life in the Home Counties.’ I sat back and thought of the young Diane that I had known, of our days in the sun on the Vespa, and the times we had been round the block together. I thought of us dancing at the Downbeat Club at Finsbury Park. The last dance of the evening: the DJ playing Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the shore. As we sashayed past a group of three or four girls standing to the side, I can remember one of them telling her friends: ‘That’s the boy with the chrome Vespa.’ Inspired by the Vespa bike in the World City gallery. Names have been changed to protect identities.
Patricia Gibson Having written about places and people all my working life, I wanted to see whether I could weave facts with fiction. Creating imaginary situations, which would be as vivid and engaging to the reader as they were to me, was daunting. Would they want to read on? After two years’ advice and encouragement from the Writing London tutor, I feel bolder both with situations and characters. The displays in the Museum of London may inspire a setting and the people to put in it. The fun comes from creating a life for them. That’s what I enjoy about writing.
His Story (The Proposal) He was as nervous as a teenage boy on his first date. Stupid! Stupid! He said it to himself in the mirror as he chucked the tenth tie on the bed. In the end, he chose the dark red because it went well with his grey suit and white shirt. Nothing too formal, he decided. After all, he was meeting her at Lyons Corner House in Leicester Square, not the bally Ritz. If he were honest with himself, he’d chosen Joe Lyons partly because he thought she’d be more comfortable there and also because it was unlikely they’d meet anyone he knew. That way, if he’d made a fool of himself last night, proposing on the spur of the moment like that, no‐one but them would know about it. Dammit, she’d looked so sweet, so unspoilt, so very different from the, let’s face it, world‐ weary women he’d been escorting around Town before he’d met her. Alright, she was an aspiring actress who had just got a part with a repertory company. He knew what his mother would say about that, but he hadn’t come into the title yet. At least he’d met her at a respectable friend’s party. As he would point out, how many of his grandfather’s chums had hung around the Gaiety stage door in their day? His great‐uncle had even married his ‘girl’. Black garters and all! This was 1930, he’d tell Mother. Not the dark ages. Of course, there was the age difference: he was 31, she was 23. He knew she’d want to go to parties and dance all night. He found himself yawning at eleven these days and longing for a quiet night in. He imagined the scene: the radio on, a roaring fire and her in the other armchair reading a book. God, you’re getting old, he thought. At the tearoom he looked at his watch. A quarter of an hour to go. He gazed around. He liked the smell of it. Reminded him of being taken out to tea by his parents at half‐term from boarding school. There was the same comforting odour of toasted, buttered teacakes and strong tea, the same whiff of cigarette smoke. The décor was nice, too. Marble columns, glass screens and pretty orangey wall lamps. Very Art Deco. He might get some of those for his flat in Chelsea. Heavens, he’d been choosing their wallpaper next! Ah, here she comes. Turning a few heads, too. Tall, slim and wearing that purple dress he liked, with the beads that shimmy as she walks. Face it, old chap. She’s young, sexy and she doesn’t make smart remarks. Don’t get many girls like that these days. Either one meets droopy girls with no conversation at those ghastly society balls or intense ones at gallery openings who want to talk
about the meaning of life. Bit over my head. I’m decent on milk yields, but girls aren’t interested in cows or, if they are, they’re a bit too hearty for me! Lordy, if she says yes will she mind living on an estate in the back of beyond? Suppose I should have mentioned the ancestral pile. Hang on, old chap. Getting a bit ahead of yourself. She hasn’t said she’ll have you yet. He smiled as he got up and pulled out a chair for her. He noticed his hands were a bit clammy. Nerves. She smiled back, sat down, pulled off her violet leather gloves and searched in her clutch bag for a cigarette. He leant forward with his Ronson lighter. He could see her blue eyes sparkling through the smoke. He ordered tea from the attentive Nippy, a pretty girl he noticed, in that flattering black and white uniform. Tea. That’s what she needs! And scones and jam and cream and some of those little éclair things. Then, maybe she’d give him her answer. Oh, this was ghastly! They were eating in silence like an old married couple. He could hardly swallow his tea he was so nervous. He fingered the little jeweller’s box in his jacket pocket. He’d had to guess her finger size and had had a job deciding between a solitaire and an emerald. Finally, he’d chosen the emerald. Better for a younger lady than diamonds, the jeweller had advised. He looked up. Hang on a minute! She’d finished her éclair and was patting her mouth with the napkin. She took one last sip of tea and he noticed that her bright red lipstick had left a perfect imprint of her mouth on the rim. Like a kiss, he thought. But not for me. Now she was fishing about for her fox stole that she’d slung over the back of the chair. Oh no! She was pulling on her gloves. He felt her ungloved hand touch his briefly. And then she stood up and put the fox round her neck. Its horrid pointy head with the little black eyes seemed to be laughing at him. He watched her sashay across the tea room to the door. He felt his eyes fill with tears. Stupid! Stupid! He sighed and sat there for a while, smoking. He knew he must look pale because the Nippy had asked him if he was feeling all right. Then he thought of something and he smiled to himself. He slipped a few notes on the table and a generous tip for that nice Nippy. Then he, too, headed for the door. He looked at his watch. Four o’clock. They’d been together less than an hour. If he hurried, he might just get to that jeweller before he closed. Inspired by the couple in the photograph by the side of the J.Lyons animatronic display in the Museum of London.
Louise Adele Prince Writing in the Museum offers a way of developing a deep and lasting understanding of, and relationship with, the collections. Writing within the historical context is a way of responding, as a born Londoner, to the rapid changes occurring to the city’s texture and fabric, while evaluating those as part of the historical continuum. Finally, writing for me is a way of communicating which compensates somewhat for both hearing loss and the powerlessness, the invisibility, of later life. Observing and absorbing so much, writing offers an outlet for documenting the rewards and frustrations of London life.
Horseferry Road, Westminster 1967. Christmas Eve on Horseferry Road saw snow settling on pavements, piling along the window ledges. Reproach‐shaped pigeons puffed up their feathers as they shivered, hugging the shelter of the office building gutters. Inside, all eyes leant on the hands of the office clock. How leadenly, how reluctantly, they shifted forward. As record cards were sorted, phone calls made and files packed away, pens chased across pages of memos and drafts. At last the small hand hit four. ‘Pens down, everyone,’ called the office manager, clapping her hands. The staff filed along the corridor to collect a mince pie and a cup of tea, which they consumed alone at their desks. The celebration over, they were free to leave for home and two days remission. ‘Goodnight Horace.’ ‘Happy Christmas, Miss,’ replied the one‐armed lift operator, a war veteran. He raised his gnawed, dark leather gauntlet glove. Betty stepped out, her black rubber galoshes covering her sturdy polished laceups. Snowflakes dizzied her vision, as they surged and spun, spiralling along the cutting, iced wind. On Strutton Ground the last stallholders were packing up. Strings of coloured tungsten bulbs lit the pyramids of tangerines, oranges, nuts and dates. A brazier’s smoking embers stoked the red memory of recently roasting chestnuts. She was bent into the wind, heading down Francis Street, towards Victoria Station. The commissionaires at the rear entrance to Army & Navy stores whistled up cabs for customers and their bags and boxes. In the windows of the Food Hall, artlessly stacked jars and hampers supported glace fruits, petit fours, sugar mice and sugared almonds, wines and spirits. Cumberland and brandy sauces flanked smoked hams and plum puddings. Christmas trees modelled the brightest scarlet and gold garlands and glittering glass ornaments. A door opened and a shot of hot, coffee‐steeped air hit her face hard.
At the post office depot, the gates were closing on the day’s final delivery vans. Strains from a Salvation Army band floated up with the snowflakes. The Lord Palmerston had A merry Christmas to all our customers written in frosted lettering across the windows. She heard laughing voices inside and the scraping clatter clash clatter of glasses being collected from heavy mahoghany tables. Rounding into Ashley Place, she walked faster, past the padlocked, heavy oak, unadorned doors of the convent. A glance up at the oriel window of a particular mansion flat across the road levered brittle recall of smoke from Havana cigars, dance music, the Prime Minister …. ‘Let’s hope the trains are running.’ A voice from behind and an umbrella hoisted above brought Malcolm Easton, the newly appointed senior executive officer, to her side. They sometimes walked together to the station after work. He would talk, she would half listen. He was very taken with the Byzantine style architectural detail of the cathedral. Then ‘Happy Christmas’ they cried in unison, hurrying to their different platforms, relieved to escape both snow and conversational effort. On the train she slept. She knew because she woke to the curious sensation of being watched. A girl looked away suddenly, smiling guiltily. The half‐dream was back: standing barefoot on the shattered silver shards scattering Shaftesbury Avenue, the bag … she must find the bag. Indoors at last, Betty hung up and brushed her charcoal wool twill suit. In the mirror, her oval face framed by short, self‐cut, gun‐grey hair, she gazed through pellucid hazel eyes into the future. Christmas morning dawned muffled and overcast. Heavy mist had frozen into patterns along the cars outside. The house was empty. Everyone had left for Christmas with their families. Christmas bells rang out from the radio. She had two days. In the tabletop fridge lay a small chicken. She had also bought a teacup sized Christmas pudding and a tin of condensed milk. A new book, an anthology, The Book of Hours, waited to be read. A Christmas card lodged on the mantelpiece was from the office manager, who gave everyone in the office a card every year. Betty, being so silently diligent, the office barely noticed how she blended with the dove and granite painted walls. It was as if she lived inside a gatehouse of glass bricks. Uninvited thoughts of Malcolm hovered. By now he’d be on the way to Yorkshire for Christmas with the aunts. She had feigned anticipation of a celebration with her mother, who was long dead. She didn’t want pity. Of course she remembered him. Now using a different name, but the bass baritone voice still resonated, and, on seeing him, her brain had done that mechanical, roliflex thing. Running through faces of similar type, it eventually paused at male: dark hair, blue eyes then stopped at him. For weeks speculation had ranged over who would fill the retiring Mr. Simmonds’ desk space. The boys in contractors’ accounts offered to set up a book. With Malcolm eventually appointed, the office had pooled their knowledge. Lengthy postings abroad, no wife and family that anyone was knew of, and wasn’t there a rumour that he’d lived with his mother until her recent death? In Hong Kong he’d worked alongside Sidney Jones, a notorious gambler and chancer. Apparently nobody working abroad had noted Malcolm’s discrete trips to global hotspots, countries about to kick off. The girls in Registry liked his quiet savvy, the elegant, insouciant self‐assurance which carried him around the world. Perhaps he would marry, buy a house in Surrey, settle down with a family. Betty evaded him, but there are only so many routes from Horseferry Road to Victoria Station and he seemed determined to talk. What would be the point? She was another person now. Unrecognisable, even to herself.
They might recall friends in common from their training days. She could tell him about the convent, he might describe the empty expat life. But what then? Striving to remember, striving to forget. He’d once likened her lively eyes to Celia Johnson’s, but the gulf between them now seemed irreconcilable. The convent, before it closed, had taught piety, humility and acceptance. She worked at the role. She asked little of the world. She coped. Malcolm did not need to know of her losses. Besides, it had been a silent Order. Now, opening her wooden trunk, she took out the black velvet evening bag wrapped in its striped, gold and turquoise raw silk stole. Everything was as she had left it: the diamante studded purse, the silver comb, Dior rouge lipstick. Long ago she had removed the bloodstained, embroidered Swiss handkerchief, a reminder of that night’s bomb on the Café de Paris. Opening the bag’s secret compartment, she eyed the cyanide pill. There was a ring on the doorbell. Perhaps one of the students had left something behind. Looking out of the window, she saw a small silver, single‐engined plane emerge from banks of gilded coral cloud. Unpredicted sunbeams swiftly flooded Schiaparelli pink the cold celestial plain. Malcolm Easton stood at the door, a Fortnums hamper at his feet. ‘I thought you and your, um, mother may like some company?’ The gulf between them, seemingly unassailable, narrowed on her acceptance of his Army & Navy Stores account card. Given some arts and entertainments input to fill her cultural rucksack, she would soon be ready for relaunch on the world. From December 27 Betty’s chair stood empty. Along the corridor, well into the New Year, Malcolm’s secretary fielded calls, sent interim memos and filed excuses for missed meetings. While far away, on a beach somewhere, the two former intelligence officers, reunited at last, drank a toast to Her Majesty’s secret service. Inspired by a black velvet bag used regularly for visits to nightclubs during the period 1940‐1945. People’s City: War.
Jessie Small, Our Local Washerwoman Jessie Small, known to us children as Aunt Jess, took in washing to earn a living for herself, her son Jimmy and her daughter Mary. They lived in Hannah More’s cottage, built in Tudor times as a small farmhouse, the layout of which proved ideal for the running of a laundry. Aunt Jess refused to refer to herself as a laundress, as many of the other women did. She would stand with brown eyes flashing , arms akimbo over her brown and green wraparound overall. ‘I’ve no time for all that lah de dah nonsense,’ she would say in a firm and loud voice (for she was rather deaf). ‘I don’t need to give myself fancy names. I concentrate on giving a good clean wash.’ And so she did, but when complimented on her wash and compared favourably with someone who left the outline of her customer ‘s bodies on the bottom sheet, she replied tartly. ‘I never make comments on my customer’s washing, especially on the sheets.’ Her cottage had the typical farmhouse arrangement of a hall running from the front to the back door and the floor was laid with well scrubbed stone flags. A latched door on the right opened into where animals had originally been wintered. Looking up you could understand why it always felt so cold: you could see the stars at night through the gaps in the tiles. It was in this room that Aunt Jess placed the tools of her trade. She had a set of galvanised grey wash tubs, oval in shape and with handles at each end. These were of graded sizes so that they all fitted into one. When the washing was brought to her, the wash tubs were placed with a clang on trestle tables and half filled with water and any extra dirty parts, like collars, were rubbed with Sunlight soap and left to soak. ‘Loosens the dirt,’ explained Aunt Jess. Meanwhile, the copper in its brick built base in a corner of the room was filled with water, the wooden round lid replaced on top, and a fire was lit underneath. Any dirt not sufficiently loosened by soaking was ruthlessly scrubbed and pummelled out by Aunt Jess’s powerful arm action on her washboard. ‘I don’t like the steam making my perm frizzy,’ she would say, as she wound a headscarf tightly over her dry, grey ,wave‐rippled sausage‐curled head. Thus, suitably protected from the steam billowing from the copper , it was considered safe for her to transfer the sheets into the copper using the wooden copper stick. While the washing was given a vigorous boil, for in those days all bed linen was white and Persil bright, Aunt Jess prepared the mangle by turning the large screw at the top to bring the wooden rollers together. If there were any children around she would ask, ‘Would you like to turn the handle? It must be slow and steady, I don’t want to get my fingers caught in the rollers for that would hurt and make me very angry with you. You don’t want that do you?’Indeed we didn’t. We had all heard the story about when her son Jimmy told her he wanted to buy a motorbike. ‘You can buy your bike and when you bring it through that door I shall be waiting with the sledgehammer and I shall smash it to pieces. Dangerous things motorbikes. I’m surprised at you
suggesting it after what happened to your father.’ After such fierce opposition, Jimmy waited until he had left home and acquired a supportive girlfriend before getting a motorbike. I turned the handle cautiously as the sheets were fed through the rollers to concertina themselves into folds as they descended into the laundry basket. After being hung on the clothes line and hoicked up higher with the clothes prop to catch the wind, the sheets were left to dry and were brought in smelling sweet and fresh or, in the summer, of lavender, which grew abundantly on the well drained limestone soil. The door in the hall led into the living room and after the subdued monochrome of the laundry room, was a place of colour and warmth. Looking at it made one long to ask questions about this treasure trove of riches. Centre stage was a scrubbed‐top table where large areas of sheets could be spread out and ironed. Aunt Jess used two irons. Whilst she was pressing the creases out with one, to a soft hissing accompaniment, the other would be heating up on the huge Victorian range which completely filled the original Tudor fireplace. Holding the hot iron a few inches from her cheek to check there would be no danger of scorching a customer’s sheets she would say, ‘I can’t afford to make expensive mistakes like that.’ Opposite the range was a dresser reaching up to the ceiling and crammed with the shining gold of lustre jugs, a pair of Staffordshire dogs and all the flower‐ bedecked plates, cups and saucers used every day . Most beautiful and resplendent of all was a china Lord Kitchener on horseback in a red uniform fixing his gaze on a picture of the siege at Rorke’s Drift. Zulus and soldiers were painted thumbnail size, apparently in an attempt to show everyone who took part in the battle. ‘A wedding present from my soldier brother Edward who died in China,’ said Aunt Jess with a sniff and wiping the corner of her eye with the edge of her overall. Aunt Jess was the youngest in her family and had looked after her mother in her old age and so accumulated many family belongings. The dried flowers of wedding bouquets under glass domes and a stuffed kingfisher brightened up dark corners . Pride of place was given to her daughter’s swimming certificates, framed and arranged in a semicircle with Mary’s photograph in the centre, all on their own table and not a speck of dust anywhere in spite of the range fire. Some years later, while Aunt Jess was out visiting Mary, vandals broke in. Finding no money, they smashed every piece of china on the dresser onto the stone flagged floor. As she swept up the shattered fragments, a lifetime of memories gone, she said, ‘Probably a good thing I wasn’t in the house at the time. Somebody might have got hurt.’ It was not clear whether she was referring to herself or the vandals. Written in response to a photograph of women at their wash tubs with a mangle in the background. People’s City.
Lorinda Freint I have lived in many different parts of the world, and much of my writing is concerned with describing what is strange or interesting to me, or else describing being the stranger to others. The experience of being the stranger is both liberating and potentially alienating, but with enormous possibilities for observation.
Psalm of Protection It is finally 7 o'clock and Sara is exhausted after standing all day. Taking in clothes, talking to people and writing endless instructions on pieces of paper she hasn't had a minute to sit down. It seemed as if everyone was bringing in something or other to be adjusted or shortened or patched or a dress for a wedding or this or that. In the old country they would have done a lot of this themselves, but here things are different. Still, the difference works for her; it pays for the room upstairs and for the lentils about to be warmed. All the same, she has been really busy today, probably due to the season. Spring always means a fresh look and a new start. Clear‐outs, spring cleaning, new lives, marriages, newborn lambs. New beginnings. She locks the door for the night, and hears some sort of commotion outside. Nothing to be worried about. It is always noisy around here. Lots of people on their way home, children shouting to each other while running errands for their parents. This is not a quiet neighbourhood. Then she sees it, a piece of paper being pushed under the door. Looking down at it ‘Alien Jews’ are the only words she can make out. She freezes. There is a strange noise around her, and it takes her ages to work out that it is the sound of her own breath. Her breath quietens down after what seems like ages, and it is as if this world drifts away. In its place there are memories, stories, whole nights of hushed tones followed by hurried departures. More stories full of longing for left behind places and left behind faces. Treasured pictures. Pieces of lace. Recipes recited like spells to keep alive a bond, a piece of the self. Old trails. Ports and Stations. Voyages. She ended up here... alone. All that way for this. Sara has never really paid much heed to newspapers and news. She has left the world alone and got on with it. But now the world has come to her. The world has joined up all the stories, and slithered under her door with a message. Sara whispers the old words, the familiar words, the words to weave the charm of protection. Over and over she says them: ‘HaShem is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? HaShem is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’ The paper on the floor catches her eye again and she stops whispering. ‘Alien Jews’. She shivers as the message sinks in, and she goes to sit down. She thinks: ‘I fear. And I am feared. I am so horribly afraid. And yet they fear me. I fear the alien and I am the alien.’ And around her the city breathes the fear. The demons of the river and the marshes rear up and gorge on the energy. The movement, the surge of night terrors. London's old gods know that the supply is endless. New fears will replace this one. The trail stretches far into the past, and reaches into
the future: Angles, Romans, Saxons, Danes, Normans, Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Asians ... Poles. The Schlei, Rome, Holstein, Jelling, Uppsala, Bordeaux, Odessa, Donegal, Krakow, Bangladesh, Kismayo. All their chanting, incantations, psalms of protection, blessings beseeched: ‘ Help us in this Alien land.’ Back comes the paper under the door, the whispers on the airwaves and in the draughty halls: ‘Help us against the invading Alien.’ Inspired by the ‘Keep out Alien Jews’ leaflet in the People’s City Gallery.
Maria Claudia Bada Maria Claudia Bada is a dedicated environmentalist, writer and researcher in Endangered Language. As a London Network Co-ordinator for You Are Home (YAH) Itinerant Eco-village, I am actually working on green economy, self-resiliency and sustainability. As an artist and a curator I am exploring identity and gender, biodiversity, recycling art, eco-art, landscape change. ‘If tears have no eyes to climb or ears to be heard, how will you express them? To me, writing is like to enter an unexplored territory almost blind, until an image comes burning the eyes and claiming to be narrated outside my head. It could be dirty, childlike, nervous, sympathetic, dramatic or peaceful. It needs to get out and needs to be done as soon as you can.’
Charmed I am lost in the dust since ages. Day and night lying in the arena. Sun and moon hunting each other. And still nobody to pick me up, to love me, to bring me out for a walk or for a flaming evening, when the wine flows in the canteen, the voices get louder and louder, the women softer and warmer. Who do I belong to? Yes, I was not at all a crown‐jewel, but my owner was a brave, young soldier. Brigo. He never let me down: we ran together in the New Forest looking for foxes and wolves, worshipping the giant feet of the trees coming from ancient memories. Clutching his coat, almost covered by his generous beard. Me and Brigo were totally, disgustingly free to dig in the mud and in the rain. Now I’m lost, covered all over in blood and sweat. The last time I saw Brigo, his long, blonde hair, his perfectly squared face, his curly savage beard, I was already in the dust, alone, scared. A dagger hit directly his big and muscular chest. The people around yelling, ‘Kill him, kill him.’ The Emperor’s thumb down. The glimpse in Brigo’s grey eyes fading away. ‘Yes, keep bringing your wife presents from work.’ The massive guard couldn’t stop laughing aloud. ‘Bronze, mate!’ The other gigantic soldier spat on the dog brooch, before biting it. A tear of saliva rapidly dried on the jolly face of the animal. Inspired by the copper alloy brooch of a running dog in the Roman London Gallery.
Kevin Quinn My passions are writing, reading, film, music and the arts. I love the musicality of writing and the way words flow from your mind onto the page. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing your own thoughts and ideas clearly expressed in a way that you hope your readers will understand and appreciate. Of course this is not always a simple process and it takes time to develop your own style and find your voice. Words are the tools of life whether written or spoken and it is not what we say but how we say it that really matters.
Resurrection Man A grieving family’s tears Will tomorrow provide my supper and beer Freshly dug earth smells sweet As the living and the dead thus meet In the Fortune of War I sit and drink And dream, scheme and plot Burkers aplenty await orders Grasping, snivelling and snarling to procure their lot The air a thick cocktail of smoke, sweat and ale Night is my day Grave‐robbing phantom disturbing sacred clay Dense fog smothers holy ground Wooden spade make no sound Another body to St Barts is bound
Demand exceeds supply Who am I to wonder why? Press and public outraged Hear them howl, scream and cry Iron coffins, man traps and trip wires Prevent me not Nor the hangman’s noose Or treadmill at Coldbath Fields Prison ’Tis corpses I provide For they have nowhere left to hide And with every last breath I shall continue to trade in death Inspired by the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition and a screening of the film The Body Snatcher, both of which took place at the Museum of London.
Surplus City A city filled to the brim is bound to spill its messy splotches not easily contained within geometrically perfect rectangular giants out of metal and cement despite jewelled lights framed in darkness like Polyanna’s pictures in reverse, like hopes of those who have nothing else looking to see beyond the lit windows: lives foreign and smelling of home secluded behind curtains embroidered with secrets of their own, like purple painted lids with latent green edges belonging to eyes with false lashes looking forward to lighting the night in town. She looked up wistfully, her mouth tracing letters with wants racing
behind her eyelids: One of the casualties of a surplus culture, imagining herself tucked up inside somebody else’s bed surrounded by others not belonging to her, imagining her life fulfilled. Left outside Worship Street that evangelised septicaemia with protruding images of homeless beggars, gargoyles and hell: a trinity of despicable being underneath many a pop‐up scaffolding. Broken acrylic nails scratching on the outside of a bottle of unripe wine, whining outside the city’s brain where senselessness is sensibility and survival has nothing to do with liberty, poverty is the drug that dulls the senses of schizophrenics, like friends with benefits. Yet by others higher up on the seven steps of the new social ladder, too posh to display criminal intent, possessing possibilities overflowing like the ciy’s drains with money, connections and tact crisp, bespoke and inert appearing to have a mere existence of luck looking for fun, mischief and a tickle for their whims within ringfenced futures, encircled with electric wire, spending the currency of the unlit night underneath the shadows of street lights where not even the silence is quiet and breeze carries the musty scent of phantom holograms of lives clumsily lived, she could be hailed a psychokinetic outcast of a psychedelic trip, when she came out looking for biscuits and milk for the morning to breakfast her children with. She is so many
yet without a tangible body just eyes, not cocooned inside their sockets but like dice in a game of chance ready to explode white dots, that sparkle against the wet velvet of the dark wailing their story in an angry rap confused by its rhythmic tap tumbling around within the trap their homogeneity unwrapped. Looking out of the keyhole she could not blackout that which was inside her head and out. Imagine the scene when she reclaims her scream to unleash her influence and not in a dream. Should you look at the sky, in the end, you will be forgiven for thinking it a field of violets speckled with snow when it might have been a rainbow, its colours runny, wearing a full skirt with multilayered petticoats of fog trimmed with lights that wink taunting a gullible sparrow because life itself is bipolar, layered and messy, an acquired taste, like salted caramel biscuits with cream cheese dip dunked in somebody else’s brew: a delicacy for the very hip looking for the extra on the cheap whilst others non‐coerced, wait to reach their own oasis at the end of each sunset every morning and night. Why are you surprised when she cannot be contained within crumbly walls so gritty
they could peel away your skin, like a banana, should you absent‐mindedly touch, safe now that you avoided the sting on the scorpion’s upturned tail by trading her in? Would you want to know what she is thinking? When she no longer is the act what do you do with your own fear of the next thing as you merrily dance the plank to the rhapsody of the surplus city that goes on and on? Inspired by the Camberwell nocturne painting in the World City gallery.
Brigette Bennett Brigette Bennett joined Writing London with the intention of writing regularly and learning more techniques on overcoming reluctance/fear/the other stuff of life in order to write. She has not succeeded completely but has written more poetry, rather than the intended novel and play. She appeared at the Keats House Festival in 2011 and 2012 with ‘Of course. I Don't. Love You.’ and ‘Departing to Arrive’ and this year was pleased to have one of her poems, ‘Now It Is So Much Easier To Be An Alien,’ selected for the Keats House 2012 anthology, edited by John Hegley and Maureen Roberts.
Six-segmented pomander against the plague I am a six-segmented metal satsuma Opening up no tangy taste I am forged so much earlier Than the birth of this orange citrus I am not a pendant from a collar I open - with closing in plagueless hope, Spreadeagled to six silver slithered sections Pointing to more than North, South, East or West And if you have been, are and will be Good, You may be granted a reprise and live To die another day. Inspired by the silver pomander in the War, Plague and Fire gallery.
Why she stole it They said it had magical properties. She knows that's no defence. ‘Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill.’ Can you hear the one without the other? She hadn't wanted to steal it but before she knew what was happening she was out of the door and down the street - no, not running. People would have noticed her then. Well, the fact was, in this time of trouble (when had she not known trouble?) a gem like that might save her or... people who helped her. If that man in the apothecary had not spoken of it, she would have dismissed it. A piece from an antelope's stomach. No, no, it was a collection of things, not a piece but out of the stomach, a ball of minerals. Well, it looked like nothing. Actually, it looked like a hard piece of dark paste and weighed little and smelt like leather. She crossed herself. That smell was well known. Rattling past came the carrion man, with the cart of bodies, looking as if they had died in agony; the ones whose faces you could see. Otherwise it looked like a cart of rags. She hoped there was no one who might just be asleep among the bodies. She'd heard of that happening and the carrion man caught her looking and leered at her. She started back at him, knowing he would have to keep to his path with his wares. There would be no tussling with her; she would not have to run, not while he was really otherwise engaged. He'd get into trouble if he strayed from his path. She wondered if he had his own bezoar keep him safe and, if he didn’t, how much it a sliver from hers might be worth ... there was no thinking this way. It could only be for a friend, someone she needed, not someone who didn't even like her. Inspired by the goa stone in the War, Plague and Fire gallery.
Kite-Flying Dogs and people on leads walk these public spaces. Grounded aircraft unsnags itself from wide tramrails strung across grass. Buffeted around runway lets the wind take it. Unleashed bird of prey swoops, pulls out of spin. Go fly a kite, kamikaze whirlybird, scarlet diamond head your royal blue tail streamer writhing and coiling in knotted gusts... reins curb recalcitrant child. Strings attached unravel with another squiggle of airbrushed light. Far below, a man, arms braced, conjures invisible lines of force from fingers pointed upwards: as this bucking bronco of the skies, pawing the air, throws earthbound rider. Inspired by watching kite‐flying at Paddington Recreation Ground.
A collection of learners’ work from the WEA Writing London course at the Museum of London 2012-13