Book Review: London Undercurrents

London Undercurrents: The hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines, north and south of the river, is a collaboration by two London-based female poets, Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire. The former concentrated her research around the Islington area although she has lived in many boroughs of London. The latter lived close to Battersea Park, overlooking the then derelict Power Station. Both had to dig deep to find the voices and experiences of local women, commenting, ‘It should not be so hard to find them.’

The poetry cycle created is presented in sequences that flow with the river running through the pages, offering up women from all walks of life over many centuries. All those included are based on research, with Background Notes at the end of the book explaining what inspired particular poems. There are also links to the project’s blog where interested readers may find out more.

Opening in Battersea Fields, 1685, we are reminded of the agricultural history of what has now been swallowed up by the changing city. Women grew crops and tended cattle. Goods were sold at markets or by peripatetic street sellers. The timeline moves back and forth, offering accounts of female office and factory workers. Their essential tasks kept businesses running, families afloat, yet they were neither noticed nor remembered. Many of the roles came with a risk to health, pay docked for time missed due to illness. From the age of thirteen these women were required to earn their keep.

Although badly paid and monotonous, the various jobs the women accomplished provided a spirit of camaraderie that they valued. When the ‘war effort’ required that they take on roles traditionally worked by men, many enjoyed the freedom and new skills learned. By the time the men returned, the women had changed too.

Not all the women featured are what may be considered traditional heroines. Yet it is clear that their actions, although more harshly punished, are no more or less reprehensible than that of men of their time.

The subjects are fascinating in the history they recount – presented in vivid, evocative stanzas. Good poetry such as this can convey so much in so few words.

I enjoyed the poems focusing on the working classes more than the better off, perhaps because their stories are less well known. As the punk from 1977 states, these women are:

“thrashing against
your label of ‘Woman’ –
what you want us to be”

Were you aware that Arsenal Women Football Club are only permitted to play at Emirates Stadium on occasion? Unlike the men’s team, mostly they are required to train and play elsewhere.

In the notes about the poem featuring a family of coin counterfeiters in 1893, we are told that women would be burned at the stake if caught; men were hung.

When the picture halls opened these provided a welcome if brief escape from the drudgery of everyday experience. There were also occasional trips to the seaside. Battersea Women’s Pub Outing provides a glorious image of women drinking and laughing together, larking about and being noisy. Why does this appear more shocking because they were female?

The sequence on education reminds of the importance of being taught to think rather than merely follow – of challenging the prevailing narrative and societal expectations.

And it is in provoking thought that these poems find their strength. Individually they are structured and written impressively. Put together, as they are in this collection, and they are powerful. They provide a social history of the city from an angle rarely considered. The voices of all these women deserve to be heard.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Holland Park Press.

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