Book Review: London Undercurrents, by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

To give London Undercurrents its full title is to understand both the process and the product of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collaboration: The hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines north and south of the river. Sparkes and Hilaire have divided in two the work of unearthing and voicing by location, with Sparkes taking North and Hilaire the South of London, demarcated by the river that bisects the city. The Thames itself provides a thread which weaves this collection together, its shape bobbing across the page of each new section, with words from Sparkes hovering in the North-East of Islington, Hilaire’s in the South-West of Battersea, each their respective homes and the place from which they reflect on their own feel of London. Within each section, themes such as work, family, protest and war, through every age of London, are explored from either side of the river, with an (N) or (S) in the top right-hand corner of each page denoting both the location and author of each poem.

The collection begins
with the theme of the characteristic pull of London for outsiders: “Paved with
Gold”. Opportunity and the struggle that precedes success is experienced and
explored in “First Crop” by a Huguenot asparagus farmer tending to the soil and
the spears “as rude / and round / and succulent / as fantasy allows”. A quick
flick to the Background Notes section of the South poems reveals that an
investigation into the unusual name of the poet’s local pub (The Asparagus)
lead to the discovery that Battersea is thought to be the first place in Britain
where asparagus was grown, the poem’s subtitle offering the date 1685. In “Livestock”
three experiences of the dairy business are brought together in a three-part
poem. The cry of an Islington cheese and cream street seller from 1575 combines
with Mrs Nicholls’ aching despair at the slaughter of her cattle to prevent the
further spread of plague: “Each bolt to the head / shatters our bones. / City
air thickens / deep with lowing, / as London turns Heifer, / mourns her lost
calves” (again the North Notes section clarifies the scale of an 1895 outbreak
which decimated most of London’s cows); and a Cardiff cattle herder’s wife
coming to Holloway in 1811 remarking “Such a sight – great grey teats full of
gold coin / aching to spill on the floor. Quick! Get our pails / underneath and
open our mouths.”

Gathering and grouping
the poetic products of Sparkes and Hilaire’s combined research in this way,
that is to say thematically as opposed to chronologically or separated into two
authored halves of the North and South of the city, allows each piece and each
voice to converse in a way that builds connections; by-lines that travel
between the experiences of women through the landscape of the city and into the
past. In this way London becomes an industrial place populated by industrious
and tenacious people, such as a thirteen-year-old coin forger detailing her and
her family’s endeavours in a thirteen-point to-do list. Or an 1892 White Lead
Works factory worker “Dodging the Doctor” in order to avoid a diagnosis that
would prevent her from making wages by clambering “barefoot / up the drying
scaffold, / hide at the top on rough planks. / Hup I go.” “Hup” really
sings as an example of the ways the voices of these women are written:
carefully, thoughtfully and often playfully. “Thames Crossing, Second Attempt:
19th August 1861” illustrates Selina Young’s successful tightrope
walk from Battersea to Cremorne Gardens as if viewed from above. Her rope
becomes a taut line across two pages, her balance pole perpendicular to this,
cries from the crowd populate two stanza banks (“look at her go! man alive – / those skirts must weigh / a tonne!”),
and the boats on the river lurk between. As expected from a collection that
brings together such a variety of voices, the challenges encountered by women
range from feats of physical endurance to acts of acknowledgement as in “Dido
Belle Sits For Her Portrait” where Belle, a woman born into slavery then
brought by her grandfather 1st Earl of Mansfield to Hampstead, is given the
complexity she deserves and not afforded when the portrait, up until the 1990s,
was simply known as The Lady Elizabeth Murray: “No corn-fed, / cotton-raised
statue am I / nor decoration / picked for porcelain shine… I am a gift”. It is
in this way that voices are given a chance to respond, making these poems feel
full of possibility even in desperate situations, and in other moments, gleeful
and utterly joyous. In “Battersea Women’s Pub Outing” a June 1947 daytrip has
the women of the Mason’s Arms “let loose in Margate” with “voices in rollicking
singalong / kicking our legs high” in such infectious humour it seems possible
to feel as if we might have been there ourselves when on “every ride / Little
Lottie roars so much / she heaves her dinner up / soon as she’s off the Big

At the end of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collection both poets take a moment in their respective biographies to reflect on the experience of unearthing the stories and voices of the women that combine to create London Undercurrents. “It should not be so hard to find them”, remarks Sparkes; Hilaire writes that “I’ll keep on digging,” suggesting there is much work still to be done. And that’s possibly what’s so remarkable about this collection: the appetite it engenders for more. I can imagine the voices of yet unheard women in every village, town and city of the UK emerging to create sequels and chapters of the Undercurrents project. It’s disheartening to realise what an endeavour this might be, to seek and find the histories of women, but the rewards that occur through this work are so striking. The richness and variety, intrigue and emotion, together provides an illustration of London as a tumultuous and exhilarating place, occupied by women throughout its history who have built and shaped its terrain from the bottom up and from the top down.

London Undercurrents is out now from Holland Park Press.