Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Swimming with poets

I did something unusual last week - unusual for me in this season of life anyway. I went to a poetry reading with my friend Truffle. It took place in an auditorium full of well-behaved adults that was - I am told - built from a single tree.

The evening began with with a journey to King's Cross. I walked out of the underground and found myself swimming in a huge school of hip London fish. In spite of my yocal instincts, I wasn't alarmed, but rather thrilled to be surrounded by such an interesting, busy school of humanity.

Four years ago our little family left London as two and a bump for the cheaper burbs. Back in those boom days, I once heard someone sum it up perfectly on The Now Show by saying that London only remained  affordable to rats and investment bankers. As a pair of twenty-somethings, we were generationally out of luck. But things change, and somehow we swam back.

Well-appointed rat-flat with far-reaching river views.  
From my time here four years ago, I remember charity campaigners outside tube stops. But since I've been away, 'chuggers' (charity muggers) as they are now affectionately known, have spawned like mad - their numbers are now so great that they are encroaching on the habitat of Britain's native red squirrel. King's Cross was awash with them.* 

As I awkwardly dog-paddled my way upstream towards King's Place (the Guardian headquarters), a chugger singled me out and extended the ko finger. I recoiled and did my best to parrot the 'I'm busy ignoring you because I'm an urban sophisticate' face that I saw other people giving him. Then he hollered: 'hey beautiful laaaaaady!'

Now in spite of the fact that he had just said this precise thing to both the nun and the poodle walking ahead of me, I was still quite chuffed (though not enough to stop and get chugged). You see, Ana often says 'fish fingers now', but she rarely says 'hey beautiful lady.'

The reading, featuring Anna Robinson and Ian Sinclair amongst others, was hosted by Poet in the City, a charity that aims to bring poetry to new audiences. The theme - urban life - couldn't have been more perfect. Elaine Feinstein, who read from her 2010 book Cities, said an off-the-cuff remark that really struck a chord with me. She prefaced a poem by explaining how she'd once found herself cornered in a house by two very small children. 'I felt my life was over,' she said slowly, 'but it wasn't'. And then she enumerated some of the things that came later - flights of fancy to Budapest, boozy dinner parties, Ted Hughes, navigating Singapore with broken ankles by wheelchair - a whole life.

Of course her comment wasn't aimed at me - but it felt that way - like she was a poet fairy godmother, who had apparated just to say: 'take heart - this story is still unfolding, and we are in early pages.' And though I may never hope to journey to Bohemia with Bohemians, or Singapore with invalids, I truly related to her in that moment (motherhood is the ultimate creator of common ground). I took heart.

Show me the way to your next London bar. 
Hanging out with a wise international food writer like Truffle has it perks - Truffle directed us to a pair of delicious grown-up fruit shoots at the swank Booking Office Bar, lodged in the newly-opened St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. There - in spite of some rather kinky elevator music - we were able to relax in peace and talk in complete sentences about grown-up things like er, mothers and daughters.

My chair gave me a good line of site towards the bar, which happened to be housed in the skeleton of the old train station ticket counter. Architectural ghosts of the original structure abounded in the ceiling and the walls of the cavernous room, like dinosaur bones half-unearthed. I couldn't help but recall the words of Tobias Hill, one of the poets, who had repeatedly quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'Cities give us collision.'

Perhaps that's what I've been missing.

*I should add that they have my sympathy - I have done similarly rubbish jobs where people shout at you all day. It ain't fun. You usually don't find yourself in such a job because you are a natural jerk, but rather because you are broke, which is to say young.


  1. Sometimes we all need a poet fairy godmother to remind us that the story is still unfolding. It's great that you found yours.

  2. Thanks MIS - dunno what I'd do without the occasional poet fairy godmother to tell me to cheer the heck up :)

  3. That was such a fun evening! Thank you for capturing it on your blog. I so enjoyed reading about it.

    Frangelico and I were having tea at a cafe nearby at the weekend, and we saw a couple with two teenaged daughters. They were tourists and appeared to be talking about what they were seeing on holiday in London. It was really a wonderful scene, to see this family unit (the dynamics of which might have looked very different some years ago) sharing tea and a grown-up discussion.

    There are quite a few families on holiday here at the moment (for the Kate and Wills wedding, I'm guessing). We also came across a very sweet and cheerful American family on Regent St the other night, who looked like they were having a great time. They asked us to take their photo with the Union Jacks in the background. Made me smile when one of adults said that I should 'get the kids' in the photo - the 'kids' being aged from 18 to 21!

  4. Oh Im so jealous that sounds like an amazing evening

  5. I'm now convinced I need to make going to a poetry night a priority.

  6. Sounds like a fantastic evening! Had to laugh at your reaction to the "hey beautiful lady comment"... If it makes you feel any better, I was thrilled when the bin man wolf whistled me the other day!! Emma :)

  7. I once tried to ignore a chugger, only to have her yell after me, "I'm a human being!" And then I felt like shit.

    You can travel with a one-armed girl someday if you like. ;)

  8. What an absolutely beautiful post. I am totally jealous of your grown up poetry evening,I can think of nothing better!
    ps I once had a similar beaitiful lady moment i Egypt which oh and I still laugh about. Does wonders for the ego!!

  9. Ah thanks Susanne, it was like a page from someone else's life (someone who isn't chronically covered in ketchup :)

    OAG, that sounds awesome, you're on - journey to Goa? But no broken ankles, I hope...

    Emma, we mums have to take schlocky compliments where we can get 'em ;)

    Jaimie and Alyson - you should! It's great fun.

    Truffle - thank you for the reminder - these monsters will indeed grow up and get civilized and capable of travel in no time - oh for those days! Thanks again for a fab evening - I look forward to the next one (hey, finally remembered when I last went to a poetry reading btw: 2006!!!)

  10. Sometimes we all need a poet fairy godmother to remind us that the story is still unfolding. It's great that you found yours.