Saturday, 23 September 2017

Lost Rivers and Pink Roses

London is full of underground rivers. I’ve known this since I was a child: one of those scraps of information you store away at the back of your head, no reason to dwell on anything more than the fact of their existence. I think I’ve always considered this fact vaguely beguiling. There’s something seductive in the image: water wending its way under the streets and along the edges of graveyards, relentlessly committed to moving on by any means necessary (even if plenty of these subterranean avenues have now been reduced to the status of sewage works and storm drainage).

It was only this week though that I found out one of my favourite places in the whole wide world – Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond – had a direct connection with the most famous of these underground rivers: the Fleet. I discovered this while doing research for some poems I’d been writing. The poems were for a dinner. Held by Burberry and hosted by my ever-forceful friends Greta and Rob, the theme of the evening was ‘lost rivers’: especially appropriate for an independent publishing house called the New River Press. When I’d found out this theme, ever the studious student I’d gone and read up extensively on this network of waterways veined beneath the pavements. I read about the Fleet and the Effra and the Tyburn, Hackney Brook and Carbuncle Ditch (what a name!) and more. I looked at U.A. Fanthorpe’s wonderful poem Rising Damp. I thought about what an absolute bloody dream of a topic it is to write on. 

The Fleet held a particular thrall though, given that a section of it was dammed off in the 18th Century to form a series of reservoirs on the Heath. Now they’re a selection of ponds, including the one I dashed away to whenever I could this summer to swim past the ducks and reeds and canopied trees. There I felt sturdy and capable and intoxicatingly alive. Last Sunday I returned to the Ladies’ pond with my flatmate, having not been there in several weeks, both of us gasping at the new shock of cold. There were orange leaves floating on the surface, and that perfect, coppery light you get on late afternoons in autumn. We left with our fingers numb and skin tingling, exhilarated at our chilly plunge.

The Fleet’s trajectory takes it all the way from this point high above the skyline all the way down to Clerkenwell, where the dinner was held on Thursday in the Old Sessions House (as a side note: the photography exhibition currently being put on by Burberry there is an excellent place to lose yourself in for half an hour). It was an apt passage to map, especially when sitting at a table decked with roses and oysters, imagining the force of the river that once tumbled just across the street from our wine glasses and poetry printouts – or in my case, my phone, given that, as per usual I left things a tad too late and had to email everything to myself whilst also simultaneously putting on lipstick, searching for my housekeys, staring out at the grim veil of drizzle, and trying to work out whether my heels were just too ridiculously vertiginous or just about doable for an evening.

In the end I wore the heels, plumped for a plum blazer, and read my poem about the Fleet (reproduced beneath), and heard good words from plenty of other brilliant people including James Massiah and Lisa Luxx. There were poems about rain, about bodies, about getting lost, about tomorrow’s women, about water in its many forms. We ate and drank and chatted and listened. And when I left, I realized I’m not quite done with those hidden rivers yet. There’s plenty left to explore there. In fact, this feels something like the burgeoning of a quiet obsession. 

Everything I wore was second hand, other than the little pink lacy body (from M&S) and the necklaces, which are by my perennial favourite Pippa Small. I now have an actual rainbow of velvet blazers, and have had to ban myself from buying any more. The photos are by the delightful and very talented James D Kelly, who told me that the rose I’d stuck behind one ear needed to be taken home and kept forever (you can tell how much I loved it given the gratuitous number of portraits I chose to post here). It’s currently sitting on the dining room table in a little vase of water, looking ever so elegant. Thank you ever so much for Burberry, and to Rob and Greta, as ever. 

Oh, and in other exciting poetry news: did I mention that one of my poems from my collection Branch and Vein was highly commended in the Forward Prizes this year?! I'm still giddy about it. The poem is included in Faber's Forward Book of Poetry 2018. And while I'm busy working on a whole tranche of new material that hopefully I'll get to share at some point, here's my fleet-themed poem from the dinner...



Melanie said...

What a charmed evening with a romantic theme both dark and bright. Carbuncle Ditch! Definitely a must-see. There are underground tunnels in Vancouver once used by banks, the post office, the railway, and bootlegging, now being ripped up with development. So very sad. How I long to wander through them with a flashlight, a Nancy Drew mystery book, and a fabulous gown. I enjoyed your poem, and congratulations on the Forward Prize commendation!

Porcelina said...

I love the poem, most evocative! Sounds like a fabulous evening, and a fascinating topic for research x

wholelottarosie said...

Your poem is beautiful, as are the photographs.

Insomnia said...

Love the poem (and the sofa pic)! :)

EclatElan said...

What a fun night and a beautiful rose for a Rosalind!

Theresa said...

What a lovely evening (and history) to be captured.

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