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Sally Flood Interview

by Brad Evans.


The following interview was conducted at Sally Flood's residence, Tower Hamlets (London) on Thursday, April 18, 2002.

Sally, I'd first like to ask where you are from and where you were educated?

Well I was born in the East End and I have never wandered far from here. I went to Daniel St. Infants School, Bethnal Green. That was near Columbia Road School, where my sister attended (that school still exists today, not far from the Sunday Flower Market). After the family moved to a small house in Chicksand Street, I attended Buxton St. Junior.

When was that?

 I was born in 1925 so that would have been in the thirties, I went to Buxton St., where my mother was told I was expected to be a scholarship girl. Unfortunately, after a road accident I was in St. Peters’ Hospital (bombed during the war) and missed out on the ’11 plus’. I attended Robert Montefiore Secondary, in Vallance Road, until we moved again to a new block of flats (Hollybush House) – which boasted a bath in the kitchen with a table top (quite posh) and transferred again to Wolverley Street Secondary School (which no longer exists).

Your Father was from Russia - where are your roots?

My roots are in Brick Lane I suppose. I was born at home and taken to St. Peters’ Hospital with my mother (my sister who was 3 yrs old then, remembered the birth), so I haven’t moved very far. My Father was brought over from Russia when he was 4 years old. He suffered the worst of the bad feelings that erupted against immigrants at that time.

Was that Mosley?  [1]

Mosley came a bit later. But I remember my father used to take me to meetings. There used to be a lot of open air meetings. The one that stays in my mind was one that we went to in Brick Lane - on the corner of Old Montague Street (outside Blooms Delicatessen). Max Baer, the boxer, had come from America to protest against what was happening with the Jews.

So there was a lot of anti-Semitism?

Yes. I’ve written several poems about that period, which I have read at different readings. People do remember what was going on.

I've noticed in Bricklight, that there's a few poems concerning that time? [2]  There was one about the Blackshirts and the riots that occurred. I know, for certain, that Jack Dash wrote about that.  [3]

He did.

Do you remember seeing anything about that?

I do know that when we had the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, as they called it. My father was missing all during this time. We lived in Chicksand Street, which isn't too far from Cable Street. We were down in the basement of the house. We had a two-up and two-down as the small houses were called then. They were later demolished to build blocks of flats. I remember we could hear all this shouting and noise going on in the street, and we weren't allowed to go out, we were only children at the time. I remember my father came back much later and he was very excited. There had been fighting and he had blood on him. What he couldn't get over was that the fact that the Dockers had come out on their side –

to him that was so unbelievable, and it meant so much. He said they were there, fighting together, and to him that meant an awful lot.

Jack Dash mentions a bit about that, how they held up the barricades. It was on a Sunday?

I wouldn't know what day. It was on a weekend because my father would have been at work otherwise. I also remember going across the road with my mother where we used to shop in Whitechapel, and there had been an incident where Blackshirts had come and picked up a Jewish child and threw him through a window. And, of course, there was all that going on at the time.

That was all the same time?

All around the same time. It was really bad. There were certain streets you weren't allowed to go through as a child. The street I'm living in now was another street. Cable Street was another. There were certain streets that were taboo to us.

Were they almost like ghettos?

Ghettos? Yes. There is a poem I wrote in Window on Brick Lane [4] that speaks of this. It ends ‘…A ghetto without walls, A ghetto without doors, A ghetto without meaning, Between the wars.’ Exactly what it was.

Has that changed now or has it simply relocated?

Oh I think it's changed. It's changed so much because there are a different people here now. The sad thing is that the Jews that were here have all gone or, like me, they have just integrated. I can't change! I will always be what I am and I'll always be proud of my background. But, of course, by marrying out of my religion I actually took sides in a way.

I think it was because I was evacuated that did it. I was evacuated with English people, and I found out that they were nice. I saw a different side to what we were taught.

So was your education protective of your culture or was there some fear in it that you could detect?

As a child, yes. When I was evacuated, there was a lot of fear because we were taught: 'don't tell anybody what you are!'. And my mother would tell different stories which I couldn't understand why. She wouldn't say my father was Jewish to the people I was evacuated with, and it was very confusing as a child. To be honest all this confusion I put down in writing.

Were they just questions?

They were questions that I couldn't answer. Nobody was going to answer and even today the real answers are not there, just what I suspected. But it was all done to protect.

It seems to be a time when there was a real rise in Fascism and Anti-Semitism so you can see the point of being protective.

Yes, especially as we were evacuated into a different place amongst strange people. I understand the reasons.

Was this before the war or during the war?

This was during the war. I was evacuated on the Friday before war was declared. I spent seven months in Norfolk, came back to London, then I was evacuated again to Torquay. I spent a year there.

And was that because of your Jewish background?

No that was nothing to do with my Jewish background. It was because of the war that the children were being evacuated. So it had nothing to do with being Jewish or anything. In fact I met some lovely people, I really did. On the second time I was evacuated there was an incident when a woman with two daughters invited me around to visit, whereupon the woman who I was staying with said: 'don't have anything to do with them, when she knew you were a Jew she didn't want to know you then'. I was surprised and hurt. But now, looking back, perhaps there was a history there that I knew nothing about.

You were a child then?

Yes, but growing up fast. The second time I was evacuated I had actually started work. I was saying goodbye to my baby brother, who was being evacuated with my mother. When the coach came, I carried the baby onto the coach while my mother carried the case. As the coach started up my mother got down, leaving me with the baby, it was later that I discovered my name was on the list and my things had been packed in the case, and it was too late to do anything because she had left. This time I spent a year in Torquay and after a while I found myself a job in Woolworths while my brother went to nursery. I served on the teabar making sandwiches and serving tea. I really enjoyed it. When the headmistress from the school used to come into the store, someone would tell me and I used to hide upstairs sewing fringes on lamp shades until she’d left.

So were you just sick of school?

No, I just got a job because I decided it was time I went to work.

Where were some of the places that you started work?

Before I was evacuated the second time, I had been working for Louie London in Bishop's Way, in Bethnal Green.

Did you write a poem about that?

I did. That was 'Small Cogs'. [5]  Louie London was such a weird place. I'd never worked in a place like that before: you sat in your seat and you never moved - and if you did there'd be a pile of work waiting for you. Everybody had one part to do. I made the pockets. When it got to the end of the bench, the garment was complete.

A bit like an assembly line?

It was an assembly line! I'd never worked in a place like that since. There was this little Jewish man and every now and again he'd shout 'pull-out pull-out', because he wanted us to go quicker. You were never quick enough for him.

The conditions must have been harder then?

Well it was work. I had nothing else to compare it with.

When you came back into London, after your second evacuation, what was your next job?

When I came back from evacuation, the war was still on. My mother took me to Snieders in Cavel Street, where they were working on uniforms. My grandmother and mother had worked there during the first world war. They were tailors in peace-time. I didn't last there very long because I wasn't very good at time-keeping. It was one of those places where if you were a few minutes late the doors would be locked. It wasn't for me. Then I went into embroidery for Goldblatts in Turner Street. I loved embroidery and was very quick at learning. Usually it takes years to get onto the machine, but I found it was quite easy and I wanted to learn the machine properly. My mother had to come and sign the contract for 2 years and they would teach me the machine.

Was that because you were too young? You had to have a guardian?

Partly, but I think it was to make sure they got something back from you. I learned to work the Irish, Cornelly and Puffing machines, we also did screen printing with stencils and special paint. I really loved the work there, but then the forelady started picking on me for talking. I decided I'd had enough, so I walked out. She said they would take me to court for breaking my contract, but they didn't. My next job was in Brick Lane in a small dress factory, so I then became a dressmaker.

I know you came back to that sort of work later.

Yes I went back to embroidery. While I was working in Princelet Street and Brick Lane, I wrote most of the poems in Window on Brick Lane from there.

There was a poem you mentioned called 'Under the Blue Light'?  [6]

Oh that was in another place I worked in, in the Lane. Yes that poem was absolutely true. I wrote about the tracing chalk that was green and flourescent. The lights themselves were blue to show up the green. My eyes aren't good. I'm looking through a blur, even now - and that was caused through the lights. They reckon that the pain in my wrist is caused by the way you had to hold your hands. You haven't a foot to hold your work steady, but what you had was the teeth underneath and the needle above, and the only way to hold your work steady was with your hands.

Is that RSI you have?

It could be. Obviously it didn't help me much. But I did love the work and I would do it today if I could. I used to write when I was on these machines because your mind would wander. Under the work, you'd put a piece of paper to keep it still, which you would tear off after, and I used to write on this paper.

And you kept the poems?

Well, no I didn't. A lot of them are lost because the Guv'nor would appear, and you'd have to get on with your work - so it would go under the work and be machined over. But one that I did write was 'Working Mum', which has appeared in so many books it's unbelievable. [7]

That was one that I would have torn up except that I was going to the Basement Writers about this time (1975), so I took it in and read it. Chris Searle really liked it and he asked if he could publish it. I couldn't believe it because it was one that would have gone away under the machine had I been caught. So actually I got into writing quite by accident.

What is a poem to you? What do you think makes a poem?

There is a poem in Bricklight, 'A Broom and Watch Me Sweep', by Morris Winchevsky. That poem speaks to me and that's a poem where I say to myself 'I wish I'd written that!'.

Why does it speak to you? Is it something you can relate to?

It's something I can relate to. It means something to me. It’s simple to read, easy to understand and hides no pretence. ‘Shadwell Stair’ by Wilfred Owen and ‘The Green Man’ by Charles Causely affected me in the same way.

Was that in Bricklight too?

Not ‘The Green Man’ but ‘Shadwell Stair’ is. Both these poems have very strong images and I love the feel and rhythm they possess.

What was it about?

‘The Green Man’ was about a tree, and trees are visual, creating images. I have a tree overlooking my garden. When I stand at the kitchen window, washing up, I can see his imaginary green man in that tree. I like the ending. I like a poem that tells a tale and has a proper ending.

I do like poems that speak my language. I don’t like poems that have been overworked dry - about a different age, and to me, mean nothing.

What sort of poetry is that?

Well sometimes I feel mean about saying it. But, having said that, if you go through their collections there's always that one odd poem that I can say 'I like that'. I was listening to T. S. Eliot the other day, my son goes mad about him he thinks he's marvellous, but I can't see it. But then it wouldn't do for us all to have the same taste would it. I like Sylvia Plath. When I first read her poems I didn't. I thought she's so sad and depressing. There's no joy in her poems. Then I read The Bell Tower which is her autobiography and tells of her experiences. She went into a psychiatric hospital. And reading that book put a different light on her writing. I understood it and I realised that for me to understand and enjoy a poem I needed to know a bit about the writer. And I find to me that's important, so I know where the poem's coming from.

This is where autobiographies and biographies are not given enough justice sometimes?

That's right. I love biographies. That one in particular changed the whole perspective of her poems for me. I realised where she was coming from. I like John Betjeman, I think he's quite funny. I love his descriptions of different places, especially 'Friendly bomb, go drop on Slough'. I know the feeling. ‘Death in Leamington’ speaks of an old lady dying and how everything carries on around her. As you read the image of the nurse carrying the tea-tray you, as an outsider, become part of the scene. I like a poem that unfolds in this way.

Who first introduced you to poetry, was it at school?

On looking back, poetry wasn’t very high on the list of priorities at the schools I went to. It was in secondary school (Wolverley Street), where we were introduced to ‘Hiawatha’ and the 'Pied Piper of Hamelin'. Mainly as part of a drama to be enacted at York Hall (Old Ford Road). We had to sing the words to ‘Pied Piper’. Being small, I was in the front row – a mistake that my teacher soon discovered as I was completely tone deaf, and when no-one could keep up with me the teacher asked me to mime. So I had no illusions about singing. But I liked the words and they stayed with me. I've always liked the feel of words, the sound of words, that’s why I loved writing essays and stories when I was younger. 

I don't know if it was because of my father being Russian, but I would compare his accent to my mother's. So I don't know if it's because of accents that I picked up on words. My grandchildren use long words. Little Nikki said 'perspective' and I said 'Nikki that's a good word!' They're amazing because today’s language is taken so much for granted. They use these long words that we wouldn't even have been taught in school.

What were the first poems that moved you after school?

I think the War Poets: Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke.

Was that after school?

Yes, a long time after school, because I’d started reading for myself.

Was it someone from work who put you on to them?

No, you didn't talk about things like that at work. No it was a completely different thing. I don't think that I thought much about it in those days because there was the wars years to get over, there was the working, and the growing up bit. But I used to read a lot and I had a friend who used to come round to take me out and I wouldn't go out. I preferred to stay in and read. But my mother used to say to my friend: 'take her out she's driving me mad, she'll go blind she won't take her eyes out of her book'.

You were bookish?

I was bookish, but I wasn't allowed to be like that for long because it worried my mother. She didn't want me to stay in reading. I was a teenager and she thought I should be going out enjoying myself because she said 'you've only got one life' and that was her idea that you should go out and enjoy it. So I wasn't encouraged in that. All I know is that for me poetry was a quick way of writing and I've always written down what I thought.

Was that from reading Brooke, Owen and Sassoon?

No, I think I read them after I was married. I remember my daughter, Pat, reading them first and she loaned me the book, so it was years after. Like I say I'm not really the conventional person you would think of writing. I just wrote because it was something I enjoyed doing.

When you started to write, did you find that you had your own unique style?

I don't remember when I started, it was something that I just did. It was something that I did naturally and I would write the same way as I would talk. I find that when I put things on paper they're much easier to write down than to actually talk. I mean I'm doing a lot of talking now but I'm sure that if you went through it - very little of it will be of importance.

I just go off on tangents. I will be talking to one child and then something else will hit my mind and I'll be talking to the other one. It's not fair to do that. It's taking your attention away. But I know I am because my mind can work on more than one thing at a time.

What about with regard to motivation in your writing? What are some of the events that make you want to write?

Anything that I think is wrong. I get so mad and I've always gone for the underdog anyway. I've always found myself doing this and I'm always in trouble for it, but I can't help it. I've got so much writing about things that I think are wrong. Sometimes just one word and I find myself writing. One word can start it and I am very lucky because I don't need to think. It's there.

Is it like current affairs? Perhaps an issue that's affecting the community?

Yes, things like that. I might be watching the news and suddenly something is said and I find myself writing. Many a time I've said to myself I should send them these, but I don't. I get quite strong about John Prescott and Jack Straw, who I don't feel I can trust anymore.

They're all from Old Labour!

The Old Labour - When it meant something! I get so annoyed because they have sold themselves out.

Sometimes I'll hear them on TV, just a member, and you can tell they're from Old Labour because of their condemnation of the US imperialism in the Middle East and things like that. On the rare occasion, you will see them on TV and immediately you know that there is a real problem - a factional one! There's a split happening!

There is a problem. I hope that it gets wider because they're not going to win any elections not the way they are now because…

…On the odd occasion you will see them stand up - an Old Labour person, and you think where is this lot coming from? This is great! We want more of this stuff!

Yeah, this is what you want. This is what I was brought up with. I did a reading at Spitalfields a couple of years ago, and the organiser said to me: 'that was like an Old Labour reading' and I said: 'well, I still feel the same way'.

It's amazing how it's turned around, because there is a law against people getting together in public places. Apparently it's a law that they can bring in - to make it illegal for gatherings. Jack Dash was saying in his book that the Labour Movement was started from the very thing like street corner meetings.

Street corner meetings! That's where I was taught. I used to go with my father. As a child, I remember when there was a vote we used to go round singing: 'vote, vote, vote'. We were only children but we were taught about it. Now what do you tell the children today? Who do you tell them to vote for? I remember with Tony Blair, and I knew he wasn't Labour as I knew Labour. I knew what he was. Everybody knew what he was. But then there was John Prescott, there was Jack Straw. There were the old retainers still in there. And I thought to myself: no not with them, he can't be. So he got the vote - we voted for him. And I remember sitting up with my husband all night listening to them coming in, and we were cheering, it was spectacular as each Tory fell. I wrote that in a poem, and we were really pleased. But no sooner was he in - what happens? We couldn't believe it! Before the last elections, I said to my daughter 'I'm not voting them in again', but she said: 'you are going to throw away everything that was fought for all those years ago'. Which is true!

You have to think about it: working conditions, the eight-hour day!  That was all fought for.

So many trades have been lost in so-called progress. The jobs are just not there anymore. Everything has gone over to privatisation. It doesn't make sense. Everything that we owned is now being privatised. Conservatives would go so far but they always knew that there was no further. But now they're opening the gates for them.

Is there other times in history that you can look back on and see some similarities with what's happening now?

No never. Not in my day. When I was a child, when you voted in Labour you knew what you were getting. We've had some really good councillors around here, you know, who really meant what they stood for. They had to be accountable - they had to come and knock on your door and they had to ask questions. But they don't bother anymore. They're so sure of themselves.

That's the problem, they lose touch with the community.

That's right. Who else can you vote for? I would like to see somebody stand for Old Labour.

Do you find that you have any poets and their work that you enjoy consistently? You mentioned somebody from Bricklight.

Oh, that was Gladys McGee! She was good. When we used to go to readings, she could make an audience really laugh. And afterwards I would say: 'don't laugh, read her words'. They weren't funny. They were true - they were life as she knew it - and she had it hard. I like Gladys.

I like her work. There was Sean Taylor. I liked his work. There is a brilliant piece by him, ‘When my mum got her electric wheelchair’, that appeared in XX Years in the Basement. [8]  I still laugh when I read it.

I liked the people that I met coming up through the groups. There were a lot of good poets amongst them. They'll never be known.

Is there a reason for that?

Yes, because they're not coming up through the right circles and meeting the right contacts.

Do you mean the workshopping?

The workshopping plus the system. In 1976, the FWWCP [9] was set up to try and readdress some of these issues. My problem is I pick up on other people’s feelings, which leaves me feeling sensitive – a typical working class thing, cos if you feel it you say it. This could have a lot to do with my writing because if I didn't feel it, I couldn't write it. I would have no motivation to write.

Do you think that could be the difference between working class writers and the academic / institutionalised writers?

It could be. Actually, the working class writer has the upper hand, because he has not been conditioned and stuck in a box. The feelings are raw, and so come across much stronger. Whereas I think if you have come through the system, you are using words that have been constructed so long ago, they become meaningless…

…been workshopped?

Right - and worked out! I will write a piece and I will stand up on the stage the same day and read it. I've written what I thought and it will go across because the feelings are there. Now if I tried to work on a piece, which I have done, because people said to me: 'don't you ever work on it?', and I thought perhaps I should. Perhaps I'm missing out not doing this. And every piece I've worked on and corrected - tore the heart out of it - it wasn't saying what I wanted it to say. So yes, in one way I think they miss out, but in another way they're bought up in that little close network that's going to ensure success whether they're good or not. And that to me, I think, is very unfair. I've heard stuff read at my workshops. They were great. There was Becky Hubbard, I loved her writing. I've got some of her poems. Her writing was based on fact. She wrote as she felt and it came across. There is quite a lot of writers like that.

It's a shame that there is not the sort of outlets that would do them justice in the best light possible.

Well there are. And the groups do get invited to read in libraries, schools, bookshops, colleges, and other venues. But they are also invited to take part in festivals and the cabaret scene – where people are expected to be entertained. So your writing has to change to make the audience laugh. So if you get onto this circuit you are writing for a different purpose, but at the end of the day if you don’t take yourself too seriously, it can be fun, and even the most serious poem can be entertaining. During the miners’ strike, Gladys and I were invited to read in a park festival in Oxford. It was pouring with rain, so we decided to use the tea marquee. There we were reading to the queues, when quite by chance I read this poem I had written about a pit called ‘Mardy’ – where nobody worked during the strike, and suddenly the audience was with us. It turned into a real reading. We had found their interest. But the most amazing thing was when we were told afterwards that they had paired up during the strike with this very same mine.

I can see when you gave the reading at the 'Globe', you were invited up although you weren't on the appearance list.

I was invited but they had already sent in the list before I had accepted to do it, and it was too late to put me on it as I had missed the deadline.

But I could see just from that event how your style is so different from the other poets that were there. The others seemed like they had been workshopped or that they were very self-absorbed and had dug so deeply into there own poetry that other people couldn't relate to it. Whereas you tend to bring out other things in your life that you share in common with other people.

That is one difference, the others had gone through the process we were talking of earlier, I had got into the readings by accident. I now speak from an experience of life as I know it, and I can share this with so many.

I want to talk a bit about the moments, the experiences that occur in your life that bring out the best in your poetry.

Well, my children and my marriage.

Family oriented?

Oh yes, very much so.

So it's when you're in a state of happiness that you write the best poetry?

Not really. When I’m happy I enjoy the moment. I think my moods dictate what I write. That’s why I wrote so much of them at work.

That's the thing about manual work, your head is left free.

That's right. I mean embroidery is absorbing if you let it be. But when you've done so many of the same pattern, your mind can go blank. But mine never did, and the paper was there. I was filmed in ‘Breaking Through’ working on the Irish machine and I recited 'Time To Think' [10], a poem I had written when a factory I was working in was closing down, while I was waiting to be made redundant (that film was repeated twice).

When was that televised?

I think it was in the 80's. We were doing a lot of readings at the Crown and Garter in Dalston, we appeared several times at the Royal Festival Hall and Bunjy’s Coffee House in Leicester Square. We were travelling all over to different readings and really getting around.

We've covered areas where you were educated and things like that but I just want you to think about, especially as you've been a teacher, what are some of the most important things that you would suggest to a person who's just starting to write?

I'd say to them like I say to children: 'don't think about it, just write it. Let it just come out’, and those children whose poems I've read, some of them I think I wish I'd thought up. They are really good. I think what they should do, before they've started, is to go to workshops because it's good to get other people's angles. It's good to listen to other people.

So you think that by reading a variety of different poets might help as well to get an idea?

I'd be very careful about what poets they read because I think some would stop them writing altogether. If they joined a workshop, they could start from their own footing. They won't get a bestseller overnight, but the more you write the easier it becomes. My group was all about inspiring people, all about encouraging them. I've heard people say they went to a group and they didn't like what they'd written and they told them they didn't like it. That is the most discouraging thing, and I'd say if you go to a group like that, don't go back. Somebody there has got an ego that's not good for the workshop. That's why Basement Writers and other groups like them are so good, because nobody gets discouraged and everything you write has relevance.

When did the Basement Writers first start off?

They started in 1973, by Chris Searle. He started the group. He left in 1976. I started in 1975. I was really pleased that I had some time with him because the first 3 poems I read, he published, and I couldn't believe it. All those years I'd been ripping them up. He was really good for me and I've told him that. It boosted my confidence, because when I was first asked to go to the group after sending in the poem I didn't know what I was going into. I took my daughter along with me. There was Leslie Mildener, Alan Gilbey, Billy House, Roger Mills - and they were only schoolboys. I thought what am I doing here? And then Gladys arrived and she said: 'as soon as I heard your poem I said to myself Oh I've got competition here!'. From that time, we got on really well together.

That's where you first met?

That's where we first met.

What is a bit about her working background? You mentioned earlier that she had a hard life.

She had a hard life. She was an unmarried mother, and he was a Canadian. She said that for the first few months her father didn't even know there was a baby in the place. She was in the ATS [11]  in the kitchens. She said: 'wouldn't you know it, they've stuck me in the kitchens. The story of my life!'. She wrote a lovely poem about when she worked at the dentists' and found a set of false teeth under the chair. Did you read that? She was great, she was so funny, she made light of everything. But I always say: 'Read the words. Don't assume she's funny, it was true what she wrote'.

Have you come across any sort of censorship?

I have had a lot published, but mostly what they've asked me to submit. When Seven Days was in publication, they were always writing and asking me to submit. I had quite a few poems published in them, and a piece written about ‘why I write’. I had articles accepted as well, but mostly it's what I'd been asked for. I've never been big on just sending off. No, I have never yet been censored.

You've already mentioned that you've been published in the States? Do you find it easier to get published in the States or anywhere else?

I am always invited to submit to The International Library of Poetry, an anthology published in Maryland. I've got some lovely letters from people involved in education, saying how much they enjoyed my writing and that they wished they had groups like that in America. I believe they did start-up groups afterwards. One letter came from an undergraduate saying how much she enjoyed my writing and I've also heard from people at universities, over here, that are doing theses on my writing.

Have you had your work criticised?

No I haven't. When I was with the writing groups I used to say to them: 'I give you so much feedback when you read, why doesn't anybody give me the same feedback?' And they said: 'because you get upset if we do'. And I hadn't realised this but how can you change what you feel?

In your view does the average person appreciate poetry?

Oh yes. I've been in places where people will tell you: 'No I don't like it' and you say: 'Don't you, well listen to this'. And they'll be laughing and they'll say: 'Oh yeah I like that, tell me some more'. I think most people like poetry if it's put to them in a certain way.

So why do you think it has to be put to them in a certain way before they suddenly connect?

They've probably had similar experiences to mine when they were younger.

So do you think it's their perspective of poetry that puts people off reading poetry?

It wasn't something that a working class child did. It was as simple as that. And I think that stays with you. Why did I tear up mine for so many years and not show it to anyone! I'd only show people my poems at work to have a giggle - 'Working Mum' was one of those. And if I hadn't happened to read it at the Basement Writers that night, that would have gone the same way as the others.

So do you think that was reinforced from school?

I think there is a class barrier, things you do and things you don’t. I know when my daughter Maureen was interviewed by the career’s advisor and asked what she wanted to do when she left school, she said 'I want to be a writer'. She was told it was impossible.

Was this coming from the school?

From the school and that was in the seventies. Maureen actually got herself a job on a magazine, without any help from the school. I've got all her magazines. I kept them all. She did the writing, she did the interviewing, she was pushed in at the deep end and she coped brilliantly. She was doing what she wanted, in spite of being told that working class children don't do those sorts of things.

Do you think that's only just individual teachers or do you think it's part of the overall thing?

I think it was individual teachers. I have met such enthusiasm in schools that I have been lucky enough to become involved with, and the children have benefited because of this.

Do you find that poetry is appreciated and valued differently by people from other cultures?

Oh I think it's very much appreciated, especially amongst the Asian people.

Really, more so than in English culture?

In this culture we're very much dictated to who is a good poet and who isn't, without any real judgement. In any school, everyone is expected to know Shakespeare and his works.

It's in the papers like the London Review that these people are the good poets and there's not much room for anything else.

No! I mean Ted Hughes - he was in the right schools, he was with the right people - Betjeman, Danni Abse probably falls into the same category. It's a class thing. And the weird thing is that the middle class appreciate working class writing. They would come to the group readings, and they used to be ashamed of their background, but we knew where they were coming from and it didn't make a bit of difference. We didn't mind. They were interested in writing – that was the criteria – it was a joint interest. That was why the group had been started in the first place. In fact we learnt from one another. It was a lot to do with their input that gave the Federation status from the beginning.

You mentioned something about Asian people?

Asian people love poetry. I've read with them in the multicultural readings. I read at Southall for the Blair Peach Anniversary [12] a couple of years back. They are very much part of the writing groups. They do have a love of poetry. I think it's part of their culture.

Is it more spoken, or is it written as well?

Written as well as spoken, yeah. They always appreciate what we do as I always appreciate what they did. It's a thing that binds people together. I always felt it as a family thing. When I used to go to that group they were like a family. I think writing does this.

What do you think about performance-based poetry?

I love it. Anything that's alive. I used to love it. We used to do lots of readings in pubs with poets like John Hegley and, like us, he started off at the Crown & Castle in the East End in Dalston. He always used to read a poem about his father's glasses. Funnily enough he was on telly a while back and he was reading the same poem. I thought he's not moved on! And yet he's now famous through them. I love performance poetry because it comes alive. But it is a different way of writing.

Do you think it's more to get reactions from the audience?

You've got to. If you can't involve your audience, you've lost it.

But do you think it's coming more from their benefit, than from you?

 No, it's for your benefit. You're writing and you want people out there to know that it's you that's writing. So if you wish to be accepted, you have to do something that involves them. And why not! It's them that's paying to see you, and it's them that's saying: 'I like this'. Actually Gladys and me used to read at quite a lot of Lesbian venues, where no men were allowed in. But it was great. These people loved what we were writing.

There was a little group that used to follow us around. It was really good because we got invited to all these different things that were going on and of course we enjoyed it, it was lovely. What was nice about it was that they used to ask for poems: 'have you got such and such, will you read it to us?'. And they were poems that you had read at another place. I was dreadful, because I kept on writing. I used to like reading my newer stuff rather than what I had read before. So I very seldom read the same thing again. And of course I very seldom memorised anything.

This actually got me into trouble at one reading I did in a pub. I was booked to read there after a particularly good reading in a club in Stamford Hill. As was my way, I read my newer poems. The organiser was furious. She said that when she booked anyone, she expected them to read the same poems as when she booked them. I never made that mistake again. I was still learning.

Sounds like you're very prolific?

I write all the time. That's why I'm not writing letters. Every time I sit down to write a letter, I find myself writing something else.

Do you find that younger people appreciate poetry more so today than before?

I don't know if they appreciate it more, because when I was younger it was something that I had to hide. But I enjoyed writing, I've been involved more with younger people and I've gone into pensioners' clubs to do readings and they've enjoyed them just as much. But you do have to sometimes change them just a little, so that you've got their attention. When we went to Hither Green Rehabilitation Centre to do a reading, we were asked if we could teach them how to write. But you'd never believe how we really got their attention! When we were first reading to them, we found that some were listening while others were wandering off.

It wasn't going too bad, but it wasn't great. Then I happened to read a religious poem, and the ones that weren't paying attention suddenly perked up; and I realised that they needed a different type of poem. And then we started reading political ones as well - which they loved.

Do you think that anyone can write poetry?

I think so. The group from Hither Green asked for workshops run by Gladys and myself. They were held at Goldsmith College, New Cross. We published two anthologies from men who had never written before.

Do you think they need certain skills first?

No, all they need is the encouragement to put their thoughts down on paper and if it's blank verse it doesn't matter. It's what they are thinking and trying too hard can destroy this, just write it. The way that you write your words down and the way they look on paper is important. Otherwise how can you tell prose from poetry?

It's a fine line.

It is, isn't it! But if you've done your shorter lines and broken it up more, it wouldn't be prose would it! It would then become a poem. I think once you've started to put things down, don't do what I did and tear them up! Join a group and see what other people think, and take directions from them. If they're discouraging and they don’t offer helpful advice, try a different group.

 We've already gone over a bit about what poetry provides for you, as a writer.  Just in brief - some primary reason of its purpose?

I like it because you don't need to have hours and hours and hours to sit down and do it. You write down what you think! You've got it there on your page, you read it, and if you don't like it put it to one side and come back to it. Sometimes you need to distance yourself from your own writing and with poetry you can do this. I especially liked it when I was bringing up a family, because with the working and looking after my home, I didn't have a lot of time! So if I wanted to write it couldn't be a novel - it has to be something short that says what I want it to say. And writing poetry is my medium. I can capture something in a few words. I can put it down on paper and it will say what I want it to say. So that's why I write, it's something that I enjoy doing.

 

Notes


[1]   Sir Oswald Mosley (1896-1980) was a British politician who founded the New Party (1931) and then the British Union of Fascists, known for its anti-Semitic violence in the East End and its support for Hitler. Later, the party was detained under the Defence Regulations Act during World War II.

[2]   Bricklight, Chris Searle (Ed.), 1980, London: Pluto Press.

[3]   Jack Dash notes this event in his autobiography, Good Morning, Brothers!

[4]   Sally Flood, Window on Brick Lane, 1979, London: Basement Writers.

[5]  This poem appeared in Red Lamp #8.

[6]   ‘Under the Blue Light’ appeared in Red Lamp #8.

[7]   See the featured poetry section of this issue.

[8]   XX Years in the Basement, 1993, London: The Basement Writers.

[9]  The Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers.

[10]   This piece first appeared in Sally’s book, Window on Brick Lane.

[11]  Auxiliary Territorial Service.

[12]   Blair Peach was a friend of Chris Searle's who had been killed during an anti-racism demonstration.


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