The first blast of Year of the Artist is now beginning to be felt - and has already brought to certain quarters of London a warmth lacking in this year’s meteorology. YOTA’s wide-ranging remit is to increase public understanding of the diversity of artistic practice, to demonstrate the benefits of artists’ involvement ‘in every sector of society’. A pipe dream? Well, as far as poetry is concerned, one poorly serviced purlieu is definitely getting a dose of long-overdue attention: Havering.
Generally considered even among some residents as an ill-defined extension of Essex (quote: ‘We ain’t a part of London ‘ere, mate…’), Havering is in fact a fully-fledged London Borough. My first impression is that it has suffered from under-provision in literature, as several outlying Boroughs seem to. I may be wrong in this of course, but the inhabitants of dormitory suburbs probably defer to the more central Boroughs for their arts participation. In spite of that, the local Arts Office is enthusiastic, attentive and spirited. Keeping true to the YOTA ideal, I've been working hand-in-glove with Havering’s Arts Officer, Chris Cole, and at times we have allowed ourselves a conspiratorial chuckle at the imminent prospect of poems springing up all across the Borough on billboards and park gates.
Havering has a remarkable geology. The Thames laid a series of gravel terraces here as it was forced south by the furthest extent of the massive ice-sheets of the Anglian ice-age. But there is also a depth and temperament to Havering’s folk-lore which I have found fascinating and challenging. No shortage of material then, for the writing. I haven’t shied from pressing social issues, but a greater emphasis on these would have generated a very different, though at least equally worthy, type of residency. My attention here has concentrated on the historical threads which weave the present, and the poems have a strong sense of time. The idea has been to explore, in this context, the ‘three faces’ of local identity: space, time and culture. My main aim has been to resuscitate the local history into a variety of poetic forms, by turns playful, ambitious, stark.
This is an extension - in a sense - of what I have implemented at the Imperial War Museum via the ‘Poetry Hunt’, where poems are deployed in such a way as to simultaneously re-shape the viewing-space of the artefacts and stretch the imagination. It's one of my enduring concerns to take a highlighting pen to the world, to try to communicate a sense of the ‘ever-present past’. The past moulds the shape and texture of what we now have, or rather all too often simply take for granted. There are local stories which need to be acknowledged, subjects fading from the collective memory. At this point, though, a visiting writer has to be careful: the poems can’t just re-tell a familiar story, and the local subjects are often owned with a vengeance, and so have to be sensitively visited and reworked. No writer wants to be a voyeuristic parasite, and one’s motives have to be particularly pure.
Local history can also be especially challenging because it so often has to be winkled out - unlike the History so obviously on display in museums and in parts of tourist-trod London - but that’s precisely its joy and fascination. Havering is vertitably stratified with historical and geological narratives: a buried royal palace; a wounded highwayman’s refuge, now a Barclay’s Bank; buried mammoths and woolly rhinos; consistent sightings over many decades of a mysterious lady in white (with a strange monk in brown to provide a matching set); parachuting Germans in the II World War; an overflow of the Rom which relieved Ind & Coope of 30 000 barrels of ale, delivering them into local hands for the binge-of-all-binges; and a whale poking its nose right into Rainham village, getting stuck there, and living a charmed afterlife in the whale-humped form of the A13/A1306.
I have tried to capture all of this in the writing, to cast a net of imagination across the entire Borough. This means 22 poems in 34 sections displayed on over forty billboard sites; poems in schools and libraries; a ‘Thames Walk’ through woods to retrace the descent of the ice-age Thames; workshops and performance training; a Study Pack for local schools; and a Gala event at Queen’s Theatre on the 2nd September which celebrated the residency and the input of local writers. Well, it has been more than three hundred years since the poet Francis Quarles was in Havering, and getting on for two thousand since the Romans scarpered. As a queerly-named poet, and a Roman, I'm throroughly delighted with my reception in Havering!
This edge of London has given me a tremendous creative shot in the arm. I can only hope I have faithfully returned the favour.
Mario Petrucci, 4th September 2000.
Back to Havering residency and Stamina of Sheep