April was the cruelest month…

Last month I began offering free online classes to vulnerable adults. I thought I’d share a little history about one of the classes I set up…

I began running a creative writing class from the social care unit at the Union Chapel, London in 2005. You may well know the building as the cool, Islington venue that’s hosted the likes of Amy Winehouse, Noel Gallagher, Tom Jones and Philip Glass but it’s also been home to the Margin’s Project, a crisis centre that offers housing advice and a winter night shelter. It used to provide free Sunday lunches to between 150 and 200 people a week until residents complained about the ‘unsightly’ queues outside their picturesque Georgian homes.

Homelessness isn’t pretty and nor are the social issues that surround it. But there is poetry there, stories that people need to share. Some ugly-beautiful, some incoherently elegant but all of them moving, limping, falling, dancing with a mix of grace and rage. These Monday afternoon sessions generated hundreds of poems, many of them performed at the raucous, monthly Sunday lunchtime gigs we put on. A few members of Babyshambles tipped up one afternoon, delighted that this was ‘the most punk gig in London’. Really it wasn’t. It was raw and that was all. Our poets weren’t trying to prove their authenticity and none of them had record company budgets to squander. While some of our writers went on to higher education and earned degrees, others came once and were never seen again.

As the Union Chapel sought alternative revenue streams, doubling up in the day as a theatre workshop space, our group, nestled in the venue’s canteen, accommodated polite interruptions from well heeled thespians many of whom, I’m quite sure, were not expecting to encounter a rough shod troubadour group when they popped in for coffee during a break in rehearsals. While some of our poets published in magazines like the ‘Big Issue’ most didn’t care for celebrity. The following accolades were, however, provided in passing: “Bloody ‘ell” – Peter Kay, “Oh my goodness” – Julian Clary, “Do excuse me” – Prunella Scales.

With support from the WEA (the Workers Education Association) we teamed up with Islington Libraries, changed location and ran our classes from the splendid but decaying reading room of the South Library on Essex Road. This was the infamous venue where where ledgendary playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell created illicit collages and fake flyleaf blurbs in the library books. It felt like the perfect environment for a poetry group but the clock was ticking. Or rather dripping. Gradually the amount of buckets collecting rainwater from the magnificent ceiling above outnumbered members attending. We passed our Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) inspection despite all of this but the venue was eventually forced to close.

We moved further north and snuck across the border from Islington to Hackney settling for several semesters in the historic Mary Wollstonecraft room at the Newington Green Unitarian Church. While this was certainly our most salubrious environment funding cuts at the WEA meant we were forced to move on once more. The irony that, what had begun life as a ‘homeless writer’s’ group had now become a writer’s group without a home was not lost on some of the original members. Despite the lovely people at the DAY-MER Turkish and Kurdish Community Centre, a former library in Stoke Newington, taking us in for a while further reductions to our budget made the running of a free, creative arts class untenable. After fifteen years I decided to call it a day.

Last month I announced that I was setting up an online poetry class. I was touched by the amount of likes and shares it received but overwhelmingly I was approached by people who had attended my classes in the past and who were struggling to cope under lockdown. Concerned about the impact isolation was having on peoples’ mental health I decided to open up this Monday afternoon session once more giving my time, for free, to those who needed it most.

I’m currently running two free online classes for vulnerable adults. If you’d like to support me with this initiative you can do so for as little as £1 ($1) a month on my Patreon page.

Jan Noble, May 2020

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