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

The Importance of Being Elsewhere

The first time Chelsea won the league I wasn’t there. I really wasn’t there, most of us weren’t. The second time (within living memory) I wasn’t there either. I was on stage at a festival in Italy. After the show, I went backstage and found that someone had nicked my Chelsea towel from the dressing room. Yer, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I had a dressing room.

The last time we won it I was on an artists’ residency in France writing a screenplay. While Chelsea achieved yet another success I was off, scratching away, twisting in the wind, missing out on another had-to-be-there moment. But absence is the essence of poetry, loss and not belonging where it finds itself, elsewhere its station and its standing.

Poetry is the art form that isn’t there. It lacks the universality of music, the physicality of image making. If it points at anything it is beyond, away, not here. So as Chelsea fans fought in the stands when their team won the league again last night, where was I? Well, you never saw me. I wasn’t there, right?

[Jan Noble will be performing tonight at Festival Internazionale di Poesia di Milano, MUDEC, Via Tortona, 56, 20144 Milano, 13 maggio, 19:20 h]

Some Italian facts about swans…

  • The last known ‘breeding pair’ of Italian swans were spotted on Lake Como in 1974. Their union had been blessed by the church in 1969. It was later discovered that both swans were in fact male. The church declined to comment.
  • It is believed the poet Dante once fell in love and proposed to a swan. Swans feature in much of his poetry: “When at last the swan returns to Italy / so shall be the soul of Lombardy restored.”
  • Mussolini is said to have ruptured a testicle after being attacked by a swan on the banks of the Po. Alpine partisans in WWII carried the insignia of the swan and two orbs on their berets.
  • A violent faction of the Juventus Ultras known as ‘Brigata del Cigno’ or ‘The Swan Brigade’ attend matches dressed in black and white swan feather costumes. They intimidate rival supporters by waving their arms about a lot and hissing.
  • Jan Noble will be performing his poetic monologue “My Name Is Swan” at three venues in Milan. Saturday, 13 May at 19:20h at the Festival Internazionale di Poesia di Milano, MUDEC, Via Tortona, 56, 20144 Milano. On Monday 15th May at 19:30h he will give a private reading at The Swan, Piazzale Loreto, 9, 20100 Milano. On Tuesday night, 16 May at 19:15h he will perform at the spectacular Teatro Filodrammatici , Via Filodrammatici, 1, 20121 Milano.

Mr Happy and Mr Tickle

Poetry should be ignored. Like the interesting kid in the playground. Leave it alone. It’s quite happy playing by itself. If you want to join in, fine, it can be fun, but it can also be confusing, boring, troubling and upsetting. Which is why it’s generally, and at times best, just ignored.

Politics, while inhabited by similar deviants and devas that muddle and meddle with poetry, cannot be ignored. Politicians are just like poets. They are the same. They don’t do anything. They are utterly inactive. They make no contribution to the physical world. Watch any clip of a politician ‘doing their job’ and it’ll most likely show them standing around looking awkward and uncomfortable, shaking hands with someone they’d rather not talk to or desperately trying to sound sincere into a microphone. All of these things poets ‘do’. They play with words, they fabricate truth, they change their minds, they contradict themselves, they dislike each other. They may say they ‘admire’ or ‘respect’ one another, they may claim or cling to ‘integrity’ but essentially poets and politicians belong to the same elitist gang of self serving egoists. When they come knocking at your door with their little leaflets you will know what to do.

There is, though, a difference: Poetry is powerless, politics is dangerous. A politician’s words will close a hospital, drop a bomb or destroy a forrest. A poet’s words may unsettle a molecule, disturb a particle, flutter a fibre.

At the beginning of this year I started sending poems out as postcards (contradicting my thesis that poetry should be ignored, but then U-turns are a poet’s prerogative). I have an expanding list of recipients and on the day Theresa May called an election in the UK I decided that she needed a poem. I did send her a valentine’s day poem. She ignored it. I also thought, so he didn’t feel left out (or ignored), that Jeremy Corbyn should get one too. I had heard him read a poem at a memorial service so I knew he might be more responsive than his opposite.

On the day I came to send out last month’s batch at the postoffice I found, in amongst the stamps I’d bought, two large, colourful Mr Men stamps. These I felt were not appropriate to adorn postcards being sent to respected editors of longstanding periodicals or to persons in seats of learning or to leading lights of the literary establishment. Neither did they seem to suit the small collection of friends, enemies and ex-lovers who were also in receipt of a poem a month. But Mr Happy and Mr Tickle (for these were the two characters on the stamps) wouldn’t be out of place in parliament I thought. The choice was who should get who? One smug, hands behind back, smiling blindly, the other a risible baked bean man with wobbly arms. I thought Mr Tickle suited Jeremy better and I banged Mr Happy angrily on Theresa’s postcard. Neither seemed quite right. But that’s politics.

Essentially this is the choice we will face next month. Mr Tickle, although annoying, does appear to be going out of his way to try and make people’s lives better and quite frankly Mr Happy looks like he doesn’t give a damn. He’s just happy. I bet he’d still be smiling if the NHS was sold further into private ownership. I just don’t trust that iniquitous grin. Give me Mr Tickle any day. I’ll get back to you if either reply.

[If you’d like a poem on a postcard get one here: https://www.patreon.com/jannoble Poetry is free, stamps are not.]