Poetry review – WHATSNAME STREET: Rennie Halstead explores last-century Lambeth as portrayed in Anna Robinson’s authentic and entertaining collection
In Whatsname Street Anna Robinson takes an in-depth look at life in Lambeth in the first half of the twentieth century, long before gentrification pushed house prices in the area towards the million pound mark.
The collection is a glorious mix of styles. Robinson renders the speech of some of the residents in their own vernacular. Other poems give a more conventional voice to residents and there are several prose poems about the estate itself, and the shortcomings of the landlords. What comes across most strongly is the raw energy and vitality of the area, and of residents’ struggles, not only with poverty, but also with the cheek by jowl communal life, and their fellow residents.
In a number of vernacular poems, Robinson uses the symbol “|” to indicate the glottal stop that is part of London speech. “Ta||ered” (which signifies “tattered”) takes a view through the curtains into a neighbour’s front room from an unnamed observer who has clear ideas about how a housewife should keep her house:
(…) layers of dust up the passidge, ow| to the frun| door, streeked in greess, and the step has no| bin cleened in years. I dred to fink wo| er stowv looks lyke! Wha|duz she doo all day?
There’s possibly a discussion to be had about whether the use of the vernacular adds to the poem, and Robinson does not use it consistently when she is imagining the residents’ speech. I found it worked well, adding an authenticity to the poems.
In other poems, Robinson tells stories in a more standard speech. In “All Our Little Chicks in a Row” she tells the story of Emma and Phyllis Chick who lived in the area from 1937 to 1939
For two years the air was still in changeless world. One our father could photograph
Uncle George came to stay ‘smelling of wintergreen’ while the sisters worked sewing lace for a wedding dress, though who the dress is for is not revealed. The wedding day was good:
(…) a bit of rain first thing but then as sunny as you’d like,
But this is 1939, and the girls find they are at war and disappear from the narrative.
“The Nightman” tells the story of the man tasked with collecting the nightsoil, coming late at night when:
(…) no-one you can see is there, he creeps around the outside walls. You can hear him collecting your dirt through the air brick, smell him if the wind is up enough. The Nightman appears to have other motives,
(…) piling the dirt high so it rises over the floor line over the damp-proof course (…) and then he’ll have what he wants - the smell of you warm and ripe as it lies between you and your covers
Similarly, “Airbricks” picks up the poor housing conditions for many residents. The air bricks in this poem, ‘at least one I know of / in each room’ are essential for underfloor ventilation and to keep damp at bay, but there is a problem:
Somewhere, under the floorboards of my back room something has become stale — the holes in the air brick blocked with filth and small plastic stolen goods
the results are not good:
the smells of others (…) drift and hang, humming their songs of cabbage and shit.
Hope is pinned on the damp man coming to make all new at some unspecified time –‘please say he’ll come.’
The collection also includes a number of prose poems. “Miss Sunderland”, written in the vernacular, remembers the woman who ‘ran the ‘ole thing – she run the ‘ole estates.’ Miss Sunderland’s family were all builders, so she knew what needed to be done and would make sure she inspected the builders’ work before agreeing it was complete. She ‘climbed all the bleeding way up to the top, looked down into into the gutters’ She would make the builder join her on the roof and examine the gutter, scooping out the dirt. ‘You haven| finished this’ and made ‘them do i| all again before she would pay ‘em.’
Two other poems in this collection deserve special mention. The curious “Binless” has some of the appearance of a found poem – not a page of a document with blacked out sections, but a poem with gaps made with dashes. Each dash carries an endnote reference, picked up in detail in the Notes section. (I have been unable to replicate the endnote reference numbers in this review) The poem, as it stands on the page, has a poignancy, telling the story of someone who has lived on the estate, but apparently left no trace of himself when he left – perhaps died:
(…) Now – he – is – gone -, and – the – clean-up – team Making – more – noise – than – he – ever – made On – all – the – days – he – lived – there.
The notes, however, blend into a more lyrical memoir of the way the estate views the departed. Here are the full notes for the first line I quoted, with the words the notes referred to in bold:
Now (At the precise moment you read it dear reader,) – he (that young man with sandy hair, whose mother lives in Jersey) – is (is to be) – gone (no longer here on our estate, and therefore now of questionable existence as he only lived here 3 years or so) – and (and, yes, there is always some kind of connection between one thing and another) – the (actual – almost Godlike thing – and we – me and the shouty man and the family between – have no power over it at all. However many letters we may write.) – clean-up (They come every time someone moves out now, paint, change over fitted kitchens and whatever else, but only to the market rent flats and they bang and bang and bang. They are banging while I write this and when you read it, they are still banging – but probably in a different flat by now.) – team (They [those that say this] say there is no I in team but there are lots of other letters that are also not in team such as Z or J)
There’s a dilemma here. A reader turning the page to the Notes loses all sense of the continuity of the poem – perhaps intentionally, as the lack of continuity of individual lives on the estate is part of the theme of the book. But this makes for a disjointed reading and perhaps having the notes on the same page as the poem might have made it clearer for the reader to follow.
Another poem that merits special mention is “Terry’s Haibun”, which is told over nine pages, which is about 14% of the page count, and higher as a proportion of the actual text. The haibun tells the story of eighty-six year old Terry, his family and his life on the estate. We learn about his parents and grandparents, his job as a docker and the routines of everyday life. Terry tells how the doors were never locked, and food was left on the table, but theft was unheard of. Tenancies were fragile. Failing to pay rent led to eviction and the workhouse. We also hear of Terry’s adventures in Milan (La Scala) and the other families that were neighbours at different times. Robinson punctuates the text with haiku to mark breaks between sections, a poetic paragraph break. In the paragraph about the milkman:
(…) he’d have to go round and collect his money and if he got back to the depot, where he’d have to put his book and his money in, if he hadn’t got enough he’d have to put it in. If someone couldn’t pay, he’d have to put it in himself – otherwise he’d ‘ve got the sack. There was nothing else – there was three million unemployed. Horse whistling down long days – taking the biscuit
Whatsname Street is a refreshing collection, examining life in a small part of London over an extended period. It is rich with the stories and voices of residents. The variety of styles used by Robinson keeps the narrative fresh, and she is not afraid to challenge convention with different ways of giving her stories impact. I particularly like the way she has captured the history of the area through the voices of her cast of participants. Anyone who has grown up with experience of the poorer parts of our towns and cities, especially before the sixties, will recognise the lives of the characters in Robinson’s book. It is a great achievement to capture their voices for future generations.