Róisín Tierney is an Irish poet who taught for several years in Spain and Ireland. She is now settled in London. This is the nineteenth article in our regular series “My London”.
As a blow-in from Dublin in 1985, London struck me as a tolerant, eccentric, deeply fascinating city. It was often grey but never boring, a hotchpotch of peoples and cultures. I felt as if I had fallen down Alice’s rabbit-hole and anything could happen.
Housing was an issue in London even then, and in the first ten years I moved more often than I can now remember. First, there was the squat in Brixton where I stayed with friends. It was in a rough area, just off Railton Road. Opposite our house was a hairdressers, where very few customers came in or out by day, but where a red light shone in the upstairs window during the afternoons and evenings: it took me a while to understand its function. We had no bath, but a kindly mate up beyond Brixton Hill had said we could use his. When it was my turn, I set off by bus, having taken careful note of the directions, my towel and a bar of soap tucked under my arm. I knocked on the door and, as it opened, I was about to say, ‘I’m here for the bath,’ when I saw standing before me a man dressed in a flowery housecoat and furry slippers, with his hair in curlers, and sporting a full moustache! ‘Wrong address,’ I muttered, and rushed away.
Then there was a bedsit in Shepherds Bush where I shared a room with my friend Colette. It was a depressing place, with a patterned carpet, patterned bedspreads, patterned wallpaper, patterned curtains, and on the wall a picture of a girl with a tear rolling down her face. It didn’t help that Colette worked days while I worked nights, each in some grubby little temporary job (M&S and a dodgy nightclub, respectively), so we were constantly waking each other. It wasn’t even cheap! Shepherds Bush Market just up the road was an exotic medina, unlike anything I had seen before, but other than that the neighbourhood seemed bleak and unlovely.
The nightclub was the kind of sleazy establishment where a girl had to wear a leotard and fishnet tights (though I refused to wear the heels or padded bra recommended by my more worldly colleagues,) and where the owner warned you would be sacked if you slept with the clients. Faux-respectability was the order of the day (or night), though it was all right, even expected, apparently, to routinely short-change when serving champagne to the tables. My mother visited me from Dublin for a few days while I worked there, and as she saw me getting ready for my “waitressing’ job”, said ‘But Róisín, you’re wearing so much make-up!’ Truly, it was the kind of place where you dare not show your real face. I was out of there within a week, my virtue intact, clutching a few hundred quid to my puny breast.
Glad to escape Shepherds Bush, we moved to another squat, this time in Camden. It was a big, empty council house, and we lived with people from all over: Spanish, French, American, Scouse. This was a much happier household. Everybody was doing something interesting: undergoing therapy, practising massage, taking trumpet lessons, puppet-making. During my time there, I completed a course in theatrical make-up at the Questors Theatre in Ealing. Bullet wounds, stitches, wrinkles, smallpox rashes – I could do them all. One night, to try out my new skills, I made-up Colette and myself to look like men, complete with five o’clock shadows; we donned mannish attire, put our hair up under peaked caps, and went off to the Black Cap, Camden’s famous gay/transvestite pub, where we spent the evening completely ignored.
Next was a flat in Tufnell Park, and after that a year in a friend’s mum’s house in Hampstead. Juliet was an archaeozoologist and worked at the Natural History Museum. She was extraordinarily kind, charging me a pittance for my room on the understanding that I would walk her two dogs, Jack and Jessie. Ah, Hampstead Heath! How often we would hear a rustling sound as we passed a thicket, from which a young man would jump out looking hopeful, only to change his expression to one of dismay before hastening back to camouflage. Later, I enjoyed a long stint in a house belonging to a housing cooperative in Rosebery Avenue, right beside Sadler’s Wells. We were so close that we could hear the singers practising their arias if there was to be a performance that night.
Of course, it is not just where you live that dictates how you experience London; your place of employment has an influence too. When I eventually realised that I was never going to make a decent living as a theatrical make-up artist, I took a job as an administrator in the Commonwealth Institute, close to Holland Park and its peacocks. This was a rewarding place to work, with lots going on, and colleagues from all over the world. One summer they had a Pacific Music Festival and I was a redcoat for a group of Highlanders from Papua New Guinea. We had set up in Holland Park, in makeshift tents, where the Highlanders were preparing themselves for their outdoor afternoon performance of traditional tribal songs and dances. One of my charges suddenly announced that he was just dashing across the road to the post office to buy some stamps. He looked tremendously handsome, if rather fierce, with his skimpy bark-and-grass skirt, ornate face paint, magnificent feather headdress, and bow and arrows. Obeying a qualm which I now regret, I persuaded him not to go.
After my time at the Commonwealth Institute, I had a spell as a volunteer at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. Mostly, I was in their office, arranging auditions etc., but for one exalted week I was dresser for Frank Thornton, then famous as Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served? The show was a musical, a Vivian Ellis, I think. Mr Thornton gave a wonderfully witty and hammed-up rendition of ‘Hengist and Horsa’ every evening and was a very pleasant gentleman to work for, tipping me nicely at the end of the run.
Bloomsbury has a special resonance for me, and the British Museum will always be in my affections. I worked there, twice, in two different posts: the first time, as a temp in Coins and Medals (just as Roger Bland was trying to effect a change in the laws regarding Treasure Trove); and the second, as an administrator in the Educational Multimedia Unit, a small department set up to build websites on ancient civilisations.
As at the Commonwealth Institute, there were exotic episodes. For one of our website launches – Moghul India – to be held in the Great Court and on the Museum’s forecourt, I hired a pair of falconers from County Durham. They spent the previous night sleeping on futons in my sitting room, with hooded birds perched all around them. On arriving at the Museum, we discovered we were short a performer, and so, hurriedly, I became a Moghul Indian Prince for the day, complete with plumed turban, fine cotton over-garment, silk sash, jewelled armlets, falcon and wife. Museum parties were generally a lot of fun. I remember realising, at one particular leaving do in the Asian galleries, as I swirled the chardonnay around in my glass, with pieces of Chinese jade, porcelain dromedaries, Buddhas, Kuan Yins and assorted Tantric implements on every side, that although it was OK to get tipsy, it would not be the done thing to collapse drunkenly on the exhibits.
I now live in Camden again, so perhaps Camden is my home turf after all: Camden, with her grand squares, Georgian terraces and tarnished glamour, her tramps and drug addicts, mucky streets, cool vibe and rockin’ music scene. And her wonderful museum, which I once celebrated in a poem titled ‘Song of the Temple Maiden’:
Oh Museum, Museum! You whose very name means ‘Place of the Muse.’
Whose little friends scuttle round us as we work, yet chew not the exhibits.
Whose Department of Science and Conservation holds a Cyanide Room.
Whose Department of Coins and Medals tinkles when shaken.
Who cause veneration of the Roman and the Greek, if old.
Who uphold the Egyptian way of life. Which smiles through its bandages.
Whose Mesopotamian Ram is really a Billy Goat.
Whose Buddha Rooms whisper throughout the whole building.
Who would unwrap the secrets of everything dead.
Whose roof is high and clear and reaches the sky.
Who are built like a temple and preside gracefully over Bloomsbury.
Who hide somewhere the crystal ball of John Dee.
Whose bog-man lies dreaming forever, forever.
Who cradle the little children in your arms as they run through your galleries.
Who meet the gaze of the public with a stare that disinvents them.
Who are truly Neolithic at heart.
Who are in love with Time.
Who wish only to sleep under the sands of the desert (Gobi) for a thousand years.
Who sometimes perhaps, though not given to passion, cry at night-time
For the billions upon billions who have pressed momentarily upwards
Out of the yellow earth, pushing and myawling like kittens,
Eyes milky and blue, intent, only to sink back under
Leaving barely an impression, just a slight hollow, or a little mound,
Or a yellowed artefact bearing a list of cattle or corn in an unintelligible script.
Oh Museum, Museum! I pile white anemones onto your steps.
I pour out red wine onto your earth. I sacrifice nothing,
But release this small bird with a black mark on him and a mottled throat,
Whose voice is so pure that the poets praise him,
To fly up to your roof and lift up songs for you and please your ear
And perhaps even bring to your beautiful face an archaic smile.
Róisín Tierney is an Irish poet who taught for several years in Spain (Valladolid and Granada). Her pamphlet, Dream Endings (Rack Press) won the 2012 Michael Marks Pamphlet Award. A more recent pamphlet Five Poems is published by Clutag Press. She featured as one of Ireland’s ‘Rising Poets’ in Poetry Ireland Review #118 in the spring of this year. Her debut collection, The Spanish-Italian Border is published by Arc.