A few years ago I had occasion to call at a small unit on an industrial estate in Pudsey where there was a temporary sign on the door which read ‘Bell Not Working – Please Bray On Door’.
I love colloquial terms. They make English such a fascinating language. I mention this because it’s ages since I had heard the term ‘chelping’ and it took me back to my childhood. In fact, it’s now so unusual that my spellcheck has underlined it in red. For those of you unfamiliar with the above words, to bray means to hit hard – either an object or a person – and chelping is speaking constantly, usually out of turn, to which I plead guilty and ask for twenty thousand previous offences to be taken into consideration.
Any excuse to visit the 251-year-old Leeds Library is always welcome and so I couldn’t wait to get there.
Chelping is a poetry event which takes place at the end of each alternate month and was instigated last year to mark the library’s 250th Anniversary. It was so successful that it’s continued ever since. Last night’s programme was made up of recitals by two invited guests and seven open mic performers. It was curated and introduced by Wakefield poet and programmer of Chelping, Matt Abbott, who kicked things off with a short poem about his guilty pleasure, ‘Karaoke’.
The format was brilliantly worked out. Whenever I see the term ‘open mic’ I get a bit worried that I’ll be subjected to a string of people who’ve been told by their mates that they’re funny and so get up at a comedy club and prove them wrong, or that they can sing but have the tonal range of a seal. Tonight was different – the open mics were mostly known to Matt and were of a very good standard. The programme was cleverly arranged, with three open mic spots before the first invited guest, John Darwin, then there was a break and four more open mics with the second invitee, Hannah Law, rounding things off.
As you can imagine with nine performers, there were a lot of poems delivered, although it didn’t feel like it as they were of various lengths, styles and subject matter. Tim Knight gave us a couple, Redacting the Country Code and another, comprising notes stored away and later combined to make a coherent piece. He was followed by Susan Darlington, with poems about the circus, a silver birch, being raised in the wild by animals – but not the ones you would expect – and keeping two magpies with you at all times so that you are always surrounded by joy – clever.
The third poet was Maria Ferguson, who opened the nationwide tour of her one-woman play at Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton on Thursday, 26th September. It is called Essex Girl and begins with the poem with which she regaled us riffing on the dictionary definition of that term. It was brilliant and hilarious and touching at the same time, and if the rest of the play is anything like as good, then you’re in for a treat. (Editor’s note: We’ll soon be publishing our review of Maria’s Seven Arts performance.)
As I mentioned before, the first half ended with a guest poet, John Darwin, who, although not from the City, grew up in Leeds. His first experience of the place was a stint staying with his mother in a room at the two-star Nordic Hotel, after which he named his first offering. He went on to tell us about his hatred of the school to which he was sent and how he threw up over the headmaster’s shoes on the first day. This period was remembered in the poem New School Blues. He guided us through his life story with works about underage drinking, one using excerpts from the works of Simon and Garfunkel, and on to later life and pending retirement with Carp Fishing in Shropshire. He ended his programme with two poems, both set in Istanbul, his favourite bolt hole, the final one of all being the title of his newly published collection ‘I Meet Myself Returning’. All uniformly superb.
After a break, we had the second batch of poets, beginning with the longest poem of the evening by Storm Rider about the 1973 Old Bailey IRA Bomb Attack. It was based on a photograph of the event. Following a second piece of his, it was the turn of a Chelping debutante, a Swiss woman called Noemie who came to live in Leeds last year. Her soft voice gave the works an ethereal quality, despite the name of the first one being Manchester! This was followed by Haunt Me and Autumn, both a total contrast to the violent images portrayed by the previous poet.
The next to give us a rendition of her work was Hannah Stone with two about dating and survival. These were amusing and, as a man, showed me the other side of the dating coin; from the actual getting together to what happens when someone you met meets someone else with whom he is happier. Thank you for that insight.
The final open mic spot went to Bethany Rose who writes a lot about mental health issues. She admitted to being suspended from some social media platforms for a while after posting pictures of self-mutilation on line, her final poem, an apology to her body for what she had put it through. Her first poem, however, was called I Don’t Care About Potato Salad and was a reflection on the stuff we watch in the middle of the night when insomnia strikes, and her second, Trigger Warning, referring to the signals of impending relapse. Very moving indeed.
The second guest and final poet was the wonderful Hannah Lowe, another Essex girl. We were given her life background with poems about her desire to be able to join her older brother and his mates when they went breakdancing, an hilarious and touching piece which was really about outsiders in every situation. The next was a comment on the gentrification of London, and Brixton in particular, called Dance Class, which reassured her that not everything has changed as her fitness instructor of yore was still in business. She went on to read several poems and relate stories about her time in the teaching profession.
Hannah has had a varied career involving working-class schools, a more upmarket establishment and, as a total contrast, a PRU – Pupil Referral Unit – which is where the most troublesome children and adolescents are sent. Every piece was short but pithy and form the basis for her new collection which should be completed next year. Her gift of capturing the spirit of teaching and the attitudes of both tutor and pupil really resonated. There was one called Samuel Pepys which was very amusing. It was written about the time she was in the middle-class school and referred to the diarist of that name. She said that she had seen his name written but never heard it spoken so she was pronouncing it as it is spelt, When one of the posh girls in the class put her hand up and told her that it was pronounced Peeps, she said that she did what all teachers do, and told the girl that she was mistaken and it was most certainly Peppies. Hannah has several collections in print and they are well worth seeking out.
I enjoyed the evening very much in every respect from the choice of poets, the poems themselves and the way in which the event was curated. Well done to all concerned. It is worth the ticket price alone to see the inside of the Leeds Library!
The next Chelping will be held on Wednesday 20th November so keep your eyes out for ticket details nearer the time.