Finding their Voices
“‘City Voices’ is 20 years old? I can’t believe it,” a friend commented to me recently.
I can’t believe it either but there it is. Who’d have thought a gathering of poets and writers in an upstairs room of a hotel in Chapel Ash, Wolverhampton, would still be going 20 years later?
And the 20th anniversary is on Tuesday 13 September at 7.30pm at the Light House, Fryer Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1HT. On the bill we have the Bilston Writers’ group sharing work from their new anthology and Emma Purshouse launching her new collection, “It’s Honorary, Bab”, from Offa’s Press, about her time as poet laureate of Wolverhampton. Should be a hoot!
So, how did it happen? Well, I’d been in post as literature development officer for Wolverhampton Libraries for about 18 months (yes, such a wonderful post did really exist, one of several ACE-funded, initially, scattered across the region) and it was becoming clear to me that the local writers needed a place where they could meet and share their stories, as it were, and their poems, and, occasionally their progress in getting into magazines and so forth. Or just meet some other writers.
I’d set about creating writing groups in the city as soon as I set foot in the building. In fact on my desk when I sat down, there were the names of 3 people who wanted to talk to me. One of them was the late Roger Jones, a very jolly Welshman and scribbler, who wanted to set up a group at Tettenhall Library. After several cups of tea in a local hostelry we decided to go ahead. Other groups followed shortly, notably at Bilston, where I was more than ably-assisted by Emma Purshouse.
Developing literature in libraries took many forms and included visiting writers and storytellers who were often to be seen in the Children’s library at Central, surrounded by dozens of adoring little people. And this was often down to Marion Cockin, another one of those who wanted to speak to me.
So, when I approached my line manager, Andrew Scragg, with the idea of setting up a live literature venue in the city I’m sure he had a few concerns. How would it work? Where could it happen? What about security? I explained that this sort of thing was quite normal and common in big cities especially in the north. To develop our creatives we had to get on board and give them a chance to find their voices.
But where? I trawled around Wolverhampton and finally settled on the Clarendon Hotel. It had a good upstairs room, was reasonably central, and a pleasant bar. I didn’t know it was also one of the regular watering holes of Wolves fans but that’s another story.
On the first night I’d booked 8 turns and suggested they did 10 minutes each. Knowing that some poets, men in particular, are reluctant to leave the stage I’d brought along with me an old brass gong. I waved this about enthusiastically at the start and announced that anyone going beyond their 10 minutes would be ‘gonged off’ much to the delight of the audience.
I had created a ‘game show’ atmosphere and people liked it. We had about 60 people in and everyone behaved. The stars who told their stories and read their poems that night included Jeff Phelps, Emma Purshouse & the aforementioned Roger Jones. Everyone said they’d come again and most did.
We have moved on since then to O’Neill’s nightclub, rather gloomy, then the ‘City Bar’ where the genial Lawson was our host and didn’t stand for any nonsense, the Lych Gate, briefly, and then to the Light House where we hope to stay. It’s right next to the bus and railway stations so is perfect in these ecologically-minded days.
Usually there are 5 performers and they do 15 minutes each. After some trial and error that was found to be the best recipe, anyway, with a good spread of talent and background. And there have been many performers from diverse backgrounds including the velvet-voiced Roy McFarlane, recently heard at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, and the surprising Kuli Kohli who was too shy to read her own work at first but who’s now become a guiding light for many in the disabled communities.
A good number of these writers’ group members have gone on to great things. Emma Purshouse is now a professional writer and performer and was nominated the first poet laureate of Wolverhampton in 2020; Jeff’s had novels and poetry published; Win Saha published her first poetry pamphlet at the age of 88; Roger, he told me, got several very polite rejections. We still miss his shaggy dog stories.
There you have it. With a lot of support from the libraries in the early years (a big thank you to Andrew Scragg & Marion Cockin!) ‘City Voices’ is still going. We did miss one night, in August 2011, when there was a riot in the city and, of course, the pandemic made us all go ‘virtual’ for a while, but we’re still at it. And judging by the huge crowd who turned out for the launch of the ‘New Voices’ anthology in July, I think the future is bright.