After a year-long campaign Londons largest public art poem, which was painted over last autumn by Network Rail
, is about to be restored in the underpass at Waterloo that leads to the IMAX
Ten years ago, as part of the renovation of the South Bank undertaken by Avery Architects
, the Arts Council and the BFI commissioned the award-winning poet and art critic Sue Hubbard
to write a poem for the underpass that leads from Victory Arch at Waterloo Station to the IMAX cinema. Written in a series of three-lined stepped stanzas the poem was set out so that it could be read whilst walking through the tunnel. Using the metaphor of Eurydice descending into the underworld it aimed to make walkers feel safe. As well as the classical myth, the poems imagery makes reference to Londons Thameside history and to the famous Waterloo clock, a meeting point in so many British films.
As an example of innovative public art it has been written about in architectural journals and was the subject of a commissioned essay from Sue Hubbard by The Poetry Society, Opening Spaces, written during her residency as The Poetry Societys only Public Art Poet. It formed the back drop to a National Film School production will you forget me? (Stephen Bennet) and Lifelines, a Channel 4 drama produced by Carnival films. The poem has also been requested on Radio 4s Poetry Please.
Last autumn Time Out listed it as one of the best secret things to look out for in London. Within two weeks Network Rail had painted it over whilst cleaning up the tunnel. A huge press outcry followed. The story was covered in The Guardian, The Spectator, Time Out, The Evening Standard, and Poetry News and was even given a ten minute slot on Canadian Radio.
Christopher Hamilton-Emery, the director of Salt publishing that publishes Sue Hubbards collection Ghost Station, in which the poem appears, began a Facebook campaign. The response was phenomenal. More than 1200 people signed up demanding the restoration of the poem. One man said he proposed as a result of seeing it, while a mother spoke movingly of receiving comfort from reading it on the way to the hospital to see her terminally ill daughter.
Without any initial money, and the generous help of a volunteer lawyer and treasurer from the Facebook campaign, it was possible, after protracted negations, to get Network Rail to agree to its reinstatement. A thousand pounds was raised on Facebook and the rest of the money is being generously donated by risk management software provider, Neural Technologies. The poem will retain the original font but will be executed in a different colour because of the new background paint now in the tunnel. Restoration is being undertaken by James Salisbury of the City and Guilds Art School.
This has been a triumph for popular opinion. This much loved and much read poem Londons largest public art poem - is being put back by public demand due to the persistence of those who believe in the role of poetry and public art.
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, art critic and novelist. She has published several collections of poetry, short stories, a novel and a recent book of art criticism.
I am not afraid as I descend,
step by step, leaving behind the salt wind
blowing up the corrugated river,
the damp city streets, their sodium glare
of rush-hour headlights pitted with pearls of rain;
for my eyes still reflect the half remembered moon.
Already your face recedes beneath the station clock,
a damp smudge among the shadows
mirrored in the trains wet glass,
will you forget me? Steel tracks lead you out
past cranes and crematoria,
boat yards and bike sheds, ruby shards
of roman glass and wolf-bone mummified in mud,
the rows of curtained windows like eyelids
heavy with sleep, to the citys green edge.
Now I stop my ears with wax, hold fast
the memory of the song you once whispered in my ear.
Its echoes tangle like briars in my thick hair.
You turned to look.
Second fly past like birds.
My hands grow cold. I am ice and cloud.
This path unravels.
Deep in hidden rooms filled with dust
and sour night-breath the lost city is sleeping.
Above the hurt sky is weeping,
soaked nightingales have ceased to sing.
Dusk has come early. I am drowning in blue.
I dream of a green garden
where the sun feathers my face
like your once eager kiss.
Soon, soon I will climb
from this blackened earth
into the diffident light.