The Battle of Waterloo
Poetry as public art is a fragile thing. Vulnerable as a butterfly it needs protection in a largely hostile terrain. In 1999 the acclaimed architect, the late Bryan Avery of Avery Associates, was responsible for the new IMAX project at Waterloo. This regeneration of the South Bank involved input from the BFI and the Arts Council. I was lucky enough to be commissioned as the poet – no doubt because I’d recently been nominated as The Poetry Society’s Public Art Poet – to write a poem for the rather grungy underpass that leads from the main entrance at Waterloo station down and through to the IMAX. My brief was to make a cold, dirty, urine soaked tunnel feel a better experience for those who walked through it. A tall order for a small poem.
I came up with the idea of a modern Eurydice. Going down into the tunnel felt much like entering the underworld. I wanted to provide a consoling, redemptive experience. The tunnel is quite long and it takes a while to walk through it. Long enough for words to penetrate the emotions, to stimulate thought and provide solace. The final image is of coming out into the light from the dark underworld.
Working with Bryan Avery was inspirational. He found a team of graphic designers who cooperated with me to produce a text that was both atavistic and ancient, modern and relevant. There was a small unveiling in front of the media and those for whom the tunnel was often home. The response was extremely positive. And that, I thought, was that.
Then in 2010, just by chance, I was alerted to the fact that the tunnel was being painted in blue and that the poem was being erased. No consultation had been made with me, the architects or any of the sponsors. Network Rail claimed they were ‘tidying it up’. My then poetry publisher, Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt, started a FB campaign and, much to my surprise, tributes and money poured in from the public. There was a huge press flurry with articles, in among other places, the Evening Standard and the Guardian. For some obscure reason I was even interviewed by Canadian Radio. A software firm, Neural Technologies, kindly put up the bulk of the money. A wonderful lawyer put herself forward on FB to work pro bono. The poem was restored by James Salisbury, a leading letter artist at the City and Guilds London art school. Eurydice is one of the largest pieces of text art in the city and had, before it was painted blue, just before been listed by Time Out as one of London’s best pieces of secret art.
Now there is a danger it could happen again. Early the other morning I received a text form my daughter with a photo of men in Bob the Builder hats plastering the wall. No one had consulted me. No one had informed me. I quite understand that these tunnels need maintenance and that they are the property of Network Rail. But they don’t own the poem. The contract says they should keep it in good order.
I tried to contact the person I’d dealt with in 2010. To no avail. So took to Twitter, not a social platform I normally use, except to post new projects. I soon found myself in a something of a Twitter storm. Peter Hendy, the Chairman of Network Rail, introduced himself on there for the first time.
Contrary to what’s being implied I’m not some publicity crazed poet. The poem exists in printed form in my second collection. This battle is about the fragility of public art in an urban space. The need to protect it in places where it provides succour and comfort in a gritty alien landscape. I’ve been incredibly moved over the years by the personal messages I’ve received from those who’ve come across the poem: some tragic, some truly uplifting. And that is the point. As artists and poets we put things out into the public domain and never know how others are going to receive them, what effect they might have. It’s for this reason that the Waterloo poem and other public art works are so important, so worth preserving.
And the purpose of this piece? To show that public art is a fragile thing, easily broken on the wheel of corporate bureaucracy. Sadly from the start, when I was working with Bryan, Network Rail have treated the project as an irritant, rather than being the proud custodians of a unique gift. This time around I hope they will show their attitude has changed. That they understand a small thing such as a poem can enter the city’s psyche and that they’ll take on the stewardship of this loved art work, which no longer belongs to me but to London.
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 train’s 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 city’s 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.
First published in Ghost Station Salt Publishing 2004
Sue Hubbard was commissioned to write this poem by the Arts Council and British Film Institute for the Waterloo underpass leading to the IMAX cinema in London. See also Hubbard’s thoughts on the links between poetry and the visual arts.
Visiting Artist at Siena Art, April 2014
Over The Rainbow, 2013
Eurydice, London’s largest public art poem, Imax Underpass, Waterloo
Campaign to save Eurydice
The Guardian – Save a great poetry landmark
The Guardian – Waterloo underpass poem to be restored
3 Quarks Daily
Wall Street Journal
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2013
Images maybe subject to copyright