Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 41 seconds
How do you stay in touch with your family when meet-ups are rare, or impossible? Email and Skype can work well, but Maria North and her three sisters went a step further – they challenged each other to write poems. Five years later, and many emails, they’ve published a book, ‘Sibling Rhymery’. Interview by Nicola Baird
“There’s a stereotype that older people write simplistic little verses, but it’s not usually the case, and not many of us nowadays are ‘sweet old ladies’,” says Maria North when we meet up at her flat, close to Highbury & Islington tube. And now Maria, 66, has produced a poetry collection with her three sisters,in a project that started through a fortunate coincidence.
“The four of us don’t see each other very much, and we are mostly in touch by email. It all started when someone unearthed a poem Marian had written for a school magazine and it was circulated between us. That set us off: we started emailing each other in verse. It was just a joke at the beginning, until eventually Marian suggested formalising it. We started to work our way through the alphabet, taking it in turns to choose a theme beginning with each letter. Then we would all write a poem on that topic,” explains Maria.
“We’re all ‘seniors’ in society’s eyes, so we started with ‘Age’. We thought we’d get to C and give up, but after four years we had arrived at Z, which was ‘Zodiac’, and found ourselves with more than120 poems, as sometimes we’d write more than one on a particular topic. So then we said we ought to try and publish them,” says Maria, adding that the editing process took another year. The result is Sibling Rhymery, with illustrations by freelance illustrator Maxine Moerbe, whom Christine met at her Spanish class. They’ve also set up a website to make it easy to buy their book.
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The poems are often funny, and include parodies of Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the carol Silent Night. There are also reflections on their sometimes complex relationships with their nevertheless much-loved Mam and Dad. One poem, called Aevolution’s Arrow, has six verses entirely written with words starting with A (only “evolution” in the title is a cheat). It’s a fun book to flick through thanks to the imaginative A-Z themes. For example there’s B for Bacchus, E for Enthusiasm, J for Jumble, O for Occultism, P for Procrastination and U for Undergarments.
“About half the poems are humorous, but all of us at points wanted to be more thoughtful, so our book has depth as well,” says Maria. “It’s selling well with buyers in the US and I’ve even seen a Google ad for it in Finnish.”
Maria has also featured in the Islington Tribune – which included a quote from one of her poems inspired by Holloway Road. Here it is:
Met her at the bus stop yesterday.
She was off on her travels
to a land beyond time
through a wormhole in space:
a magical place,
a place of two moons
where dragons breathe the sky pink
and fishes fly in synchronised delight
through unpolluted air.
She was taking a breather –
from creating a new language,
inventing ways of making energy
without killing off the Earth
or blotting her fair landscape,
finding a solution to the Theory of Everything,
and writing the most beautiful of songs.
None of it could be done without her, she explained,
and anything was possible.
She was off for a rest,
to replenish her gifts –
to be lost in herself,
not lose sight of herself,
to find herself, she said.
As if she hadn’t.
I could’ve travelled with her
if I’d let myself go,
let my mind stretch that far –
I got on the bus up the Holloway Road,
and went back to Normal.
Things Maria North likes to do in Islington
- It’s got an excellent selection of affordable exercise classes and a good swimming pool. I enjoy the Tai Chi class at the Drovers on North Road. I also go to Yoga classes and try to swim regularly.
- The cafés and some of the less flashy restaurants. There’s a very nice new café, which I think is called Benita Bakery opposite the Union Chapel, on Upper Street. They do really nice pastries and the coffee is good value.
- There’s also The Barn Cafe on Holloway Road where I regularly meet up with friends.
- Favourite restaurants are the Thai Corner Cafe at 236 St Paul’s Road, N1 and La Petite Auberge at 283 Upper Street.
- I like going to the live screenings at the Vue. I’m just seen the RSC’s production of The Tempest, and the National Theatre’s No Man’s Land, which Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart were both brilliant in.
- I also like the New River Walk, though I haven’t been for a while because it is too cold.
- Islington has brilliant transport links so it’s easy to escape if I ever get bored.
The sisters were brought up in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, by their Geordie parents, to whom the poems are dedicated. Dad was a steel worker; Mother was the child of Italian ice cream makers. So it was quite a mix. “Do people still laugh when you say Scunthorpe?” says Maria testing me. I don’t. She tells me she’s lived in Islington for the past 30 years. “It’s where I landed. I thought like everywhere else I’d be here for five years, then move on, but it didn’t work out like that and I stayed, and stayed – and here I still am.” Meanwhile sister Marian is in Halifax, Yorkshire, Christine in Winterton, Lincolnshire and Terri is in Sydney, Australia.
“It’s been really challenging and fulfilling,” sums up Maria. “The project started as something just for ourselves, a light-hearted way of keeping in touch, but as we went along we thought why not make a bit more of it?”
So if one of your new year’s resolutions was to stay in closer touch with family and friends this year, maybe kick-starting a project via email could be the way? “We are four strong-minded women,” admits Maria, “so obviously there were differences of opinion. It would have been disturbing if there had not been disagreements, but, as we’ve said in our introduction, it brought us closer together – on a good day! Yes, I’d recommend it.”
- Maria is giving a talk about the poems in Sibling Rhymery, and their conception, at the Duke of Cambridge pub, St Peter’s Street, N1 on Monday 10 April, between 12 noon and 2pm. This is for Age UK Islington’s over 55s group which meets regularly at the venue, see Get Togethers.
- Sibling Rhymery is a book of poems by Christine Watkins, Maria North, Marian Spencer and Terri Valrossa. Buy via their website www.siblingrhymery.com or from Amazon
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.