How an unlikely partnership is helping a 94-year-old realise her dreams of being a published poet
“The main focus is connecting communities and helping people to overcome whatever challenges they might have, either by providing services directly or helping them access resources,” explains Olu Alake, chief executive officer at The Peel, which has been serving the people of Clerkenwell since 1898. “My job is to help bring the community together; to make connections between people who would not have otherwise met.”
Typically, people are brought together through one of The Peel’s activities, including a youth club and older adults social club, or their community outreach programme. But recently, a much more unlikely partnership has emerged.
“The older people’s social club we run is a hoot – they’re an amazing bunch of aunties who are forever having fun with each other,” Olu continues. “One day, one of the ladies came to me and told me that Eula had been reciting poetry and it had them all in tears. So, I called Eula into the office and asked her to read it to me. It was about domestic abuse during lockdown, and it was incredible. We got chatting and she told me her life story.”
It turned out that Eula, now 94, started writing poetry when she retired at 65 – but she has loved it since school. “We had a teacher who always read poems for us, short ones that we had to memorise and recite in class,” Eula remembers. “It must have been the rhythm of the words that stuck with me. When my grandfather died, I found a tattered poetry book in his trunk, which added to my fascination. I was 11 or 12 years old.”
During lockdown, Eula – who has been a regular at The Peel for more than 20 years – found comfort in writing poetry and used it to process what was going on around her. “It was hearing the warnings and listening to the news about the pandemic that prompted me to start writing about the virus,” she says. “It kept me occupied – not sitting around thinking and worrying about it, but actually doing something I love. Plus, my small garden kept me outdoors, not locked in. l do like nature such a lot. I wish I knew how to put it all into words.”
Inspired by her story, Olu set about finding a way to help Eula publish her work. “It’s such a great story. It just shows that you can discover your passion at any point in life,” he says. “I thought, we have to do something about this! I mentioned it to Imogen at the council and asked if she could get any of the businesses that she works with to sponsor a compilation of Eula’s poetry. She said, ‘I can do better, my husband Phil is a poetry editor’.”
When Imogen explained their mission, Phil was drawn in right away. “When I heard Eula’s story I was curious, so I asked if we could meet up,” he recalls. “She told me about her life and showed me some of her poems. I thought, these are beautiful. Her poems are quite sensory, but they’re also quite bold in merging the past and the present. They are sometimes thoughtful, sometimes gloomy. Mostly I love how playful and cheeky she is!”
While Phil is helping to edit the poems, he’s mindful of ensuring it’s Eula’s story that is told, and in her own way. “I offered maybe one too many bits of advice for one of the poems and she was great, so direct. She said, ‘no, no, no, this needs to sound like me’,” Phil laughs. “And she’s right, it needs to sound like Eula. I’m just a fan who’s helping her out.”
Since being ‘discovered’ at The Peel, Eula has gone on to perform some of her poems at The Almeida. She and Phil are still on the lookout for a publisher – watch this space.