Today on my blog I am really pleased to be able to share the poetry of a woman I knew nothing about, until I was contacted by fellow writer David Venner who, in writing this post, drew my attention to the work of Judith Williamson. Reading The Supporter, shared below, I marvelled at the warmth and wit in her work and, with the poem Home, the breadth of her work is illustrated. A collection of her poetry was published posthumously in 2015.
The name Judith Williamson may not be familiar to readers of this blog. As ‘J L Fontaine’, Judith was a published author. She had been writing since her teens but her first novel The Mark was not published until April last year. Her poetry, beautifully crafted but until recently known only to close family, reached a wider readership in 2014/15 through her participation in an online poetry project, ‘52’, in which over 500 aspiring poets were encouraged to write a poem a week, inspired by a shared prompt.
Following Judith’s untimely death last October, three of her fellow online poets compiled a collection of her poems and this was published by CreateSpace under the title First and Last. Many of Judith’s poems are autobiographical and so perhaps it might be thought that they will have meaning only to those who knew her. But I think they have a much wider appeal because they deal with subjects, ideas and feelings that are universal. As the compilers of First and Last noted, “Judith had the knack of projecting human warmth through the foggy glass of modernity”.
Before introducing a small selection of her poems, a few biographical notes may be helpful. Judith was the daughter of a village schoolmaster – her mother was the school secretary. She trained as a legal secretary, married and had four daughters. As the blurb on the cover of her novel The Mark puts it “she worked on a chicken farm, in hospitals and old people’s homes and, as ‘JJ the Clown’, children’s entertainer and puppeteer.” After gaining a post graduate diploma in counselling, she later worked in a college and as a police welfare officer in Sussex.
Once her children had left home Judith moved to France, living in a lovely rambling old house in a village between Poitiers and Bordeaux. Here she found time and space to write. She also found a French partner and, after a few years, moved with him to Senegal in West Africa, where some of her later poems are set. These and one or two earlier ones are among my favourites. They can be funny, thought-provoking or moving; they all engage the reader and often strike a chord with one’s own experiences. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
I must have been bowled over, to arrive
each Sunday afternoon,
to make cucumber sandwiches
and watch a game
I never understood.
I watched him triumph
week after week,
his bat raised in acknowledgement of
our polite applause.
I stumped him.
I swapped him for a rugby player
but that seemed, mostly, mud, maul,
and odd-shaped balls.
I kicked him into touch.
The hockey player
was fast and furious,
most of the time,
especially in bed.
He wielded a very short stick.
The ball was finally lost
in the undergrowth of neglect.
I huddled on a cold and windswept beach
to watch his dinghy
cross the finishing line.
Waking just as the klaxon sounded, signalling
I took the wind out of his sails.
The footballer was easy.
He only required that I hold up a mirror, so
we could both admire him.
It was a game of one half.
Overnight, I moved the goalposts.
It seems, however,
my path was set.
And that I have spent my life
shivering on the sidelines.
for the real game to begin.
Several of Judith’s poems convey her restlessness and her search for her true self.
My need to wander far and wide,
to uproot and downsize,
two suitcases containing
all that I possess
reflect how rootless I have felt
It took me many miles
and years to find
my home inside me.
After her move to Senegal, Judith’s sense of injustice comes through strongly in her later poems.
Delicate as the fallen flowers that
carpet my yard,
the girls arrive.
Blown by the wind of poverty
into the gaudy town.
At night in bars and clubs,
their young faces
gashed with painted smiles
they are draped
like bright scarves
over ageing flesh.
In the bellow and roar
of bloated tourism
they can no longer hear
of the village
or the crying child.
Sometimes Judith abandoned the short line verse format (she never constrained herself by rhyming her lines). The following paragraph of prose contains, in 125 carefully chosen words, so much to admire in the style but at the same time so much to rail against in the subject she is writing about.
Cooking in my little kitchen, I reflect that my African sisters, along the track, are cooking on wood foraged during the day and carried home on weary heads, their splay-legged babies, bobbing on their mothers’ backs, lulled by rhythm. The women cook, squatting on sand in darkened yards, or by the light of a mobile phone. Their husbands sit, resting after a long day of lying around talking to friends and drinking tea. The male children play in the road, chasing old tyres or kicking tin cans while their sisters crouch by their mothers, ready to help or fetch or carry, vilified if they are too slow. In my well-equipped kitchen, very advanced, sophisticated, I cook while my husband plays on the internet.
Sadly, Judith Williamson’s life and burgeoning writing career were cut short just when she had found her voice and had started to receive recognition for the quality of her work. Her poetry, her published novel and others that may still find a publisher, will hopefully form an enduring legacy.
David Venner (Judith’s brother-in-law)
My sincere thanks to David for sharing this with me. His own book Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-1918 was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2015 and he wrote about it on this blog HERE.