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Hilda Meers (1924–2015)

Profile by Haworth Hodgkinson

This piece was written in 2005 for the Leopard Magazine as a preview to Hilda's guest spot at the Books and Beans poetry evening on Thursday 27 October 2005. It was reposted here in April 2015 on hearing that Hilda had died.

Hilda Meers

Hilda Meers attracted media attention in 2005 when she won the Slam performance poetry competition at the Word Festival, having come second the previous year. Her performance captured the attention of an otherwise rowdy drink-fuelled audience by its genuine passion and directness of approach as she addressed matters of topical concern through poetry that uses her own natural voice without the pretensions of "poetic language" that for many have given poetry a bad name. The press meanwhile focussed on the fact that all the other competing poets were a mere fraction of Hilda's age.

Born in 1924 in Birmingham, to parents who had come from pre-revolutionary Lithuania, she grew up amidst chaos and poverty observing the scene as an outsider. She hated the girls' grammar school she was sent to, and refused to follow the path that was expected of her by going to university. Instead, she worked in factories during the Second World War, where she learned of the diversity of the talents of ordinary people, and developed her sympathies for the underprivileged in society. It was whilst she was working at the Austin motor works in Birmingham that she started writing stories, encouraged by the other girls on the production line.

When she married and had children, Hilda became fascinated with the way children learn, and this led her to apply to a teacher training centre in Birmingham, where her English tutor was the poet Roy Fisher, who introduced his students to many of the writers he was enthusiastic about. On one occasion, he gave his class the choice of writing a ten-thousand word essay or five poems as an assignment. Hilda was leading a busy life, with the children and house to look after, and she chose to write the poems as the easier option. She says that at the time she didn't think she had a poem in her, but following this exercise and the encouragement of her tutor she discovered that poetry was a natural way of responding to situations in life.

Hilda decided she wanted to work with children with learning difficulties, and she was advised to train in infant teaching. After qualifying, she taught at a school in Birmingham, where she had a large class of six-year-olds of many nationalities, and this gave rise to many incidents that inspired her writing. Later she worked in a special school where she taught a number of non-speaking children. Prior to a school inspection she was asked to make notes on how she taught children to speak, and these notes were expanded into a book that was published by Longman in a series on early childhood education.

Work on this book gave Hilda a grounding in research methodology, and she went on to study socio-linguistics before moving into the teaching of teachers and would-be teachers of children with learning difficulties.

Following her retirement from employment, Hilda moved to Swanage on the Dorset coast where she ran a bed-and-breakfast establishment, meeting many people from different places and backgrounds. She was also involved in trade-unionism, left-wing politics and peace activism, and these experiences all fed into her poetry.

It was also at this time that Hilda visited Jordan on a British Council funded scheme to set up a two-year course in childcare for young girls leaving school at sixteen. Many of the professional class in Jordan were Palestinians, and as she got to know them the strength of their feeling for their homeland inspired her to write a novel, The Blood Tie, based on her experience. She also visited Petra, the rose-red city, which made a profound impact.

It was almost by chance that Hilda came to North-East Scotland. Her daughter was already living in the area, and Hilda decided to move when she saw the cottage in Whitehills overlooking the sea where she lived for many years. She was given the local by-name "The Incomer", but she said she would rather be the incomer than the outsider, and she felt she had taken root in the North-East.

It was also by chance that Hilda came to write For the Hearing of the Tale, For the Future of the Wish, the book that she regarded as her most important work. Having read all the fiction in Whitehills Library, she went to the history section, and a book written by a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps fell into her hands. It was an academic book describing the acts of resistance and sabotage that took place in the camps.

Hilda felt that these amazing stories deserved to be more widely known, and she decided to write them up in a more accessible form. She was touched by comments of readers of the book, and found that it appealed to readers of all ages, those who remember the time and those who knew nothing about it.

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