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Kate Tempest interview: 'London is beautiful and filled with magic'

Rapper, musician, playwright – and this year’s Ted Hughes Poetry Award winner – Kate Tempest explains to us why south London is the bee’s knees

© Katherine Leedale
People are usually surprised by Kate Tempest. A youthful-looking 26-year-old, with a mass of messy blonde hair, tattoos and rings, Tempest doesn’t stand out on her home streets of south London. But she is one of the most exciting things to happen to poetry – and SE15 – since William Blake encountered a treeful of angels on Peckham Rye. Her intense performances mix music, rhythm and rhyme and are delivered in a searching, passionate voice. Her play ‘Brand New Ancients’ won this year’s Ted Hughes poetry prize and transforms the stories of south Londoners into myth-like tales.

What is it with you and south London?
‘It’s taught me everything I know. In “Brand New Ancients” there’s a dedication to the areas of London that raised me – it’s almost beyond a place that I live. It’s taken care of me and taught me. And scared the life out of me.’

Are the people in your Royal Court play from the area?
‘I didn’t sit down to write character profiles thinking, they must all be from south London, but I do namecheck Lewisham and Peckham. “Brand New Ancients” is a summary of everything I’ve been trying to say for a long time. If I think of the landscape they are in, it’s south London.’

Where did you get your first break?
‘When I first started, there were these open-mic nights in a record store called Deal Real on Carnaby Street in central London, but when it closed down, everybody moved to the Jamm in Brixton. I did one of my first gigs at Goldsmiths College when I was about 17 and there was nobody there. New Cross was quite rundown but exciting, it’s basically where I cut my teeth.’

New Cross is touted as the new Peckham, which is the new Dalston. Has south London changed?
‘As with anybody who has an important time in an area, that stretch of road doesn’t mean the same anymore. But yeah, buildings have changed, bars are different and the energy and the attitude is different. But that’s just life.’

What did it mean to win the Ted Hughes Award?
‘It meant a great deal. People often say I give a great performance but this was about the work. You’re meant to take all that kind of stuff in your stride but I just felt shock and elation. It’s lovely to have recognition – it took ten years of performing and rapping to get here.’

Doesn’t living in the city ever get you down?
‘Everyone who lives here agrees to deal with the insanity. It’s beautiful and full-on and filled with magical stuff that happens every day. For a writer it’s a great place to live because you can be close enough to observe people without being voyeuristic.’

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