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Friday, 20 July 2018

'Old Baggage' by Lissa Evans


For nearly a decade, I've kept my eyes open for books about the suffrage campaign (and written about many of them on this blog). And while I'll happily devour both fiction and non-fiction with a suffrage bent, I've a strong preference for fiction - because it seemed so hard to come by until recently. 

Last February, I stumbled upon a copy of Crooked Heart by Liisa Evans and absolutely adored it (you can read my review here). It followed ten-year-old Noel who had been brought up by his godmother Mattie, a former suffragette, and it was a smart, buzzy and interesting take on the suffrage novel. So it made sense that I was also going to love Lissa's new novel, Old Baggage, which was published recently. 

Old Baggage is a prequel to Crooked Heart, and I'm delighted to say that we have even more of Mattie in this novel. It also poses the interesting but rarely considered question: "What do you do next, after you've changed the world?" Mattie was a strident suffragette, she had thrown herself heart and mind into the campaign, but now it's 1928 and universal suffrage has finally been achieved. 

Now in her mid-50s, Mattie is stuck living in the past. Her home is called The Mousehole (in reference to it having been a place of recuperation for hunger striking suffragettes who had been temporarily released from prison under the 'Cat and Mouse Act'); she lives companionably with sister suffragette Florrie; and she spends her evenings giving informative lectures about the suffrage campaign to increasingly disinterested audiences, for whom the events of the recent past are meaningless. Mattie needs something more. 

And that something more comes in the form of waking up the new generation of young women... and trying to teach them how to engage with the modern world, to be an active part in it, and how to look after themselves and to be something. But of course, the path of resistance is not a smooth one...

Old Baggage is a really enjoyable and enlivening read, and Mattie is a truly wonderful character - I really hope we see more of her in the future and that Liisa's next book goes back a previous decade and shows Mattie, Florrie and co battling in the midst of the suffrage campaign. Fingers crossed. You can never have enough strong, bold and determined women in literature.

The question of what you do next after you've effected change is a really interesting one, especially in the field of women's rights and specifically suffrage. For the big names such as Millicent Fawcett and Sylvia Pankhurst, we know what they went on to do because their names never stopped attracting interest. But for the everyday foot soldiers such as Mattie, the women whose names weren't in the newspapers but without whom the war would not have been won... the question of how their lives changed is fascinating and often ignored. Yet those women were changed for ever and armed with an impressive toolkit of skills for life, both mentally and physically.

When you have thrown every ounce of your being into a campaign, day in, day out, for decades... and then that campaign is won... while you are delighted, you must also be left feeling flat. When you have gone to prison and endured the trauma of hunger strike for that campaign... and now audiences no longer think what you did was astonishing but merely a curiosity... that must leave you totally deflated. 

There is a lovely scene towards the end of Old Baggage (this isn't a spoiler) when Mattie, Florrie and their sister suffragettes are preparing to go to the polling booths for the very first time (as unmarried women, the 1918 Act still didn't give these warriors the right to vote). This is a monumental day for them, and celebratory cards are posted, motor cars booked to mark the occasion, and they go to the polling stations in unison. Only, of course, there is nobody they want to vote for... all of the candidates are miserable old men who don't have any intention of improving the lot of the new wave of women voters. Which is not a situation that has changed, in many places. 

Lissa Evans is a wonderful storyteller, and having absolutely adored both Crooked Heart and Old Baggage I must seek out some of her other novels. I'm reliably informed that Their Finest Hour and a Half is a cracker, so that's where I'll be heading next.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Bristol Music: Seven Decades of Sound


Bristol is a city known for several things (hot air balloons, street art, big old bridges, a very large ape up at the zoo), but chief among them is surely its distinct music scene. From 1950s’ crooner Russ Conway to contemporary chart botherer George Ezra and everyone in between, there is a strong sense of sound coming from this special city.

To tie in with a major exhibition at the city’s M Shed museum, music journalist and publisher Richard Jones has written Bristol Music: Seven Decades of Sound to collect together a snapshot of 70 years of Bristol’s distinctive hum.

While not claiming to be an exhaustive collection, there are certainly a lot of stones upturned in this picture-heavy collection - everyone from indie pop pioneers Sarah Records to self-styled Scrumpy’n’Western performers The Wurzels are in here, although there is inevitably a hefty lean towards the more recent trip hop acts.

Just like the exhibition that accompanies it, the Bristol Music book invites contributions and collaboration from readers who want to share their own memories of gigs and bands in Bristol, and their own stories. It’s a great little collection and a must-have for the book shelf of any discerning music fan in the South West.

You can buy a copy of Bristol Music direct from Tangent here.

And for more information on the M Shed exhibition, which runs until 30 September 2018, click here.

Monday, 25 June 2018

'The Cause' comes to Bristol

Photo: Jim Wileman

A new play inspired by an imagined meeting between two great leaders of the women’s suffrage campaign comes to Bristol on 6 July. Tickets here.

The Cause depicts the explosive meeting of minds when Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst come together at a time when campaigns for women’s rights were at their most revolutionary and embattled.

Written by Natalie McGrath, and directed by Josie Sutciffe, The Cause explores the struggle, and the effects of campaigning for a cause by different methods. There was a divide between the violent direct action of the suffragettes and the peaceful constitutional means of the suffragists.

The play is produced by Dreadnought South West, a charity which connects individuals and communities through telling great and courageous stories about women.

Director Josie Sutcliffe said: "This play considers the impact of a lifetime of political campaigning on an individual, asking: ‘how far would you go for what you believe in?’ Many women gave up a great deal; home, family, children, and in some cases their own lives, to join the suffrage campaign. We hope that The Cause will provide a stimulus for debates on gender inequality, democracy and citizenship amongst many different groups within the communities we will visit."

Playwright Natalie McGrath said: "This tour feels timely with the current energy and visibility of women’s rights and gender equality campaigning that is taking place, and the centenary of the first votes for some women. As we developed the work, we met many women who have been campaigning for a long time. I really felt those stories that were shared with us at Dreadnought very deeply, and they have emerged as being at the heart of this play about Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst."

Monday, 4 June 2018

Young Anne


There is something bittersweet about reading Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple (one of the recent reissues by Persephone Books). On one hand, it’s a Dorothy Whipple so you know you’re in for a treat. But on the other hand, it’s the final Dorothy Whipple left for Persephone to republish so now the final page has been turned and… no more new Whipples. I am bereft!

For their final Whipple, Persephone have gone back to the beginning with Dorothy’s first ever book. Originally published in 1927, Young Anne is a clearly autobiographical book about Dorothy’s own formative relationship with the real-life George Owen who was killed in World War One. And as a tribute, the man who has stolen Anne’s heart is also called George. Which is a name the character dreams about calling her son, should she ever have one.

Young Anne follows the first 20 years or so of Anne Pritchard’s life, from girlhood to marriage. The only daughter in an Edwardian family that favours sons and practices Victorian values of showing the children no affection whatsoever, headstrong Anne is packed off to a convent in the hope it will quieten her down. Instead she becomes infatuated by the romanticism of Catholicism and the subject of young girls’ crushes. When her emotionally detached father dies and leaves Anne and her mother destitute, Anne is taken in by her witch of an aunt while her mother moves on rotation from one relative’s spare room to another, dependent on the kindness of others. The only constant and comfort in Anne’s life is the family’s maid Emily, who has known her since she was a baby.

Seeking financial independence, Emily defies her austere aunt and enrols on a secretarial course before taking an office job where she finds her husband. But all of this happens around the real heart of the story, and that is Anne’s love with her friend’s cousin George Yates. George is a bright, kind and sparky young man from a poor family, and he has a huge chip on his shoulder about his lack of wealth and his lower status than Anne’s. But Dorothy’s descriptions of the building love and passion between the two is convincing and when Anne suddenly breaks it off with George, the reader is left as confused as he is.

But being Dorothy Whipple, nothing is straightforward and love cannot run smoothly. While Young Anne has all the hallmarks of a fledgling novelist finding her voice, the distinctive sound of Dorothy Whipple can easily be heard in this compelling novel. While a Whipple can never be called a challenging read, they are always compulsive and I enjoyably sped through Young Anne in one weekend.

There’s a lot going on in Young Anne. While ostensibly a novel about young love and the influence it can have on the rest of your life, this is also a novel with sparks of feminism (Anne can’t understand why she must fold sheets while her brothers need not; she is frustrated at how hard it is for young women to be trained for employment; her mother becomes a burden to others when she is left widowed and homeless). But more than anything, this is evidently a story about Dorothy Whipple’s own love for George Owen.