Monday, 10 December 2012

Reflections on sobriety

We’re now 37 days into the Give It Up For One25 campaign, with another 88 to go. So we’re well over a quarter of the way there. 

I chose to give up alcohol this year to help raise money for One25 – you can see my initial blog about that here. But in short, the campaign runs from November 4 2012 until March 8 2013 (International Women’s Day), and involves people giving something up for either 125 hours or 125 days. I’ve given up alcohol for 125 days… a period that covers Christmas, New Year and my birthday. Phew!

So far, I’ve survived the first 37 days without succumbing to temptation… something I’m sure my generous sponsors will be pleased about! That’s not to say it’s always been easy: the hardest time was going out to dinner with two good friends, who (reasonably, why should they stop drinking just because I have?) worked their way through a bottle of wine. That was a tough evening…

But of course, my idea of a tough evening without a glass of wine is pathetic when compared to the tough mornings, afternoons and evenings endured by the hundreds of women who One25 will be helping with the sponsorship proceeds from the 150+ people (to date) who are giving up all manner of things for this excellent cause.

After 37 days without alcohol, I thought I’d reflect on what the last five sober weeks have been like. I honestly can’t say that I miss alcohol as much as I expected to, which is a really nice realisation.

Admittedly, it’s not like I drank so much that I feel physically any different. But it’s made me realise how many opportunities there are for drinking alcohol in an average week, which I’d never properly noticed before. For instance, last week I was offered free drinks at a theatre preview, on two occasions when people were getting a round in, and when someone brought a bottle of wine round to our house as a ‘thank you’ present. And that’s without listing times I might have reached for a glass of something while at home, or catching up with a friend in a bar. Which collectively makes me realise how much we rely on alcohol as a crutch for social occasions and as a conversational lubricant.

This has also made me realise how much of a social pariah you are when you don’t drink. Some people who don’t know I’ve given up alcohol for sponsorship have even asked me if I’m pregnant when I’ve turned a drink down! Because it seems we’ve been conditioned so much as a society to look up to alcohol, to aspire to obtaining it, to see ourselves as somehow rebellious for drinking so much of it that we’re proud when bar staff refuse to serve us anymore… yet so many people don’t respect it. For years, I’ve been astonished and saddened by the number of people I’ve met who talk about alcohol as if it’s the greatest thing in the world, or in some way gives them a personality. It isn’t and it doesn’t.

However, I realise this makes me sound boringly sanctimonious, which isn’t my intention. I simply want to say that taking a step back from alcohol has made me take a look at how I drank, and to notice how those around me drink. Like anything, alcohol in moderation is generally fine and I certainly don’t intend to never drink again. But I will definitely think before I drink in future. And I suspect my attitude to buying drinks will echo my attitude to buying clothes: which I don’t buy very often, but when I do I buy good quality ones that will last.

Thank you to everyone who has sponsored me so far and helped me raise £365 (£452.50 with Gift Aid) so far for One25. My goal is to raise at least £500 (before Gift Aid), so if you can spare a few pounds to sponsor me I would be hugely grateful. Here’s the link.

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Persephone Book of Short Stories

When Persephone Books celebrated their 100th book, how else were they going to do it but with a collection of 30 of their favourite short stories by forgotten female writers from the past 100 years? Welcome to The Persephone Book of Short Stories.

The resulting collection is 480 pages of Persephone joy, with stories spanning from 1909 to 1986. Some of the stories are familiar from Persephone Biannually newsletters or previously published Persephone short story collections, but there are also some pieces in here that will be brand new to Persephone readers.

The choice of stories is in one sense quite disparate – there are romances (eg From A to Z, Here We Are), family tales (eg The Black Cap), horrors (eg The Lottery), feminist polemics (eg A Few Problems In The Day Case Unit)…

But there is also a consistent theme of sexism through almost every story – whether explicit not. This is most striking in The Test (1940, Angelica Gibbs), where in just five pages our heroine Marian fails her driving test for the second time because she again refuses to kowtow to the misogynistic, sexist, perverted lech of a driving examiner, who grinds her down with his relentless, patronising and offensive ‘banter’.

Another theme is the obstruction by man in woman’s way – which is also evident in every single Dorothy Whipple novel published by Persephone (all gems by the way, highly recommended). Again, it’s not an obstruction that’s blatant and in-your-face, but merely a weary reminder by the writers that life for their female protagonists (and presumably themselves as the influence) has an extra hurdle to be clambered over by women before the race can even begin. It’s particularly interesting to read this in the stories from the 1930s and 1940s, as the passing of time has – in many ways – not lessened the difficulties for contemporary women in similar situations. EM Delafield’s story Holiday Group from 1926 perfectly sums up the misery of a family holiday for the put upon mother – which presumably rings true to every single mother today.

The story that stayed with me more than any other, and which still haunts me more than a week after reading it, is The Lottery – a 1948 tale of Wicker Man-esque barbarity by Shirley Jackson. So simply written, so concise with language… The Lottery perfectly sums up a lack of respect for women, a disregard for women as human beings, and the terrifying way in which a community see a woman as ‘sport’: an object for their entertainment. So horrific was The Lottery that I had to read it again as soon as I’d finished it… just to be sure I’d understood it correctly.

I wish Persephone every success with their next 100 books, and I hope with all my heart that therumours of Nicola Beauman closing Persephone after 100 books was nothing more than a rumour… Because to lose Persephone now would be an enormous tragedy for the publishing world, and for the (doubtless) millions of readers like me who devour their books and the introductions to new favourite (or forgotten) authors.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

'Peter Pan' at Bristol Old Vic

Over the years, I’ve read the book of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and seen several adaptations of it – including the hanky-wringing Finding Neverland film from 2004, and the National Theatre in London’s production in 2002 (which concluded with an astonishing zip-wire across the entire auditorium).

But all of those pale into insignificance when compared to the Bristol Old Vic’s Peter Pan – which is the theatre’s big Christmas show that runs until January 19, 2013. This is a show that right from the off had my friend and I (both 30-something) in raptures of delight – because upon opening the programme we squeaked: “Stickers!” And it only got better from there.

P – is for Peter Pan, obviously. And in this production the boy who never grew up is played by Tristan Sturrock, who is easily my favourite contemporary actor, and who has made a name for himself by starring in BOV’s biggest shows recently (Far Away, Treasure Island, Coram Boy, Mayday Mayday etc). As Peter, Tristan surpasses himself – ricocheting around the stage, dancing from suspended ropes, and inviting the audience into his web of perpetual youth.

E – is for everyone else in the cast. There’s no weak link in the chain and it’s hard to pull out a few. But obviously Madeline Worrall (as matronly Wendy) deserves a bow for being on stage in almost every scene, for holding the cast together and for keeping Peter in check at all times. Madeline’s singing is also phenomenal. Also, Tinkerbell's accent is top notch.

T – is for The Set. Overseen by Michael Vale, the scenery is a feat of creativity and ingenuity. And while the imagination of water is borrowed from Swallows & Amazons, this is a nice continuity between the shows. The sets from the Darlings’ bedroom to the Lost Boys’ lair are all ingenuously created… sometimes before our eyes. Look out for the skip.

E – is for Emily May Smith (who plays several characters). She’s a relative newcomer having only graduated from BOV Theatre School this summer, but she is becoming a regular on the main stage after recent turns in Wild Oats and Does My Society Look Big InThis? And rightly so: Emily is full of character, charming and a delight to watch. I hope we see more of her in the years to come.

R – is for Ropes. The stage is filled with hanging ropes at all times – from zip wires, to pulleys to things I don’t know the name of, the acrobatics of the cast look so entertaining that I was desperate to have a go myself.

P – is for pirates, because what would a big BOV show be without them? After Swallows & Amazons, Treasure Island and now Peter Pan, we have come to expect and respect the pirates on the main stage. In particular, another BOV regular Stuart Mcloughlin (Swallows & Amazons, The Six Wives of Henry VIII etc) is phenomenal as Captain Hook. Banish all thoughts of cuddly Robin Williams as the one-handed pirate leader, Stuart has clawed his way into the history books with his Scottish, kilt-wearing, guitar-playing villain. Perfect.

A – is for Adventure, because what is Peter Pan but a cracking adventure story? Sure it’s an adventure story that centres around the theme of motherhood and stolen childhoods, but it’s an adventure nonetheless: one that includes flying children, pirates, mermaids and an anthropomorphic dog.

N – is for Nanna the dog, portrayed here by Howard Coggins – yet another BOV faithful (Swallows & Amazons, Treasure Island, The Six Wives of Henry VIII etc). My only complaint is that Nanna is on stage for too short a time – but when she is, Howards’ canine character is a show-stopping delight. From the costume to the doggy mannerisms, Nanna is a true treat.

In short – Peter Pan was so good that I’m going to go and see it again. Whatever you do, please do not miss it.

Stickery poster activity thing – as completed by Madam J-Mo,
age 34-and-three-quarters!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Mrs Hughes: The Loo Lady

This tiny book may weigh in at only 67 pages but it’s an utterly fascinating read. Ladies’ Mile is “the remarkable and shocking story of twilight Bristol” as seen through the eyes of Victoria Hughes, who was a toilet attendant on Durdham Downs from 1929 to 1962.

The book was edited by David Foot, and published in 1977 by a small Bristol company called Abson, whose other titles included A Guide To Hip Language & Culture (35p), and How Not To Do Your Duty (36p). Such is the legacy of Mrs Hughes that in 2006 she was entered into the OxfordDictionary of National Biography, as reported in the Daily Telegraph

The reason for Mrs Hughes’ work being so particularly important is that she kept diaries and notebooks during her decades working on the Downs, in which she logged the comings and goings of various characters, as well as some bizarre scrapes she found herself in due to befriending them – including having to cycle home down Blackboy Hill wearing nothing but her raincoat one night, after becoming infesting with lice!

As you can imagine, working on the Downs in the small hours meant that the bulk of Mrs Hughes’ customers were ladies of the night, for whom the Downs was a key and profitable area in the pre and post war years. But all the while she is portrayed as a matronly lady who passes her time by knitting, and who keeps the kettle handy for anyone who needs a warming brew.

Ladies’ Mile was published when Mrs Hughes was 80 and enjoying her retirement, but even on publication in the late 1970s the subject matter was shocking to some readers. Those readers who might be offended by talk of women being forced to sell their bodies to feed their children, pensionable women who had no alternative but to sell themselves against a tree, and the grim realities of dealing with sexually transmitted diseases in the unenlightened times (and before penicillin) etc. Indeed, Mrs Hughes herself only started working as a ‘loo lady’ because her husband was unable to work due to a war injury and they had two children.

In 2012 it’s sadly rather more difficult to be shocked by such stories, as they’re so normalised by the news, TV and film. Yet there remained two aspects of Ladies’ Mile that really affected me.

The first was an anecdote at the very beginning of the book about a young woman who goes into a cubicle and doesn’t emerge for quite some time. When she does, she looks shaky and upset but refuses offers of help and scuttles away (apparently to a nearby pub). When Mrs Hughes goes into the cubicle, she finds a dead premature baby wrapped in newspaper and left inside “the white enamel container”. Mrs Hughes’ written response is very revealing about her own nature, and her determination to be kind and comforting to whomever uses her facilities: “The noonday miscarriage left me with conflicting thoughts. I hated the cold-blooded way she had brazenly confronted us and walked out as though nothing had happened. But I wanted to sympathise with her at the same time. I was haunted by her chalk-white face and hands that were trembling.”

And it’s this kindly attitude that must be remembered and born in mind when reading, all throughout Ladies’ Mile, Mrs Hughes’ seemingly throwaway references to the ‘whores’ and ‘tarts’ who use her facilities, and even to the casual manner she recalls the women who threatened, or achieved, suicide due to their utterly miserable lives. While this disrespectful language shocked me, I tried to keep in mind that the book was written in a long past generation when attitudes were not as understanding as they now are. Mrs Hughes herself states that she tried never to moralise or to tell the prostitutes to give up their trade.

Ladies’ Mile is long out of print, and second hand copies are extremely expensive. However, a number of Bristol libraries stock the book – which in itself in an achievement, because on publication in the late 1970s, many libraries were wary of carrying such a book!

Mrs Hughes’ toilets were commemorated with a blue plaque on 22 September 2003. The inscription reads: “Victoria Hughes 1897-1978, who befriended and cared for prostitutes when she worked here as a lavatory attendant from 1929-1962.” Please click here for details.

  • Article about Mrs Hughes on Flickr