Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Bristol Suffragettes – Lucienne Boyce

One of the very first UK suffrage centres was established in Bristol, and outside of London we saw the most active suffrage activity here in Bristol. So now local author Lucienne Boyce has celebrated the work of the militants in the city with her new book The Bristol Suffragettes.

Focussing on the militants (rather than the suffragists), Lucienne’s book launches us into the world of 1907 when former Lancashire mill worker Annie Kenney was dispatched to Bristol by the Pankhursts to head up the South West branch of the Women’s Social & Poltical Union (WSPU).

From this point on, Lucienne guides us through the following years as the suffragettes ramped up their activity, including arson attacks, whipping Winston Churchill, and disrupting political speeches. But along the way, we also hear about rousing suffrage plays performed at a (now vanished) theatre on Park Row, coffee mornings at the Victoria Rooms and the suffragette wood in Batheaston.

The Bristol Suffragettes is a very nicely put together and accessible book, with a clean design and voting ‘x’ motif throughout. It also includes a foldout map offering a walk around the Clifton area to take in some buildings of suffragette significance, as well as lots of appendices with timelines, biographies, and further reading suggestions. A very neat resource.

March, Women, March – Lucinda Hawksley

Published to coincide with the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death under the hooves of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, March, Women, March is a truly impressive collection of suffrage memories.

The subtitle Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to Votes for Women succinctly sums up the contents of Lucinda Hawksley’s book, which is a thorough and authoritative anthology of quotes from important early feminist figures, many of whom have been sadly forgotten in the wake of their headlining grabbing 20th Century suffragette sisters.

The suffragettes were the militant women who only rose to prominence in the very final years of the suffrage campaign, before the First World War saw Emmeline Pankhurst call her army of women to stand down. But the suffragists far out-numbered the suffragettes – being the peaceful campaigners who had tirelessly worked for decades previously to overturn not only marriage acts, but also health bills and working rights for women, alongside campaigning for the vote. The right to vote being just one of the key demands of what is now called the first wave of feminism.

Lucinda’s beautiful book (with two large sections of fascinating photos) quite rightly pays great respect to the many, many forgotten women who campaigned for decades before the suffragettes arrived on the scene. Meaning that we begin with Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s, and follow through the decades via legendary and reforming nurse Florence Nightingale, and the poet Caroline Norton – whose story particularly sung out to me.

Caroline was obliged to marry an older man who she didn’t love in order to ensure financial security for her family – only for her husband to violently abuse her, kidnap their children and steal all the money she earned as a successful poet. However, after leaving her abusive husband, Caroline threw herself into studying law and was ultimately successful in bringing about the Custody of Infants Acts 1839, which finally saw mothers recognised as joint parent of her children (previously, in the event of a marriage break up, children automatically went to the father). It’s shocking that Caroline isn’t better known today.

Through the following chapters we learn of so many other, equally amazing and astonishing women who achieved so much in such stiflingly oppressive times. And while a large part of the book is occupied with the women who helped us win the vote, Lucinda doesn’t focus too heavily on the better known figures.

What we are left with in March, Women, March is a very accessibly and compulsive book, which is a testament to a great deal of library research and archival work. Lucinda supports the many quotes and excerpts with very readable historical background information – and the volume of these facts that relate back to Charles Dickens are clearly a nod to her very well known great, great, great grandfather.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

"I Laughed, I Cried" - Viv Groskop

There is nothing worse than regret. The ‘if only’ feeling that haunts you when you realise it’s too late to put in the years of grit and determination needed to make your lifelong dream come true… or even find out if you’re any good at it. Regret sucks.

The old cliché goes: ‘You can only regret the things you haven’t done’. So jumping on the back of this, wife, mum and journalist Viv Groskop decided that with her fortieth birthday knocking on the door, it was time she put her money where her mouth was to find out if she really was any good at this stand-up comedy business. Or if she was just wasting her time.

And so begins Viv’s mammoth quest to perform 100 comedy shows in 100 days. Despite having three young kids at home (including a baby who was barely one), a long-suffering but patient husband, and a very busy career as a freelance journalist for most of the UK’s bigger newspapers and magazines.

I Laughed, I Cried documents – sometimes hilariously, sometimes painfully (this book delivers what it promises) – Viv’s progress gig by gig, gag by gag, glug (of Diet Coke) by glug.

Part diary, part memoir, part self-help book for aspiring comedians, I Laughed, I Cried is a no-holds-barred expose of Viv’s 100 days. We meet the best and the worst of the amateur comedy circuit with her – from the award-winning clown-comic Dr Brown who likes to take his clothes off, to the misery of the shared car journey to an out-of-London unpaid gig. Through all of this we root for Viv, and we want her to succeed. It’s to her advantage that she doesn’t try to disguise the fact that her quest involves performing night and after night in smelly hot clubs meaning she sweats into her only sequined cardie, and eats a lot of bad fast food, or runs up an exorbitantly high bar tab on watered down soft drinks.

The ‘quest book’ format is a well-tested market. The Danny Wallaces, Dave Gormans and Tony Hawks of the comedy world have all trodden the ground in recent years and sold a zillion books and built careers off it. It’s nice to finally see a woman dipping her sequined toe into the market – and it feels right that Viv should be the one to do it.

Her honest and funny writing, and shameless style, meant that I sped through I Laughed, I Cried in only two sittings – absorbed in the ups and down of Viv’s mission, and drawn in by the journalistic inclusion of various quotes and facts from established comedians on the circuit. This book makes you want to be Viv’s friend – even if that means being dragged along as her ‘bring a mate’ to a dingy club that smells of sewage (I refer you to gig four).

Viv Groksop will return to Bristol on July 3 with a preview of her Edinburgh solo show about I Laughed, I Cried atWatershed at 6.15pm. Tickets are £7/£6. This special event is co-hosted by What The Frock! and Bristol Festival of Ideas. After the show, Viv will be signing copies of the book – published by Orion on June 27.

Suffragettes – Frank Meeres

As the name of Frank Meeres’ new book Suffragettes (published by Amberley) suggests, he is focussing on the militant aspect of the votes for women campaign. And he does so very thoroughly.

Beginning with a short introduction to the lengthy suffrage campaign until the WSPU’s militancy began to dominate around 1907, Frank inevitably also includes a long-ish mention of Emily Wilding Davison’s death at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

However, the body of the book is a chronological guide through the main stages of the campaign between 1907 and 1914, when the First World War broke out and Emmeline Pankhurst suspended the campaign for women’s votes. Frank includes plenty of hefty quotes from newspapers and suffragette autobiographies, giving his volume weight and authority. (Although, I felt a little piqued that Christabel Pankhurst is incorrectly called ‘Charlotte’ in one instance towards the end – a typo that marred an otherwise factually clean book.)

There is also a substantial selection of images in the centre of Suffragettes, including one or two photos I hadn’t seen before – such as a photo of women sleeping in an unoccupied house to avoid the 1911 census, and one or two photos from the author’s collection of suffragette activity in his home area of Norfolk.

While Suffragettes may not add much to those already familiar with the campaign for the vote, it is a good starting place for those without much existing knowledge of the subject. And the photos in the middle are a bonus.