Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Sarah Records - There and Back Again

Badges to celebrate the launch of 'Le Jardin Du Heavenly' LP in 1992 

“I think you’ll find that you ‘haven’t got a clue what’s happening anymore’ more because of stuff like adolescence, hormones, growing up in the Nineties in the shadow of The Bomb/AIDS/Paddy Ashdown, than because you haven’t got an up-to-date Sarah price list. But maybe you know best, so here one is”
– Matt, March 1994

“Flexis are made of recycled plastic dustbins rolled out flat:
hence the phrase ‘throwaway pop’”
– Matt, February 1993

This weekend (May 2-5), Bristol’s Arnolfini is hosting a retrospective celebrating Bristol’s much-loved record label, Sarah Records. Running from 1987-1995 and lasting precisely 100 x 7” singles long, this anti-capitalist, staunchly feminist record label was run by Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd from their Bedminster flat to promote the kind of bands that benefitted from the DIY and fanzine culture in the post punk era.

But Sarah Records was more than that. To me, growing up in a sleepy Somerset village, Sarah Records was a step into an accessible world of indie music. This was 1992 – I was 14 years old, horribly precious musically (thanks to my older brother’s eclectic vinyl collection), and thought there was nothing cooler than loving the obscure. There was no internet, no email, no YouTube, no Spotify. But there was a fanzine culture: a buzzing independent press that defied the newsagents and advertisers, and went straight to the heart of the matter. 

Fans sat on their bedroom floors armed with a typewriter and a Pritt Stick and created mini tributes to their favourite obscure bands, which were posted to other obsessives all around the world (yes, world!), thanks to a primitive-sounding (but highly successful) network of mini flyers popped in envelopes as a courtesy. Friendships were formed with the most unlikely people, tapes were swapped of the strangest music, and all kinds of opportunities opened themselves up. It was a brilliantly exciting time. You didn’t need to live in London for something to happen – you made something happen for yourself.

“Writing a fanzine and expecting people to give you money for it is arrogant.
So is being in a band. But if you didn’t think you were better than everybody else, hopefully you wouldn’t be doing it. DON’T BE MEEK. Meek is BORING”
– Matt, January 1994

This was what Sarah Records grew out of and flourished within. I discovered Sarah Records in 1992. I was 14 years old, and my brother lent me his Talulah Gosh LP and advised me to like it. I did like it. That record was They’ve Scoffed The Lot, a 1991 compilation of Talulah Gosh songs such as Beatnik Boy and Break Your Face. I was mesmerised and wanted more. I discovered that although Talulah Gosh had split up in 1988, many of the members still played in a band called Heavenly – who were signed to Bristol’s Sarah Records. I scoured through my brother’s meticulously alphabeticised 7”s to find what I needed… I Fell In Love Last Night and Our Love Is Heavenly. Eventually, this led me to America and the Olympia-based K Records (run by Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening). The world was opening up to me and I hadn’t even needed to leave Somerset.

Sarah Records packaged their 7”s in a true DIY spirit. The chunky vinyl records all had paper labels with bright cherries on and typewritten credits. The block coloured wraparound sleeves were folded and contained in plastic bags (presumably to save on production costs), and inside each bag was a typewritten sheet containing musings on Bristol, love, music, anything really. It was all very romantic. Especially to a 14-year-old girl in a tiny Somerset village. I discovered who Jean Cocteau was through these inserts (what a precocious madam)!

For me, it was never so much about the music as what it all represented. Sure, some of the Sarah bands I really loved – Even As We Speak, East River Pipe, Ivy, The Springfields and Heavenly of course. But a lot of it wasn’t to my taste. That didn’t matter. To me what mattered was the romanticism of it, the escapism and the potential for the future. In the three years that followed, Sarah Records gave me a lot of confidence. And this is why…

In 1992, if you wanted to buy the kind of records that weren’t stocked in your local record shop (and Sarah weren’t), you bought them by mail order – maybe from Rhythm, maybe through an ad at the back of Melody Maker, or maybe from the label direct. I went direct to the label. And that led me to Matt Haynes – one of the two founders of Sarah Records.

Some (just *some*) of the many letters Matt sent me between 1992-1995

Matt and I struck up what was perhaps an unusual friendship (in the sense that I was 14 and he was, I dunno, 30-something). With no online shopping cart to anonymously place my orders in, I would buy records having first written a letter and then given my mum the money to write a cheque for it. And when the big brown 7” card envelopes came back, they were invariably added to with carefully written letters, drawings, postcards and other bits and bobs that Matt sent. And as such, we built up a friendship that extended to phone calls and sometimes meeting up in Bristol for a chat in Revolver Records on the Triangle (now a defunct Indian restaurant), or walking on Cabot Hill. I had an open invitation to come and stay with Matt and Clare if I wanted to come up and see a band in Bristol (although I was too shy to take them up on it)!

The letters themselves were always handwritten on the back of scraps of old paper, which didn’t mean much to me at the time but looking at them now – 20 years later – they’re pieces of history in themselves. One letter is on the reverse of estate agents details for houses around the corner from where I now live (which were then going for £48,000 and now fetch £250,000). Another was on the back of an early drawing for a Sugargliders tape insert. One from 1992 is on the reverse of a letter from Billboard magazine, billing itself as the “single source tape/disc directory for all your needs”). Another is on the reverse of BBC Radio Bristol’s December 1993 playlist (includes Chumbawumba, The Breeders and Lemonheads). While one from September 1994 is on the reverse of Matt’s subs demand from the Windmill Hill Labour Party (he was overdue to the tune of £15). There are tons more. How did they find the time?!

“Today’s NME reviews the East River Pipe LP as being like a cross between The Go Betweens and Guns’n’Roses – it’s a funny old world… Guns’n’Roses???”
– Matt, 1994

Over the three years of our friendship, until Sarah Records closed in 1995, I now realise I learned a lot of things from Matt. I’d always known I wanted to write a music fanzine: I wanted above all else to be a music journalist, and thought fanzines were impossibly cool. I ended up running a fanzine, Arketino, from 1994-1996. Matt helped me find a printer and gave me tips and suggestions on how to go about everything, and he put me in touch with some Sarah Records bands to interview. And then when it was printed, he sent a carefully typed (the only typed letter he ever sent me, so I knew it was serious) deconstruction of what he thought of my efforts. He was complimentary about the content but contemptuous of the 50p cover price. 

“There’s only three reasons for writing a fanzine. A) to make money. B) to boost your ego. C) to communicate your love/hate for things to as many people as possible. And if you’re doing it for any reason other than C, then you’re doing it for the WRONG reason and should stop now”
– Matt, August 1994

The end of a letter from Mathew, from spring 1995. He sadly died the following year.

Through my friendship with Matt, I got to know the fabled Amelia Fletcher from Heavenly and interview her for my fanzine. And I got to know her brother Mathew, who played drums in the band. Mathew sadly hung himself in 1996, and I treasure the card he posted me with a little coloured-in drawing on even more as a result. It’s in a folder of my fanzine things upstairs, next to some pictures of Stephen Duffy in a Canadian photobooth and a handwritten letter from Bernard Butler. None of these things would exist if I’d been doing my fanzine ten years later. Instead my fanzine would have been a blog and all these exchanges would be emails. Reading through the old letters today and seeing mentions of Mathew and what he was up to, it feels extra sad to know he is now no longer around.

“'Twas indeed the young Ms Fletcher on Huggy Bear backing vox – more to the point, it was also Heavenly’s guitar amp. Did you know Mathew used to play bass for Huggy Bear in their early days? Not a lot of people do. Or that two of Huggy Bear share a flat with the deputy editor of Melody Maker? I’m a terrible gossip"
- Matt, February 1993

Through my friendship with Matt, I put on my first ever gig (I’m now a journalist who also runs events – so both my teenage dreams came true)… with Heavenly headlining, obviously. Helped by Simon Barber (a singer and guitarist in 1980s indie band The Chesterfields, he lived in Somerset and now ran his own label, Hair – and who I now knew through my Saturday job in the local indie record shop Acorn), we put on a gig at the Quicksilver Mail in Yeovil - with Simon’s band Gear supporting Heavenly in November 1994 - and we packed it out. Admittedly, Simon, Matt and Clare did most of the work – but it was such a buzz to have helped make something happen. I was 16 years old. I had had an idea for an event, I had talked to the right people, and I had helped to make something happen that I wanted to happen. This was the DIY ethos. Somewhere, I still have a copy of my fanzine that they all signed, and in which Mathew drew a little picture. Sarah Records gave me the confidence to do it.

The poster for 'our' Heavenly gig in November 1994.

In 1995, Matt sent me a newsletter and a handwritten note to say that Sarah Records was closing. It was quite a shock… for the past three years, the label and Matt had become a particular part of my life at a really pivotal time. I’d gone from being a 14-year-old gawky kid changing schools, to someone who published her own music fanzine from her bedroom floor, to someone who worked in a record shop alongside Rob Ellis (the original drummer from PJ Harvey) and occasionally put on gigs, to cadging lifts off older friends to go to gigs in Bristol… to being able to drive and buy my own car with my own earnings and was thinking about going to university. Sarah Records and Matt saw me through a significant time in my life. They propped me up… and all of it had been infused with subtle leanings towards feminism, socialism and the ability that if you believed in yourself, you could do anything.

Matt and I lost touch after Sarah Records closed. He sent me a few newsletters from his next label Shinkansen, which he formed after moving back to London, but we drifted in different directions. Although out of the blue, he did send me a test pressing of a Stephen Duffy 12", just because he'd seen it and knew I was a big fan - which was enormously thoughtful.

“I’ve just remembered the ABSOLUTELY Golden Rule, which is treat everybody as if they were an idiot. Use short words, spoken clearly. Honestly – you’d be amazed at some of the things they manage to do wrong”
– Matt, January 1994

One day in 2006 something happened. I was now a 28-year-old journalist living and working in London on big glossy women’s magazines (the very antithesis of the Sarah Records feminist DIY ethos). Browsing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road one lunchtime I picked up a small magazine called Smoke: A London Peculiar. There was something about it that felt familiar and I bought a copy. Back in the office I went online and discovered it was edited by Matt Haynes, the guy from Sarah Records. Thanks to the internet, within an hour I’d read lots of Smoke back issues and discovered all kinds of things about what Matt had been up to in the intervening 11 years.

Via email, we started our letters again. We were both older, different and we were now two adults writing to each other. But still Matt offered indirect advice. For instance, I had recently started writing a blog about my life in London. Matt questioned why I was doing it and said he had a dislike of blogs because nobody edits you. He was right but I wrote my blog anyway… albeit with an air of editorship in the back of my mind. I contributed various articles to Smoke - some he published and others he declined, quite rightly.

Matt attempted to explain the plot of 'Far From The Madding Crowd' to me in fewer than 10 words. He proudly did it in eight words. I had been stuck on my English homework. To be honest, he wasn't much help.
In November 2006, we met up for the first time in more than a decade. It was strange meeting Matt again. I’d seen that Tate Britain was showing The Great Stink, a documentary with Peter Bazalgette about the formation of the London sewer system. Who else was I going to go with but the editor of Smoke: A London Peculiar?! We sat in a pub afterwards on Millbank and talked about all sorts of things, but it felt very grown up now. Not as carefree and hopeful as it had in the early 1990s when my only concerns were what Clare Grogan was doing now. Although Matt did tell me that as someone who cycles all around London, he likes to wave in the background when he sees tourists taking photos – so that they wonder who that funny man is waving at them in the distance.

And I always think of that every single time I see tourists taking photos anywhere, and I’m always tempted to give them a little wave in the background.

“Melody Maker this week was scathing about Spencer’s middle-class vowels… but you won’t have a problem with this, since you have them, too”
– Matt, August 1994

Unable to make the Sarah records farewell party on the Thekla, Matt sent me a commemorative balloon. I am resisting the urge to put it on eBay. Which didn't exist then. 

  1. My husband gave me a Talulah Gosh CD for Christmas. Talulah Gosh’s music just doesn’t suit the CD format but it’s still fun to reminisce.
  2. The Arnolfini in Bristol has four days of Sarah Records events this coming weekend. Click here for info. 
  3. There is a documentary about Sarah Records, and you can get info and watch the trailer here
  4. Bloomsbury will be publishing a book about Sarah records in 2015. You can read up on it here
  5. Simon Barber edits Evolver magazine, and plays in the guitar pop band Design
  6. By a random turn of fate, I now live a five-minute walk from the former Sarah Records HQ on Gwilliam Street in Bedminster.
  7. Every time I pass There and Back Again Lane in Bristol I think of Sarah Records. It is just off Berkeley Square, the location of my comedy club’s first residency.
  8. Matt's Golden Rule about treating everyone like they're an idiot has stood me in good stead in every aspect of my life for the past 20 years.

There And Back Again Lane in Bristol. I've no idea why it is so called, but it's basically just an alley remarkable for little else than it's twee name.

Bristol Festival of Ideas - highlights

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the fantastic Bristol Festival of Ideas, and they have surpassed themselves with an even more impressive line-up than usual. I've picked out a few of my favourite events below and strongly suggest you snap up your tickets soon before it's too late. 

NB - There are 3-for-2 offers on many of these events. And many more events are listed in the printed brochure and on the website.

Watershed, Bristol
Sun 11 May 2014, 15.30-16.30, £7 / £6
On a walk to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her friend about who was best:  Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She decided to look again at her heroines, those who had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live. Her exploration of the ones that stood up to scrutiny will have many remembering those women who made them the reader and person they are today. (Read my review of the book here.)

Watershed, Bristol
Sun 11 May 2014, 17.00-18.00, £7 /£6
Feminist blog The Vagenda is a call to arms. Challenging us to look harder at the magazine articles about a celeb mum’s miracle weight loss or advice columns about bikini waxes and blow jobs to keep your man, co-founders Cosslett and Baxter argue it’s time for us all to push for change in a sphere which holds huge power over women of all ages, yet refuses to respect who they are today.

Watershed, Bristol
Sun 11 May 2014, 18.30-20.00, £7 / £6
Eleanor Marx led an eventful life packed with achievements and adventure. Foremost in her public and private life was her strong, pioneering feminism. Her life ended in mysterious suicide in her early 40s. Rachel Holmes’ new biography, which reads in parts like a novel by Wilkie Collins, reveals a woman unafraid to live her contradictions. In this special event Holmes discusses Marx with Andrew Davies, who will be showing clips from his 1977 TV serial Eleanor Marx.

Starts Watershed, Bristol 
Sat 17 May 2014, 10.30-12.45, £8 / £7
In 1913 the suffragettes declared war on the government that refused to enfranchise women. At the outbreak of the First World War, militancy was at its height. How did the suffragettes respond to the war? And how far did their suffragette experiences prepare them for their war-time activities? A specially commissioned walk led by Lucienne Boyce, author of The Bristol Suffragettes. (Read my review of the book here.)

Watershed, Bristol
Sat 17 May 2014, 11.30-12.30, £7 / £6
Led by body activists AnyBody, UK chapter of international initiative Endangered Bodies, this event explores the complex ways in which ownership is claimed over a woman’s body by people other than herself. Join us for a discussion with the panel and audience, and walk the talk by formulating campaign strategies with us. 

Watershed, Bristol
Sat 17 May 2014, 14.00-15.00, £5 (all ticket income goes to Integrate Bristol)
The young campaigners from Integrate Bristol’s tireless campaigning to end female genital mutilation has got them national recognition. They are supported by Malala Yousafzai and the secretary general of the UN, and made Michael Gove pay attention.  Hear how they have managed to break down the wall of silence around FGM and why they won’t be stopping to talk about it any time soon.

Watershed, Bristol
Sat 17 May 2014, 16.00-17.00, £7 / £6
Lucy-Anne Holmes started the campaign to ask The Sun to stop Page 3 in the summer of 2012 when she realised that the largest female image in the paper was of a young woman showing her breasts, even though Jessica Ennis had just won her Olympic Gold medal. She talks about building and growing the campaign, dealing with backlash and why she’ll be continuing her work.

Watershed, Bristol
Sat 17 May 2014, 18.00-19.00, £7 / £6
Award-winning comedian Rosie Wilby uses live interactive storytelling interspersed with video interviews, music and photos to trace a hilarious journey through early 90s feminism, refracted through a very personal lens. Against a backdrop of John Major and riotgrrrl she blurs personal and political history, backed by a healthy dose of 21st century cynicism.
In association with What The Frock! Comedy

'Bitch Boxer' at Bristol Old Vic

Fresh from a critically acclaimed run at the Adelaide Fringe last month, the one-woman piece Bitch Boxer is back in the UK. Holly Augustine returns as talented boxer Chloe – a 21-year-old from Leytonstone, who’s been fighting all her life and isn’t going to stop now.

Set in early 2012, Chloe lives a stone’s throw from the Olympic park and excitement is mounting in her boxing gym when it’s revealed that for the first time ever, female boxers will be able to compete in the Olympic Games. Chloe is determined to take part. And with her dad and trainer at her side, surely nothing can stop her?

Except it can. When her dad suddenly dies, Chloe is left fighting through her grief to keep pushing for her place in the Olympics – the biggest match of her life: her new dream.

Set against a backdrop of cherry sambuca and boyfriend woes, Bitch Boxer is an extraordinary tale of how any angry young woman from north London is unable to stop fighting – whether in the ring, in the home or anywhere else.

Director Bryony Shanahan makes sure Augustine is in every inch of the chalked out boxing ring set for every minute of the performance. And the rivulets of sweat pouring down Augustine’s face are testament to the amount of physical energy she is putting into this. Augustine barely keeps still, whether jabbing, ducking or dancing, she’s seeping out energy and passion during the hour-long show – all the while delivering Charlotte Josephine’s high-tempo script without a flaw in sight.

Bitch Boxer is a time-honoured coming of age tale, but more than that, it is also an important story about the way women’s place in society is changing. In 2012, women were able to box in the Olympics for the first time… and that’s a huge step forwards for women to be seen as equal to men.

Bitch Boxer is Augustine’s professional debut, and through this performance she shows us that like Chloe, she’s fighting for the things she loves.

Bitch Boxer is performed at Bristol Old Vic’s Studio until May 3. Please click here for more information. 

'Pick Me Up' at Somerset House

Now in its fifth year, the annual festival of the best new graphic design and illustration talent is firmly embedded on the London calendar as a must see event. With its goal being to avoid the stuffiness and corporate attitude of many other art fairs, Pick Me Up prides itself on being informal, fun, interactive and, most of all, affordable.

Located in the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House, alongside the 16 artists profiled in the Pick Me Up Selects gallery, there is also an upstairs space for collectives and galleries, as well as a changing daily schedule of different events and performance pieces for visitors to get involved with. And if you leave without first printing your own postcard at Lesley Barnes’ stand, then you’ve really missed a trick.

In the Pick Me Up Selects gallery, personal highlights included Scottish illustrator Lynnie Zulu’s bright posters, Bristol graduate Edward Cheverton’s collages and characters (which evoked the spirit of Button Moon), and London-based comic artist Isabel Greenberg with her painted plates, layered box collages and posters all based around the themes of gods, monsters, love and strife.

Upstairs with the collectives and galleries, there was a strong theme throughout most of the groups of rebellion and mockery. And there were a lot of ways to get involved – whether you had your portrait painted in the alternative photo booth, or took on the Punch and Judy-esque puppets in their booth. But it also meant that the stand-out artists were those who were less confrontational or angry in their stance. The letterpress work by Sort and Catherine McGinniss was fantastic in its simplicity and strong messages (especially the poster calling to mind the famous suffrage logan ‘Deeds Not Words’). I also loved the work of Lesley Barnes (mentioned above), who invited everyone to get involved with printing their own unicorn postcard.

Over in the events spaces, I caught Grid Forms by Melvin Galapon – an interactive game where five members of the audience are invited to don white boiler suits and then follow the instructions by choreographers Marquez and Zangs for a grid-based dance/formation game. The idea was to show how grids and patterns could be used as a tool for creation, but while it was fun to watch I didn’t envy the hectic moves asked of the performers.

Pick Me Up runs until 5 May at Somerset House, London. For more information, please click here.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

"Pretty Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics"

When women in comedy are still judged for their looks before their jokes, you know there’s a long way to go. While male comedians clog up the panels on TV and radio quizzes, the token woman is usually only there because she’s a pretty TV presenter or a giggly pop star – she’s rarely there for her wit alone, and she’s almost never there if she’s not conventionally beautiful.

In her new book Pretty Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics, Linda Mizejewski – professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University in Columbus – rips apart the notion that there are no funny women, and pours scorn on the idea that funny women should be judged only by their appearance.

Pretty Funny is very accessible for the non-academic reader, and is an enjoyable stomp through the sexist battlefield of the comedy circuit. With chapters focussing specifically on five of the finest acts currently working in the States (Kathy Griffin, Tina Fey, Wanda Sykes, Ellen De Generes and Margaret Cho), Mizejewski also includes  fantastic chapter setting the scene and placing all of this in context. Because of course those five comedians don’t stand in isolation – they follow in a long tradition of funny women that includes too many people to name, but would include Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Fanny Brice and Carol Burnett.

All of these five women are producing excitingly feminist comedy in a world that traditionally sees feminists as ugly man-hating hags with no sense of humour. And they’re coming through at a time when there’s a surge in opportunities for women who not only perform comedy to some man’s script and direction, but now invariably also write, produce and direct the comedy – meaning they’re in full control. By deliberately including lesbian and black comedians in her five profiles, Mizejewski is also drawing a firm line under the fact that what is assumed to be ‘pretty’ is a long way from the Disney princess definition of the word.

Pretty Funny is a really engaging, fun and enlivening book. It’ll make you see your favourite comedians in a different way, and will also widen out the vision with which you look at the world of pop culture in general. We’re living in an age when women are finally starting to be taken more seriously – and in what better industry to show how serious women are that in comedy? Exactly.

Friday, 25 April 2014

'The Tinderbox' at Bristol Old Vic

This reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s seven-page short story The Tinderbox into a two-hour 16-strong ensemble theatre piece is certainly ambitious. Grand in scale, vision and cast, The Bristol Old Vic Young Company has left no stone unturned in its quest to produce a meaty production worthy of the illustrious footsteps they are following in.

The story of The Tinderbox has classic fairy tale fare – a princess locked in a tower, a cruel king and queen, anthropomorphic wolves, magical objects and forests. In a nutshell, when the king and queen (Lorenzo Niyongabo and Beth Collins) learn of a prophecy that their treasured baby daughter will be assassinated by a common solider (Fennar Ralston), they are so horrified that they engineer a war that can never be won so that all the young men of their country are permanently on the battle fields killing each other. But after the war has raged for 17 years, some of the soldiers start to grow disillusioned and rebel… and where you have dissent, you will find strength. In this case, through the discovery of a magical tinderbox.

In many ways, the story reminded me of the recent production of Arcadia at the Tobacco Factory – with the genius daughter closeted away and protected from the salacious evils of the world by overbearing and foolish parents, and the emphasis on gardens and woodlands to the narrative.

Directed by Lisa Gregan, with a script adapted by Silva Semerciyan, this new production of The Tinderbox shows great promise, but in its enthusiasm it felt rather crowded with plot devices, convoluted dialogue and heavy symbolism from the use of wooden chairs – which were intended to represent a huge manner of different objects and emotions throughout the whole show. Within about 15 minutes of The Tinderbox starting, I knew the perpetual clattering of the chairs (oh, the chairs!) was going to grate on me…

However, there were some lovely moments within the performance. For instance, a beautifully choreographed scene where blindfolded ladies in waiting dress the princess (Krista Matthews): although it was unclear why the ladies needed to be blindfolded, as an isolated scene it was delightful to watch. As an aside, I remain confused as to why the princess’ dedicated lady in waiting was played by a man (Dale Thrupp) since there was no shortage of female actors in the ensemble cast.

The use of masks to represent the three wolves was impressive, and the wolves themselves provided a genuine air of menace and magic to the whole piece, which moved the production up a level. The masks themselves were well crafted, and the movements by the puppeteers was impressive.

While The Tinderbox was a powerful and fun play, this production would benefit from some hefty script editing. One side effect of the overloaded script was that some of the actors garbled their words, and several speeches by the princess lost their effect as her words were almost inaudible – when sadly these could have been very effective plot devices as the speeches were to underscore her muted intelligence.

The moral of The Tinderbox? Be careful what you wish for!

The Tinderbox is being performed at Bristol Old Vic until 26 April. For more information, please click here.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sadie Jones – ‘The Fallout’

There have been quite a few novels wafted under my nose recently set in London’s glamorous yet seedy past… A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene (published in 2011, about an aspiring model in 1960s London), Ask Alice by DJ Taylor (published in 2010, about the secrets of a 1930s nightclub hostess), to name just two that I’ve read recently. And Sadie Jones’ new novel The Fallout (2014, set in 1970s theatreland) adds to this popular canon.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. I love these sort of novels. They conjure up a romantic notion of a past I’m too young to remember but that I like to fondly remember in a way that was probably never true for those who lived through it. London’s Soho is one of those areas that may be geographically small but has such evocative history running through it – the seedy sex industry, the glamour of nightclubs and theatres, the romanticism of it regurgitated in the memoirs of pop stars and artists who spent their time drinking and taking drugs in it.

Sadie Jones’ new novel is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s in London’s burgeoning fringe theatre world. Our protagonist Luke – an aspiring young play writer - has decamped to the capital to escape his depressed family life up north, where it really is grim. He teams up with ambitious theatre producer Paul and his stoical girlfriend Leigh, and the trio set up a radical theatre group. Blighted by Luke’s insatiable sexual appetite, and his torment over his anger and regret about his abandoned parents, the trio freefall into a spiral of longing, lust and ambition.

Luke’s story is contrasted with that of hopelessly unhappy actor Nina Jacobs, whose beauty overrides her actual talent. While we see Luke moving from a part-time job as a dustman to a full-time post as acclaimed writing genius, we watch Nina move from being hen-pecked by her unsympathetic mother to being abused by her homosexual husband.

The Fallout is a compelling read and I was gripped – caught up in the romanticism of the era and the characters, willing them to pair up with their apt other halves, and feeling their frustrations when they let themselves down. Genuinely unable to put the book down, I swept through it in two days – reading it in the bath, over lunches and on buses. 

Sadie Jones recreates the stifled atmospheres of impoverished but hopeful London with (I can only presume) precision, and you completely feel yourself enveloped in the cramped flats, listening to the characters through the bedroom walls and inhaling the stench of stew in the kitchens. The squalid sensations of Luke, Paul and Leigh’s flats contrasts with the extravagant flaunt of Nina and Tony’s sham house, and it was easy to imagine where you’d rather hang out if you really knew these people. Although that said, only Leigh comes out of The Fallout as the character you’d want to spend any time with – the others being spineless, selfish creatures.

After devouring The Fallout, I’m pushing Sadie Jones' back catalogue to the top of my ‘to read next’ list.

Sadie Jones is speaking about The Fallout at Foyles in Bristol on May 20 as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Tickets are £4 in advance. More information is on this link.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

'Everyday Sexism' – by Laura Bates

Back in 2012, frustrated by one catcall too many, journalist Laura Bates started a website called Everyday Sexism, with the aim that people could use it to shout back at the sexism they experienced as they went about their daily business. Bates had the idea that maybe 50 people would contribute stories to it and the site would be an outlet for women to vent their frustrations and anger at the way they are treated in public. But as the weeks rolled by, many, many more than 50 people contribute to the site – and 18 months later there are hundreds of thousands of stories of everyday sexism on the site. And it is growing daily.

Since then, Bates has contributed to countless newspaper articles, magazine features, radio debates and TV panels about the topic and how the Everyday Sexism project has caught the public’s attention. So it is only inevitable that the book follows hot on the heels of the tidal wave of support for ending sexism. Some call it a fourth wave of feminism, but personally I’m not so sure that’s a helpful term. Who decides what a wave is and when such a wave starts or ends? But regardless, Bates’ project came along at a time when a lot of younger women were rearing up in anger at the injustice and sexism they were experiencing – for example, the NoMore Page 3 campaign has enjoyed a similar swell of support.

The newly published Everyday Sexism book (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) collects together many tweets to the project’s account, as well as stories from the website, and positions these alongside statistics and articles from Bates placing all of this into context. It’s rigorously researched and depressingly detailed. With chapters looking at the sexism children experience, to sexism at work, sexism in the media and so much more, the whole book is a carefully catalogued snapshot of modern day life for women in the western world.

Some critics of the book have said that while the Everyday Sexism project is a great outlet and tool, the book itself is lacking in answers. But it is unfair that Bates should single-handedly be expected to know the solution to a centuries old global problem. There are plenty of take-home tips from within the book, even if no one easy answer – but seriously, who thought there would be?!

Instead, the Everyday Sexism book is a valuable tool for demonstrating that sexism really is a lived experience for 53% of the population, and it perfectly highlights how ridiculously stupid the counter argument from certain men is when they say that the Diet Coke ad exploits men, too. Really? REALLY? All the men’s rights activists out there need to read this book and wake up to what tools they actually are!

What the Everyday Sexism book does very well is it catalogues the many and varied ways in which women of all demographics are abused on a daily basis, and it also spells out the legal case for what actually is sexual assault – making the stark point that most women have been sexually assaulted in their lives, yet few recognise the unwanted touching as such.

This is a book that makes you feel more ‘normal’ as a result, because you realise you are not the only one enduring these horrible injustices. And the minute you realise you are not alone, is the minute you realise you have a whole network of support out there. And that is what the Everyday Sexism project excels at – providing support.  

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

‘Wilfred and Eileen’ by Jonathan Smith

It’s a rare event for Persephone Books to publish a book by a man, so you know that when they do it must be a very carefully thought through choice. And in many ways Jonathan Smith’s retelling of the real-life romance of Wilfred Willett and Eileen Stenhouse (simply called Wilfred & Eileen) is reminiscent of another excellent Persephone book - William, An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton.

Both books are carefully considered constructions of young men in England on the eve of the First World War, set against a backdrop of women’s suffrage, while focussing on a crushing an all-consuming love affair. I’ve written about William - An Englishman before (review here), and heartily recommend it.

In Wilfred & Eileen, we meet ambitious medical student Wilfred Willett as he is graduating from Cambridge University in 1913… and where he meets the enigmatic Eileen at a formal dinner. Although he is just setting off for a placement in a London hospital, Wilfred can’t get Eileen out of his head and despite working hard at the hospital under two equally demanding surgeons, Wilfred spends his spare time falling in love with Eileen. Much to the dismay of both of their families who think the pairing unsuitable.

As the love affair grows, so does the spectre of the First World War which creeps up quicker than either suspected, and despite the shrugs of society it refuses to blow over as quickly as everyone hoped. With Wilfred sent away to France, all Eileen can do it pace around at home, getting increasingly frustrated with her family… waiting to hear news of her beloved from the Front.

What results is a compelling and nerve-wracking story of love in a miserable climate. Wilfred & Eileen is only a short book, but it tells an important story of how war crushes not only romantic passion but also academic passion. The fact it is based on a true story makes it all the sadder, as does the fact it surely echoes a million other young couples and their curtailed love affairs in the same period.

Wilfred & Eileen was adapted into a four-part BBC series in the early 1980s, which would be fascinating to see. Perhaps we can collectively persuade Persephone to arrange a screening event for all the people who loved this book, especially with the centenary of the First World War looming.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

'The Diary of a Provincial Lady' by EM Delafield

There’s something about the diary format that lends itself to comic fiction. Whether it’s spilling the innermost secrets of joyously naive Charles Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody (1892), lovelorn hypochondriac Adrian Mole (1982), or eternal singleton Bridget Jones (1996)… over the decades, the diary format has brought many a novel to life.

Maybe it’s the informal first person narrative, maybe it’s the unashamed insights into someone’s deepest thoughts, maybe it’s the illusion of unedited ego. Whatever it is, EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) truly has it in spades. And happily, Persephone Books has just reissued the diary in a beautiful new volume.

Originally conceived as a light-hearted column in the feminist magazine Time & Tide (of which Delafield was a director), the diary follows an unnamed middle-class wife living somewhere near Devon as she deals with the daily troubles of running her home, keeping her children under control (her son is away at boarding school while her daughter is home educated by a French governess), appeasing her gruff husband who hides behind The Times, and the eternal servant problem as staff come and go. 

Our nameless heroine is preoccupied. The bulbs she planted (in pots she definitely did not buy in Woolworths) are refusing to flower, no matter what room she puts them in, and the endlessly competitive Lady Boxe is driving her up the wall with her constant one-up-man-ship and determination to patronise our lady at every turn. 

Mademoiselle refuses to speak a word of English, but thinks that the lady’s daughter Vicky is the most angelic little bean ever born. While son Robin repeatedly returns from boarding school with an increasingly unlikely succession of unpopular friends who have come to stay with no warning whatsoever. And all the while, hard-working husband Robert is huffing behind The Times, and the staff are constantly threatening to hand in their notice.

I know… to a 2014 reader, it may not sound like the most absorbing material for a book. But that is where the majesty in EM Delafield’s writing is. The Diary of a Provincial Lady is un-putdownable. I first read it about six years ago (as a single 20-something) and loved it so much that I immediately read the subsequent three books in succession (not something I’d advise - spread the joy!). To re-read it again as a married 30-something, I loved The Diary of a Provincial Lady even more and have dug out my copies of the sequels to re-read in a leisurely fashion. 

On so many occasions, I kept thinking ‘That’s such a Bridget Jones thing to do...’, but of course our provincial lady pre-dates Bridget by 66 years, and maybe Bridget was simply acting a a provincial lady manner?! The gentle humour of the provincial lady is compulsive, endearing and identifiable. If only she didn’t have a cook, she would certainly be serving up blue string soup to Lady Boxe. 

Our provincial lady is concerned with flitting up to London on the train to keep herself kitted out in the right clothes, while constantly pawning and buying back her grandmother’s diamond ring to enable her to do so. Our provincial lady is cataloguing her awful and exhausting trip to France with the children, in a way that reminds me of Bridget’s trip to the Edinburgh Festival but inability to see any shows while there. Our provincial lady is invited to give talks at neighbouring WI meetings, in the way that Bridget falls backwards down a fireman’s pole live on TV. It’s the same but different… Bridget lives in a different age, but in many ways the provincial lady is her QVC-loving mum.

The popularity of the first Diary of a Provincial Lady in 1930 led to three further volumes, and these are readily available in collected editions. But to my mind, the original diary is the best and most enjoyable. And this new edition by Persephone (2014) is an absolute delight - it contains the original line drawings by Arthur Watts, and the endpapers are the covers from the 1930 edition.