Sally Heathcote Suffragette

Bryan and Mary Talbot were at last year’s Ilkley literature festival talking about this graphic novel, and since then it’s been part of the Read Regional promotion in northern libraries. Particularly with the forthcoming suffragette film focusing people’s attention on the subject at the moment, Sally Heathcote Suffragette deserves a wide audience.

Cover of Sally Heathcote Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

As you’d expect given who produced it (Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, and Kate Charlesworth) it’s a high quality affair, with beautifully detailed artwork. I’m almost sorry that I borrowed it from the library, as there are some pages in particular I’d love to keep. The colours are generally muted, except for the purple and green of the WSPU, and the flaming ginger of Sally’s hair, that allows her to be spotted easily in a crowd. The background is full of authentic reproductions of railway posters, advertising boards and the like, and the era is conjured magnificently.

I found myself thinking early on ‘That Mrs Pankhurst is a right piece of work’ and I can’t say my opinion changed. The character of Sally is a good one to see the development of the story through, but I didn’t have much sympathy for Sally myself, as she gets involved in violence and destruction, and goes along with the absolute outrage at the idea of working men possibly getting the vote (that’s the trouble with groups that want the advancement of one section of society, rather than improvements for all). If you have a Northern and/or working class chip prepare to get it exercised, with Londoners patronising Sally for being from Lancashire and middle class women patronising her for being poor. Also, whether this was the intention or not, as it starts and ends with Sally as an old lady it did make me stop and think about the invisibility of the old, who knows what extraordinary things they did before they were so frail.

There are notes and a timeline at the back to really propel you into the history but I learnt a lot from the story itself (Sylvia Pankhurst’s split from her mother and Christabel for instance). Coincidentally, I read it in the week of the centenary of Keir Hardie’s death (thus getting a reminder of his involvement with trying to expand the franchise), and immediately before I started on Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (which covers both female and working male suffrage in the first chapter) so it all slotted into place nicely.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

Cover of Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

When I booked a ticket for the Ilkley Literature Festival event featuring Jami Attenberg and Liza Klaussmann, I hadn’t heard of either author and my main interest was as a writer. I keep dabbling in historical fiction inspired by family history research, and both Attenberg’s Saint Mazie and Klaussmann’s Villa America were set in the first half of the twentieth century and featured real people (Mazie Philips in the one, a host of well-known artists, writers etc in the other) as characters. Since Saint Mazie was available in my local library (I plucked it from the midst of their literature festival display) I started reading it, and I fell for Mazie Philips in a big way.

Saint Mazie is of course billed as being about helping homeless men during the Depression, since that’s what the real Mazie was known for, but actually the Wall Street Crash doesn’t happen till page 242 (of 321). What the novel is really about is Mazie herself, her extraordinary life, what drove her, how she became the woman she was known as. I don’t know how much of it is based in fact, or how much is really known about Mazie’s background, but as a novel it was captivating. The poverty all around, the difficulties and tragedy of everyday life, and Mazie pushing through the lot, just keeping going and helping out, wisecracking and drinking her way through another day. She’s what you’d call a strong female character and she becomes kind of a bedrock for other people to build their lives on. In a way she reminded me of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, never getting to follow his own dreams or live his own life because he has to be there for other people.

The format of the novel is unusual and works well. Snippets of Mazie’s (fictional) diary interweave with (fictional) interviews with an old friend of hers, descendants of those who knew her, local historians and other tangential connections who all have different takes or know different parts of her story. At first I found the rapidly switching points of view a little disorienting but it settled down into longer stints with Mazie’s diary and by then I was hooked by the story anyway. I did find it easier to read once I’d started voicing it as Mary Beth from Cagney and Lacey in my head (it might not be quite the right accent, but it helped me with the rhythm of Mazie’s speech patterns).

This is a novel full of love, loss, loyalty and humour. It has heartbreaking moments when I really wondered how Mazie could carry on, but she did. It’s the story of the New York poor as much as it’s about one individual, and I would recommend it widely. If, like me, you’re fond of F Scott Fitzgerald, and Cary Grant films, and think of New York in the twenties as one long glamorous party full of socialites, reflect as you read this that it’s largely happening in the same city at the same time.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

Or An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as it seems to be called. I read this a couple of years ago (another illustration of the benefits of free out-of-copyright books for e-readers) but with all the Corbynomics kerfuffle it seemed a good time to mention it.

I read it in the spirit of Know Your Enemy, since Adam Smith seems to get blamed/credited with everything free market from Thatcher onwards that I oppose, but I was pleasantly surprised. His views were not quite what I expected, I even agreed with a fair bit of it (though some might have worked with a smaller population and a different system of banking etc but isn’t applicable today. And sometimes he seems almost naive in thinking people will do what’s fair or best for the country rather than what provides most short-term advantage to themselves).

He’s by no means a socialist but the provision of a living wage and progressive taxes seem to fall naturally out of his style of pragmatism. He doesn’t have much time for the idle rich, or greedy merchants who whisper in government ears to make sure their own interests come before those of the nation. Which I’m sure would come as a great disappointment to half the people who point to him as the foundation of their economic beliefs, but haven’t actually read this book.

What’s the moral of this tale? That Tories aren’t always as bad as you think? Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far… However, go to the original source whenever possible, that could be one lesson to learn. Like reading Corbyn’s economic policy for yourself instead of believing the doom merchants.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This 2013 novel of displacement and tested principles set in 1850s Ohio sees Tracy Chevalier back on top form. The unobtrusive detail translated into a supremely believable setting, and the naturalistic characters were of the right muddy quality to illustrate the compromises and contradictions inherent in the situation.

Honor is a Quaker from a town in Dorset. She’s grown up in a happy family within a close community, but for reasons not always clear even to herself she decides to accompany her older sister as she emigrates to semi-rural Ohio in 1850. The rest of the novel is, in part, about the overthrowing of everything Honor has known, the feeling of dislocation, of not belonging, and her attempts to make a new place for herself among people she doesn’t understand.

Quakers believe everyone is equal before God, and in Dorset where there are no black slaves, it’s always been easy to stick to that principle. Honor is shocked to find segregated pews in a Quaker meeting house on her way across America, and when she reaches Ohio -sandwiched between slave states and the Canadian border, and therefore regularly crossed by fugitive slaves – she finds that principles sometimes bend under the weight of reality, even among her religious community. The new Fugitive Slave Law imposing fines on those who refuse when asked to help recapture fugitives only makes things worse.

I thought the little differences were picked up on brilliantly, the constant subtle reminders that Honor is not at home. There are different words for common items, the same words for different flowers or trees. The birds and animals so common to the locals are exotic to Honor, and for a town girl the self-sufficiency and isolation are disturbing. Even the quilts Honor spends so much time sewing use different techniques and patterns on the other side of the Atlantic.

This could so easily have been a depressing novel, but although it has its dark moments there is a thread of hope, and the characters laugh and love like normal people. The Last Runaway makes you examine slavery and abolition, equality and altruism via people – not abstract concepts or amorphous groups (slaves, slave-hunters, Quakers, women) but individual characters with different motivations. In particular circumstances how many of us would stick firmly to what we believe in and stand up for weaker neighbours? Would we at least waver a bit, even if we acted for the greater good in the end?

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Tracy Chevalier novel before, you’ll probably love this one. Or if you like a hint of romance and adventure with your political history, give it a try.

Blog tour guest from the Short Story Club

Welcome, Jo Tiddy, next stop on the My Writing Process blog tour. Take it away, Jo…

It was great to hear from Thousand Monkeys, a stalwart of the Telegraph Short Story Club, and be asked to submit my thoughts on what I write and why. Thank you also for hosting me. Alas for the blog world out there, the tour is likely to come to a crashing stop with me. I am a luddite, I operate on a steam powered laptop, I can’t get my head round twitter and I don’t have a blog, Neither do I know many writing people who do, except those who have already been on the tour. So, sorry chaps, in advance. With hope, and a fair wind behind me, I will grasp this whole blogging thing and get set up….

What am I working on?

I am working on a number of things. Or should be. However I have changed jobs, moved house and waved No 1 child off to university in the course of the past few weeks, so not much writing has been done. I mostly write short stories, on all sorts of topics, though I like to visit my own past as a child growing up in Africa.

I have also been working on a novel for teens, with a medieval bent, though it’s set in a dystopian future, just like 5 million other YA novels currently out there. I am losing interest in it fast it must be said. I am thinking of revisiting a novel I started on some time ago, set in 16th century East Africa during the Portuguese occupation of the Swahili coast. What I really need to do is get back into some sort of routine(see below), and get on with it.

Although I don’t specifically write for younger children I have contributed to the upcoming Mumsnet/Walker Book of Animal Stories, published October 2. Maybe this is a direction I could focus on more in the future.

How does my work differ from other in its genre?

I don’t have a genre as such. I’m not a romance writer, or even slightly funny – I can’t do comedy. Obviously my YA novel is identical to every other one in the field. I trained as a historian, so I like to incorporate historical elements into my stories; the ones set in the past tend to have been more successful than any modern stuff I write. I would like my writing to be different to anyone else’s – I suspect that it’s not.

My new job is in an independent bookshop, http://thebookhousethame.co.uk/ which is a fantastic place to work. The main problem is that I am now aware of how many books are out there in so many genres, and I will never get a chance to read them all.

Why do you write what you do?

I’m quite new to writing. I used to tinker, but was busy carving out a career in local government (boo), raising a family, having a life. Three years ago I developed ME and life changed overnight. I spent 6 months on the sofa weeping with self-pity and despair. Eventually I turned to writing as a way of dealing with it. I found that raging at the page was a great way of offloading, and saving my family from having to listen to me whine. I began to get some semblance of a life back, albeit at a much slower level. Much of what I write tends to have dark undertones, layers of the anxiety that I often have to fight. But I am a believer in redemption, and the thought that even during dark times there is always hope. I think this comes across in the things I write. I’m also drawn to childhood memories, growing up in Africa and changing that lifestyle for a completely different continent when I was eighteen has left its mark on me, left me feeling, at times, rootless.

My writing process

I find my best ideas come from prompts. The Short Story Club has always been brilliant for this, throwing out an idea, or a phrase, and letting us all just run with it. The members have been so supportive, and friendly, and open hearted, and many of my stories have had their genesis there. It’s useful to have the feedback. Otherwise I delve into memories, or listen to music, pick up a refrain and build a story from that. I read a lot – too much sometimes; it’s a great displacement activity. Any of this can spark a story off.

When I was working lunchtimes in a school my day had a bit of routine. Get up, offload kids, walk dog, do morning pages (a la Julia Cameron). Half an hour or so of just scribbling anything that came into my head onto a blank page, always black fountain pen, always longhand, mostly whingeing. Go to work, come home, do it in reverse. Solitary dog walking is great, not only for observing changes in a familiar place during the course of the seasons, but for tramping out ideas. If I got stuck I’d disappear off to my shed and sew – another fairly mindless activity that allowed my brain to unravel knots. Now though, I work three full days a week and am often too tired to think by the end of them. I’ve moved, from suburbia to the wilds of the countryside, a low lying village surrounded by floodplain and wet for half the year. The land around has never been cultivated, is a palimpsest of older times – strip lynchets, old drovers routes, these all remain. It’s quiet, so quiet, and my “home” days are longer. I will need to construct a new routine, and find new paths to walk in this undiscovered countryside.

I do belong to a writers group – we are a small and haphazard bunch, who really need to get organised. We meet up once a month, to discuss our writing, but like many book clubs we descend into gossip and chat quite quickly. It’s useful to have the feedback, but we are all working on different things. There is talk of a blog (hah) – maybe that will happen once I’ve got to grips with sorting my own out.

Apologies for having no one to pass this on to as yet. I have asked around, and as soon as I do I will link it up on twitter. I have been asked to talk to a group of A2 students at the local college about short story writing, so I think that I will direct them to this blog tour so they can explore the huge variety of writers and their different approaches to the craft. Being young and tech savvy they will have no problems……

In the meantime you can find me on Twitter: @jo_tiddy, @the_book_house. (I think)


Anniversaries and remembrance of things past

WordPress sent me a cheery anniversary message today, 6 years of blissful blogging. Apart from making me shudder (as anniversaries tend to do) at the speed with which life seems to slither past, it made me think about anniversaries and reading.

The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war burst upon us this week in a cloud of poppies and subdued pride (yes, some people did some brave and amazing things but wouldn’t it have been marvellous if they’d never been in that situation in the first place) and it’s been nudging me towards re-reading Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, or more likely digging out my battered old hardback Wilfred Owen. Aside from poetry, which doesn’t seem to count in the re-reading stakes, I’d rather turn up books from or about the war that I haven’t already read (what with life slithering past at an alarming rate and there being only so many books a person can fit in) so if anyone has any recommendations, let me know. In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard was a good one I read and reviewed recently.

Undoubtedly there are many people reading around world war one this year, but what about other anniversaries or major events? Do you have a book you re-read every birthday, or on the anniversary of some treaty or battle, or the day you left school? I’ve said before that Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every December, but I don’t have anything similar (except a couple of cartoon books) since I rarely re-read books (though I have been revisiting Psmith these last couple of weeks, via the pages of PG Wodehouse, and most glad I am about it. First borrowed in paperback from BB over 20 years ago and now freely available for e-readers, hurrah).

So the question is, I suppose – should I? Are there any books I should build into my year, leave a free weekend for or dip into to revive memories (my own or other people’s)? Even as I typed that I got a sudden flash of a book I read a few times as a child and haven’t seen or probably thought about for nearly 20 years, An Inch of Candle by Alison Leonard. It’s set in world war one but beyond the possibility that the girl scandalously rides a bike, I can’t remember a thing (and a quick google makes me none the wiser). I wouldn’t want to remind myself any further by actually reading bits of it, it might not be as good as the memory. Which I think answers my question: remember the old, but use the occasion to find something new. There’s a whole world of books waiting.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.