history

Dangerous Northern Women

I’ve been writing a bit of non-fiction lately (I mean apart from this blog, and the usual book reviews). Some of it is now up at the Dangerous Women Project in the form of a piece about the Bradford Female Educational Institute and its worrying policy of actually trying to teach working class women stuff, back in the 1850s when that really wasn’t cool (I know – Bradford, education, working class history and northern women all at once!). You can read it here: http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/08/17/bradford-female-educational-institute/

I was planning to tell you all about the project in advance, but I didn’t want to seem like I was crawling while my piece was under consideration and I didn’t realise it would be up so soon after acceptance, so I never did. Suffice to say I recommend having a good look round the site, there’s a lot of different topics which all have something to do with the idea of being a dangerous woman, pushing boundaries in some way.

If the image had been freely available, I would have liked the drawing from this 1856 magazine page to illustrate it, but sadly it wasn’t to be.

Educating girls: have we come as far as we think?

I have a great passion for education, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I also have ready access to a university library, so I pick up things like A History of Women’s Education in England by June Purvis (Open University Press, 1991) to while away the commute. An interesting overview of the situation between 1800-1914, it touches on some things I didn’t know about and some (like the Bradford Female Institute) that I did but haven’t often seen anyone else write about.

Two passages in chapter 4 (Education and Middle-class Girls) made me wonder how far we’ve really come, however. In 1864 Emily Davies (later co-founder of Girton College, Cambridge) wrote a paper about the poor state of secondary education for girls for the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, in which she commented that since ladies are left ‘in a state of wholesome rust’ as she put it, they have little to talk about except ‘children, servants, dress and summer tours’ and if you hand them The Times they’ll turn straight to the adverts and the family notices.

Since I neither have children nor go on holidays I often find myself adrift in a female environment as conversation (even among women I know to have engaged in higher education) frequently centres around children, fashion and soft furnishings. There are, I should point out before my female friends revolt, a few honourable exceptions. However, glance at a few magazines aimed at women and you’ll find the content largely revolves around those subjects as well, with some celebrity gossip thrown in. Perhaps the progress we’ve made in that area lies in the fact that some men are eager to talk about their children or their GBBO-inspired attempts at cakes too.

The other passage that struck me was in a section about the fear of educated girls becoming ‘unfeminine’ and ‘unmarriageable’, leading pioneering headmistresses to promote both academic subjects and the old code of ladylike behaviour. In 1994 I was about to move up into sixth form in just such a pioneering school (founded 1878 as the girls’ offshoot of a 16th century school for boys). The headmistress gave a motivating talk in which we were generally exhorted to work hard and become career women – medicine, dentistry and law being the main acceptable professions to aim at. In the same talk, however, she mentioned dress and appearance for the final two years of school: a suit, court shoes, small pearl earrings and we would be permitted a single ring, to allow for that solitaire diamond. The actual reference at the time may have been tongue in cheek – though I remember being aghast at what she was saying I don’t clearly remember the tone – but the fact that even half-jokingly you would suggest to a roomful of teenagers that a desirable outcome to their many years of undoubtedly expensive (if not on an assisted place) education would be to get engaged by the age of eighteen! It still leaves me at something of a loss for words (is that a sigh of relief I hear?). Presumably attitudes like this contribute to the so-called leaky pipeline (women drifting away from science in particular, as you progress further up the academic hierarchy). It’s twenty years since I left school (this week exactly, I think) and I hope things have changed, but sadly in schools like that I fear not.

An enjoyable performance in York

Last night Alice Courvoisier and I presented an evening of stories and lectures on the theme of time, as part of York Festival of Ideas. We did something similar about this time last year, but whereas that was a pure storytelling session, this year we mixed it up a bit by including short lectures on relativity and Newton’s concept of absolute time, among other things.

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Alice gets quantum

Despite the hard science, the audience generally seemed to enjoy themselves and applauded loudly at times, laughing at appropriate junctures (the room was much more populated than the photo suggests – the front row is never first choice), and Alice had them spellbound as she told myths and fairytales she’d memorised for the occasion. One soon-to-be-graduate told Alice it was the best lecture she’d attended in her entire time at university (we were at York University for the evening), and while that was undoubtedly excited hyperbole, it was nice to think someone got so much out of it.

I’d written a story specially for the evening, called Lancelot Names the Day. It’s set just before the calendar change in 1752 and is about a sneaky but stupid merchant called Lancelot Busby (who was a real man in 18th century Tynemouth as I recall, whose marvellous name I spotted in a parish register. I wish to cast no aspersions on the real Mr Busby who I’m sure was an upstanding pillar of the community).

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Calendars and time zones can be fun, just bear with me

I also wrote an essay on standardised time as opposed to solar time, and the introduction of international time zones, which was fascinating to research and by the reaction in the room, some people learnt some stuff from it (and it generated a bit of discussion afterwards).

If you were one of our live audience, thanks once again for missing a warm sunny evening to sit in a seminar room with us. Should you wish to relive at least part of the evening, here are recordings of me reading first the lecture, then Lancelot Names the Day.

Bradford’s Buzzing: a weekend at the literature festival

This weekend OneMonkey and I went to a few events at the second annual Bradford Literature Festival (which a friend of mine this week suggested should really be known as a festival of ideas as there’s a lot of current affairs programming in it). The events covered authors talking about writing (and reading, and the power of libraries),  political discussion facilitated by academics, a social history of coffee and Islam, and how the historical King Arthur may well have been based in York. Quite a contrast, and a nice illustration of the variety on the programme (though as another friend complained yesterday, there isn’t enough science or philosophy). The city centre itself was packed, helped no doubt by the dry, mild weather which broke out into sunshine occasionally. A long way to go perhaps, but it feels like Bradford is on the up.

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Variety, as embodied by my Bottle o’ Bangles

Writing and Adversity was a panel of three writers. Andrew McMillan is a poet from South Yorkshire with a noticeable accent, which is refreshing (I don’t run across many successful poets though, maybe none of them sound as posh as I expect). Melinda Salisbury writes high fantasy for young adults, where the main teenage character is a ‘real’ girl who’s easily manipulated and sometimes a coward, not one of these carbon copy sword-wielding heroines. Jerry Pinto from Mumbai has written all sorts and sees himself primarily as a poet but was talking about the autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom which took him 25 years to write, inspired by his mother’s depression. They talked about writing through and about adversity based on work with ‘challenging’ children or young offenders, and their own writing drawing on their own lives.

Trying to take unobtrusive notes during an event means I’ve jotted words and phrases that struck me but not necessarily who said them, so apologies for the largely unattributed nature of this. Nevertheless, among the ideas that were thrown around by the panel were:

    • How do you know your story is worth telling if your sort of person is never represented in books? (Which became a short diversion into diversity in publishing)
    • There is a certain amount of arrogance needed to write for others to read: you are saying this is worth your money, more importantly this is worth taking some part of your short life to read.
    • Non-fiction doesn’t require plausibility, but if you turn your experiences into fiction you have to come up with plausible characters, which can make you cut half of what made those people interesting to you in the first place.
    • If you want kids to read, ban books (Jerry’s dad banned the buying though not the reading of books and they therefore attained status as illicit items).
    • If you want adults to read, don’t try and tell them reading is a great improving, moral endeavour. It’s another flavour of having fun, like dancing.
    • The personal must become universal as you write it, the more honest and specific you are, the more general appeal it has (Andrew doesn’t enjoy writing, often finds it painful but then that emotion comes through to the reader).
    • There is a difference between Poetic Truth and What Really Happened Truth (Andrew quoting an Irish poet whose name I didn’t catch) and sometimes you can pin down the former without having to rigidly stick to the latter.
    • If you want to know who you are, write something. Writing can help you come to terms with something even if you never show that writing to anyone else. It can allow you to look back and say it wasn’t that bad, here’s the moment of beauty in it. Jerry also mentioned a kind of distancing, being able to revisit the memories of his mother slashing her wrists again, and cleaning up the blood and calling the police – attempted suicide still a criminal offence – by telling himself he’s writing fiction and his job is to get words down on the page.
    • Art comes in the calm aftermath of the storm, what you write in the middle is too raw. You have to take out some of your own pain to leave a gap in which the reader inserts their own painful experiences. Catharsis occurs for the reader when they bring this pain to the reading and find release.
    • Writing about the bad stuff can be seen as either exorcising demons, or losing a part of yourself. However, the sea feeds the iceberg even as other bits of it are breaking off (i.e. you’re continuing to build up other experiences and store up new bits of yourself)

 

A thought-provoking hour and a half. As was the next event, but that was on quite a different topic.

Leaving aside what I think of the word ‘mainstreaming’, the Mainstreaming Hate Speech discussion was about the rise of the far right in Europe (though it was pointed out that it’s not only happening in Europe. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump). Three Professors, a diplomat, a local author and the head of an NGO, plus a roomful of thoughtful and interested people who were let loose with a roving microphone for half an hour. Could have been chaos but it was well chaired and polite, with a whole host of interesting points made (and AA Dhand was in the audience, Bradford pharmacist by day, noir author appearing in The Observer in his spare time). I did make some notes but as some of it strays into contentious issues and I don’t guarantee I’ll represent it accurately I’m going to take the easy way out and skim over most of it. As with the earlier event I’ll throw a few topics out there that came up:

  • The far-right doesn’t create ideas in a vacuum, they’re echoing what’s in society.
    All societies are tribal to some extent, and are suspicious of The Other.
  • Bigots shouldn’t be banned (e.g. NUS no-platform): let them speak then expose and hence humiliate them in front of society (OneMonkey kicked off the round of applause at this point).
  • Interact with people who aren’t like you, don’t walk away from people who don’t share your views (I find this one hard, personally). Bring things into the open and discuss them. Build bridges, talk, stop living in your own culture’s cocoon.
  • Protesting has its place, but if shouting and screaming wouldn’t stop you being an activist it won’t stop your opponents either.

 

They talked among other things about the misguided Prevent strategy, media portrayal of Muslims, and what it means to be a British Muslim. Mention was made of one of my favourite news stories of recent years, where the mosque in York invited the lads on the far right demo inside for tea and biscuits. How very British, everyone said (though I wonder if it’s really How very Yorkshire).

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Tea, still nicer than coffee despite being a relic of imperialism

Tea may be very British but coffee is from the Yemen, apparently (the plant is originally from Ethiopia but as I understand it the drink originates in fifteenth century Yemen). OneMonkey doesn’t even like the smell of coffee let alone the taste, and I only occasionally break out the jar of (Fairtrade) instant, but we do like a bit of history, so The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee sounded like a treat. Abdul-Rehman Malik was a most enthusiastic and engaging speaker with a love of coffee that added sparkle to his talk. We got a sprint through fatwas, riots, sieges, the spread of coffee via medieval universities in the arabic world, and coffee houses in seventeenth century London. I love the idea of Turkish coffee houses with storytellers, musicians, chess-players, and the democratising effect of rich and poor mingling to enjoy their (apparently affordable) drink. I’m really looking forward to his BBC Radio 4 documentary (also called The Muhammadan Bean) this autumn.

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Finally we went to Pennine Dragon, a talk about King Arthur and historical evidence pointing to him being Arthwys, a 6th century king based in York. OneMonkey (proud Geordie) was disappointed that he wasn’t from the north east, but slightly mollified by the idea that Avalon might be a place on Hadrian’s Wall. Simon Keegan didn’t claim to be the first to notice Arthwys, but earlier historians as he put it ‘say oh yeah there’s an Arthwys who lived at the same time as King Arthur but it can’t be him, he’s northern’. I’m not going to rise to that one, I’ve had a lovely informative weekend and it’s time to settle down with a cup of tea.

Quick news and reviews round-up

This is the first of 10 days off work for me, and while it’s going to get busy soon I thought I’d take a few minutes out to update you all (because I know you’re all eagerly awaiting my news).

I wrote a review for The Bookbag a couple of weeks ago, which I seem to have forgotten to point out. It was a fabulous crime novel called Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street, translated from Estonian and set in medieval Tallinn. If you’re at all partial to Cadfael or Shardlake (or enjoyed The Name of the Rose) I’d urge you to go read my review then find yourself a copy of the book. I need to get hold of the first in the series now, as the one I reviewed was the second.

The busy period I alluded to above is caused by my forthcoming evening at the York Festival of Ideas with French friend Alice, we’re on at 7.30pm on June 9th and that is scarily close now. If you recall, we did a similar event last year, but that was (loosely) a play within which we read out stories or recounted myths and legends. This year there’ll be a bit more of a lecture-like feel to it I think, with snippets of physics and history as well as stories read out by me and told free-form by Alice. Come along if you’re in the vicinity and you might be interested in time travel, calendar adjustments, and the standardisation of time.

On top of that, Ilkley Writers are going to be at Morley Arts Festival at the end of September. We began planning our performance in detail yesterday and I’m particularly looking forward to it because of my long association with the town. Big Brother practically lives at Morley library.

Right, back to the fine-tuning for York. Accompanied by a cup of tea, naturally.

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

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Bill Bryson’s eminently readable style makes this doorstopper of a book about one spectacular summer most enjoyable. It was much more focused than At Home and I learnt all kinds of fascinating things. Mainly about early aircraft.

He managed to highlight the web of connections between all the big players at the time – politicians, newspaper men, aviators, inventors, sports stars. He also used the summer of 1927 as a gateway to other history (this laid the foundations for that or was the culmination of this) though it does seem to have been a particularly packed season. I wondered if you could get a similar book out of any year or if there really was something special about this one.

Charles Lindbergh and various attempts at long-distance flights are the unifying thread to the book but even though I’m not especially interested in that, Bill Bryson made it captivating. It’s the baseball sections that mystified me – he did throw in the odd explanation but I’m so unfamiliar with baseball that it didn’t help. I’m afraid I sort of skimmed them in the same way I do the hunting interludes in Anthony Trollope, or cricket matches in PG Wodehouse.

All in all though, an entertaining book about an age and a place that much has been written about. Certainly read it if you’ve enjoyed Bryson’s previous books regardless of subject matter, and give it a go if (like me) you have a certain fascination for 1920s America.

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

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Set mainly in November 1912 among the chaos of suffragette-besieged London, this debut novel is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a romp through Edwardian society.

Frankie George (Francesca to her mother) is a trouser-wearing twenty-something reporter for the London Evening Gazette, relegated to the Ladies’ Page due to her gender (and, if we’re honest, her inexperience). With ageing ex-courtesan ‘Twinkle’ she writes week after week about fashion and high society when what she really wants is breaking news. Ebony Diamond is a suffragette who is also a trapeze artist, and when she goes missing shortly after Frankie tries to interview her, Frankie decides she could be on to something.

What follows is an adventure through hidden London, taking in the circus, Soho clubs, fetishists, suffragettes and sensationalist reporters. It’s done with a light touch despite featuring a couple of murders, and the outrageous character of Twinkle provides some highly amusing interludes.

Although the suffragettes feature heavily, I would say this novel is more about independence than about suffragettes specifically. Working women, trouser-wearing women, women who’ve left their husbands or want the vote, but in all cases don’t want the conventional life set down for them at birth. It makes for some odd alliances, and shows how it’s possible to be forward-thinking in one respect but utterly closed-minded in others.

Frankie was an endearingly flawed character, liable to go off half-cocked, untidy and disorganised, constantly broke and seemingly forever noticing how bad she smelt (sleeping in her only clean shirt yet again). The ‘Sapphic tendencies’ people kept accusing her of were never explicitly confirmed, but it added an extra dimension to the struggle for independence. She was generally optimistic and trying hard to help others and further her career.

That dilemma at the heart of her journalistic efforts was another good strand of the book. Just because it’s a good story doesn’t mean you should publish it, it could ruin lives. How far is she willing to go for her newspaper career?

Lucy Ribchester had obviously done plenty of historical research (and then played fast and loose with bits of it, as any good historic fiction writer needs to), but at times it did feel a bit like she’d thrown everything and the kitchen sink at the book. There were a couple of circumstances or sub-plots that I assumed would become relevant later, but never seemed to.

I wouldn’t be sure how to categorise this novel. Historical fiction yes, but with humour and a modern touch that made me (who has read a fair bit of steampunk) keep expecting it to take off on a flight of fancy. In a way that was supplied by the trapeze element, I certainly learnt more about circus performers than suffragettes from reading The Hourglass Factory. There was a murder investigation running through the book, but it wasn’t really a whodunnit. There is an element of thriller later on as facts come together and the race is on. In the end it’s about Frankie trying to get on with life on her own terms, and landing herself in varying amounts of trouble and friendship along the way.