Furious Justice

International Women’s Day started brilliantly for me, just after midnight, with a seaside rendezvous of intercontinental friendship.

ScalesTwo of my best friends, research partners, and professional allies were meeting up for the first time over in Australia and – along with one of their daughters – they Facetimed me from their beach café. It was daytime, light, windy, early autumn. They were drinking coffee and eating ice cream. On my, other side, of the world, it was too dark and dreich to remember the day’s earlier spring-time sunset. I was drinking night-time tea, already in pyjamas. I couldn’t really hear all they were saying, but the discussion covered emus and ostriches, travel plans and mutual acquaintances, and seeing them was an amazing feat of technology and an emotional gift.

The next day (or at least one night’s sleep later) it was the dawn of International Women’s Day in Scotland. I set about my work, slightly lacklustredly, checking social media a little too frequently. I saw an outpouring of shareable images and narratives of women current and historical, real and mythical. Untold stories, retold stories, hidden stories bustling to whisper, shout and sing their piece. People celebrating and congratulating, passing around statistics and pressing for action. I thought about my friends and my female colleagues, the way we lift each other up, support each other, console each other.

I saw brands aligning themselves with messages of equality. Good, I thought. The more capitalism can get on the side of feminism, the better, I thought. Despite the socialist origins of the day. Continue reading

Don’t Go Empty Handed

‘Don’t Go Empty Handed’: this was one of my English Grandma’s oft-repeated phrases when we would stay at her house as children. We would eat in the large sitting/dining room, where there was space to accommodate us all: Grandma, Grandad, Dad, Mum, my brother, and eventually my little sister, too.

MugsIt was a principle of ergonomic activity my Grandma was urging. We were eating in a different room from where the food was prepared, and then at the end of the meal we needed to transport dishes, leftovers and condiments, to be put away in cupboards and the fridge, and the washing up done. If any of us got up to fetch something from the kitchen – an extra knife, or a forgotten sauce – this would be the refrain. Take something on your way through. It was also a reminder of the labour of domestic work, the to-and-fro of daily meals.

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On (Re)reading The Handmaid’s Tale

fullsizerenderInspired by the sales spike of certain books in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, I went over to my bookshelf. Not to pull off George Orwell’s 1984 (one of the books with a new urgency to it) but to find, nestled among piles of other Virago titles, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel’s 1985 dystopian vision of the Republic of Gilead, in which women are forced to breed for the theocratic ruling class, has found new resonance as a US president who has openly and repeatedly demonstrated his misogyny takes office. Atwood’s book is shortly to be released as a TV mini-series, and was plugged (along with several other adverts which seemingly expressed values in opposition to Trump’s) during the 2017 Super Bowl.

Time, then, for me to re-read the book. I have an ulterior motive, too – the book I’ve been writing displays a perhaps not-too subtle influence from Atwood’s novel (my alternate world features cloaked women and constraints – including on reading and procreation – placed upon particular sectors of society). My mum, commenting on an early draft, recognised the influence immediately.

Before starting to reread, I thought back to when I read the book, in the 6th form at school. I remembered lending the copy to a friend, who returned it with an apology and a coffee stain. More precious about my books then than I am now (perhaps because I owned fewer of them), I was cross. I checked, and the stain is still there, running along the top edge of the pages.

fullsizerender-2I opened it up, and saw the teddy bear bookplate: ‘I can’t bear to be without my books’. This childish hangover marked that I’d got the book on my 18th birthday. I suspect I chose the book myself, though I can’t remember. By that time, I’d already read several other of Atwood’s books after being introduced to Surfacing by a forward-thinking A-level English Literature teacher. We’d made collages in class to represent the psychological landscape of the protagonist of Atwood’s second novel; its wild world of madness, nationalism and feminism. The same teacher also set us Tony Harrison’s V, a long poem written after the author had found graffiti on his parents’ Yorkshire gravestones. Its obscene language – ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘nigger’ – caused great controversy when it was televised in 1987 for Channel 4, and was still creating debate when recorded for BBC Radio 4 in 2013. Thinking back, I was lucky to have a teacher so keen to teach us very contemporary, and political, literature.

I’ve written elsewhere about traces of reading I’ve found in my Famous Five books. This copy of The Handmaid’s Tale revealed another history to me – the address of a young man, Laurie, who I’d met on the train home from an interview for a place at Oxford. He’d also been for an interview, and was heading back to Scarborough, I to Lincolnshire. I seem to remember I must have written to him, and we spoke on the phone after we had found out about our offers. In the age before mobile phones and social media, this was done self-consciously from the hallway of the family home.

I’d applied to one of the oldest and most traditional of colleges (mainly because I liked the buildings), and didn’t enjoy my interviews: one with an older tutor interrogated my understanding of a poem I was given to look at on the spot, and found baffling; and a second with two younger men who sat to either side of me so I couldn’t see them both at once. They’d asked me what I was reading outside of my set texts, so I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’d been reading on the train on the way down. They also seemed keener on getting a particular response from me to the text (that Gilead is the former United States, and Canada an escape route) than hearing about my opinions about the book, which I anyway hadn’t yet finished. Dissuaded by these men and their desire for me to utter a pre-determined answer to their literary questions, I chose instead to go to university in York, where my female interviewer seemed happily to listen to my appreciative description of the weather in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and its objective correlative role in character creation.

Life turns on such decisions, but the heat of their moment lessens as time goes on. Physical copies of books sometimes retain that heat within their pages, unfolding a previous life as the pages are turned once more. It’s one of the reasons why bookish people like to surround themselves with shelves of books, even if we know, rationally, we’re unlikely to read a particular copy again.

And yet today, though, I’m starting to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale:

I remember that yearning, of something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future.