The View From The Audience #5

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Wendy Jones: The Sex Lives of English Women

11th November, Galleries of Justice Museum

As an amorphous grey blob, my attitude towards sex has always been largely one of apathy, at least on a personal level. But when it comes to other people talking about it and their experiences, it can be eminently fascinating. Hearing from other people being open and honest and free will always be a uniquely healing experience, after all, if for no other reason than it makes the rest of us feel a little less weird.

With that said, if I’m being honest, my attention was largely caught by the synopsis for this event which boldly stated that ‘In the 700 years that books have been published in England, there has not been one that invites women to talk about what they want from sex.’

“That can’t be right!” I thought, “There has to be at least one.” So I sat and thought about it for a while.

You know that feeling you got when you first heard of the Bechdel test, and you realised how insultingly few mainstream works actually beat it? This was a lot like that.

Still, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the event. My initial concern was that it would be like my secondary school sex education, where a deeply unqualified biology teacher unveiled a diagram of the womb and squeaked ‘just say no’ at us for five minutes.

I needn’t have worried.

When asked why she wrote the book, Wendy Jones simply smiled and gave a deeply cogent statement. ‘Every inch of a woman’s body has so many rules…I say bugger that.’ At this point, I am completely on board.

The book is a non-fiction piece covering 24 separate women, all of whom identify as English. Each one was interviewed by Jones, in one session and for around three or so hours. Each one speaks about what it personally means to them to be a woman. It’s not, by Jones’ own admission, a statistical book. She chose the interviewees from a broad spectrum, but there was no mathematical formula to it.

Uniquely, Jones does not force any kind of narrative or point into the book. The interviews are all written from the first person perspective of the subject, at no point does Jones step in and add her own thoughts or judgement, she allows the words of the interviewee to sit, and the reader to interpret. Add to this that Jones takes everything said during the interviews at face value, and explicitly did not attempt to verify the women’s stories, the whole thing feels very conversational.

It’s like talk therapy in paperback form.

That’s not a joke. The interviews are frank and honest. They can be titillating, funny and deeply upsetting, sometimes shifting very quickly between the three.

For example, the section Jones read at the event was about a woman, whom Jones named Lois, who had recently come to realise that she was not straight. But it goes deeper than that, into the realm of compulsive fantasizing, and the lines between that and reality, as well as how pornography affected her psyche. I think it perhaps says a lot that the idea of a woman freely admitting to watching pornography, and a genre of pornography stereotypically consumed by heterosexual men at that, felt surprising. In short, it’s as much a piece on addiction as it is on sex.

This was then followed by a short section about a ninety-four year old woman, Mary, and her experiences as a land girl in the Second World War, ‘I was in the woods…and all the assembled troops were encamped overnight nearby. Americans and Canadians. Say no more.’ Her openness and frank way of speaking had us all in giggles, like everyone in the room was suddenly twelve years old again and listening to their grandmother’s inappropriate anecdotes.

Do you see what I mean about the mood shifts?

The rest of the event was taken up by Q&A. Jones chatted about some of the other women covered in the book, from a Buddhist nun to a sex healer. She’s writing a follow up book, about men this time. Apparently that’s been even heavier, to the point where’s she taken some time off from it.

All through this, I wonder if the book might have benefited from having input from Jones. She speaks with a sparkling wit and a delightful honesty. But then that might have taken away from that wonderful therapeutic feeling the book has, and it’s clear that that is her mission statement, so to speak. Every so often she mentions the importance of an open dialogue, of the healing power of sharing experiences.

Something that shines through all of her answers is Jones’ deep admiration for other women, calling each one unique, and her clear sense of empathy and compassion. It was at that point that I knew I had to buy the book. So I did.

No one book will ever get all of us exactly right. But this will more than suffice.

The Sex Lives of English Women, published by Serpent’s Tail.

The View From The Audience #4

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Writing Workshop: Where The Bodies Are Buried with Stephen Booth

Bromley House Library, Thursday 10th November

It is at this point in the week where my carefully cultivated aura of mystery must falter somewhat.  This is because in order to explain why I chose to attend this event, I must get a little personal.

I love crime fiction. I love detectives, I love piecing the mystery together, I love the clichés, the tropes, even the weird turns of phrase that have become ubiquitous. I love it so much that my dissertation for this year is a piece of detective fiction.

Basically, imagine me as the same amorphous grey blob, but now it’s wearing an ill-fitting trench coat and a fedora at a jaunty angle.

Also it has a drinking problem and doesn’t play by the rules but by god it gets results.

Sorry.

So, as you can probably imagine, I was rather excited from the get go. I stepped off the tram with a spring in my step. It was at this point that it started to rain. At least it was an appropriate aesthetic.

The workshop was in Bromley House Library, so it took me a good ten minutes running around Beastmarket Hill, asking every other shop in the area where it was. Turns out, it’s next to Game. But what a venue! If this event had taught me nothing more than where to find Bromley Library, I’d consider it time well spent. You need to be a member to enter normally, but they have tours every Wednesday. It’s a truly beautiful place, a grade II listed Georgian townhouse, and any lover of literature should check it out at least once.

The workshop was in one of the little reading rooms. Led by Stephen Booth, a writer with sixteen published books to his name, it was clear from the first few seconds that he knew his stuff.

In the first half, Booth talked about his experience writing crime fiction. Little known fact: crime fiction fans are apparently adorably nerdy, on the same sort of level as the trekkies. They actively seek out locations he mentions in the books, even when they don’t exist. It highlighted how important a sense of place is though, in any kind of fiction. People like to have that connection between the real world and the fictional world that they love.

Allow me to put on my writer hat for a bit while I talk about the more technical aspects Booth mentioned. Mostly, he focused on creating a sense of place and setting. As a writer, I’m rather bad at this so the advice was more than welcome. Perhaps the key advice given was about focusing on specific details. Nobody remembers the detective’s office, but they remember the mug with ‘number one mum’ written on it, the smashed pieces of an ashtray in the waste bin, and the unpaid phone bill left on the desk. Booth also drew attention to focusing on sensory aspects of a scene, even in little hints.

At this point we stopped talking for a little while and wrote together. There’s something great about writing in silence as a group, in a way that’s hard for me to describe. You can fill in your own joke there. Once we finished the true workshopping began, where we each read what we’ve written and get feedback.

Full disclosure here, I’ve done workshopping before as part of my degree course. But I know most of the people on that course, I’ve been working with them for over two years. You kind of forget how, for want of a better term, intimate it is to read your work out for a group of strangers. Still, it’s fantastically refreshing.

Plus, because every piece is crime fiction, each reading ends with a shuddery ‘oooh’ in reaction to the images people chose. One of the pieces which stood out involve the rather brutal and seemingly ritualistic murder of a fox. But everyone brought fantastic work to the table, considering it was all written over fifteen minutes and with no editing.

Perhaps the key thing about crime fiction that will stick with me was from Booth’s closing remarks: ‘People remember characters and place, and both of those things inform the other. They’ll struggle to tell you anything about plot.’ As a writer who tends to interact with other writers, I often forget about the perspective of the readers. I know how ‘technically’ important plot is. But readers love characters they identify with, places they can imagine, and images they can see. It’s why Booth’s readers like to visit the places in his books.

I hope one day I can inspire even a fraction of that devotion in my readers.

The wonderful Bromley House Library, this photo is taken from their website: https://bhlibrary.wordpress.com/

The View From The Audience #3

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Voices of Jewish and Muslim Writers at Mercure Hotel Wednesday 9th November

Those of you who read yesterday’s blog may have noticed a slightly wistful tone at the end. This is because, as I was writing it, I was watching the US election results come in. I went to bed expecting four years of mediocrity from Clinton, and woke up to find out that America had instead elected an actual gibbon as their president.

Good job on that, 2016. As years go, you’ve certainly been one.

It was on this sour note that I headed to the night’s event. In light of the hideous rhetoric slung about both during that particular campaign and much closer to home, it felt appropriate that that event be the Voices of Jewish and Muslim writers.

They say poetry is good for the soul, after all, and this is damn good poetry.

The event had four separate poets in all, all with different stories, different styles, and different ideas. It made for an eclectic mix of poetry that was wonderful to listen to. They were Michael Mehrdad Zand Ahanchian, Yvonne Green, Shamim Azad and Shaee Raouf, who stepped in at the last minute.

Ahanchian’s pieces, from his collection Messier Objects, were more esoteric, short little bites of poetry, best read all at once. They made masterful use of silence, with sudden, jarring stopping points. That said, the required a certain level of context to truly appreciate. For example, one section of the poems were inspired by the first Muslim woman to receive a George Cross medal. That extra layer of context will make these poems much more rewarding when read multiple times on one’s own.

Raouf’s poems had a righteousness about them, passion dripped off every purposeful line. Every poem was like a punch in the gut, and I say that with all the appreciation in the world. It is with complete sincerity that I say to describe them in any more detail would be to spoil them, and perhaps diminish that initial impact. Each one read like listening to a friend talk, building and building in anger until they reach a peak then stop as suddenly as they had started. ‘Numbers’ in particular, was a powerful piece, and one I urge you to search for if you can. Tellingly, a poem she wrote on the train on the way to the event stuck with me the hardest, ‘Where do forced lines lead us? What kind of line are you?’

Azad’s poems had a unique sense of musicality to them. Tonight, she focused on the theme of change, particularly in regards to cultural integration, speaking of both as positive and negative forces. Throughout one poem, she slipped elegantly from English to Bengali and back again, in a way that felt utterly natural and melded into the beat of the poem. As she herself put it, ‘speaking in my mother tongue makes me feel strong.’ Language, it was noted by a fellow audience member, has the power to hurt and harm. But it is empowering too. Azad also brought the theme of identity to the forefront, remarking ‘I am not an anomaly, an exception, I am a normal British Bangladeshi Bengali Muslim woman.’

Green’s poem are very much grounded in history. Many of her poems, including what I felt was the highlight of the night ‘The Farhud: Baghdad’s Shabu’ot 1st and 2nd 1941’, are explicitly about real events, real people and real locations, or at least refer to such things. She joked at one point that, with the steady rise of anti-Semitism, it almost felt to her like she had to write back. As with Raouf, there’s a real undercurrent of righteous fury, an anger that is at once harrowing and cathartic. The realism helps there, I think. There’s nowhere for the injustices to hide. There’s a texture to the poems as a result, and it gives some of the darker stanzas much more bite.

Ultimately, the thorny issue of ‘Identity’ wasn’t so much answered tonight as underscored with a big question mark pointing to it. Writing enables the individual to find their own truth, but as Raouf noted, ‘it is not easy to write your truth.’

This isn’t all talk. Dr Jennifer Langer, the discussant for evening, helped establish Exiled Writers Ink, a charity that works to provide a platform for exiles and refugees across the UK. We’re reaching a point in history now where these voices will be more important than ever before. The more we talk, the more we listen, the more we can understand each other and keep moving forward.

That’s a truth that I can get behind.

The View From The Audience #2

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Sheila Rowbotham: Rebel Crossings at Five Leaves Bookshop Tuesday 8th November

Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers, and Radicals in Britain and the United States. Published by Verso Books and available to purchase at Five Leaves Bookshop.

The first Women’s Liberation Movement march in London, March 6th, 1971.

As a rule of thumb, when elections roll around, Nottingham can usually be guaranteed to be a little blob of red in a sea of blue. So starting my week with a lecture from socialist writer and feminist, Shelia Rowbotham seemed appropriate. Add to that that her new book, Rebel Crossings, is about the interweaving of liberalism, socialism and feminism in the late-nineteenth century, and you’ve got a recipe for an event that I was rather keen to attend.

I did a little research on Rowbotham before heading to the event, of course. By this, I mean that I googled her name, saw a very long list of accomplishments and immediately closed the browser in shame. This is a person who was at the forefront of the Second Wave of Feminism, campaigning for equal pay, free contraception, 24-hour nurseries and the like, sticking to her values even when they became unfashionable. Throughout it all, the needs of working class women has been at the forefront of her discourse, something other critics often neglect. Meanwhile, some mornings I can’t even muster the wherewithal to roll out of bed to find food, even when I know there is ice cream in the house.

And yet Rowbotham has never especially presented herself as a feminist icon. When someone mentioned her organising the 1970 Woman’s Liberation Conference, a landmark moment in modern feminism, she quickly interjected ‘Not on my own!’ It’s refreshing.

It is at this point that I should probably draw attention to the Five Leaves Bookshop, one of Nottingham’s hidden gems. We have far too many of those, you walk around the city for long enough you’ll have hidden gems stuck in your shoes. Tucked away in one of Nottingham’s many little alleyways, it bills itself as ‘Nottingham’s radical bookshop.’ I don’t know what image that conjures in your mind, but for me, it wasn’t the endearingly cosy little bookshop I found myself in. It was a lovely place to be. Also, it had lots of plants. Plants improve all things.

Anyway, back to Rebel Crossings. To call the book a passion project is to do it a disservice, it is clear from the way Rowbotham talks about it that it is inspired by areas and people that have influenced her throughout her life, particularly Edward Carpenter, the so-called Sheffield Socialist. Can we all agree that he sounds like a superhero from a silver age comic book? In any case, the book is a work of non-fiction about six radicalised, idealistic young socialists rapidly approaching the dawn of the twentieth century.

Passion is infectious, and listening to Rowbotham was eminently fascinating. She mentioned, in passing, that she’d been actively researching the material that appears in Rebel Crossing since 2009, and it shows. She spoke of the lives of the various people the book covers in the same way you might discuss members of your own family. Of particular note to me was William Bailie, who would apparently stand outside in the mancunian rain to protest, and whose stance on wicker chairs resulted in union disputes that led to him moving to America. But all six characters are connected, it is to Rowbotham’s credit that she has managed to piece these stories together from various disparate primary sources.

A few years ago a friend of mine told me ‘Don’t act like this period of history is any more important than any other simply because you’re in it.’ History has always had an amusing tendency to repeat itself, and this becomes very obvious with the reactions of the other attendees. The various anecdotes of the lives of these radicals brought not stoic historicising, but amused tittering and guilty grimaces. We saw elements of ourselves in these people who lived more than a century ago. The whole thing felt very timeless, as Rowbotham discussed socialism, self-expression, secularism, yoga, new unionism, pregnancy and free love with aplomb and wit. A stand out moment was when she talked about the protest methods used by strikers in Bristol, which involved throwing bricks at scabs and stealing their food. This along with scandalous affairs, children born out of wedlock (named Sunrise, which is so adorable I might actually cry) and bitter arguments about ‘doing instead of talking’ seems so at odds with our ideas about the late Victorian era. And yet this is real history. True history.

Add to this a few contextual facts that were at once amusing and deeply depressing. The fact of the matter is that these people came from a world that was growing rapidly disillusioned with the political climate, where the working class were regularly dehumanised to the point that they fought, not just for economic gain but ‘to prove that they were men’. It’s hard not to see the idealism of these young socialists, their attempts to build bridges and tear down societal walls, and feel genuinely heartbroken at how little has changed in spite of their efforts.

Hopefully, we’ll get to live in a world where those walls keep falling, rather than being built up. Who knows?