It was an interesting time, a century ago. A war which affected most of Europe and beyond, a flu epidemic which killed even more people globally than the war (bloody as it was) and authors as diverse as Muriel Spark and Spike Milligan were born. And, as we have been reminded widely on the news and through social media, women got the vote. Well, not all women. Women over 30, who owned property or were married to a property owner – compared to all men over 21 (or over 19 if they were in military service) – so it wasn’t exactly equality but it was a start. But how much more equal are things now? In Words Not Deeds Helen Pankhurst (a great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) looks at the progress of women’s rights from 1918 to the present day.
Pankhurst looks at a number of areas – politics, money, identity, conflict, culture and power – and discusses the historical background from 100 years ago, talks through the developments and, finally, gives a score (out of 5) for how far we have progressed. In some sectors we have done pretty well – identity in particular get 4/5 because women now have so much more freedom to dress as they please and conduct their personal relationships in their own way. It isn’t a perfect situation but great advances have been made. Conflict, on the other hand, which includes issues of violence against women and their feelings of safety sadly only scored 1/5. Reading the case studies and the personal stories it is hard to see how any higher score could be given. I won’t spoil the overall score for you but suffice it to say we still have nearly as far to go as we have come…
The most important thing I have taken from reading this book is that all women’s experience of life is different. Meaning that although I have had a good life – with access to a loving family, decent food and housing, an excellent education and healthcare – this is not the same for everyone. Whether we like it or not there are many factors which can affect how women are able to access all the things we take for granted – ethnicity, age, disability, sexual and gender identity among others – and we need to stop assuming that our own experience is the norm. Reading the stories from women who have had such different lives from my own makes me appreciate such diversity. When we remember to listen to all these voices we will be able to improve life for everyone, women and men.
I’ve lived in Yorkshire now for nearly 17 years – I’ve lived in the North for most of my life even though I’ve never quite picked up the accent – and I have, on Yorkshire Day, taken the declaration of integrity. Yorkshire is now home and, by declaration, I am a Yorkshirewoman (even if trips down to Essex to see my Mum are referred to as ‘going home’ – home is also where your Mum is…). I am fascinated by the history, geography and people of my adopted home so was very keen to read Morris’ book – I do also love the idea of history being ‘lyrical’!
Years ago I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which explained, among other things, how geography guided the way that civilizations, represented by guns and steel, spread around the world. Reading this book reminded me of this – the part that Yorkshire’s geography, the rivers, hills, valleys and coasts, played in history. In where settlements were built, where roads led and where industry developed: which, in turn, led to art, poetry and literature, and, maybe more importantly, to the Yorkshire character. It is not a linear history – we move back and forth through time to a certain extent – and it isn’t just about places. People feature strongly some, like J.B. Priestley or Winifred Holtby, well-known and others either known locally (like Richard Oastler in Bradford) or just to their families. Some should be better known, in my opinion, and, like so many good history books, this one has suggested lots of subjects I need to find out about. If you don’t know much about Yorkshire then read this book: you’ll learn a lot. And if you think you do know a lot about Yorkshire (am I looking at Rob here? possibly…) then still read this book: there’s so much more to know than you think.
As a small child I was often told that I had eyes bigger than my belly. You know, I’d see a great big slice of cake or an adult-sized portion of fish and chips and would think I could eat it all. Which would end up with a poorly looking Jane and a plate still half full of whatever it was I had been sure I could eat all of? Well, to be honest, I don’t have that problem any more. Not much is bigger than my belly any more! Although I have sort of transferred that over-enthusiastic optimism to books so maybe now my eyes are bigger than my, um, (frantically tries to think of a body part I read with which isn’t my eyes – fails) free time. At the start of the year I set my Goodreads Reading Challenge target and, since I was expecting to blog about twice a week, I decided that I’d set it for two books a week. That’s 126 books in the year. Not a problem when I do include quite a lot of children’s’ titles (picture books are brilliant for keeping your target in sight) but I have had a couple of blips. At the end of August I was way ahead of schedule and had even had a chance to finish a history of the Spanish Flu (although that took a month of slotting a few chapters here and there amongst the fiction) so I settled down to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for our book group meeting in mid-September. I read in the introduction that Pullman considers it to be one book, in three parts, so listed it on Goodreads as one. By the time I finished it, two weeks later, I realised my mistake. I had lost my lead over my target (even after I changed the listing to show that I had read three books rather than one…) and was concerned that I’d not be able to allow myself to read any of the things I enjoy but which take more time – usually non-fiction like popular science or history. Boo.*
Well, of course, there’s history and there’s history. And for me any history written by Alison Weir is pretty much irresistible. Like me she has an abiding interest in medieval history (although we’ll both dabble in Tudors if pressed…) and wants to think about how women shaped that world. In Queens of the Conquest Weir is looking at the very earliest queens of England – the wives of the Norman kings, William the Conqueror, Henry I and Stephen – and the Empress Maud, daughter of Henry I and rival to her cousin Stephen during a bitter civil war known as the Anarchy. Which took me back to reading my Mum’s Jean Plaidy books as a child and my realisation that the best way to be a Norman queen was to be called Matilda…
The problem with books written about this period is that primary evidence is fairly thin on the ground and that which does exist is not necessarily easy to work with. Charters issued by queens on both their own and their husband’s behalf, a few letters and, in the case of Maud, some fairly scathing comments from the Gesta Stephani (a contemporary history written very much on Stephen’s side of things). The book works with this material well – it can seem a little dry at points but it certainly made me realise that the phenomenon of women being judged on their looks, compliant personalities and ability to bear children is not the invention of modern celebrity magazines. All of the queens in this book seem to be strong women, acting as regent for their husbands and making decisions both political and financial on their behalf. Maud was the queen best known to me – the daughter of a king, wife of a king and mother to a king but, sadly for her, never crowned as queen in her own right. I was intrigued to read about the possibilities of her relationship with her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I’m quite excited to read that this is the first book in a projected series of four books. I have really been enjoying Weir’s fiction about the wives of Henry VIII but reading about the unvarnished facts (or as many as are available to historians) of the wives of earlier kings is a different kind of pleasure. More like a medieval ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ than a 12th Century Hello magazine – both popular generally but the former is far more my cup of tea.
*Yes. I know the Goodreads target is just a bit of fun. I can read whatever I like and take as long as I like but, heck, I just enjoy setting a goal and going for it. Whether it’s a two book a week reading schedule or eating every single slice of the pizza I ordered – I should be able to put this on my cv…
We seem to be living in an era of anniversaries. As well as the whole period from 2014 to 2018 being a commemoration of the Great War (with honour given to major individual battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele) 2017 has also seen the Centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration and the birth of Arthur C. Clarke, the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the film The Graduate and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Closer to home it is the 150th birthday of the beautiful building my workplace is housed in (an excuse for a party of some sort? I do hope so…) I’m not sure I remember quite so many major anniversaries in my childhood and youth (the only ones that stand out are the Queen’s various Jubilees – mostly because of time off school/my own wedding….) but perhaps I just didn’t care enough to remember them. One event which has recently (October 2016) marked what I tend to refer to as a ‘tombola’ anniversary – one ending in a 5 or a 0 – is the Jarrow March. You know, the Jarrow March? The march from Jarrow to, um, London? Because of jobs? Or something? The one which so many people have forgotten about, never heard of or have dismissed as some kind of bolshie nonsense? Well, that’s the one which Stuart Maconie has made the subject of his latest piece of travel writing.
Maconie’s travel writing is always worth a read. He is a keen observer of the places he visits and is never afraid to give you his own views. In this book he decides to follow in the footsteps of the Jarrow Marchers, to find out why they marched, how they were received and whether they are remembered: also, he fancies a nice long walk. Along the way he compares 1936 – with its rise in right-wing politics, wide-spread unemployment and reliance on food handouts and other benefits, and frequent protest marches – with the present day. Some of the comparisons are quite chilling, if I’m honest – at some points the only improvement we seem to have is the NHS – but he is also happy to point out that his nightly accommodation, at least, was a great improvement on the drill halls, schools and churches the marchers were offered. He never downplays the physical effort the march represented but, in order to keep appointments with certain people he meets via social media, he does occasionally jump on a bus. These meetings are often with people who are able to fill in background information on the marchers but he also takes in choral music, a classical piano recital, a pub covers band and a wake. He speaks fondly of many of the marchers themselves (and their dog) and of the Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, but is scathing of most of the Labour party of the time (who made every effort to distance themselves from the marchers). He’s not fond of Corbyn either but does end his march by meeting Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen (elected after the murder of Jo Cox) in the House of Commons.
This book is a fascinating history of the Jarrow March of 1936 but also of the country as it was at the end of last year. In many ways it feels as if very little has changed but maybe books like this can help us – through gentle humour and a little anger – to make sure that the history of the late 1930s is not allowed to repeat itself.
It always seemed unlikely that anyone would write a book which combined two of my specific reading interests – fiction set in the early modern history period (think Tudors to Regency) and steampunk. Those pre-industrial eras just don’t lend themselves to the genre as well as the Victorian and Edwardian periods but they are an age which lends itself to the magical and mysterious. Which is why, I suspect, that Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird reads, for me, like a steampunk novel with Elizabethan overtones – specifically like one featuring John Dee. Let me clarify….
Rotherweird is a very unusual town. Back towards the end of the reign of Queen Mary a group of children came to light – brilliant but somehow potentially dangerous – and they are sent into isolation in the small town of Rotherweird. There they are placed in the care of Sir Henry Grassal who educates them, against the wishes of the Queen, so that they develop their prodigious abilities in maths, philosophy and sciences. Scroll forward to the modern day and Rotherweird is still cut off in many ways from the modern world. No cars (bar one), no computers, no connection to the politics or government of the real world – governed by their own laws: the comprehensive regulations. There are some familiar things – pilates for example – and the community funds itself by selling the products of its brilliant scientific minds. For Jonah Oblong the new history teacher at the town’s school, however,modern history is the only permitted subject. In fact the laws of the town mean that no-one can study its history or anything at all from before 1800. This is a town which history is meant to have forgotten but history has a habit of asserting itself.
This book has a huge cast of characters – mostly with strange names which I would find far too Dickensian in a Dickens novel – and a fascinating plot involving an isolated community, an unsettling parallel world and strange and powerful forces. It has humour, action, adventure and just a hint of romance. Some of the mysteries are resolved but many more remain. There are still more of Rotherweird’s secrets to be revealed in future so I’m pleased to hear a sequel is in the pipeline.
There are some times in life when you suddenly find yourself doing something that, not so long ago, you would never have believed possible. For example, I recently joined a running club. Yes. An actual running club – I even actually go out most weeks and run with them. The me from a few years ago who used to get out of breath running for a bus is absolutely gobsmacked so it is perfectly okay for you to express astonishment. To be fair, I’m mostly surprised that I’ve given up a couple of hours of reading time each week (not to mention a lie-in on any Saturday I’m off work) but, so far, it has been worth it. Slightly achy legs, the occasional soaking and only one major set of bruises is a fair return for all the fresh air, country views and second breakfasts eaten after a parkrun. It is probably not immediately obvious how this preamble about running fits in with Alison Weir’s second volume in the series of six historical novels about the wives of Henry VIII but bear with me…
The first volume – on Katherine of Aragon – looked at the role of women in general and Queens in particular. Henry’s first queen is sure that she must live up to those roles but Anne Boleyn, his second, is, we have always been told, a rebel who wants to overthrow this system. This novel gives us Anne’s view of the world: her childhood, her family relationships and her girlhood in the courts of Renaissance Europe. Here she is enthralled by female monarchs who think in a new way, who feel that women have greater roles to play than just wives and mothers, who value women’s independence, intelligence and opinions. Most importantly she is told, by the women she respects at court that, above all, a woman’s most important quality is her virginity.
This is not the story of Anne Boleyn which I expected. Cleverly, Weir doesn’t give us the obvious – Anne as seductress or Anne as pawn in parental plan – but a highly original view of a much written-about woman. Once again, her knowledge of her subject and meticulous research has led her to a highly original, if fictional, version of events. There is overlap with Katherine’s story, of course, and what has been particularly interesting for me has been the fluctuating character of Henry himself. The courtly lover, the tyrannical husband, the statesman and the would-be head of a dynasty are all there but, at the heart of it all is a man afraid that he will never have a son to inherit the kingdom he rules. Like me with running Anne, according to Weir, didn’t set out to become a queen – but when she did accept this as her role (had queen-ness thrust upon her as it were) she tried to do the best she could. I feel the same way about running (but hope that it all ends better in my case). I am also now looking forward to the Jane Seymour novel – I think Weir may even make her interesting for me…
Sometimes I’m a total fool to myself. Case in point: I love reading history books but I have painted myself into a metaphorical corner which means I hardly ever read any actual history any more. Here is my problem – see what you think. I like to post reviews of as many books as I can – I’ve often been given access to books for free by publishers and authors, the least I can do is feedback what I think. I aim to post reviews here once or twice a week and if I don’t post here I do review on Netgalley, Waterstones.com or Goodreads. I didn’t used to interact with Goodreads much but, at the beginning of this year my eye was caught by their ‘reading challenge’ where contributors were saying how many books they planned to read in a year. Many were pledging to read 30 or 40 books and, if you work, have children or other responsibilities, this is an impressive target: but I don’t have any kids and I work 4 days a week in a bookshop so I thought I’d go a bit higher. And because I’m daft I decided that one book a week wasn’t enough – my target is 126 books in 2017. Two books a week. And, because a really good history book can take me a week or so to fully appreciate, I thought I’d have to miss out on all the fabulous publishing on the subject coming out this year. Sad face. However, I managed to get myself two or three books ahead of schedule, so I decided to treat myself to an author whose history books I have previously enjoyed (and found very easily readable). My 2017 history duck has been broken!
The first Ian Mortimer book I read was his Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and I loved the way that it covered all the aspects of history which are often overlooked. I used to enjoy a bit of light Live Role Playing – which mostly involved being a medieval-style peasant for a weekend – so it was great to be able to read about the food, clothes and toilet facilities I was role-playing. I have never dressed up and pretended to be a Restoration lady (apart from the odd bit of corsetry, but that’s another story) but I think this book would give me some excellent pointers on how to do it. This is a history of all the people – the Kings (and their many hangers-on, wives, and mistresses), the rich and the poor – and it is the history of their whole lives – what they eat, wear, do for fun and where they…well…poo. Mortimer is convincing about why the late 17th century is a period of revolution: not just in terms of Royal succession or religious tolerance but also in the realms of science, literature, the belief in reason as a higher priority than religion in many areas, and also just in attitudes to life. Women are still very much second-class citizens, the property of some man or other, but some of them become the earliest female actors, authors, painters, and travel writers.
The world Mortimer describes is often ( as 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said) ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It is full of things we find unfair, ridiculous or even barbaric; it is very smelly, unhealthy and downright dangerous but it is also exciting, full of change and development and contains some brilliant writing (note to self: read some Pepys). It is also starting to become more and more like the world we know today.