Wednesday, March 20, 2013

London immortals

There is no statue to Mary Wollstonecraft anywhere in the world. There is, however, a sprinkling of public memorials to prominent women in central London. The local chapter of United Nations Women organised a walking tour of half a dozen of them last Saturday. Despite the persistent rain, a goodly crowd assembled, including a pair of self-possessed twelve year olds. Each statue had its designated champion, telling us about their chosen person, from national heroine to forgotten obscurity. Here is the group, listening to the story of Edith Cavell, at the impressive memorial outside the National Portrait Gallery. I even found the opportunity to expound for the benefit of Mary on the Green.

The walk started in Bloomsbury at Tavistock Square, wandered via Lincoln's Inn Fields to the Strand, along to Trafalgar Square, then Pall Mall and Whitehall and finally Parliament, a satisfying circuit through literary, legal, and legislative London.

The full list was:
Louisa Aldrich-Blake (1865-1925), the first female surgeon in Britain.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), a writer at the forefront of British Modernism.
Margaret MacDonald (1870 – 1911), a feminist and social reformer. 
Edith Cavell (1865-1915), a pioneering nurse more famous for her death. 
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), not only a pioneer of nursing but also of statistics.
Women in World War II, the only sculpture not of a specific person. 
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the leader of the suffragette movement. 

There are others: Time Out lists Violet Szabo and Sarah Siddons. The labour of love that is London Remembers provides endless browsing fascination; here's their page on the military monument. And the Victorian Web is very good between 1837 and 1901, as e.g. with Florence Nightingale

I've spent ages and ages making a Google Map, Statues of prominent women, with links and everything. Do have a look

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A musical birthday

Mary Wollstonecraft's 254th birthday will be celebrated by Chorus of Dissent and the Elastic Band, "featuring music performed in London during her lifetime".

The venue is Stoke Newington, in her day a village known for its Quakers, just as Newington Green, where she had her school a mile away across the fields, was associated with the Rational Dissenters, now Unitarians. The difference is that Stokey was the centre of the Church of England parish: it had St Mary's. In the eighteenth century this was still the little medieval building, but the sprawl of the metropolis a century later necessitated the construction of a Victorian barn (unusually, directly opposite its predecessor). Now St Mary's Old Church is on the way to becoming an arts venue, and St Mary's New Church appears to be thriving.

The tickets have not yet been released, but pencil in 5:30 pm on Saturday 27 April 2013 for a "delightfully short concert from Stoke Newington’s very own choir and professional orchestra". We are promised "scenes from Handel’s Messiah ... juxtaposed with Haydn’s Creation, the whole presented in our inimitable and inclusive Dissenting style". And who are these singers?
Dissenters was set up by Ruth Whitehead to offer local, inclusive and excellent creative arts experiences, without one iota of dumbing down. Drawing on her background as a professional musician she set up Chorus of Dissent and the professional orchestra, the Elastic Band. All Dissenters’ events are sponsored by her company Ruth Whitehead Associates, your local investment advisers and IFAs.
Lots more about Chorus of Dissent on their website. Here's how they began:
The 21st Century Dissenters gathered under an urban apple tree in the garden of a Thomas Cubitt house in Albion Road, Stoke Newington London N16, to discuss following in the footsteps of the local nonconformist heritage. Shamelessly leaning on our distinguished history of freethinkers, philanthropists and artists, from famous feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft to Champagne Charlie (musical hall artist George Leybourne), Dissenters London N16 came into being.

Photo of the two St Mary spires 
by Tarquin Binary via Wikimedia Commons, 
used under Creative Commons share-alike licence.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Hidden re-appears

With the kind permission of the artist himself, Red Saunders.

Red Saunders created Mary Wollstonecraft and the Dissenters of Newington Green 1781 as part of his Hidden from History series. Thanks to the Socialist Worker, I am pleased to report that it is visible once more, this time in the People's History Museum, until the end of September. I wrote about the creation of this elaborate photomontage here.

[This is my 200th post, over two and half years. Not bad going.]

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The little girl who said "That's not fair!"

This morning I had the pleasure and privilege of presenting Mary Wollstonecraft to a whole primary school. The children were a delight to meet, and asked such sharp questions. I bet Islington's most influential educator would have loved to know them. She was the first to call for boys and girls to be educated together, the rich and the poor to spend years in each others' company: a national education in the truest sense.

First, I told the story of Mary Wollstonecraft, mostly of her childhood, anecdotes of standing up to bullies. Afterwards, I spoke to two of the oldest classes, one after the other, very different in flavour. I answered their questions and went where the discussion took us:
When was feminism invented? [N.B. I never used that word.]
Why couldn't girls go to school? [Because it had always been that way, and things needed to change.]
What did Mary die of? [The doctor not washing his hands. Cue a whole piece on maternal and infant mortality in Britain and in poor countries.]
What happened to the baby? [She was named Mary too, and grew up to write Frankenstein. Any bored kids at the back sat up straight.]
One class tenaciously tried to find some living relative:
What happened to her first baby? [I skated over that, lacking the skill to introduce suicide safely to pre-teens.]
The other Mary, did she have any children? [Yes, and all died except one.]
Did they have any children? [One by adoption, but none by birth.]
What about the big brother, the bully? [Ned became a lawyer. His son and daughter left England, ashamed of MW's reputation, and moved to Sydney.]
Some of the most acute questions came from girls wearing the hijab; some other hijabis were silent. The children who spoke were all completely fluent little Londoners, but of course I don't know about the ones who didn't speak, how long they've been here, how much they understand. One of the boys, who hadn't been paying much attention, said, "So was she just about rights for women then?" and my heart sunk a little, because I'd been saying just the opposite for the previous hour. "No, she wanted rights for everyone, for everyone treat each other decently."

Aside from that, though, it was all thought-provoking and enthusiastic. Another boy asked, "She said going to school was important. Why is it important?" I said, "That is such a wonderful question that I'm not going to answer it; I'm going to let the whole class tell us what they think." And we heard quite a range of answers: to learn to read and write, for respect, to get a job, to get a good job, to get inspired.

I forgot to ask the headteacher's permission to name the school, so I won't, but let's just say an inner London primary, responsible for hundreds of junior balls of energy, ranging from about five to eleven years old. The beautiful building has a pair of large interconnecting assembly spaces which double as the dining room and gym, so first I spoke with the youngest half of the school and then was whisked through a door into the other room to repeat myself for the older lot. Key stages one and two, as they are known in England.

My host teacher offered me music as an intro, to cover the classes walking in, and happened to have a CD of Tracy Chapman. I leapt at the chance to play "Fast Car": it wouldn't mean anything to the kids, but the teachers might get it. "You see my old man's got a problem/ He live with the bottle that's the way it is/ He says his body's too old for working/ I say his body's too young to look like his."

And this is how I began the story:
I'm going to tell you a story about a little girl who said THAT'S NOT FAIR. Have any of you ever said THAT'S NOT FAIR? Maybe you said it to your mother or father, or sister or brother, or teacher or classmate. Maybe yesterday or even this morning! Can you say THAT'S NOT FAIR? Let's practise.
Always a good idea to have a bit of interactivity, a phrase for the audience to shout on cue. Now for the setting. I don't know to what extent these modern children can imagine such a long-ago world:
This little girl's name was Mary, but before I tell you about her, I have to tell you about where she lived. It was very far away from us, not in place but in time. She lived in London, but London a long long time ago, when almost everything was different...
So, in this once-upon-a-time London, there was a family with a mum and a dad and a big brother and a little girl called Mary, and lots of little brothers and sisters. Sometimes Mary's family was quite happy together, but a lot of the time they were not very happy at all.  
One reason was because the parents worried about money, and the father went to the pub and drank with his friends. He drank a LOT. And he came home drunk and in a BAD mood, and he would shout at Mary and her brothers and sisters, and he would shout at Mary's mother, and sometimes he would hit the children and hit his wife too. What do you think about that? THAT'S NOT FAIR!
Alcoholism and domestic violence, as child-appropriately as possible. I was acutely aware that some children in the room may never have witnessed an adult slap a child, that the very notion might be shocking to them, while others may experience drunken mayhem in their own homes on a regular basis, and that no adult might actually have told them that what they are living through is wrong, it's not their fault, and it's not normal. I want the lucky ones to have some inkling of how lucky they are, and the unlucky ones to know they aren't alone. I wonder what the kids told their parents when they got home from school.

My main anecdote was about the ship in the storm, and how Mary stood up to the captain, and insisted he rescue the sailors in danger, no matter what flag they sailed under, because we are all human beings and must help each other. (Why am I surprised that telling these tales swiftly becomes so didactic?) And I concluded:
Eventually Mary came back to London and decided to be a writer. She wrote a book for teachers and parents, and a book of stories for children, and she wrote for magazines, and she translated from other languages into English (maybe some of you can speak other languages), and then she wrote two famous books. She looked around the world and she saw so many things that were wrong. She said THAT'S NOT FAIR!  
In the first book she said that everyone should have rights, that fairness is important, that we should all share power and responsibility. In the second book she said that women and men are equally clever and equally important, and that girls and boys both deserve to learn to read and write. Going to school is so important that all children should be allowed to, and their dads and mums can't stop them. 
So if we look around now, we can still see things that are wrong. Sometimes we still see one person hurting another, or taking more than their share. And we can say THAT'S NOT FAIR! and try to change things for the better, like Mary did.
Mary with the IGNITE crowd: sex and suicide and searching for silver. With the London Socialist Historians: radical international politics. With the WI (more hipster than hip replacement): women's rights. With primary school children: standing up to bullies, valuing education. Next on my wishlist: telling the Frontline Club about England's first war correspondent and first salaried journalist. (First female? First ever? I'd better do my research.)

Painting: "Sister and brother" by Pál Balkay (1785–1846) 
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Two Marys: A Conversation Piece

Last night saw an encounter between Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, a rare one-off performance of The Two Marys: A Conversation Piece.  Sasha Hails played the mother, speaking with the wisdom of the afterlife, and Victoria Ross the daughter, still in the first grief of her widowhood in her mid-20s.

The setting was the very undramatic Camden Local Studies & Archives Centre. (The Centre is also hosting a temporary exhibition on historical religious buildings within the borough, some still extant, others demolished; this is exactly the sort of display that needs to be thoroughly preserved in the etheric afterlife. Roll on, digital humanities.) The Polygon, where Wollstonecraft spent the last period of her peripatetic life, and where her equally travel-hungry daughter began hers, lies within Somers Town, and of course St Pancras plays a key role for both writers, so Camden has a legitimate claim on them.

The two Marys were accompanied by David Cherniak's cello obligatto. The author herself was there: Judith Cherniak is an American long settled in London, who stamped her mark on the culture of the capital by setting up Poems on the Underground. (There's a celebration this Sunday at Keats House.)

I found the music mournful and the performance poignant. It begins with the young widow writing to Mrs Mason, her mother's former pupil who in turn offered maternal care to the Shelley entourage when they reached Pisa. (We've looked at before at this Lost Daughter, who started life as Margaret King.) She bemoans her fate and describes her distress, all alone without a friend in the world, or so it seems to her. The depths of her mourning embarrass those around her, both the English and the Italians. If only she could speak with the mother she never knew! And so the elder Mary arises from the chair in the corner, and approaches her daughter. They converse. They explain their lives to each other. They bond. And the audience sees the strong similarities between these strong women who never met.

Apparently the two-handed show first saw the light in September 1997, the bicentary of the Marys' birth and death, at the National Portrait Gallery. Wouldn't it be marvellous to put this on again? Maybe somewhere a little more atmospheric than the municipal library. Newington Green Unitarian Church, for example, site of the miraculous manifestation.

From yesterday's programme:
September 1822, Genoa
Two months after Shelley's death, Mary Shelley fights off her anguish for the sake of her remaining child. She clings to her books: Shelley's poems; the works of her father, the philosopher William Godwin; the feminist writings of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to her. In her despair, the young Mary pours her heart out in a letter to an English friend who was her mother's first pupil. If only she could conjure up her mother from the past, if only she could speak to her for an hour...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mary manifests!

Mary Wollstonecraft has appeared on the side of Newington Green Unitarian Church, on Mothers' Day and on the extended weekend of International Women's Day.

No sign of her on Saturday, when the walking tour got to hear her story at the beginning of "Feminist Hackney - Or Is It?". But when the congregation arrived on Sunday morning, she had (to their delight) manifested quite serenely and beautifully on the exterior west wall. This is the church that radicalised Mary Wollstonecraft, that helped this unpublished 25 year old schoolteacher, with no family or money or even a proper education herself, realise that she could make a mark on society. This is the community that introduced her to a wider intellectual sphere, and to the publisher who nurtured her for her ten brief years of productivity. This is, as the local history says, The Village that Changed the World.

Church Walk is now an alley, but in her day would have been a lane through a mile of farmland to Stoke Newington and the resolutely non-Dissenting St Mary's Church. All these fields were swallowed up by the relentless Victorian sprawl of London, but those with eyes to see can spot the history under our feet.

The image is clearly based on the last John Opie painting, when she was pregnant with her second daughter, known to history as Mary Shelley.  You can see the head and shoulders in the National Portrait Gallery, thanks to Bob Lamm liberating her from basement interment, or indeed in the nearest pub to the church, larger than life in the Dissenting Academy, but if you want to see the full-length version in the fresh air, I'd advise you to hurry. Who knows how long Hackney Council will allow her to stay? I've heard they take a dim view of street art, unlike neighbouring Islington. We shall see.

The wall stencil is signed STEWY. I hoped it might be a culinary reference; I was cycling into an unseasonably bitter wind and snow flurries this morning, so my thoughts naturally turned to well-seasoned eighteenth century winter stews. Apparently Stewy is a man, albeit a shadowy one. He has given a few interviews over the years, from which I glean that he trained as an illustrator, was influenced by Banksy and Blek Le Rat and their rodents, and decided to do 26 indigenous animals: F for fox, P for pigeon, etc. His politics are of the Billy Bragg variety* (with an extra dose of charmingly naive idealism) and his imagery is simple, full of character rather than narrative. His bare-bones tumblr is here.

From animals Stewy graduated to people, putting Quentin Crisp near Canal Street in Birmingham, Tracy Emin in Margate, and John Cooper Clarke in Salford. (For those not familiar with them: England's stateliest homo, no-longer-YBA enfant-terrible EMINence grise, and punk performance poet.)
I wanted to do something different so I had this idea like the [English Heritage] blue plaques.... I would only spray my people where they had an association, where they lived or were born or worked or died. And most of them that I have put up have remained which is great because they are obviously relevant to the people who live in the area, there is a sort of respect.
That was from the interview by Ken McGregor of the Australian Metro Gallery. (Mary Wollstonecraft has several plaques in London, including one on Newington Green.) Stewy went to a Manchester pub with Tom Balderstone and expounded some more:
I deliberately do underdogs or the people hidden or just behind the scenes. The people who haven’t really become famous....[With one of his images] loads of people come up asking who he is, not their fault, so it’s kind of educational; almost historical/geographical. In school I had an interest in both but I couldn’t do history, got a B in geography and I liked art, so it all came full circle and now I’m pulling that all together. I might do a map one day, and try to plot it all. But by then the pictures might have gone.
He also spoke to Joe Bill of Kent News about the future of street art, it becoming a positive force in society. "It’s not about me. The work highlights people or eccentrics who made a difference - changed how we approach art, music or writing - pushing the boundaries in Britain and shaking things up a little."

Stewy calls his combination of people in their context "psychogeography". So now we have a psychogeographic Mary Wollstonecraft, back in her old neighbourhood, looking straight at us. "Like a ghost across the street", a line from Blek. There she is. Thanks, Stewy.

*Note to self: the Bard of Barking might be interested in Mary Wollstonecraft: 
that ancient port was where she formed her first memories. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Fifty Shades of Feminism

Mary Wollstonecraft inspired one of the entries in the newly released Fifty Shades of Feminism. "There's Something About Mary" is Bee Rowlatt's paean, and a taster of her book to come. On Saturday night, there she was at the Clore Ballroom in the Southbank Centre, being introduced by Sandi Toksvig. The readings were done in pairs: Bee read from the entry by Martha Spurrier, and the human rights lawyer returned the favour.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a woman so far ahead of her time that we are still living in her dust trail. She was a worldwide troublemaker, and a sea-faring single mother. 
The audience lapped it up. "What would Mary do?" is the new motto. 
The Virago website is (at time of writing) oddly unhelpful, but Amazon (for better or worse) has the regular description and GoogleBooks has what looks like a full list of contributors. Trusty Foyles was there on the Southbank spot, selling the elegant grey hardback. Behind the stage curtains, the contributors were all signing each others' copies.

The Women of the World festival, a three-day extravaganza over the past weekend, was definitely the biggest and glitziest of those events we rounded up for International Women's Day. But the others were good too, and there is still the sculpture walk to look forward to on 16 March.

Photos: the top one is from gracious activist Kamila Shamsie.  Apologies for poor resolution, but the atmosphere is clear. "Bee with tea" is courtesy the author herself.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A London confab of philosophers

The end of May will see a one-day symposium on The Social and Political Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft, hosted by that very special constituent of the University of London, Birkbeck College, "a world-class research and teaching institution, a vibrant centre of academic excellence and London's only specialist provider of evening higher education". Best of all, the event is freely open to everyone. Thursday 30 May, 9am to 5pm: mark your diaries now. Its description: 
Mary Wollstonecraft is by any accounts a remarkable and versatile thinker. Long appreciated as an inspirational and visionary feminist, she was also a noted historian, travel writer, educator, novelist and activist. Only recently, however, is she being rediscovered as an important and innovative philosopher in her own right, and one who deserves to be studied and understood not only as a product of her time, or through the canon of male writers who influenced her, but firmly on her own terms.
The papers in this symposium explore Wollstonecraft’s ideas both in relation to other female writers of the period and as providing valuable insights into issues of contemporary political relevance such as the nature of rights and the accommodation of cultural diversity.
The event brings together several of the speakers at the 220th anniversary of the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, including Sandrine Berges, our first guest blogger. Also present a year ago at Mary Wollstonecraft: Philosophy and Enlightenment was Lena Halldenius, its organiser, who very kindly invited me to the official dinner, and Alan Coffee, the London philosopher whose interest in MW is matched only by his interest in Frederick Douglass (and thereby hangs a tale). Martina Reuter was at Lund as well, and Barbara Taylor and I shared the Woman's Hour hotseat two years ago. The speakers:

Sandrine Berges (Bilkent University): Wollstonecraft and Sophie de Grouchy
Alan Coffee (King’s College London): Diversity and the Virtuous Republic
Lena Halldenius (Lund University): Wollstonecraft and Representation
Susan James (Birkbeck College London): Wollstonecraft and Rights
Martina Reuter (Jyvaskyla University): Wollstonecraft’s Critique of Rousseau
Barbara Taylor (Queen Mary): Wollstonecraft and Modern Philosophy

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A round-up for International Women's Day

Time for a round-up of International Women's Day events that feature Mary Wollstonecraft.

There's "The Two Marys: A Conversation Piece", created by American writer Judith Chernaik, founder of Poems on the Underground. This one-off performance is sponsored by Camden Council, representing the place that embraced the end of the mother's life and the beginning of the daughter's. In a neighbouring borough there is a multifaceted celebration with a lot of music and an hour on Mary Wollstonecraft, by historian Clare Midgley, performance academic Anna Birch, and myself, reprising my IGNITE story-telling. That's organised by the Islington Unitarians in their post-Blitz hidden edifice on Upper Street. Their sister congregation in Newington Green, the church that nurtured Mary as a young schoolteacher, will be opened for the beginning of the Feminist (Or Is It?) walk by Hackney Tours. Simon Coles has chosen to offer the event as a fundraiser for Mary on the Green, the campaign for a statue, as has Hilary King, who is running an Alexander Technique taster session that afternoon. Stand tall, Mary Wollstonecraft fans!

Most of these are listed on, the corporate-sponsored "global hub for sharing International Women's Day news, events and resources". (Banner ad: "Discover BP's feminine side".) They provided the logo above, and straplines such as "The advancement of women is of prime importance to the economy, business and society. The support of corporate organisations supporting women is critical." I would argue that the support of copy editors is also critical, but I digress....

There are well over 1000 events on the IWD database, with more still being added; hundreds are happening in Britain. The search facility seems to be broken, so I can't see if any others list Mary Wollstonecraft as an inspiration, but one that intrigues me is a walking tour of "sculptures of remarkable women ... from Louisa Blake to Emmeline Pankhurst", led by the UNWomen UK London Committee:
We are the local representative, voice and champion for UN Women (formed in January 2011 from the amalgamation of UNIFEM and three other UN gender bodies) and support the work of UN Women in its mission for gender equality and the empowerment of women.
If only the tour could end up at a commemoration of England's first feminist!

Perhaps the most significant event will be the launch of Fifty Shades of Feminism, a compilation brought together by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach. It features a chapter entitled "There's Something About Mary" by none other than Bee Rowlatt, no stranger to this blog. The launch is part of the three-day extravaganza on the Southbank, WOW, the Women of the World festival. Sometimes there are good reasons to love London.

Last year for International Women's Day I wrote on the importance of education and on maternal mortality, in the eighteenth century and now, here in the Wealthy West but also in the Wider World. The year before that, on the 100th anniversary of IWD, Mary Wollstonecraft got yet another non-blue plaque, situated most fittingly on a school. Islington Council was behind that nod of appreciation.

If you need more inspiration, have a look at these wonderful posters for IWD 2013.