“I’ve always stood up for myself.” (Kathy Burke)

I’ve recently been watching Kathy Burke’s All Woman on Channel 4 and absolutely loved it, partly for Kathy’s habit of greeting any nonsense like vaginal steaming/vajazzling etc with an incredulous ‘Faaaaaaack off!’ but mainly because she is so warm, funny and non-judgemental. I highly recommend it, not only for women although she is a brilliant female role model:

“’The thing with me is that I’m quite arrogant. I’ve got faith in my own talent and I always have. And if anyone turned around and said to me, ‘You’re never going to work again’, I used to say, ‘I will’.”

Here’s another quote from Kathy which I enjoyed, included here especially for confirmed Darcy adorer Fiction Fan:

“‘Who wants to get up at five every morning? I did four days on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and by the end of it, I was bored. I thought, ‘I’m over this now. Let’s go home. I’ve met Colin Firth, and he’s lovely. Now, where are the sandwiches?’”

I tried to find a copyright-free picture of Kathy to include but of course there aren’t any, so in honour of her TTSS experience, here are some copyright-free sandwiches instead:

This post is rapidly in danger of becoming Reasons I Love Kathy Burke and thus rivalling War and Peace for brevity. On with books! In honour of the programme I have chosen two novels around the theme of women’s rights and female friendship.

Firstly, a book I probably wouldn’t have picked up if it wasn’t for the recommendations from so many bloggers I trust, Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (2018). Mattie Simpkin was a militant suffragette, but now its 1928 and she’s looking for something to channel all that energy into.

“She couldn’t remember a time when her path hadn’t been lined with startled faces; they were her reassurance that progress was being made.”

So Mattie decides to startle her well-to-do neighbours in Hampstead by setting up a club on the Heath for girls: to learn fitness, politics, history and self-defence, amongst anything else Mattie thinks will be useful for the modern woman.

Mattie is hugely likable but her drive means she can be a bit oblivious to those around her. Her sweet friend Florrie, known as The Flea, lives with her in Mattie’s house in Hampstead, utterly devoted. Mattie relies on her to keep the domestic side of things running smoothly, without realising that The Flea has feelings for her, until a repugnant Mosley-loving acquaintance, Jacqueline Simpkin, points it out to her. It is the fractious relationship with Jacqueline that leads to one of the pivotal moments of the novel, where Mattie’s group is pitted against the Hitler Youth-lite that Jaqueline is involved with.

 “The battle is not yet over; ever day brings fresh skirmishes.”

Unfortunately Mattie makes a huge mistake in a matter moments, which has significant ramifications. Mattie has to reassess her understanding of some of the people she knows, and herself. This takes place without ever being worthy or moralistic. The situation evolves in such a way that I felt desperately sorry for Mattie, even though she was entirely in the wrong.

The historical detail is beautifully observed and presented almost incidentally. There is no nostalgia here: The Flea has worked as hard as Mattie for women’s suffrage, but doesn’t get the vote until the end of the novel, when women’s voting rights became equal to men’s (all over the age of 21). Until that point, only Mattie voted because she was over 30 and owned property. The victory of the suffragettes was, for 10 years, a middle-class victory.

For all the period detail, the central questions of the book remain relevant: what do you do when the thing that galvanized you no longer exists? How do you decide where meaning lies, and what if lies in difficult to reach places?

“ ‘We were a battering ram,’ Mattie was wont to say. ‘Together we broke down the door.’ But beyond that splintered door had been a dozen more doors and, scattered by their momentum, some women had tried one and some another, and some had given up and turned away, and it seemed to The Flea that all that unity and passion, all that wild energy, had dissipated. And she herself and her ilk, trudging soberly behind, had somehow ended up the vanguard…”

Old Baggage has a wonderful central character in flawed, individualistic Mattie and plenty to say without ever being heavy handed. The plot pulls you along and the ending is really moving without being sentimental. A treat.

Secondly, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988) which is set in Zimbabwe, and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of this, as since reading it I’ve discovered it’s considered a modern classic and was voted into the top 12 for Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. It’s a powerful tale of postcolonial female experience, written beautifully and certainly deserving of its classic status.

The tale is narrated by Tambudzai, known as Tambu, who is unflinching in what she tells us, opening with “I was not sorry when my brother died.” The reasons for this lack of remorse are personal – her brother was arrogant and unpleasant; and societal – his death opens up opportunities to Tambu that she was denied as long as there was a male child older than her.

“I was quite sure at the time that Nhamo knew as well as I did that the things he had said were not reasonable, but in the years that have passed since then I have met so many men who consider themselves responsible adults and therefore ought to know better, who still subscribe to the fundamental principles of my brother’s budding elitism, that to be fair to him I must concede he was sincere in his bigotry.”

Ouch!

The opportunity Tambu has is to leave her rural home and be educated alongside her cousin Nyasha at the convent school her uncle and aunt run. This side of her family could not be more different to Tambu’s mother and father; they have travelled, are educated and her cousins have forgotten essential parts of their Zimbabwean childhood:

“I had not expected my cousins to have changed, certainly not so radically, simply because they had been away for a while. Besides, Shona was our language. What did people mean when they forgot it?”

Tambu and Nyasha still forge a deep bond despite the differences that have opened up between them, but Tambu sees the price her cousin pays for her international upbringing.

“I missed the bold, ebullient companion who had gone to England but not returned from there. Yet each time she came I could see that she had grown a little duller and dimmer, the expression in her eyes a little more complex, and though she were directing more and more of her energy inwards to commune with herself about the issues she alone had seen.”

As Tambu settles into city life and her schooling she begins to understand more not only about herself but her country, and there are some wonderfully pithy observations about colonialism:

 “They had given up their comforts and security of their own homes to come and lighten our darkness. It was a big sacrifice that the missionaries made. It was a sacrifice that made us grateful to them, a sacrifice that made them superior not only to us but to those other Whites as well who were here for adventure and to help themselves to our emeralds…With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise.”

But really Dangarembga’s focus is human relationships, and how the patriarchy impacts on the most intimate of these. Her uncle, Babamukuru, enjoys enormous status at home and at work. Her aunt, Maiguru, is highly educated and capable, but only ever a second-class citizen. Their daughter Nyasha struggles with these constraints and her behaviour is loud and rebellious, and emphatically punished:

“Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I thought it had depended on. Men took it everywhere with them.”

Ultimately though, Nervous Conditions is a hopeful novel. Tambu is resilient and this is her coming of age story: with who she is, fitting in with neither family easily; with her desires for education and independence; and with her country. I started this with the opening lines of the novel, and I’ll end it with the beautifully constrained, considered final words:

“Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story. It was a long process for me, that process of expansion.” 

To end, Kathy as part of Lananeeneenoonoo with French & Saunders and Bananarama, for Comic Relief in 1989. Beatles fans may want to look away now:

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

Last week I mentioned the indulgence of good friends, so this week I thought I would look at novels capturing female friendships. I’ll try and redress the balance at some point by looking at male friendships, but this week, in the words of Lesley Knope, its ovaries before brovaries 😀

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My future – I sincerely hope

Image from here

Firstly, Animals, the second novel from Emma Jane Unsworth, described on the cover by Caitlin Moran as “Withnail with girls”, which pretty much sums it up. Laura lives with her friend Tyler, a one-woman tornado:

“She didn’t just change the temperature of rooms, she changed their entire chemical make-up so that anyone in the room would only be aware that the room was an extension of her and she was the thrumming nucleus.”

Tyler is indulgent, defensive, funny, clever – a total nightmare with whom Laura feels an immediate bond:

“Someone who sees right to your backbone and simultaneously feels their backbone acknowledged.”

But Laura is in love with Jim and is planning to get married, introducing a tension into the women’s friendship.  Tyler wants life to continue as it is, Laura is not so sure. It’s not plot-heavy, as Tyler and Laura ricochet from one substance-fuelled experience to another, it’s funny and sad and so very believable:

“And there it was, as always, swinging my way: The Night. With its deals, promises and gauntlets, by turns many things: nemesis, ally, co-conspirator, master of persuasion. It tosses its promises before you like scraps on the road, crumbs leading into the forest: pubs, parties, booze, drugs, dancing, karaoke…”

Amongst all this eventful partying, there is an elegiac quality to Animals: both the women are in their thirties and there’s a sense that their life together cannot continue for much longer, and that it might not be so entertaining if it did:

“Next to the sink, two folded banknotes balanced on a rung of the towel rail, drying. I stood and looked into the bowl before I flushed, recalling the adage of a girl I’d once worked with: White piss good; amber piss bad. Orwellian in its visceral simplicity. Meanwhile the liquid I had dispatched into the toilet bowl was almost ochre.”

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A great film, but not a wise lifestyle choice, kids

Image from here

The bawdy chaos of Animals is presented through considered, inventive storytelling; Unsworth’s voice is compelling and like Laura on a night out with Tyler, I found myself carried along for the ride.

Secondly, the publishing phenomenon that is Elena’s Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (tr. Ann Goldstein, Europa editions 2012) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. This is the first in a quartet known as the Neapolitan novels which have sold millions worldwide, no doubt to the chagrin of authors everywhere stuck on a PR treadmill, as Ferrante remains determinedly anonymous. The novels detail the friendship between Elena and Lila from the 1950s onwards.

“She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.”

I’m grateful to Kate’s recent review which tempered my expectations somewhat. While I did like the novel, I think had I gone in with the astronomical expectations created by all the hype I would have been disappointed. As it was, I went in with moderate expectations and enjoyed being pulled into the poor Neapolitan neighbourhood Ferrante so vividly evokes. Elena summarises: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.” She’s not wrong. Violence between strangers, friends and families seems to be constant. The poverty and accompanying lack of horizons takes its toll:

“At the Bar Solara, in the heat, between gambling losses and troublesome drunkenness, people often reached the point of disperazione – a word that in dialect meant having lost all hope but also being broke – and hence of fights.”

Within this environment, Lila and Elena form a friendship that is full of the unspoken. Elena is mesmerised by Lila, who is tough, independent, and highly intelligent. Despite the time they spend together, the core of Lila – what she really wants, her hopes and dreams – remain mysterious to Elena.

“Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?”

It is this competitiveness, this desire to be like Lila, which spurs Elena on, to the point where this motivation becomes indistinguishable from her own preferences. She continues at school long after Lila leaves, her academic commitment a mixture of wanting to outstrip Lila, wanting to do well because it is what Lila wants, and wanting to do well for herself. Ferrante has an excellent understanding of how these early friendships are so vitally important, how they form us in ways we barely understand and how quickly it is impossible to say what feels intrinsic to us and what is the influence of others. She captures the ambivalence of friendships that are formed out of deep love and conflict:

“When school started again, on the one hand I suffered because I knew I wouldn’t have time for Lila anymore, on the other I hoped to detach myself from the sum of the misdeeds and compliances and cowardly acts of the people we knew, whom we loved, whom we carried – she, Pasquale, Rino, I, all of us – in or blood.”

While I’m not quite ready to proclaim myself a fully paid-up Ferrante acolyte, the quartet supposedly gets better as it goes along, so by book four I could well be (Marina Sofia has written a really interesting review of the quartet here).

To end, two celebrities (one of whom plays the aforementioned Lesley Knope) who claim to be BFFs and I actually believe them: