Creatives in Profile: Interview with John Blackmore

 

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We’re absolutely thrilled to introduce a special Creatives in Profile interview – with the winner of our inaugural poetry competition, ‘Haikus for the NHS‘.

The project was launched early in 2017 to use the power of poetry as protest – specifically, the power of haikus as protest – in support of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).

Somerset-based poet and musician John Blackmore was announced as the winner of our competition ahead of the national demonstration to support the NHS on Saturday 4 March.

Blackmore’s poem was chosen from a shortlist of haikus by the poets Eva Reed, Juliet Staveley and Sarah Purvis. You can read his haiku, along with those that made our short- and long-lists online.

A semi-finalist in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk award, and contributor to a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the Victorian Dorset Dialect poet William Barnes, Blackmore is part of the Poetry Society’s ‘Young Poets Network’.

It is an honour to present this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

First things first, many congratulations again on winning our ‘Haikus for the NHS’ prize. Could you tell us a little about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle?

BLACKMORE

Thank you very much! Gosh…I don’t know what to say…

I’m 25 years old, and live and work in rural Somerset, which is where I grew up. After university, I returned home to train to teach. I’ve been teaching English in secondary schools for four years and I’m currently head of the departments of English and Drama at the school I attended as a student…if you had told me that ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you!

When I’m not marking, I love singing and playing guitar. I’ve only recently started turning my hand to poetry, but have written songs for years. I was lucky enough to be a semi-finalist for the BBC Young Folk Award in 2011.

My rural upbringing and surroundings are a huge part of who I am; I’m not at home in a city and I don’t think I’ll ever seek to be part of the homogenous masses commuting for a 9-5 job in the metropolis. I don’t know yet whether that makes me strong-minded or foolish! I suppose I strike a pensive, solitary figure living and working in a community which most young people leave, and yes, it can be lonely, but I don’t think I’d be happier anywhere else, and it is a great place from which to write.

INTERVIEWER

What drew you to our poetry project and inspired you to get involved?

BLACKMORE

A couple of things really.

A number of my family members have worked as nurses, including my mum, but I never really had need for a hospital until last summer. In July, just before the summer holiday, I broke my finger during sports day at school. Over the following weeks, I had consultations and x-rays and physio appointments, and despite the discomfort and the inability to drive or play guitar, I found the hospital a fascinating place—like school, really: all life can be found there, a myriad of stories, and the determination of staff to do their best for all in a stressful, challenging environment really caught my attention.

More recently, just before Christmas, I was diagnosed with something more worrying and underwent CAT scans and surgery. It was while I was recovering at home, off work, that I found the poetry project and felt literally moved to write. Even when the NHS is not attacked by politicians and the media, we take healthcare so much for granted. It is not until we are put in a position of personal vulnerability or frailty that we finally take notice and value what we have.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry and writing – your first love, or do you have another passion?

BLACKMORE

Poetry snuck up on me at primary school. I liked being able to express myself in rhyme—I think all children do—and playing with words. I didn’t enjoy school until my year-two teacher gave me confidence in my writing. For my seventh birthday, my parents bought me the “Children’s Illustrated Book of Verse”, and from then I was hooked! While I have enjoyed writing songs and analysing poems since then, it’s taken me years, decades, to find my own poetic voice. I’m certainly still developing as a writer.

I suppose my other passion would be education. I’m the bossy eldest brother (or so they tell me) to four younger siblings, so I’ve grown up imparting knowledge, sharing ideas and helping others develop skills and confidence. Becoming a teacher was a natural step, and was no great surprise to my friends and family. Helping ignite passion and curiosity within someone else is incredibly powerful, rewarding and addictive.

INTERVIEWER

Who (and what) inspires you?

BLACKMORE

Studying literature at university and now teaching English at a secondary school has given me a fair share of literary heroes. I think place and identity are particularly important to me, perhaps due in part to my Irish, English and Welsh roots, so poets who have captured a landscape or a group of people have often gained my attention. I gravitate to the likes of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Clare, but also the insecurity of Victorians like William Barnes, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins and Tennyson. Twentieth Century poets like Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have also captivated me, as have those that I’ve gained a new appreciation for through teaching, like Imtiaz Dharker, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage.

On a day to day basis, though, it’s often the little things that inspire me to write poetry: a funny turn of phrase I’ve overheard, a half-caught smile, an interesting scene that plays out before my eyes. A lot comes down to personal experience, too, and my interactions with people and places. My song-writing draws more on the landscapes of my native west country which I suppose comes from my folk music background.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, poetry is for?  And what do you make of ‘poetry as protest’?

BLACKMORE

I think poetry at its heart is a form of communication. While you can be motivated to write an opinion piece or a novel, though, I think you must be moved to write poetry. The transmission of thoughts and emotion in often stringent poetic forms excites me as a reader and writer; distilling words and meanings in such a way that they retain personal resonance, but can still be interpreted in a myriad of ways, is both incredibly cathartic and empowering. It also inspires great empathy and consolation, too.

As a document of a time, place, person, a collective or individual feeling, then, poetry remains unrivalled. It is a medium that demands intimate reflection, forcing a deeply personal response from its readers, and so is a powerful vehicle for social change. To this end, all poetry is protest.

INTERVIEWER

‘Haikus for the NHS’ was primarily launched to support the UK’s National Health Service as it faces one of its greatest crises in decades. How important do you think institutions like the NHS are for our society?

BLACKMORE

I think institutions like the NHS are the corner stone of our society. You can’t wish for more in life than health and happiness, so offering a system of welfare for all, from cradle to grave, was an astonishing achievement born out of the horrors of war and widespread poverty. It is remarkable. Sadly, the foresight of our forefathers has been betrayed by the short-term thinking of successive governments. The sooner health—and education for that matter—are elevated from their current position as political footballs, the better.

INTERVIEWER

On the topic of what is important for society – what role do you think poetry has to play in the UK today?

BLACKMORE

Good question. I think poetry is frequently considered an unconscious voice. In our modern world of sensationalism, fake news and Facebook likes, the most read literature forms—journalism and fiction— must be “in your face”, almost militant and explicit in terms of meaning, which weakens the message it communicates and its quality.

Poetry must be the refuge of self-reflection, the point of quiet questioning, that nagging conscience that remains a touchstone of what really matters in life. It is a form that is underestimated, doubted, but remains ever-faithful: like riding a bicycle, people neglect poetry for years and years, but, at key moments in life: weddings – funerals – birthdays – it is poetry that people turn to for expression that is testament to memory, experience and meaning. If you ask children on the spot whether they like poetry, they look at you as though you’ve asked them whether they like going to the dentist. Nevertheless, with a little help and encouragement, I would say almost every child, and every person, can read a poem and take away meaning, some personal reference or wider understanding. Poetry is, and remains, integral to what it means to be human; it is vital that it continues to be so.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? Could you tell us a little about any future projects you’re working on?

BLACKMORE

I wish I knew! I go through phases of investing time and energy into each of my interests: music, poetry, teaching. I’m just finishing my Master’s degree in Education and I’m looking forward to recording a CD in the coming months, thanks to the William Barnes Society in Dorset. I’m also continuing to write and pursue publication online and in print…when I’m not in the classroom!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

BLACKMORE

He listened, smiling, remembering once more.

 

Make sure you check out Blackmore’s music on soundcloud and award-winning poetry online. And, to see his haikus for the NHS in action, watch the video below!

 

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Haikus for the NHS: watch the video

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On Saturday, 4 March 2017, the team at Nothing in the Rulebook joined almost 250,000 protesters at the demonstration in support of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) in London.

This was a crucial part of the final end-game of our  ‘Haikus for the NHS‘ poetry project, which sought to build on the long-standing tradition of poetry as protest to support the NHS.

You can watch the short film detailing our experience of the day below.

You can also read the winning haiku, along with short- and long-listed entries online. 

Haikus for the NHS: read the poems here!

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When the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook first launched our ‘Haikus for the NHS‘ poetry project at the turn of the year, we did so with a simple aim: to show our support, through art and creativity, for one of the UK’s most treasured institutions: the National Health Service.

Quite simply, we have been blown away by the incredible response to our project. While we have now announced the winners, we wanted to share with you the haikus we received that made our short- and long-lists.

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence,” claimed the brilliant poet and political activist Audre Lourde. In these challenging times, we need poetry more than ever before.

This is because poetry is far more than grammar and syntax – the terms and measurements that help us identify and discuss language scientifically. It is more than copy on a page. It is rhythm; it is sensations; it is incantation. And, through this, poetry becomes meaning. It becomes truth.

Poetry’s essence, therefore, produces a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

The poems we have published here – and which we will distribute among the thousands of demonstrators marching on London on 4 March – capture this essential essence of poetry and move us through a range of powerful emotions, all while leaving us with the essentially common strain of thought: that we must fight and do what we can to protect the UK’s National Health Service.

At times, personal, moving, funny, abrupt, stark, visceral and filled with a vehement passion and anger against the incumbent Conservative Government, these poems stood out for us among over 200 submissions as capturing the essential essence of all that is good about the NHS, while also using poetry – specifically, haiku – as protest.

To all those who submitted: thank you. And to those reading now, we hope you enjoy reading these fantastic haikus as much as we did.

The winning haiku

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Here, for those past help, the best of humanity, banishes all fear – John Blackmore

Our shortlisted poems

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Aneurin Bevan, had a beautiful ideal, stop shitting on it – Juliet Staveley

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Crisis is defined, by all we are losing, save our NHS – Eva Reed

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A nurse with tired eyes, her golden heart is breaking, beneath her disguise – Sarah Purvis

Selected poems from our longlist are below:

Tories underfund
Our welfare, schools and councils.
At least we have our-

– Daniel Louden

“The Hippocratic oath,
We’ve signed, you haven’t.
Hypocrites”

– Emma Gowen, Suffolk UK

health care . . .
riddled with holes
the open sky

-Ernesto P. Santiago

“We are a first world!”
We cry – unknown is the fact
That we will soon die.

– Katie Bell

slash-and-burn farming—                                                                                                                 one more NHS service                                                                                                                     reduced to its cost

-Shrikaanth krishnamurthy, Birmingham UK

My life, again; mine

and untold others, living,

made livable. Thanks.

-Sarah Peploe

Picks you up when all is lost

The NHS, it breathes life…

back into despair

They come through for us

Doctors and Nurses are there

Be there for them, Now!

Tell the children why

You can’t afford their care fees

Bet you can’t do it

– Charlie Rowland

Cut, try to stem a

haemorrhaging system, a

self-inflicted wound.

A tick of the pen

budget slashed to nothing.

No nurse to heal us.

Injured? Take a seat

a small plastic one over there.

Lords sit on velvet.

– Sean Smith

I can’t stop coughing
Unnecessary death sucks
Free health care is cool

– Kaela Starkman

nurses help,
doctors heal patients,
amplify life.

– Karen Rodgers

What is as good as

dead as preventable deaths

the NHS saved?

NATO allies throw

bombs with their talk of markets.

Wrap yourselves in white.

– Maureen Miller, USA

We came in crying

And stay amongst the dying

Care is more than words

Come one and come all

See the power of profit

Stealing from us all

– Joshua Deslatte

No beat of the heart

His on the Surgeons table

Save our NHS

– Louise Burgess

Professional medics

Determined to provide us

Care when we need it.

– Morna Sullivan

We lie ill in beds

They come and make us better

We should care for them

– Joan Barker

They want defunding,

Then complain the NHS

Is under-resourced

I’ve estimated

That without the NHS

I’d have died twelve times

I needn’t cook meth

To pay for cancer treatment

Thanks to free healthcare

Fuck every Tory

Who thinks that dying people

Owe them anything

– Hannah Froggatt

Unsung heroes dedicate their lives

to save us in our desperate hours.

Now we save them.

– Jess Burman

You can only cut

Something so much before it

Slowly bleeds to death.

-David Milligan-Croft.

What does it cost you

To forget the sick and dying?

How much for a life?

Decision makers

Acting in self interest

Will not heal the poor

– Andrea Mbarushimana

Beds and meds, they said,

Free to rich and poor alike

Don’t ruin that now.

– Juliet Staveley

Live without fetters:

Shoulder health and happiness

From cradle to grave

The day our children

Second guess their pains for fear

Of cost, all is lost

– John Blackmore

From the Blitz it grew,

They said it would be bomb proof.

We will be the shield.

All the blue Tories

Profiteering wantonly,

We’ll show the fuckers!

– Robert Holtom

Why our tempers fray?

Missus May, your trolley waits

and botched service rates

She has turned back time:

the dark days of the 90’s

where people die young

– Freya Scott Broomfield

For our NHS

Humanity that binds us

It cannot be lost

Quietly you sell

Our rights, in parts, Theresa

Know that we see you

Cold hard cash, money

Its so little to pay for

Lives, humanity

– Eva Reed

The dream of caring

Was gone in seventy years.

Leaves fall; the sun sets.

– Melody Clarke

they want to privatise

So they deprive the barely alive

Keep Britians pride alive

– Alina Ahmad

Death, disease

Hardship, pain

This is not a third world country

It’s 2017, in the UK

– Michael Gerard

To have forgotten

What it’s like to sleep soundly.

Poor Prime Minister.

– Shane Young

To cut health funding

you save little, and you lose

a nation of lives.

Her hand may subtract

health from the nation, but we;

the world! will stop her.

Hearts worldwide will stand

and join hands in waiting rooms

for the NHS.

– Courtney Lisa Minto, Australia

‘Haikus for the NHS’: NITRB announces winners

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Somerset-based poet and musician John Blackmore has been announced as the winner of Nothing in the Rulebook‘s inaugural poetry competition, ‘Haikus for the NHS‘.

The project was launched early in 2017 to use the power of poetry as protest – specifically, the power of haikus as protest – in support of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).

Blackmore’s poem was chosen from a shortlist of haikus by the poets Eva Reed, Juliet Staveley and Sarah Purvis. These haikus will be printed and distributed liberally during the national demonstration to support the NHS on Saturday 4 March.

“Against a backdrop of gross underfunding, continued cuts and closures of NHS services, and the increasing trend towards marketization and privatisation, the Conservative party are destroying one of the greatest achievements of working class people in Britain,” the founders of Nothing in the Rulebook said in a joint statement. “We are looking to use the power of poetry as protest to spread messages of support for the NHS and what it stands for.”

“We have been blown away by how popular our project proved – we received almost 200 haiku submissions, so many of which were of an incredibly high quality. We’d like to take the opportunity to thank each and every person who submitted haikus – especially those we received from international writers and poets. We had entries from Australia and the USA, with people getting in touch to say they want to lend a hand in whatever way possible to support an institution that is treasured not just in the UK but across the world,” they added.

“It demonstrates, really, both what makes the NHS so important; as well as the power of poetry as protest. It was fascinating to see how many haikus captured a powerful yet meditative sense of emotion that stays with you for days after reading what is, lest we forget, such a short-hand form of poetry.”

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John Blackmore’s winning haiku. Nothing in the Rulebook will also publish all winning and long-listed haikus online.

About John Blackmore

John Blackmore is a singer, songwriter, poet and English teacher based in Somerset. Much of his music (listen on Soundcloud) and writing draws on his experiences of, and interactions with, the people and places of his native west country. In 2011, John was a semi-finalist in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award and, in 2014, he contributed music and literary comment to a BBC Radio 4 documentary concerning the Victorian Dorset Dialect poet William Barnes. He is part of the Poetry Society’s ‘Young Poets Network’ (read his prize-winning poems here).

 

Lines with dots under them: exclamation points and how writers use them! (or don’t use them!)

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In one of his most memorable pieces of advice for writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald voiced his disdain for exclamation points, writing: “cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

This has become a (moderately) consensual belief in the writing, publishing and generally literary spheres. The British journalist and writer Miles Kingston, for instance, opined: “so far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.” Meanwhile, in his book How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, Howard Mittelmark writes: “In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it.”

But, of course, it is easy to advise one thing and practice another. So is it true that using exclamation marks is a sign of poor writing?

Not necessarily. In Ben Blatt’s new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, we are given fantastic, empirical data that proves you can use exclamation points and still go down in history as one of the greatest writers.

Consider the chart below, for example, which shows how many exclamation marks ten of the most revered literary legends used per 100,000 words of prose writing:

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You will see that James Joyce – that modernist, avant-garde author of Ulysses, and arguably one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century – tops the list at over 1000 exclamation points per 100,000 words. That’s an exclamation point roughly every 100 words.

Does this mean Joyce was simply laughing at his own jokes? One suspects not. In second place, we have Tom Wolfe – one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism literary movement and winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ awards. Writing only slightly fewer exclamation points per 100,000 words than Joyce, one finds that a liberal use of exclamation points is not an anomaly among the literary elite.

Even Elmore Leonard, who, in his book ‘10 Rules of Writing’ stated: “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose” ignored his own advice. In his career he wrote 40 novels, totalling 3.4 million words. If he had followed his own advice, he would have used only 102 exclamation points in his writing. As it happens, in the end he used 1651 – sixteen times as many as he recommended.

So, why is it that, despite the perceived literary consensus that exclamation points should be avoided, so many of the ‘greatest’ writers continue to use them so frequently in their prose?

In her now famous book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss, posits her own theory for this:

“As if by common consent, people turned to the ellipsis and the exclamation point. There must have been a reason for this. My theory is that both of these marks are ways of trying to keep the attention of the reader. One of them says, ‘Don’t go away, I haven’t finished, don’t go, don’t go,’ while the other says, ‘Listen! I’m talking to you!’”

Perhaps then, the use of exclamation points by writers – great and small – is a subconscious call for attention; an attempt to hold the attention of readers they fear they might lose without such punctuation use.

This line of logic doesn’t really provide an argument in favour of using the exclamation point. Indeed, it is difficult to find many writers willing to vocally challenge the assumption that it is best to avoid them.

Writer Tom Ewing explains there can be benefits of using what Jerry Seinfield memorably described simply as “a line with a dot under it”; however, he, too, urges caution: “(The) exclamation point becomes a way to disarm the reader and pierce their shell, a kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes,” he writes. “And that’s cool! But once you notice it, you get suspicious.”

It is perhaps worth noting at this point the origins of the exclamation point: being that they were originally called the “note of admiration.” They are still, to this day, used to express excitement. They are also used to express surprise, astonishment, or any other such strong emotion. Any exclamatory sentence can be properly followed by an exclamation mark, to add additional emphasis.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter; since it goes to the root of what makes exclamation points such attractive tools for writing, but which also carries their own limitations. They can easily add emphasis to your writing; however, by overusing them, it takes the power out of it. What are your readers supposed to be excited about if it’s everywhere? If everything is exciting then nothing is exciting, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps, then, it is best to aspire to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar – instead of relying on lines with dots under them.

Breaking Free: Prisons in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ and Sarah Waters’s ‘Affinity’

 

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Breaking free. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We must actively engage in releasing women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice, writes Jessamy Baldwin.

By reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,which is set in C19th Colonial Canada and Sarah Waters’s Affinity, which is set in Britain in the 1870s, we are able to travel back in time and bear witness to significant female narratives that would most certainly have been repressed during the Victorian period in which they are set. Negotiating our way through the various physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ of these two historical novels, we too experience the numerous dark and claustrophobic realities with which many women were faced in this era.

Atwood and Waters, like their female characters, “throw the system out, make it stagger” (Waters 209) as they challenge female captivity, cultural constructions of femininity and inescapable female physiology that led to the social imprisonment of women and their exclusion from public discourse.

Affinity dismantles conventional notions regarding heterosexual relationships through Margaret’s rejection of marriage and by the potent insinuation of sexual bonds between women. Waters also presents us with the “queer career” (162) of Spiritualism where female passion can be performed and the gothic physicality of Millbank prison, a place which is symbolic of other ‘prisons’ such as Margaret’s own home.

By contrast, Alias Grace follows the fictional account of Grace Marks, the “celebrated murderess” (Atwood 25), as she recalls her life and imprisonment to Dr.Jordan. We feel the oppressive atmosphere of The Kingston Penitentiary and sense Atwood addressing larger issues surrounding the countless confinements imposed on women in the Victorian period. The women of Affinity and Alias Grace refuse to be bound within culturally constructed binaries of femininity and their stories present us with brave and stimulating narratives that break free of female imprisonment, in all its forms.

Both these novels express the significant struggles for women in the Victorian period to fulfill the culturally constructed feminine ideal of being “disembodied, spiritual and above all, chaste” (King 10). The model Victorian woman was supposed to be virtuous, devoted and submissive, similar to the ‘Angel’ depicted in Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem ‘The Angel in the House’ or was otherwise considered the other end of the scale, the ‘Whore’. The friction between these contrasting archetypes is epitomised in the dualistic qualities of Grace who is seen as “a model prisoner” (Atwood 5) but admits “It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging onto the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over” (Atwood 6). She is portrayed in varying lights, sometimes as “an innocent victim…too ignorant to know how to act…a good girl with a pliable nature” (Atwood 25) and others as “an inhuman female demon” (Atwood 25) in the form of her dark double Mary Whitney. Jamie Walsh, Grace’s previous admirer and eventual husband articulates these contrasting ideologies when she goes “from being an angel in his eyes and fit to be idolized and worshipped… to a demon” (Atwood 418). Indeed, women could quickly descend into dishonour or rise into adoration and the boundaries between these positions were hazy and volatile. Therefore, imprisonment in either of these categories was both likely and extremely limiting.

However, while such regressive beliefs of women’s roles dominated society, they were not universal. Many women wanted to escape the prison of domesticity and the obligation to fulfill these normative social roles, yet this was easier said than done in a society where “gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly [and] women’s are so easily stifled” (Waters 229). Yet the introduction of factories due to the Industrial Revolution in the C19th meant working class women could earn money for themselves and thus be incorporated into the public workplace. Middle class women were increasingly able to walk for pleasure, an activity that had been previously frowned upon, suggesting some progress. Moreover, Barbara Bodichon’s setting up of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866 helped lay the foundations for the Suffragette campaigns that were to come.

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In Alias Grace, Mrs Quennell exemplifies this desire for increased opportunities for women by advocating “an enlarged sphere for women” (Atwood 94). Her Spiritualist gatherings at the Governor’s house, where Grace works during a period of her imprisonment, allow women to gather in a free space away from their private, domestic spheres. Opinions among men also varied. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that women should be given the vote in The Subjection of Women. Yet John Ruskin’s famous lecture ‘Of Queen’s Garden’ given in 1865 maintains a similar view to Patmore’s vision of woman as the sacred guardian of the home. Certainly, views on women differed greatly and Atwood states in the afterword to her novel that “attitudes towards [Grace] reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women” (538).

Such ambiguity was increased due to socially conditioned notions of femininity that were projected onto society, meaning that many women became imprisoned by the narrow lives they were expected to lead as pure, mythologised entities. Many women, such as Margaret’s mother in Affinity, were indeed happy to stay within the traditional female stereotype of a good wife and mother and “there were many women, including feminists, who argued that woman’s highest fulfillment came from motherhood” (King 9). Interestingly, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the world’s first trained, registered woman doctor, still claimed that women should look after their bodies so that they may be fit and healthy for motherhood.

However, many women struggled to keep up with the ideal that was expected of them. They were supposed to be nurturing, natural mothers because “that is their function” (Waters 209) and at the same time fulfill a virginal and delicate role of femininity all at once. Thus the path to being a perfect woman was extremely narrow, contradictory and confining. Indeed, the ways of Millbank, like the ways of Victorian society, were “rather narrow ones” (Waters 215).

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“Like swans drifting along on unseen feet” – descriptions of women in Alias Grace. Photography by Sankar Govind, via Flickr Creative Commons

A poignant image from Alias Grace in relation to this is when the women visitors to the Governor’s household are portrayed “like swans drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour” (Atwood 24). Swans appear virginal, white and regal and yet if one looks at their feet below all the angelic splendour and moving water, the desperate struggle to stay afloat is clearly evident. Women in the Victorian era had to convey outward composure, yet beneath this calm exterior they too struggled to remain above water as they attempted to achieve the ‘Angel’ status. Similarly, the female prisoners in Affinity are expected to “be silent, and still, [but] they are restless and pacing their cells” (Waters 71). Atwood’s use of the jellyfish image is also interesting because it conveys the sense of invisible female strength. Even though women were supposedly transparent and lacking in substance, they could sting and show initiative if necessary, as Grace and Selina both demonstrate.

The novels also deal with contemporary anxiety over what would happen if women were to ‘break out’ of their socially conditioned roles as wives and mothers. Atwood and Waters’s female criminals remain “undetectable and unknowable” (King 72) because they reject “the terms by which Victorian gender discourse attempts to categorise them” (King 72).

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Howells argues that Alias Grace is “very much tied up with C19th anxieties about women and what they might be capable of (151). Margaret contemplates what would frighten her family more, Selina “being a spirit medium, or a convict, or a girl” (Waters 315) emphasizing social anxiety over all these entities. When Miss Haxby speaks of how “the urge that has been slumbering is woken in her; and then she almost cannot help herself” (Waters 177), we can recognise apprehension over female autonomy. Mr. Shillitoe also conveys this desire to mould women who are “ignorant of shame and duty and all the finer feelings” (Waters 11) into the Victorian ‘Angel’  ideal and imprison them physically and intellectually, as “they must spend the great part of the days alone, with their cell walls about them…their tongues we still” (Waters 11). The matrons at Millbank also use hobbles “on women only, never on men…to restrain a prisoner when she has a mind- as they often do” (Waters 179). Indeed, to have a mind of one’s own was not part of the ideal Victorian woman’s composition.

Moreover, sexuality was not something Victorian women were expected to possess or display. Therefore, Selina and Grace’s sexuality is “what really interests them” (Atwood 30) and anxiety over this contributes to their imprisonment. Margaret and Dr. Jordan are enthralled by the subtle sexuality of their charges and Grace knows that “they don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier” (Atwood 30). Therefore, fear of female sexuality and the male desire to lock this away from the public domain is clearly evident through the novels’ linking of female criminality and sexuality. Indeed, Grace’s gender greatly affected her destiny because so deeply does her crime transgress the womanly ideal that “the authorities are still driven to either find her innocent, or to classify her as ‘criminal’, ‘idiot’ or ‘minor’ in order to explain that transgression” (King 72) .

Many people at the time felt the female body was always “the potential source of deviance, particularly of sexual deviance, and consequently requires constant observation, in the form of surveillance and treatment or even punishment” (King 67). Therefore, Grace’s gender may have saved her life but it also leads to her loss of freedom due to her ensuing imprisonment and continual observation by authority, something we also see in Affinity. However, a failure to maintain such authority can be seen in Dr. Jordan as he tries to use his “forbidden knowledge” (Atwood 94) on Grace in his attempt to “open her up like an oyster” (Atwood 153). Despite supposedly possessing the “powers of life and death” (Atwood 94) and the possibility that he “may once have held a beating female heart” (Atwood 94), Grace never succumbs to giving into his genuine desire which is to have her confess her sins to him. Indeed, it is as though people want Grace to judge herself and “confession is presented to her as the only route to freedom” (King 73). Reverend Verringer, the prison chaplain, urges her to confess because “the truth shall make you free” (Atwood 91) but it will merely imprison her in her role as evil murderess and allow others the satisfaction of solving her puzzle.

Dr. Jordan becomes infuriated by the knowledge that Grace is withholding information from him and deduces that “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (Atwood 421), yet this mental prison is what keeps her alive. “Her only way of claiming any private space is by refusing to have her identity defined by men in authority… whether they be lawyers, jailers, clergymen or doctors.” (Howells 32). However, while Grace avoids mental imprisonment, she is still physically confined in Kingston Penitentiary. While James McDermott is hanged, she is sentenced to prolonged suffering because she is a young female. The sense of female violation is poignantly depicted in the image of her being torn open like a peach that is “too ripe and splitting open of its own accord” (Atwood 79). Still, “ a prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out” (Atwood 421) and despite this potential for weak flesh, she says, “inside the peach there’s a stone” (Atwood 79) suggesting she is far stronger and determined than Dr. Jordan and other male authorities have assumed. In order to preserve the ‘alias’ of female grace and innocence, she “must conceal her more knowing, sexualised self” (King 81), she must hide her stone among the fleshy peach.

Waters describes Millbank as being extremely similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It “is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages” (Waters 7). There is a “tower set at the centre of the pentagon yards, so that the view from it is of all the walls and barred windows that make up the interior of the women’s buildings” (Waters 10). Continual observation is fundamental to this design, the lack of privacy is essential not only for security purposes but as a means of punishment which will ideally lead to degradation, submission and repentance. Grace also notes how in Kingston “nobody…does you the courtesy of knocking” (Atwood 39) and “they make the windows high up … they do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out” (Atwood 275).

Such focus on the interior relates to the Victorian notion of women as unsuitable for intellectual thinking and the belief that their energy should always be directed to the intramural, the private and the domestic. Such confinement and lack of communication makes the prison inmates mad and alone. Thus the symbolic function of Millbank and Kingston represents the isolation many women, like Margaret, would have felt in their destined roles and their own homes during this period.

Indeed, Margaret distances herself from the expected dominant Victorian ideology of femininity, admitting that “idleness did not suit me “(Waters 46). She also resists from submitting to the normative heterosexual relationships all women were supposed to take part in. Dr. Jordan, like Margaret, is also afraid to marry and be “imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralysed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually…like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider” (Atwood 340). This anxiety of being imprisoned or trapped by normative social functions is clearly evident and we can see how these characters across these novels are endeavouring to resist these cultural constructions.

However, while Margaret “may attempt to make the system ‘stagger’, as an unmarried female, she must suffer for her difference…a prisoner not in Millbank but in her own home” (Kontou 183). Even though she does not have to answer to a husband, she is stuck in a state of limbo, she is merely “a paper doll, nodding its head” (Waters 242), with no real independence due to her mother’s domineering presence. The ‘dose’ of medicine given to her every day makes her flesh go “quite numb” (Waters 205), thus emphasizing her anaesthetized and prison-like circumstances.  She is well aware of the monotony that awaits her in the future because she does not adhere to the traditional ideology of Victorian femininity, she believes she “shall grow dry and pale and paper thin…like a leaf, pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten” (Waters 201). She is caged in, “more firmly unevolved than ever” (Waters 208) and Selina even tells her that she is “like all of us at Millbank” (Waters 208).

The road she lives on is also named ‘Cheyne Walk’ which can be taken to symbolise her invisible chains and disguised imprisonment where she has begun to “feel myself a ghost” (Waters 307). Her mother tells her “your place is here…not at the prison…you must take up your proper duties in the house…you are not, in fact, Mrs. Anybody. You are only Miss. Prior” (Waters 252-3). Her mother’s condemnation over her single status and adamant orders to fulfil her duty all resemble the degrading and officious attitude of many of the prison warders and matrons across Alias Grace and Affinity.

The compelling physical descriptions of Millbank prison in Affinity and The Kingston Penitentiary in Alias Grace are extensions of the physical imprisonment of women in a patriarchal society where their physiology is seen as their only value and their social role is extensively conditioned. The correlation between Millbank and the individual female body and the female body at large is evident when the Porter speaks to Margaret about Millbank, “she seems quiet to you, I dare say. But some nights, Miss. Prior, when there ain’t a breath of wind, I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan – plain as a lady” (Waters 312). The personification of the building greatly emphasizes the larger issues of the era where ‘prisons’, both physical and mental, were imposed on women. The groaning accentuates not just the unhappiness of the women inside Millbank, but the desperation and entrapment of women outside the gaol walls. With tightly corseted bodies and restricted intellectual development, we can see how the representation of such longstanding physical and mental confinement is implied in the prison buildings which are suffocating and “so solid and so antique” (Waters 7). The Governor’s wife in Alias Grace says to a group of women, “we are virtually prisoners ourselves” (Atwood 26) highlighting this link between institutional and domestic prisons.

During the period in which these novels are set, women’s bodies were subject to male desire and scrutiny, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, disease and sometimes death as a result of both, they had a serious lack of control over what they did with their bodies and how they were seen in society. Nancy’s illegitimate pregnancy with Thomas Kinnear and Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion, after being made pregnant by her employer’s son, show Atwood engaging with how the female body was subject to male desire and the physical peril and social oppression that resulted from such domination. The restricting and male-dominated society in which the characters live traps women from all angles and punishes them for their natural physiology. Physical abuse of the female body is also alluded to as the prisoners are restrained by “handcuffs…gags [and] and strips of leather” (Waters 179) which has violent sexual undertones.

Indeed, both novels suggest that the majority of female prisoners are mere victims of sexual exploitation and poverty. The crimes for which many of the women are imprisoned, such as theft and prostitution, are not even proven and undertaken through a desperation to survive. Margaret illustrates anxiety over this volatile sentencing and false incarceration when she admits “I had begun to worry that the men might take me for a convict just arrived and lead me to a cell and leave me there” (Waters 9). Also, Grace notes how many of the women in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where she spends some of her imprisonment, are “no madder than the Queen of England” (Atwood 34) but simulate insanity in order to escape domestic abuse or the harshness of the winter weather, thus emphasizing the absurd nature of a patriarchal culture that imprisons women regardless of whether they fulfil their role as the ‘Angel’ or as the ‘Whore’. Psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley argued in the early 1870s, that women were prisoners because of their sex and that their mental ability was directly related to their reproductive organs.  He stated that “whether they care to be mothers or not they cannot dispense with those psychological functions of their nature…however much they might wish it…they cannot choose but to be women” (qtd in Kontou 183). By contrast, I would argue that while female physiology was important in a woman’s life, it was the socially conditioned view of femininity, domestic confinement and the divergence between sexuality, marriage and motherhood which imprisoned them in their bodies.

Even though Grace eventually marries, it is not a young or reckless marriage; she says “at least the two of us know what sort of bargain we have got into” (Atwood 526). The power she holds over Mr. Walsh, because he continually pleads for her forgiveness, ensures she has authority in the union. However, the nature of the marriage is undoubtedly disturbing as he betrayed her at her trial, it calls into question the degree to which it will offer her ultimate freedom, as Lovelady remarks, “it is an improvement but not a triumph” (205).

Though she is free from Kingston Penitentiary, she is reliant on a male, admitting “I did not have many other choices” (Atwood 524) and Lovelady argues this points “to a certain inevitability of marriage at the end of a woman’s story” (204). Mr. Walsh, as she prefers to call him, is only aroused through Grace’s retellings of her victimisation in prison which prolongs her feelings of entrapment and subjection. Howells argues that she “remains trapped within a variety of male fantasy scripts which are moulded by medical and social discourses about criminals and women” (36).  Indeed, “she is freer than she was at the beginning of the novel, but she is not altogether free” (Lovelady 192) and this ambivalent ending is emphasized even further when she believes herself to be three months pregnant. The heaviness she feels “might as easily be a tumour, such as killed my poor mother… it is strange to know you carry within yourself either a life or a death” (Atwood 533). Once again this notion of the female body as important to a woman’s destiny is significant.

The female body is given more freedom through the use of Spiritualism in both novels and lesbian power in Affinity. Waters and Atwood give their female characters a chance to break free from the culturally constructed ‘prisons’ that defined normal female behaviour and femininity often depicted in contemporary Victorian fiction. In this sense, they become spirit mediums themselves as they connect the modern voice with the Victorian past. Kontou argues that Waters “creates a fictive (and potentially subversive) space in which stories that have been previously suppressed or untold can find a home” (172), she creates a kind of “counter history, the antithesis of the ‘great lives’ and ‘great works’ of men” (172). Moreover, she states that Waters “uses Spiritualism as a way of imagining a Victorian lesbianism without forcing a modern, anachronistic conception of same sex desire into a world that could not openly accommodate it” (Kontou 186).

The Spiritualist Movement was particularly popular in the 1850s and it certainly represented a blurring between the public and private spheres as men, women and children would gather in the drawing room of a house to interact with spirits. Such distortion and breaking down of socially conditioned and imprisoning spaces illustrates how female imprisonment in the domestic sphere could be improved through such gatherings. Spirit mediums such as Florence Cook became famous and were invited to work in both public lecture halls and private homes therefore illustrating how the profession enabled such women to transverse social boundaries by possessing a job in a time where female professions were extremely limited. Indeed, Spiritualism was a means by which women could influence those around them and Atwood said that it “was the one quasi-religious activity of the time in which women were allowed a position of power” (‘Afterword’ 540).

This is evident in Grace’s ‘double consciousness’ which is the explanation she gives for not remembering how the murders took place. Grace uses contemporary dependency on the supernatural to insist that any evil resulted from possession by Mary Whitney. Moreover, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth’s séances allow them to engage in suggestively sexual experiences with both women and men which were usually forbidden outside the bonds of marriage. Indeed, Waters’s novel certainly explores how “oppressive social forces drive women into assumed heterosexual identities and how suppressed lesbian desire could express itself through what outlets were available” (Kontou 179).

However, some people regarded such autonomy through Spiritualism as limited because spirits chose to possess the bodies of women due to their passivity and therefore increased likelihood of possession. Yet, while many people held this view, which was not surprising considering the notion of the ideal Victorian woman as passive and lacking in physical and mental strength, there can be no denying that it did offer more physical and mental freedom for women. The sitters were allowed to physically interact with the female medium; she had her hair loose, wore no shoes and had on loose clothing rather than a restricting corset. Therefore the traditional Victorian customs and laws of decency were abandoned.

While the medium may perform passivity, she is also being able to perform passion and therefore engage in actions outside social convention. Many women made money through Spiritualism and were able to break free of cultural constructions of femininity, thus showing that it was a complex means of introducing female empowerment. Waters said in an interview that her novel was “about the pleasures and dangers of darkness, the pleasures of it being when you are in control of it and the dangers coming from when you are at its mercy” (123). Indeed, we can see how Spiritualism allows women to have a voice and be in control of the darkness but in other physical and socially conditioned ‘prisons’, the women are vulnerable and left in the darkness, at the mercy of an external authority.

Women who were literally sent to prison in the C19th had no voice at all. Grace conveys her anxiety about being forgotten, she thinks she “will shrivel…dry out…turn into a skeleton…be found months, years, centuries from now and they will say who is this, she must have slipped our mind” (Atwood 38). Waters even noted how many of the records she used from Millbank “tended to be official records that were written by men” (‘Interview with Sarah Waters’ 123) and therefore the stories of individual women needed to be re- imagined by her in order to escape the ‘male gaze’. Affinity and Alias Grace fit into the attempt by second wave feminists to “map out an alternative female historical landscape” (King 3) which will free stories that have been silenced or imprisoned in supposedly irrelevant chambers of history.

The novels are examples of “herstory rather than history, offering alternative feminine perspectives on a tales of criminality and violence” (Howells 29), something which was not permitted in public discourse at the time. Grace is made to represent a wide range of Victorian constructs of ‘Woman’, she is “victim, madwoman, murderess, Dr. Jordan’s muse” (Howells 152) and an individual female voice. Atwood, like Waters, is rebelling against a history which has not allowed “the real woman’s voice or the true story of the past to be recovered” (Howells 152). Indeed, David Glover and Cora Kaplan argue that “modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to traditional femininity” (qtd. in King 6). By freeing the stories of these women and filling in the gaps where their particular stories were lost or forgotten, Atwood and Waters help to resolve issues from the past by building a female literary tradition that considers all types of women and relationships, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable at the time in which the writing is set.

Alias Grace and Affinity provide us, as modern readers, with contemporary female narratives that certainly would have been silenced in the Victorian era itself. By exploring anxieties surrounding the female body, tackling Spiritualism and lesbianism as well as the culturally constructed and physical ‘prisons’ in which women were placed, we are given an opportunity to appreciate  perspectives that have been imprisoned in the past. Moreover, whilst Waters and Atwood address problems felt by the female population at large, they concentrate on specific women’s stories and particular female experiences which make them so engaging to read.

The novels themselves are all about actively voicing these stories and experiences, essentially giving such women “back their place in history, not just as victims but as agents” (King 3). The continual mystery surrounding Selina Dawes and Grace Marks “throws into sharp relief the inadequacy of so-called scientific knowledge to define or contain them” (King 72). We recognise through these women, as well as Margaret Prior, the “very real desire for literal escape” (Lovelady 183), whether that be from the prison buildings themselves, their homes or the socially conditioned roles assigned to them. Mrs. Quennell remarks that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Atwood 97) and this is what Atwood and Waters are essentially claiming in their novels. That an ‘Angel’ is never far from a ‘Whore’, and indeed, freedom never far from imprisonment. We must actively engage in releasing such women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice.

 

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Disappear Here: Launch Screening

 

logo 2 no backgroundDisappear Here – a poetic film project bringing together 18 Artists to create 27 poetry films exploring the Modernist/Brutalist superstructure of Coventry ringroad – has announced the date and venue of its free launch screening.

The event offers the opportunity to see the artist’s work produced over the last few months, find out more about their creative process in a Q&A session and connect with funders, supporters and citizens of Coventry.

Nothing in the Rulebook previously featured a detailed article about the project, which notes how Coventry Ringroad, which inspired the project, “is an archetype of reinvention. Each time the same A4053 road, but every journey around it different. It is the eye through which Coventry is (notoriously) seen, and can be seen, from above and below; a looping horizon where tarmac sea and brilliant blue sky meet and form a sinew of shuffling perspective.”

You can watch a trailer of the films here below:

Adam Steiner, Disappear Here Project Lead, said: “It’s been a great experience to work alongside emerging and established artists from Coventry and beyond to reimagine the ringroad through a series of poetry films.

“Coventry ringroad is one of the city’s most iconic (and notorious) physical landmarks , acting as both city wall, orbital conduit and dividing line. I feel the ringroad deserves to be celebrated as well as criticized – it is the duty of artists and citizens to engage with issues of public space, control of architecture and the human experience of our built environment – to shine a light on the fantastic, the boring and the universal in the everyday. Coventry has always been underrated as a place to live, work and create – so I hope the films will encourage people to visit and seek inspiration where they can to read, write and attend more poetry events!”

Laura McMillan, Manager, Coventry City of Culture Trust, said: “The diversity of artists, writers and filmmakers will be central to Coventry’s plans for UK City of Culture. This project engages artists in reflecting on an iconic feature  of a city that is constantly reinventing itself.”

Peter Knott, Area Director, Arts Council England said: “One of the Arts Council’s ambitions is to use our National Lottery funding to support the creation of new artistic work that entertains and inspires, which is why we invested in Disappear Here. It will be a great experience for people to take a fresh look at Coventry’s architecture and landscape through the eyes of these poets and filmmakers.”

The event is free – with some money left behind the bar for those who arrive on time. Please RSVP via eventbrite. 

We need to write about climate change

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Can we imagine the end of the world? Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published the most meticulous report and scientific peer-reviewed report on climate change and global warming in decades. Despite being viewed as a generally conservative association, the IPCC report describes, in dry, detailed language, the complete collapse of the benign climate in which humans evolved and have prospers, and the loss of the conditions upon which many other life forms and organisms depend.

What the report details, in other words, is the story of catastrophic climate breakdown – a story of such complete disaster and ill-consequence that climate change and global warming are entirely inadequate descriptive terms here.

As activist and writer George Monbiot notes, “this is a catastrophe we are capable of forseeing but incapable of imagining. It’s a catastrophe we are singularly ill-equipped to prevent.”

A problem of imagination

A key problem facing us, then, is that the stakes – while they couldn’t be higher – do not seem tangible enough to focus our attentions on the reality facing our species and the planet. While theorists such as Slavoj Zizek have argued it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, what we may in fact just be realising is that we aren’t even able to imagine the end of the world, either.

So, may all writers the world over step in at this moment. For, if it is a crisis of imagination we face, surely there are few warriors out there equipped with the skills and ability necessary to render this reality in ways that people can understand, comprehend, and realise in their own minds.

No time to lose

The urgency with which we must, as writers, act, is extreme. Donald Trump has, since his inauguration as the President of the Untied States, made persistent moves to attack what minimal environmental protection regulations and safety nets were in place, and the climate change denial he and his Republican administration advocate threatens our entire planet. We cannot deny or ignore the stakes at play here – we must move quickly to dispel any doubt over the future facing us if we do nothing.

However, such is the difficulty in imagining the potential future of our broken planet, there are precious few writers out there who are drawing attention to this most vital of causes.

As Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, writes in a Guardian article:

“It is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel. is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.”

So what writers are out there who are currently writing about – or who have written about – climate change, and the consequences of ignoring it?

In a masterful letter to the future, Kurt Vonnegut puts the stakes pretty clearly as he tells us in no uncertain terms to “stop poisoning the air, water and topsoil.” Yet, as any writer knows, there is a difference between telling and showing: and while telling us to change our ways is one thing; what is needed now is for writers to show us what our future holds.

We need fiction, in other words.

Searching for ‘climate fiction’ on Amazon returns just over 1000 results – although the search algorithms mean that many self-published and a large quantity of non-fiction books also appear in this list. Yet there are “big-name” literary authors among them. Think, for instance of Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Barbar Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and T Coraghessan Boyle.

There are other great books written by brilliant authors, too – such as The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, or Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich.

We have compiled a list of some of the most important – and best examples of – books about climate change here at Nothing in the Rulebook. And it’s vital we are able to read these and see what has been done – and is being done – in the world of ‘climate fiction’ (cli-fi, if you will). Because it is by reading the works of others that our own writing, and our own understanding of what writing works well, improves. And this knowledge will prove most critical as a new generation of aspiring writers finally starts to address the startling gap in our cultural narrative, and help make the “unimaginable” consequences of climate breakdown real.

 

 

 

Writing about climate change: the most important books about catastrophic climate breakdown

 

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A desolate world ravaged by climate change is hard to picture, but it could be our future, unless we start to imagine it. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

Despite the climate-denial of the Republican administration in the USA, and despite the fondness for fossil fuels most governments across the world continue to hold, the future facing our planet and our species is one of catastrophic climate breakdown, unless we act now.

The difficulty comes in imagining the consequences of global warming denial. They are, perhaps, so great that they seem impossible. It therefore falls to writers – imagination warriors, if you will – to paint a picture of the future in which the natural world is no longer the self-replenishing, bountiful support system needed to support human beings; but rather a desolate, ravaged, toxic place where no life can flourish.

Perhaps not the most-light hearted of subjects to write about; it is nonetheless a vital one. Below, we pick out a few of the most important books about climate change – call them examples of ‘cli-fi, if you must, which you should all read immediately:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy

Three books here, by one of the greatest literary titans. Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of books variously imagine the sorry state of the planet, and the human responses to it. In Oryx and Crake, human beings are re-engineered to create a new brand of humans who lack “destructive features responsible for the world’s current illness”.

Then, in The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s speculative fiction explores the environmental ravages caused by our reliance on oil and the terrifying consequences of it running out.

MaddAddam itself concludes the trilogy, bringing various narrative strands from the previous two books to an end.

Backed up by extensive research, Atwood’s books encourage us to pose critical questions to ourselves, the most pressing of which is “what will happen if we continue on our current path?”

  1. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow

A hurricane, caused by man-made climate change, destroys New York. Set in the not-so-distant future, the novel paints a picture of the world in which the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our planet has become all too real.

A darkly comic tone may suggest a somewhat nihilistic view to our predicament and our future. Yet Rich confronts us with the truly terrifying prospect of what awaits us in consequence of our failure to address the issue of climate change. The pressure is on us to avert disaster – or else realise we must live with it.

   3. JG Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere

While Ballard himself has tried to dismiss his book as “forgettable”, The Wind from Nowhere is one of the first books written that can be fairly attributed to the ‘cli-fi’ genre.

First published in 1961, it deals with disasters afflicting the natural world and how human civilisation would cope with this increasing inevitability. Prolonged worldwide hurricane force winds reduce cities to ruins and the people who live in them irrevocable changed.

   4. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Why does every human’s self interest conflict with the wider need for collective survival?

So runs the central theme Mitchell grapples with in his novel The Bone Clocks – and so too runs a question we must address sooner rather than later if we are to avoid the most catastrophic effects of man-made climate change.

The Bone Clocks, told in six parts, paints a picture of the world in which climate change depletes the resources of the earth to such a degree that the world ends in darkness and desperation as civilisation collapses and human beings descend into anarchy.

Believably bleak.

    5. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

It would have been remiss for us to leave one of the most obvious books from this list. One of McCarthy’s best known novels depicts a world of undeniable environmental apocalypse. Described as “the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation”, it imagines for us the terrifying consequences of our choices and vividly creates a desolate world that, though fictitious, feels all too familiar and real.

Creatives in Profile: Interview with Henningham Family Press

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It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the go-to response from the biggest publishing houses has been to retreat from investing in new ideas, and to banking on “sure things” – which, as Julian Barnes has noted, essentially amounts to republishing copies (or imitations) of commercially successful novels. Indeed, the mainstream publishing industry has become so risk averse and sold on the idea that committees of sales and marketing gurus that millions are now spent on orange-headed celebrity books whose pie charts and spreadsheets appeared to augur well but are in the bargain buckets shortly after they first appear.

Within this risk averse culture, new outlets for unique and creative expression, through art, writing, and fine book making are increasingly rare. Those that do exist must therefore be cherished.

Henningham Family Press (HFP) is the collaborative art and writing of David and Ping Henningham. Both Artists and Authors, HFP combines writing and art through fine art printmaking, bookbinding and performance. Based in Dalston, London, the pair primarily work with National and Regional Cultural Institutions and civil society groups, and are always looking for new institutions, such as museums, libraries and publishers to collaborate with.

Collections that have acquired HFP’s work include the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Tate, Saison Poetry Library (Royal Festival Hall), UCL, Chelsea College of Art and UCLA. They have exhibited/performed at/in Christie’s Auction House (Multiplied), Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the British Library, BBC Radio Theatre (BBC Radio 3 ‘The Verb’), Dundee Contemporary Arts, The Whitechapel Gallery, Black Rat Gallery, London Word Festival, Berlin, Ghent, Oslo, Bergen, Indiana and Virginia. David has also taught bookbinding at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves, your background and ethos.

HENNINGHAM FAMILY PRESS (HFP)

We are David and Ping. We met at St Martins art school. We started Henningham Family Press in 2006 to bring together our writing, printing, binding and performance and make them presentable.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

HFP

Inspiration for our work tends to come from history, the natural world, museum collections, but in terms of surviving financially and explaining ourselves to others we’ve often turned to William Morris, Bauhaus, Woolf’s Hogarth Press days, David Bomberg, Edward Wadsworth and the Danielson Famile among many others.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about HFP – how was it borne into existence?

HFP

Ping did a presentation about my sculpture at the Slade, she did Art History at UCL, and my tutor Ed Allington spotted we should probably work together. We returned to this idea when we both developed an allergy to supporting ourselves with part-time office jobs; a common wasting condition that still goes unrecognised, despite the weight of evidence.

INTERVIEWER

 A number of your successes so far – hinted at in your site biography – beg to be elucidated further, such as your ‘Monday School’ project of 2011, which saw you write the only Bible commentary to feature a fight with Slavoj Zizek in a bookshop. Has the press evolved as you expected since you first set it up?

HFP

Ha! No. We thought we’d make four titles a year and sell them through bookshops. We didn’t reckon with the labyrinthine structure of publishing. We didn’t like having a gallery either, so we evolved a process of publishing books through and for choreographed live events, “performance publishing”. We’ve even got a couple of reputable magazines to use our phrase like it’s a real thing.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

HFP

That’s a mythical beast! We used to work side by side on writing, printing, binding, but now with the kids we swap midday. When they are old enough they will do all the work while we sip martinis.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for? Why are they important?

HFP

It’s probably a best case scenario for the private ownership of the means of production. I associate it with freedom of speech. Books, I hope, will preserve the best our times have to offer, allow a conversation with the living, create some beautiful artefacts. I only wish adult minimum standards were as high as Childrens’ for book production. Adults would read a book made of gravy to save a pound. Kids demand quality.

INTERVIEWER

In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes that “Language is not morally neutral because the human brain is not neutral in its desires. Neither is the dog brain. Neither is the bird brain: crows hate owls. We like some things and dislike others, we approve of some things and disapprove of others. Such is the nature of being an organism” – what art and writing do you approve of? Do you see your own work as having a political element to it at all?

HFP

Very much so. Multiples are suited to democratic and egalitarian distribution. Our writing reflects our economic and political opinions. But we totally overestimate our ability to change things when we begin a project, but even in the end it feels good to make sense of things a bit and create solidarity. Having said that, a handful of people have said to us “your book changed my life”.

So what we approve of coming out of our heads is relatively focused. Cosmopolitan, egalitarian, sceptical about rationalism, fascinated with how we organise our lives arbitrarily. We always take an original angle on subjects, rigorous, experimental in form, or what would be the point? But we tolerate a wide spectrum going in. Most of what I won’t read is because of it’s sloppy and cynical standards.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see traditional presses playing in this new “digital era”?

HFP

I’ve been asked this a lot. In a nutshell I’d say it’s proven to be the case that digital technology has made printing and binding far more affordable, accessible, cleaner and made distribution easier. It’s a boom in digital and physical publishing with a side effect of stimulating the finer bindings like we do. Now people read across platforms, they can see more clearly what a book is, and more people seek out a fine binding.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current  where are we heading?

INTERVIEWER

Well, what would you say to the industry? If you were a doctor? Look we can operate, but… It’s too slow, too many internal blockages. There’s been a move towards the idea of experimentation in literature, that goes with a centennial reappraisal of modernist writers, both of which I “approve” of to use Atwood’s earlier word, but I’m not sure anything with depth has happened there yet. But smart people are on it. I think agents and publishers will encourage their established writers to write with more formal invention, and the obsession with debut novels will lead to calls for established authors to write a sort of “second debut”. More explicitly mid career prizes will emerge to cater for the growing number of debut authors to enter.

But perhaps this return to modernism misses the point. The rupture in 1910 wasn’t just the playing with typography, but the idea that so many people have something to say, not just a few authors who, although often very good, do those standard readings followed by death-by-a-thousand-autographs. Modern writing showed that different kinds of perception exist, so there’s no point having an experimental writing scene populated by wealthy people from a single school, which does not reinvent the process of publishing and distributing many more authors to readers who read more widely. Manuscripts get missed and the quality sometimes suffers. A positive example of where publishing can go is Penned In The Margins, a great example, and if you go to Free Verse in Conway Hall, this sept, you’ll see that the poetry scene hasn’t got the same problems as the agent-fed industry. The fact that so many readers also write is a symmetry we should expect thanks to education, automation and digital. Really good novels will continue to get published, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that increasingly over the next two years people in the industry will worry about the bandwidth and creativity of the big publishing houses more. Some may even call it a crisis.

d-henningham

HFP in action at the Central Hall of Artists, Moscow. Image via Henningham Family Press

 

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

HFP

Same as everyone. Brexit, with a side order of interminable recession, served on a bed of expensive higher education that is seen as a product to be sold. It all makes it harder to make a living, funds shows and sell books to people.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

HFP

A bucket of water balanced atop the doorway to routine

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently been commissioned by The British Council to make a major public art contribution at The Central Hall of Artists, Moscow – could you tell us a little more about this project, and how you find more artistic-led projects such as this complement the other creative aspects of your press, including performance and writing?

HFP

We did the British council commission with BA Illustration students from the British higher school of art and design. It was a combination of teaching them, creating, screenprinting, binding publishing all on site. They built a temporary workshop in the UK guest of honour pavilion. We were part of a delegation with Jonathan Coe, Jim Crace, Paul Mason, Jenny Broom, Emma Healey, Tom Gould, lots of fine and inspiring people. We like to make things like this en educational experience for us and the students. Performance adds process, structure and duration.

ping-henningham-mosco

Preparing to Print: HFP in action in Moscow. Image via Henningham Family Press.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for HFP after your project in Moscow? What should we look out for?

HFP

We just finished making a deluxe edition of The New Concrete for Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe, which will go to America. Some novels by me are mounting an escape attempt from their drawer, and we have a choral version of An Unknown Soldier in development for the stage.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

HFP

After impact, Helen could see wifi.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

HFP

  1. If someone asks “can you do this?” Say yes. Find out how later if you can’t.
  2. If someone says “can you do that again and again and again…” You might eventually have to say no and get back to what motivates you.
  3. The world is very poorly organised and obsessed with money. Set your own criteria for success.
  4. Making space in the world for your work is different to the work itself. Make sure you keep energy and perspective in reserve to do good work.
  5. The artworld doesn’t really exist. You can gravitate towards other markets and other audiences and it’s still art.

 

To learn more about Henningham Family Press, visit their website, and find out about their latest shows via www.maximumwage.uk