Monday, 27 June 2016

For 3am: Brexit at 3am

I'm probably going to write the inevitable Brexit post.

But in the meantime, I'm really proud to be included in this piece featuring brilliant, talented writers, artists and thinkers at 3am Magazine to give our one-sentence reaction to Brexit.

Have a read.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Jack the Ripper. Not a love story. Not a romance. Definitely male violence.

Picture the scene. A group of publishers are sat around the brainstorming table. A new book on Jack the Ripper is due for publication. They’ve already decided the title is going to be ‘Jack the Ripper: A True Love Story’. Now they need a snappy tagline. 

‘Got it!’ says one of them. ‘You know how Jack the Ripper like, actually literally cut open women and removed their organs?’

‘Yes’ comes the reply. 

‘How about: She had taken his heart and now he’s stealing hers. Because he like, ripped out women’s organs. Their wombs as may be, but hearts are organs too.’ 

‘Yes!’ comes the reply. 

I mean, I don’t know if that’s how the meeting went. I’m speculating. Because I am trying to work out the thought process that not only decided to portray some of the most brutal murders perpetuated against women as a ‘love story’, but the further decision to use a strapline implying that seducing a man is the same as actually removing her organs in a gross act of sadistic male violence. 

I’m writing this blog in response to my friend informing me of the forthcoming publication of the book Jack the Ripper: A true love story. Last year the book was serialised in the Telegraph and develops the thesis that Jack the Ripper was a journalist called Francis Craig who, after being left by a woman named Elizabeth, went on the killing spree that resulted in her death and the murders of the other women. 

In the Telegraph, the author writes:

The tragic saga of Jack the Ripper is actually a love story. 
It is the tale of a lonely, dysfunctional man’s obsession for a beautiful, lively young woman.
When the object of his desire deserted him it was more than he could take. 
He sought her out, beseeched her to come back to him, to give it another try, but Elizabeth had never been in it for anything other than a laugh.
For his part the prospect of losing the only other human being for whom he had felt real emotion was unbearable.
It festered within him and eventually came out like an abscess being lanced in the 12-week orgy of killing that finally drove him to destroy the only thing he loved.’

The book isn’t out yet and I’m not in the habit of criticising something I’ve not read so I am going to focus my criticism on the article itself, and what it reveals about our continued attitudes towards fatal male violence against women – and our collective gruesome fascination with this case in particular. 

It is incredibly irresponsible to link the murder of women with a man’s ‘love’ for his victim. 

Men don’t kill women out of love. They kill because they are violent misogynists. They kill out of a grotesque entitlement to women’s bodies and lives. Entitlement, violence – these are not romantic tropes. The idea that violent men kill from love or passion is a tactic to try and minimise a violent man’s responsibility – it’s a way to try and excuse the violence by saying it was motivated by the victim’s actions, not out of control and cruelty. 

There is nothing romantic about male violence against women and girls. There is no love story that ends with a man killing a woman. Male violence against women is an act of misogyny, an act of control, and an act of terrorism that spreads fear and upholds gender inequality. 

We have a real issue in our culture about romanticising violent patterns of men’s behaviour, and the continued iconic status given to Jack the Ripper is just one part of that. I discussed this last year here and in the Guardian regarding the opening of the Ripper museum in East London. Whether it’s Heathcliff’s attempted killing of Isabella’s dog, penchant for locking women in cupboards or boxing his daughter-in-law’s ears*, or men standing outside women’s homes with ghetto-blasters, we continually reframe violent men’s and stalker-like behaviour as an act of passionate romance. And in doing this, we erase the experience of the victim. The story tells women that we should just suck it up. That we should accept male entitlement as expressions of passion or desire – when in fact these are acts of violence and control. 

Women have a right to leave. We have a right to say no. Our right to refusal, of bodily autonomy, should not be punished by violent men. Our right to say no should not be used as an excuse to blame us for male violence. 

In the above Telegraph extract from Jack the Ripper: a true love story, there’s a suggestion that if only Elizabeth had not left Francis then he would not ‘have been driven’ to kill. Not only does the author refer to her as being an ‘object of desire’ – dehumanising her and treating her as a possession that a man has a right to claim – he also suggests that Elizabeth’s rejection of Francis is a cruel act. We’re invited to sympathise with a ‘loner’ rather than express our horror at gross male entitlement leading to unspeakable violence. We’re asked to think of this as a tragic love story gone wrong, not a conscious decision to go out and destroy women’s lives. We’re asked to think about his destroyed life – not theirs. This is no difference to press reporting on, for example, Oscar Pistorius

In short, we’re asked to believe that through Elizabeth’s rejection of Francis, she bears some of the blame for his violent actions. That by refusing to be his object, by asserting her right to say no, she is at least in part responsible for the murders committed. That by leaving, our sympathy should rest with him

What makes me so furious about this extract, and so much of the way we talk about fatal male violence, is the implication that if she hadn’t left, then he wouldn’t have killed her and the other women. That in leaving him, she drove him to murder – when in fact every violent man who kills a woman has made that conscious, deliberate decision. No woman is responsible for male violence, fatal or otherwise. The only person responsible is the man himself. 

Why does this matter? It matters because the brutal killings of women by men are still frighteningly common. We live in a society where already this year 58 women have been killed by men. Women are still blamed for not leaving violent men, and then they are once again blamed for causing the violence when they do. This isn’t confined to the past. Jack the Ripper wasn’t the last man to kill women. And so the way we talk about his murders matters, because the same tropes, excuses, and minimising is used today. And it matters because in turning one of the most misogynistic killers in history into a cult hero of fascination, we ignore and erase his victims, and glamorise the horror of fatal male violence. 

It might be a century ago and it might be speculative, but when you read an article saying that a man was driven to kill women because he was dumped, it matters. It matters because we are still trying to minimise male violence and find ways to blame the victim. It matters because we did this 100 years ago and we are doing it today. 

Jack the Ripper was a sadistic, sexual murderer. He killed women in a vile and brutal manner – in a way that very specifically focused on their sexual organs. He shouldn’t be a cult figure with a museum dedicated to him. He shouldn’t have enjoyed centenary ‘celebrations’ for his murders. And he shouldn’t be excused as a heartbroken, desolate loner who killed out of dejected love. 

Men don’t kill out of love. Men who kill women are misogynistic murderers. We have to stop excusing them. We have to stop blaming their victims. There’s nothing romantic about male violence. There’s nothing romantic about dead women. 

*having just re read Wuthering Heights, I do sometimes wonder if people’s perceptions of the novel would be different if the film adaptations actually focused on the second half of the book, when Heathcliff commits some of his more horrible violence. I mean, I’m a sucker for that novel and its passionate declarations but my god, the scene where he beats Cathy the Younger is horrifying. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

For the Heroine Collective: Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap

It's Bloomsday today and so it's appropriate that the latest in my Heroine Collective Women of the Left Bank series focuses on Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, who first published Ulysses in Little Review (and were hauled up in front of a disapproving judge for their trouble).

Have a read.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

For Amber Heard and the perfect victim myth

I forgot to upload this when it went live, but better late than never...

It was called: Amber Heard and the 'perfect victim' myth that prevents women speaking up

As usual, comments prove the need for the article...

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

For Halcyon Literature Magazine: The Holiday

Really pleased that my short story, The Holiday, has been published by the lovely people at Halcyon Literature Magazine.

Have a read.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Creative work might not make big bucks, but we must value it.

So says the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast, in response to how they are managing budget cuts by amalgamating courses such as anthropology and sociology into wider subjects of study, so that instead of 21-year-olds passionate about their specialism, we have instead: 

Now, I’m not saying that supporting 21-year-olds to understand the job market and how they can take their place within it is a bad thing. I could have probably done with some of that. 

But what I am saying is that when you have the head of a university basically denigrating the joy and wonder that humanities research can offer an undergraduate student, encouraging them to take on post-grad study, potentially becoming a world specialist in their field and inspiring others behind them - well, something has gone very, very wrong in the way we think about the value of education and specifically university education. 

This is a subject close to my BA Hons heart. I studied English Literature - a degree that does not really give you any marketable skills or an understanding of the ‘tenets in leadership.’ At. All. 

What it gave me was joy. 

For me, university was a space where I could discover. I spent three years reading fairly-but-not-very obscure modernist women writers - Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Katherine Mansfield… as well as the women writers on my courses, such as Woolf and Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. At UCL, where I studied, English Literature students had one-to-one tutorial sessions and I was lucky enough that in the second and final year mine were feminists who encouraged me to scooter off syllabus and read as much about Djuna Barnes as I wanted. 

Today, confused guests arrive at my flat and look at my anthology of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, a relic from the time when I wandered off on to a study project about the spectacle of lesbianism in 20th century literature. My special subject essay was on Plath, who I loved then and love more now. And although I had a mild panic when I got to my exams and realised I probably should have read the Yeats and Hemingway set texts instead of just Virginia Woolf and a whole load of off-syllabus women, I’ll never regret that university was, for me, a space where I discovered the women writers I’d always longed for - women writing about female experience, sorrow, joy, bodies… And today I’m still writing about them and reading them and being inspired by them. 

I didn’t learn about the tenets of leadership. What university provided for me was three years of intense joy in a subject I love; an opportunity to learn about culture and history and feminism; three years in which to immerse myself in books and reading and thinking. I might never have secured funding for all my postgraduate study dreams of Jean Rhys. But those years reading and writing and discovering still serve me today - writing my book about modernist Parisian women, setting up the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and generally banging on wherever I can about feminism and women’s liberation. 

As my friend at university said to me, many, many years ago: ‘why study physics to be an investment banker? Surely study it because you love it?’

What happens when we decide that arts and humanities within universities are no longer valuable? What happens when we tell people that studying 6th century history is no longer valuable - that becoming a specialist in something obscure yet fascinating is no longer a way to contribute to society? 

The views expressed in that interview reflect a wider capitalist and Conservative approach to what we as a society value. And currently, our thinking is that value = making money.

It’s true that it’s unlikely the UK can make much money from studying 6th century history, or that a PhD thesis on Jean Rhys’ use of clothes and make-up to construct identity is going to add much to the Bank of England’s coffers. (let it go, Sian. No one wants that PhD written!)

But why should that be how we measure value? 

Surely studying 6th century history can illuminate things about the human condition and the evolution of society that we can learn from today? Surely exploring the intricacies of history and literature and art and language can tell us how we have developed as people, as groups, how we told our stories then and tell our stories now? 

The obscure doesn’t have to be meaningless. The specialist doesn’t have to be an island. 

We’re living in dark times. To me, we need the spirit of creativity and discovery more than ever. Artists, writers, makers and readers can help us unravel the ugly period we’re living through - can help us to construct meaning, reflect on what’s happening, create a new story, a new narrative. The arts and humanities can change the way we think about things; creative work can change the world! 

I don’t want young people coming out of university to be perfect little capitalist automatons, conforming to what we think society values right now. University is a time to push your boundaries, to think creatively, to discover the unknown and the specialised and be excited by knowledge. I want 21-year-olds to come out of university fired up by the secrets of 6th century history, not humbly trading in today’s political currency. Education should be about questioning the status quo, not conforming to it. 

Britain bangs on a lot about its creative heritage. Right now we’re living through 400 years of Shakespeare, 200 years of the Brontes. James Bond was a big hit again, everyone swooned at Hiddleston in the Night Manager and Hilary Mantel is the best selling Booker winner of all time. 

And yet… funding for the UK Film Council is gone. Schools are cutting their creative writing A-level courses because there’s no money. Theatre groups struggle to get funding, publishing is taking fewer risks and acting is dominated by public school educated men and women who have access to theatrical facilities on site as well as family financial support. 

If we start treating universities as businesses, if we start denigrating the arts and humanities as having little value, if we start squashing creativity and dismissing exploratory creative thinking, then what will our future as a creative society hold?

If we start acting that creative work has little value, then who will be the Shakespeare, Mantel, or Jean Rhys of the future? 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

For The Heroine Collective: Sylvia Beach

My series for the Heroine Collective on Women of the 1920s Left Bank continues with a profile on one of my favourite women, Sylvia Beach.

Have a read.