Poetry Night

Thursday 25th February, 7.30pm

Headlined by guest poet Bernard O’Donaghue and session chair Mariah Whelan, we invite members to read their own verses and exchange views during this Zoom ‘Open mic’. We hope this will be an inaugural night for the WiO poetry group. If you would like to read, please let Mariah know via email at whelan.mariah@gmail.com. To register to attend (rather than to read), please click here: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJMvd-CqpzgpE9OglF89IZ-ccAYRUOEg1rBZ 

Keeping the Memory Alive by Brenda Stones

We still remember the dramas of the Spanish Civil War through reading the literature of the time: George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War. We are familiar with those events as the prelude to the Second World War, leading from 1936 up to the outbreak of worldwide hostilities in 1939.

But what about the atrocity that preceded it in 1935, the brutal Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which was just as much a rehearsal for Fascist expansionism? Could we name any literature that was written about it by either side at the time? And why has it been so eclipsed from our collective memory? Is it because we are more concerned with conflicts in Europe than this last-ditch attempt at colonialist occupation in distant Africa?

I was drawn to reading about the invasion of Ethiopia through the largely forgotten Harlem Renaissance writer, Claude McKay. His novel, Amiable with Big Teeth, gives a vivid picture of the staunch support for the Ethiopians by the black population of New York. They form a loyal aid group, called Hands to Ethiopia, which finds itself in conflict with both its equivalent white support group, Friends of Ethiopia, and with Communist infiltrators from the Soviet Union, who try to turn to their advantage the black protesters’ anti-Fascist sympathies. The result is a stand-off between Fascist and Communist tendencies in New York that threatens to overwhelm the original pro-Ethiopian sympathies. This novel had a sad history: the author completed it in 1941, but his publisher rejected it, despite the advances paid towards his living expenses. It then disappeared from view, but another publisher kept it on file, and it finally saw the light of day in 2017, 80 years after the events it describes.

For a totally contrasting view, I picked up Evelyn Waugh’s Waugh in Abyssinia, published in 1936. Waugh was posted to this war zone by the Daily Mail, and one immediate clue to his sympathies is his use of the name ‘Abyssinia’: McKay tells us that all black populations used the name Ethiopia and found Abyssinia ‘objectionable’. But Waugh’s colonialist views go much farther: he praises every product of the Italian incursion, in particular their immediate road-building programme, and the fact that the roads were built by the Italians themselves: ‘and along the roads will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, bringing the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgment, by which alone, under God, man grows and flourishes’. The book was never popular in the UK, and failed to attract a US edition.

Another pertinent but controversial publication came out over forty years after the invasion. The Emperor Haile Selassie returned from exile in England after Italy’s defeat in the Second World War, and lived on until his death in 1975. He was then savagely satirised by the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski for his inertia towards the poverty and famine of his Ethiopian people, and his own secluded life of pomp and luxury. The Emperor was published in 1978, translated into English in 1983 and dramatised by the Young Vic as recently as 2016.

And now we have the 2019 Ethiopian novel by Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King, shortlisted for the Booker prize this year. She also is reminding the world of the atrocities perpetrated during Italy’s attempt to colonise a fiercely independent African country. She paints an epic canvas of the tanks rolling inland from Massawa, the valiant resistance by men and women alike, in bloodthirsty confrontations between invaders and Ethiopian warriors.

So at least we have four very different points of view and different genres across the course of 85 years: a black American, a very white Englishman, a Pole, and at last an Ethiopian woman, all dedicated to telling the world of the war crimes committed in 1935; all helping to keep alive the memory of this monstrous invasion.

An Extract from ‘Predator’ by Zoe Caldwell

Meet Camilla.

A successful and glamourous, fashion magazine editor, Camilla Black has it all.
But Camilla has a secret.

Underneath her poised exterior lurks a cold dark heart and an insatiable need to kill.
A murderer of bad men, Camilla sees herself as a #MeToo vigilante, making the world a better place with every abuser she kills.

Can Camilla get away with murder or has her luck finally run out? 

To download the first page of Predator please click here. Please note this extract addresses themes of sexual and physical assault.

You can purchase Zoe’s novel here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08LYT1XH5/

60 Years On by Brenda Stones

The year 2020 in itself is far from being any cause for celebration; but perhaps we can salvage some optimism from reckoning how far we’ve come in the last 60 years, since the year 1960, which now stands out as a truly pivotal point for both working-class and feminist fiction. What do we remember of 1960? Which of us were around back then? It’s worth taking a moment to review what a key turning point it was in our literary history.

Up until the end of the Second World War, fiction was largely a male and privileged preserve. A recent review of the territory, The Prose Factory by the well regarded critic D. J. Taylor, scarcely mentions women – apart from a concessionary chapter called ‘Lady Writers’ (sic) with brief nods to Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch. Otherwise the field was dominated by male writers and critics with public school backgrounds, such as Evelyn Waugh or Somerset Maugham.

Then came the 1950s and the beginnings of a revolt against that entrenched establishment. Kenneth Allsop’s The Angry Decade (1958) gives a vivid picture of the post-war, middle-class, grammar-school-educated newcomers, who he describes as more ‘dissentient’ than angry. In fact the main tenor of their fiction was not anger but laddish humour and cocky irreverence ‒ in marked contrast to the parallel post-war movement in France, typified by Camus and Sartre’s expositions of existentialist philosophy.

By the end of the ‘angry decade’, the spotlight was passing down the social scale to genuinely working-class authors, like Alan Sillitoe with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) and Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960). These writers gave us a graphic picture of both social conditions and also the mindset of post-war working-class Britain. We are almost more familiar with the ‘kitchen sink’ film versions (named after a John Bratby painting of 1954) made soon after: gritty black and white visions of the back-to-backs in Nottingham and Manchester, that were the reality of the times.

And soon after the working-class writers came the women! The new decade began with a bang for women’s fiction: Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room (1960) and Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls (1960), dealing explicitly with sex and the single girl. Certainly there had been women writers before, but never such a ‘ground-breaking exploration of taboo subjects’, according to Jane Stevenson in her survey of Women Writers in English Literature. And what else was happening in 1960? It is no coincidence that the Pill hit the pharmacists’ shelves, or more likely the underside of the counter, in 1960, the answer to all the excessive pregnancies described for instance in Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater (1962).

As the 1960s unrolled, so did the demand for new feminist fiction, with Margaret Drabble’s The Summer Birdcage in 1962 and Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means in 1963. The future of the genre was assured. This was not the ‘escapist’ fiction of Mills and Boon that had flourished between the wars; this was social realism in graphic detail. One spin-off effect of its popularity was to open the door to more female editors, like the big names of Liz Calder and Carmen Callil (both aged 22 in 1960), who could confidently publish yet more female fiction as the century wore on.

Also, and most significantly of all, the increase in output created a huge increase in female readers, in reading groups and at literary festivals, to the point where 80% of all fiction is now bought by women. Read Helen Taylor, Why Women Read Fiction: The stories of our lives to find out more; and to ponder how this whole revolution in writing and reading has happened in just the last 60 years!

‘Sid and Nancy do Sainsburys’ by Bill Dring

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‘A Real Lockdown’ – by Philip Gooden

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