Dames designate

Rosa Parks Riding the Bus, 1956/Tara Hunt/flickr

Sit down, you’re rocking the bus

Montgomery, Alabama, December 1st, 1955. A young black woman refuses to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, setting off a chain of events that would result in the abolition of segregation on public transit systems and turn her into one of the most potent symbols of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.

Rosa Parks was born in 1913 into the racially divided community of Alabama and grew up in a world where the hardship of many Afro-Americans’ lives was compounded by the regulations governing their behaviour outside their homes. Her maternal grandparents were former slaves. She was educated in segregated schools that were poorly equipped, and had to walk to school as the buses were for whites only.

Rosa married Raymond Parks at the age of 19; he was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They lived in Montgomery; Rosa worked in a shirt factory and became increasingly active in the Alabama branch of the NAACP. At the time, certain seats on buses were allocated to black people, but if the bus became full, and white people were standing, it was common practice for blacks to give up their seats to whites. Such a situation occurred on December 1st, 1955, and the bus driver told Rosa to give up her seat. When she refused, he called the police, who arrested her. When the head of the local branch of the NAACP learned of this, he mobilised a mass boycott of the city buses by the Afro-American community for December 5th, the day of Rosa’s trial. Community leaders could see the possibilities for change if the boycott were to continue. They set up the Montgomery Improvement Association, electing Dr Martin Luther King as Minister of a local Baptist Church.

Rosa Parks was found guilty of violating a local law and fined $10 plus court fees. The bus boycott continued, and led to reprisals, some of them violent. Black churches were burned down and senior NAACP leaders’ homes were bombed, including Dr King’s. An old law forbidding boycotts was revived and black citizens arrested. Afro-American community lawyers then took to the courts, fighting the principle of segregation on mass transit and citing recent successes in abolishing separate education for blacks and whites. In June 1956 the District Court declared racial segregation laws unconstitutional, a ruling upheld by the Supreme Court following an appeal by the city of Montgomery.

After 381 days, under pressure from the law and the long-term economic impact on the bus transit company and local businesses, the city of Montgomery ended segregation on public buses.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was lifted on December 20 1956.

Rosa Parks’s’ life and achievements are well documented and commemorated in the USA; these include the Martin Luther King award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton, and the Congressional Gold Medal. On her death in 2005, her body lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC, and in 2013, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Barack Obama unveiled a statue honouring her in the Capitol building.

To paraphrase Muddy Waters – Ain’t that a Dame?

Nancy Kerr

Nancy Kerr/Bryn Pinzgauer/flickr

Two weeks ago I was returned to a state of abject teenage fandom when I briefly met a woman of whom I stand in awe.

Once again, I had been entranced by Nancy Kerr playing at Folk by the Oak, the annual summer music festival in the grounds of Hatfield House. I listen to her music a lot at home, but now here she was playing with a different group of musicians, fusing music and politics in both familiar and newly-written songs. You could hear the stirring of 8,000 souls as they sang ‘We Shall Overcome’.

As soon as their set was over, I raced off to get their CD, and as I came away from the stall, there she was, resplendent in a scarlet sash. I nipped into the little cluster forming around her to have my CD signed, so overcome with excitement I could do nothing but keep repeating ‘Thank you’.

I have never heard a voice quite like hers: it is rounded, open, with the characteristic ‘folky’ catch as she moves from chest notes to head notes, and every word is crystal clear, whether it’s a lyrical lament, a clarion call to action, or a traditional narrative folk song.

She plays fiddle with a sweeping attack that nevertheless blends seamlessly with the output from fellow folk legends such as melodeon player Andy Cutting or guitarist Martin Simpson. (She also plays guitar, viola, cello, autoharp and harmonium . . . )

But this is only half the story. Nancy Kerr is by no means confined to the repertoire of traditional folk, not least because she is an exceptional songwriter, creating a body of work in the modern folk idiom that reflects ordinary people’s aspirations for their lives and their environment. The CD that I bought, Shake the Chains, commemorates the Greenham Common women in the song ‘Through the Trees’:

Upon barbed wire around the base
Our mothers twined our baby lace
They linked their arms like lovers charms
To bind all life in common

‘Hard Songs’, from her solo album Sweet Visitor, deals with sweated labour.

Some kind stranger grows my food
Back bent hard in the harvest sun
Red is the flag and red the mud
Hard songs running in her blood

Peggy Seeger herself has distilled the qualities that define Kerr’s unique compositions: ‘Steeped in folksong, she nonetheless breaks out of the mould, coming sideways to her subject, embroidering it with detail and surprises until the focus of the song comes clear.’

To see her perform live is a joy: she is a serene and unselfconscious presence, finely attuned to all those she shares the stage with. Her voice blends with theirs, fleetingly soaring above them when it needs to. There is strength and sincerity in every note that pours out of her.

Though it’s an honour I feel sure she would refuse, damehood would go some way towards recognising the scale of her cultural contribution and her campaigning creativity.

The Successful Slacker

Kate by Carlo Perugini/Irina/flickr

Charles Dickens had ten children and famously complained that he had “brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves.”  This comment is perhaps the chief reason for the image of Dickens’s offspring in the common consciousness as a brood of non-achievers and ne’er-do-wells.  Only his sixth son, Henry Fielding Dickens, is exempted from this general condemnation.  Although Dickens didn’t know it when he died, his son, Henry, would become an eminent lawyer, Common Serjeant of London and a baronet, as well as grandfather to writer Monica Dickens and great-great grandfather to actor Harry Lloyd (among the many other luminaries in his eminent family).

And then there is Kate Dickens.

Often overlooked – excluded from being lumped in with the rest of the young Dickens slackers because, as a female, her destiny was without expectations – Kate (or Katey) was in fact the other successful child of the family. Dickens doted on Kate and her siblings knew her to be their father’s favourite.  She was the most similar to him in character and they had a close but sometimes difficult relationship.  He gave her the nickname of ‘Lucifer Box’ because of her sparky temper.   She grew up as the privileged daughter of the most popular writer of the age, travelling in Europe and studying art at Bedford College, the first higher education college for women in Britain.

When her parents separated, Kate found the awful atmosphere at home more than she could bear and married Pre-Raphaelite artist Charles Collins to escape.  Her husband was the younger brother of the novelist, Wilkie Collins, who was a friend and associate of her father’s.  At first Dickens was reluctant to agree to the marriage but eventually relented.  Charles Collins was twelve years Kate’s senior, kind but sickly. Dickens blamed himself for her decision to marry.

Charles and Kate Collins were good friends but their marriage was probably never consummated.   Collins died from cancer in 1873, three years after Kate’s father.  During her marriage she is believed to have had a passionate affair with another Pre-Raphaelite, Valentine Prinsep, and, after being widowed in her thirties, she very quickly married the artist, Carlo Perugini.  (It is doubtless only coincidence, but interesting nonetheless, that both her husbands shared her father’s first name.)

Kate’s second marriage proved to be happy and successful, and she and Carlo lived a contented, busy and sociable life with many friends, who included some of the greatest literary and artistic names of the time, including J.M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw.  They had one child, who died in infancy.  During this period her artistic talents flourished. She became a celebrated portrait painter, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the Society of Watercolour Painters and the Society of Lady Artists, and counted John Everett Millais among her many admirers.  She modelled for two notable works by Millais, The Black Brunswicker and Portrait of Mrs Perugini, as well as for many portraits by her husband.  Although now largely unknown to the general public, Kate’s reputation in artistic circles has not diminished since her death in 1929, and she is regarded as an important figure in her own right.

Carlo, Kate and their son are buried together in St Nicholas churchyard in Sevenoaks, Kent.  Next to their grave is that of Kate’s sister, Mary, whose life was sadly not as notable or as fulfilling as her sister’s.  They had been born in the same London house in the 1830s (now the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street) and were the only daughters of Dickens to live to adulthood.  There is a nice symmetry in their lying beside each other in death.

Alan Hyde


Gina Miller/Vivere Milano

Dame Gina

I was thinking about who to nominate as a dame designate for the next damesnet newsletter, and in my view, in the light of current events there is one particular brave, independent-minded and creative woman at centre stage who deserves our acknowledgement.  And no, I don’t mean Theresa May.

Sadly, it is not easy to take a stand against cheap, nasty populism nowadays in the UK, but Gina Miller has done that and is continuing to do so.  Let us not forget that if Ms Miller had not taken the case to the High Court, the Government would not have had to seek parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50.

Now whatever you feel about the EU, the Referendum and plans for Brexit, we all know that one of the big tropes amongst all the stories told about Brexit was the promise to bring back our sovereignty, and in the UK it is Parliament that is sovereign, so as far as I am concerned, what Ms Miller did was a GOOD THING and I admire her for it.  Miller’s actions have led to a revised understanding of how British democracy ought to function in the 21st century.

Her campaigns also include calling for reform in the City’s code of ethics, including what she calls ‘price fixing’ by the UK fund management industry.  In 2012 she set up the True and Fair campaign https://www.trueandfaircampaign.com/, which has called for more transparency and an end to hidden fund charges and mis-selling in the City of London’s asset management industry.

And she is now setting up a campaign – called Best for Britain – to support tactical voting in the General Election.  Gina Miller announced this the day after the election was called, and a crowdfunding page set up specifically for this quickly exceeded initial financial targets. The aim of this latest initiative is to encourage the election of MPs who will hold the next government to account on the Brexit deal that is negotiated with the EU.  Miller wants the campaign to support new, alternative and imaginative efforts to ensure there is no simple rubber stamping of the Brexit deal the Government negotiates.

I have nothing but admiration for Gina Miller as she takes this next step.  Her High Court challenge to the triggering of Article 50 generated a torrent of abuse.  There have been numerous threats to her life, and the hatred and vilification directed at her have been immense. This is a person who has been told that ‘as a coloured woman, I am not even human’.  Yet instead of retiring hurt she has thrown herself back into the fray.

She is quoted as saying: ‘One editor of one of the publications said to me “Gina, the thing, is you’re an enigma” and I said “What does that mean?” He said “Because we don’t believe anyone does anything for the right reasons”.  I said “Well, that says more about you than it does about me because there are lots of people out there who do things for the right reasons every single day.”’

Ain’t that a dame?Asterics-e1425818413830

Margaret Atwood/veeses/flickr

Margaret Atwood

You know things aren’t going well when dystopias are the height of fashion.  Growing up with the threat of the Cold War and looming Soviet domination I read 1984 and thanked my stars I lived in a democracy where I had freedom of choice.  Huxley’s Brave New World had me quaking at the thought of another method of manipulating the people, this time scientifically rather than overtly politically, using systems that controlled families, childbirth and social structures.

By the time I read The Handmaid’s Tale I had gone through the teenage angst phase and was the mother of two little children. I had never heard of this extraordinary Canadian, and set out to read as much of her work as possible. Compared to Orwell and Huxley, Margaret Atwood’s story of total  female subjugation held my imagination in stupefied horror.

Margaret Atwood is a woman of many talents. Her literary skills are well known; she is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. This includes 16 novels, 8 works of short fiction, 8 books for children, 17 collections of poems and 10 works of non-fiction. Last year, in 2016, she produced her first graphic novel, Angel Catbird.  She has written the libretto to a chamber opera, and her works have been dramatized on several occasions.

She is also a feminist.  She has been quoted as refusing to categorise The Handmaid’s Tale as science fiction, preferring to call it ‘speculative fiction’.  Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President, sales of the book jumped to the top of Amazon’s bestsellers list. And when a Republican Senator recently chose to illustrate his anti-abortion views by referring to pregnant women as merely ‘hosts’, Atwood’s comments, made long before the current US President took office, now seem positively prophetic.  Apparently the Senator is proposing legislation so that the father of a foetus would be required to sign off or permit an abortion to take place.  Presumably he has never heard of pregnancies arising from rape, bolting husbands or disappearing partners.

On International Women’s Day this year, Atwood gave an interview to the Huffington Post where she gave advice to young feminists in a number of areas, urging them to ‘Be informed, stay aware’.

She reminded women that:

  • Young feminists need to stay informed about threats to their rights.
  • The consequences of women losing access to reproductive healthcare would be dire.
  • Sexual assault is still a problem, and we need to be able to defend ourselves.
  • The dystopian world she created in The Handmaid’s Taleseems increasingly possible here and now.

But do not think Margaret Atwood’s energies are confined to writing and feminism. She is an active environmentalist, and she and her partner Graeme Gibson are presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. Not surprisingly, she supports the Green Party of Canada.

She has lectured widely and taught creative writing and is a founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada, which supports the writing community of Canada. Her website is full of advice and information for writers.  She has helped develop a theory of Canadian identity, which in her view is built around the principle of survival.

Margaret Atwood thinks and writes with vision, clarity, hope and sincerity. She has my nomination for damehood; taking into consideration her lifelong contribution to literature, feminism and environmentalism, at the present time it is hard to think of someone more fit to carry the title: Dame Margaret Atwood.



Kathryn Hunter as Richard III at The Globe 2003

Kathryn Hunter

I am in awe of many remarkable women in many different walks of life, but on stage my recognition goes to the actress Kathryn Hunter, who has a mesmeric presence that is both startling and compelling.  I first saw her perform at the National Theatre in 1989, when she starred as the millionairess Clara Zachanassian in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, for which she won an Olivier Award in 1991.  The play was also the first production I had seen by the extraordinary theatre company Complicité – www.complicite.org/- and Hunter perfectly epitomised what Simon McBurney, their co-founder and artistic director calls their ethos of “seeing what is most alive, integrating text, music, image and action to create surprising, disruptive theatre”.

Hunter was born in 1957 into a Greek family in New York, but was raised in England and studied at RADA. At that time she was badly injured in a car accident that left her with a pronounced limp.  When asked how this affected her acting she is quoted as saying: “It spurred me on, in a funny way. I think I was lucky to meet Complicité, which had such a vivid physical language – it was a joy to apply myself to that. Of course when you’re playing Cleopatra you think, ‘I wish I didn’t have a bit missing from my right foot, because it makes me walk funny’ “.

When on stage Hunter has a physical fluidity that at times seems to go beyond the limits of what is technically possible, and is equally at home in female or male roles.  She was the first female actor to play King Lear professionally, and also starred as Richard III at the Globe Theatre in 2003. Earlier this year she took the lead role in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Southwark Playhouse.  Her ability to shape-shift has included taking on animal roles, most notably as the lead character in Kafka’s Monkey, based on a short story by Franz Kafka, who presents the story of his transformation from ape to human to a group of scientists.

In September I was fortunate to see her perform in the UK at the Young Vic, where she has taken part in multiple productions over the years.  This latest was an adaptation of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book The Emperor, effectively a one-woman show with Hunter taking on all the roles, accompanied by musician Temesgen Zeleke.  Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist and writer whose despatches and books about Africa in particular were both authoritative and enthralling.  He wrote The Emperor in Ethiopia while interviewing Haile Selassie’s closest associates as the dictator’s regime finally fell in the 1970s.  Hunter played ten roles, including the Emperor’s valet, chauffeur, zoo keeper, pillow-bearer and purse-bearer in a performance that was in turns comic, horrifying, repellent and tragic.

Hunter is also an acclaimed director; she directed a RSC production of Othello in 2009, and is an Associate at RADA where she regularly directs student productions.  She also wrote and directed A Perfect Mind at the Young Vic.

In an age when it would appear that to be a successful female actress you need to be under 30, around 6 foot tall and whippet thin with a peachy complexion, Kathryn Hunter defies all these stereotypes.  She has my latest nomination for damehood, and I would urge Theresa May to note this extraordinary woman’s views on citizenship:

“I adore the English language and the British sense of humour. I feel blessed to have grown up here. The gift of my Greek parentage is ancestral [links to] tragedy and comedy, those kind of currents. It’s lucky to be a bit of everything, a citizen of everywhere and nowhere.”


Three Dames of Bologna




Emily Wilding Davison

Emily Davison, May 1913/Google images

Emily Davison, May 1913/Google images

The story of the suffragette movement in the UK has its heroines and its martyrs, and perhaps the most iconic image of the struggle is the one of Emily Davison falling under King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913. There has been much debate about her intention at the time: was she intending to commit suicide? Did she just want to throw a sash with the words: ”Votes for Women” around the horse’s neck? Would she even have been able to know from where she stood which horse was the King’s?

Whatever her precise motive, she died four days later of the injuries she sustained, and her funeral attracted thousands of people.  One can only imagine what global attention would be given to such an event in today’s online media, but in 1913 the publicity created by the action was the nearest thing to going viral that existed, as it was one of the first tragedies to be captured on camera.

Emily Davison was a highly intelligent, educated person from a middle class family. She was born in Blackheath in London in 1872 and attended a girls’ prep school. She won a bursary to study literature at Royal Holloway College, but had to leave when her father died and there was not enough money to pay the fees.  She subsequently took classes at St Hugh’s College at Oxford University, and obtained first class honours in her final exams, although at the time women were not allowed to graduate.

She worked as a teacher, then in 1906 joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. Three years later she went to work full-time for the suffragette movement.  She became a militant campaigner, often resorting to violence, including throwing stones and arson.

She was arrested and imprisoned on a number of occasions, and in 1909 was sentenced to a month’s hard labour in Strangeways Prison in Manchester for throwing rocks at the carriage of the Chancellor, David Lloyd George.  Not for the first time, she went on hunger strike and resisted the force-feeding that had become commonplace amongst jailed suffragists. She blockaded herself in her cell and a prison guard, in an attempt to get her to allow access, turned on a hose and nearly completely flooded the cell with icy cold water.  Finally the door was broken down and Davison was freed.   Later she sued the wardens of Strangeways and was awarded 40 shillings.

Davison is well known for her militancy, but there were other sides to her activism. On April 2nd, the night of the 2011 census, she hid in a cupboard in St Mary Undercroft, the chapel of the Palace of Westminster.  Her aim was to have her place of residence legitimately recorded on the census form as “The House of Commons”. Today there is a plaque in the same cupboard commemorating the event, placed there by MP Tony Benn in 1999.

As with any high profile figure, opinion is divided as to how effective Emily Davison was in terms of advancing the suffragette cause. There is no doubt that she was incredibly brave and that her dramatic actions drew the public’s attention to the fight for women’s suffrage.  Her actions went way beyond those officially sanctioned by the WPSU and the incident at the Derby drew as much criticism as it did praise. Nevertheless she is damesnet‘s latest nomination for damehood.

Asterics-e1425818413830A Francodame?

PromenadeMy tenuous link to the artist and illustrator Sir Quentin Blake goes back to my schooldays, although our paths never actually crossed. He was a teacher at the Lycée Français de Londres, where I was subsequently a pupil. Far more significantly, his work has delighted my family for decades, so when I learned of an evening being hosted at Kings Place in London called ‘Quentin Blake and France’, I jumped at the opportunity.

The event was short and very sweet. It was hosted by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation in conjunction with the Institut Français, but you didn’t need to speak a word of French to get full enjoyment.  Prior to the evening, I did not know of Blake’s love of, and involvement with, France, and that he has published two books with the French publisher Gallimard, including an illustrated selection of his favourite French poems, that includes Rimbaud’s famous poem, ‘Le Dormeur du Val’, http://poesie.webnet.fr/lesgrandsclassiques/poemes/arthur_rimbaud/le_dormeur_du_val.html.

The evening – or should I say soirée? – was a fascinating mixture of poetry, song and readings, all illustrated with Blake’s pictures, which were projected onto a huge screen behind the podium.  At one point, to accompany a reading of Victor Hugo’s ‘L’Ogre et la Fée’ (The ogre and the fairy), Blake sketched out the characters; as he drew, an overhead projector displayed the unfolding picture on the screen. The audience watched spellbound.  We were treated to renderings of songs by, amongst others, Georges Brassens, Paul Verlaine and Edmond Rostand.  There were poems by La Fontaine, de Bergerac and Fourest.

Blake spoke extensively of his activities in France with French writers and illustrators; in recent years his artworks have increasingly been shown outside books in public spaces, and his work for hospitals and healthcare settings now includes a scheme for the whole of a new Mrs Armitagematernity hospital in Angers.

In 2004 he was awarded the ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ by the French Government for services to literature and in 2007 he was made Officier in the same order.  In 2014 he was admitted to the Legion d’Honneur, an honour accorded to few people who are not French nationals.  Even his website is available in English and French, which is unusual in itself when the subject of the website is British.

I also learned that he is a patron of the Big Draw, whose latest exhibition is currently featured on Damesnet at: https://damesnet.com/we-like/reviews/. He also supports the Nightingale Project, which is a charity that puts art into hospitals.

For those people who want to see Blake’s illustrations in their original form, the House of Illustration www.houseofillustration.org.uk, has recently opened a Quentin Blake Gallery, which will offer a continuous series of exhibitions of different aspects of Blake’s work.  It will also feature exhibitions he will be curating of the work of other influential illustrators.

This was an evening of feel-good French culture that centred on someone whose extraordinary talent has for so many years made thousands of people, young and old, feel very good.

*The English translation can be found here: http://www.mag4.net/Rimbaud/poesies/Sleeper.html

Asterics-e1425818413830Lyse Doucet

Lyse Doucet/BBC World Service/flickr

Lyse Doucet/BBC World Service/flickr

There is one woman in the media who compels my attention like no other, and she is Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent.  When I hear her unmistakeable voice, I know she is going to relay news of the utmost gravity with measured analysis, but also a keen awareness of the consequences for those caught up in events.

I am clearly not alone in my appreciation, as Ms Doucet has received widespread recognition for her journalism, including Sony awards, honorary doctorates from seven universities, and an OBE in the 2014 Birthday Honours.

She has a solid background in international affairs, with a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Toronto. Her journalism career began in West Africa in 1983, but by 1988 she was reporting from Pakistan and Kabul, and it is with the powder keg of the Middle East in its loosest sense, from Tunisia to Afghanistan, that she is most associated, though she also covered the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

She deals robustly with the matter of being a female journalist in some of the areas of the world most hostile to women: “I have been working for the BBC for 20 years and no one has ever said I couldn’t go somewhere because I’m a woman.”

Her distinctive accent comes from Acadia, described by The Guardian as ‘an obscure part of Canada’, which means that ‘she doesn’t sound Canadian to most Canadians, she doesn’t sound American to Americans, and she sounds interestingly exotic to people like us.’

Her ancestry is certainly exotic: Acadian, Irish and Migmaw – the ‘aboriginal’ people of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Doucet is very proud of this ‘métis’ heritage,  and strongly supports the movement to keep this culture alive, pointing out that it would be inconsistent of her not to do so when she spends so much of her time highlighting the plight of oppressed minorities elsewhere in the world.

But what marks her out every bit as much as her accent is the quality of her journalism, whether on radio or television. She has a profound understanding of the geopolitical forces at work, but never loses sight of what it’s all really about: “It’s about what’s happening on the ground. The idea … is to give a voice to people here.” This is why she’s as likely to be giving us the perspective of, say, a local greengrocer as interviewing a head of state.

Despite the tides of human misery she is confronted with every day, she has not lost her hope and her humour. (“Humour is the most important language in the world. I use it to get through checkpoints.”) Her recent interview with a group of journalists who had survived being taken hostage by ISIS is just one example of this. She went from gently questioning them about the last hours of their fellow captive Alan Henning, the taxi driver whom ISIS beheaded, to encouraging them to own up about some of the daft pastimes they took up to relieve the sheer tedium of incarceration, without ever striking a false note.

Some months ago the BBC broadcast a discussion to celebrate 60 years of From our own Correspondent. Doucet’s contributions to this pretty much set out her philosophy, and explains why her reporting cuts through to you in the way it does: “Who wants to get up in the morning without hope? As human beings we can’t have unrelenting grimness . . . I believe every story is a human story.”

I can’t think why they just didn’t cut to the chase in 2014 and make her a dame. She should have an upgrade straight away.


A dame departed



This week’s dame designate is an ordinary person in the sense that you won’t have heard of her, but behind every such person is an extraordinary life, and hers is no exception.

The death of this old family friend last week made me reflect that her journey from scion of a wealthy state prosecutor’s family in Germany to a council house opposite Tooting Bec Lido was a remarkable one.

Born in Lower Saxony in 1925, Gisele (not her real name, since I now cannot ask, and for the last six years, could not have asked, her permission to write this) was the eldest of six children living in a large house in the municipality of Seesen. Her father’s role gave the family great standing in the community and they were used to the best – a permanent box at the opera and a chauffeur-driven car.

You may already have guessed that the war soon put paid to all of this. Gisele’s headstrong nature put her at odds with her father when her recalcitrant attitude towards the League of German Girls (the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth) threatened to undermine his standing in the community. Once she reached the age of 18, she was conscripted into the airforce, where she operated anti-aircraft searchlights during Allied bombing raids. On her 70th birthday she recalled turning 20 in May 1945, seeing the Russians watering their horses on the other side of the river Elbe and realising the game was up. Only in the past 24 hours have I learnt from her brother that she was captured by the Russian Army. Tellingly, she never spoke of this.

In the aftermath of the war, she inevitably became one of the ‘Trümmerfrauen’, whose job it was to clear Berlin of rubble brick by brick, with carts and with hods on their backs. How long she endured this I don’t know, but long enough to acquire a partner and two children, and then lose the partner. The day came when she decided she had had enough, put the infants in her rucksack and took them to her parents’ house, before heading off to England on her own.

Gisele had high hopes of England: as a child she had noticed how much of the globe was coloured pink, and had learned that this was the British Empire. She remembered thinking that a closer association with the pink people might be a good idea.

Her first jobs in Britain were as an au pair in various locations: Scotland, Hazlemere, and a stint with the family of Norbert Brainin, first violinist of the Amadeus Quartet. And then she came to our house.

I was about five and my sister two when this Teutonic Mary Poppins arrived, with some pretty firm ideas about discipline and order (I know, I know – appalling stereotyping, but it’s true)  – and a huge sense of fun. She was hot on tidiness and cleanliness, with room inspections and close scrutiny of knees and necks, and even a points system, all part of her child-taming methods. But I also remember scampering down a country road behind her, as she headed for a nearby stream with a basket of washing on her head when the water in a holiday cottage suddenly turned rusty. And one of the best birthdays I ever had was a surprise trip to the bright lights of Herne Bay. The feeling of delight as we rounded the corner to see that the Essoldo was showing A Hard Day’s Night and realising we were going there was exquisite.

By coincidence, it was another film by another pop act that took eventually Gisele away from us. During a half-term visit to see Summer Holiday, my sister and I noticed a pegboard printed with the film poster and began jabbing the pegs in. A bell rang and the cinema manager popped out of his office, for this turned out to be a promotional wheeze: behind the poster was a map of Britain, and we had just landed a direct hit on a Pontin’s holiday camp. As we were too young to enter, it was Gisele who answered a simple question and won a week’s holiday for two. Being single – and enterprising – she asked if she could have a two-week holiday for one. At Pontin’s, over a game of snooker in which her trousers split, she met a widowed mechanical engineer from South London. Reader, she married him . . .

. . . and moved to his neat three-bedroomed council house in Streatham. A devotee of Habitat, she lost no time in decorating it in a pared-back mid-century modern style, and in building up a career in administration that took her from customer service at Radio Rentals to probate clerk.

Gisele was one of the few people I have ever met who was a true eccentric. She genuinely didn’t care what other people thought, and nothing she did, wore or said ever had behind it any intent to create an effect. It was this eccentricity that prevented those around her from spotting the early signs of dementia. But eventually the stolen wallets, mislaid keys and strange girls who had apparently taken up residence in her kitchen became too much to ignore. Thankfully, after she was no longer able to cope on her own, she moved to a very welcoming care home, housed in a gracious Georgian pile (once visited by the Prince Regent) surrounded by parkland, and saw out her days in something approaching the manner she had once been accustomed to.

She has died peacefully at the age of 90. RIP Gisele: idiosyncratic, opinionated, and, in her eventful trajectory across the 20th century, a born survivor. The abiding image most people will have of her is as an octogenarian ‘grande dame’ in leather trousers power-walking the streets of South London.


Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross/Elizabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross/Elizabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation

Like birth, dying is a topic we prefer not to think about. No amount of helpful comment on the theme of ‘We’ve all got to go one day’ helps us prepare for our personal departure from our particular stage. I want to salute one of the women of the 20th century who single-handedly did so much to help our understanding of the processes around death and dying.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was born in Switzerland in 1926, one of triplets. At the end of the Second World War she volunteered at the International Voluntary Service for Peace, working with concentration camp victims in Poland and Germany. She studied medicine and qualified as a doctor in Switzerland, moving to the US in 1958 with her American husband.

She specialised in psychiatry, and she observed that in general, health professionals, who had been trained to heal and treat disease, avoided terminally ill patients and did not know how to help them prepare for death. She resolved to change attitudes and practice, and this became the focus of her life’s work. She started seminars for medical students to give them a greater understanding of their end-of-life patients, thus becoming a pioneer of the concept of providing psychological help to the dying.

She published her seminal work, On Death and Dying, in 1969, and it is here that she introduced the concept of there being five stages of grief as part of adjusting to the process of dying. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.   In general, people experience these different emotions when faced with impending death, although the order and sequence can vary with the individual person. The book quickly became a standard text for professionals working with the terminally ill. Today, these five stages are as much a part of the understanding of the process of dying amongst doctors and therapists as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is intrinsic to an understanding of human motivation. As Kubler-Ross developed her theories, it became clear that the five stages were equally relevant to people coping with the death of a loved one.

She taught courses on death and dying in colleges, medical schools, hospitals and social work institutions. Her work coincided with Dame Cicely Saunders’s development of the hospice movement in the UK, and helped pave the way for hospices to be established in the US.

In later life Kubler-Ross became convinced of the existence of an afterlife, and she studied people’s descriptions of their apparent near-death experiences. She became increasingly attracted to New Age spirituality, and established a healing centre in California, where she continued to develop her ideas based on the afterlife.

She was the recipient of twenty honorary degrees and in 2007 was an inductee in the Women’s Hall of Fame. There are many remarkable quotes attributed to her, and for me the following is particularly resonant, and a useful reminder of what, in a way, life is all about:

‘Dying is something we human beings do continuously, not just at the end of our physical lives on this earth.’

In my view, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is a most worthy candidate for damehood.

Asterics-e1425818413830La Pasionaria

Pasionaria/Nombres Porcuna/flickr

Pasionaria/Nombres Porcuna/flickr

Next month will mark 80 years since La Pasionaria (the Passionflower), founder member of the Spanish Communist Party and Republican heroine, was elected to the legislature of Spain to represent Asturias. She was undoubtedly a dame, though it is unlikely that she would ever have accepted such a formal accolade from the establishment.

Isidora Dolores Ibarruri was born in 1895, in the Basque country, where her father was a miner. Her fearless and headstrong nature was evident from the start: her mother took her to church to be exorcised when she was only ten.

She left school at 15, as the family finances could not run to paying for the teacher training course she had been preparing for. She worked first as a seamstress, then as a housemaid, and it was while she was working as a waitress that she met Juan Ruiz Gabina, a union activist. They married in 1915. It was during his spell in prison following the General Strike in 1917 that she began to read Marx and other radical thinkers whose books were available in the library of her local Socialist Workers’ Centre.

In 1918 she wrote her first article: a denunciation of religious hypocrisy which, as it was to be published in Holy Week, she signed as La Pasionaria, a soubriquet that never left her.

In 1920 the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) was formed and she devoted the next ten years to grassroots militancy. During this period she also had six children, including a set of triplets. All but two of her children died in infancy – she later recalled that her husband had made a coffin out of a fruit crate.

She moved to Madrid in 1931, where she was put in charge of the PCE’s official publication, Mundo Obrero (Workers’ World). In September 1931 she was arrested for the first time, and persuaded her fellow inmates to go on hunger strike to get political detainees released. In 1932 she again led protest action in prison, inspiring a mass refusal to undertake poorly paid menial labour. In 1933 she founded the anti-war Mujeres Antifascistas, a women’s movement, and travelled to Moscow, which seemed to her ‘the most wonderful city on earth’, where genuine socialism was finally taking shape.

In the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, she took part in many risky activities in opposition to the authorities: rescuing the children whose parents had been imprisoned following the failed October revolution of 1934; personally releasing the political prisoners from Oviedo prison as soon as she had been elected to Parliament; and standing alongside striking miners and evicted tenants.

The increasing brutality of the Nationalist attacks, including their bombing of Guernica and other cities, drove Ibarruri to accept the need for violence to match theirs, despite her earlier anti-war stance:

‘If our appeal remains a voice crying out in the wilderness, our protests are ignored, our humane conduct, if all these are taken for signs of weakness, then the enemy will have only himself to blame—for we shall give vent to our wrath and destroy him in his lair.’

Infighting among the factions of the left (which Ibarruri saw as orchestrated by anarchists and Trostskyists) and the withdrawal of Soviet support led to the fall of the Republican government in 1939, and Ibarruri fled to Moscow, helped by French Communists. She stayed there for the next 41 years, returning to Spain in 1977, two years after Franco’s death. She immediately began campaigning for re-election, and – at the age of 82 – took up the single seat available in Parliament for the PCE’s share of the vote. Despite illness, she served out her term, but did not stand for re-election in 1979. She died in 1989.

As with most radical activist politicians, her contribution is not without controversy: she was a firm admirer of Stalin; opponents accused her of instigating the murder of monarchist leader José Calvo Sotelo (which she always denied); and she is said to have participated in relentless persecution of Trostkyites, whom she felt had undermined the resistance to fascism.

Yet she maintained the spirit of resistance in Franco’s Spain during her exile through her radio broadcasts from Moscow and she organised the Spanish Communist underground movement from there. Throughout her political career she inspired and supported many vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, she made her mark in a supremely patriarchal society, and no one can deny the power of her oratory. Read her farewell speech to the International Brigades here.

Asterics-e1425818413830Diana Athill

AthillHow is long is Diana Athill going to have to wait for a damehood? She’s 98, for heaven’s sake!

Perhaps, as with Petula Clark, nominated previously on damesnet, it’s simply that she’s gone about her work without ostentation. Adored by the stellar writers she tended, but ignored by the general public as her massive contribution to contemporary English fiction was mostly behind the scenes, it wasn’t until the publication in 2000 of her memoir Stet, which documented her work as an editor at Andre Deutsch, that she really came to wider attention.

Although she has written fiction, it is as a memoirist that she has finally found fame, receiving the Costa Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Somewhere Towards the End.   Life Class, the collected memoirs, comes in at around 650 pages, but I promise you that they will flash by. Yesterday Morning covers her childhood: a privileged, horsy upbringing in a rambling house in Norfolk with a tribe of siblings and cousins. For all its enjoyments, Athill captures very vividly the regular humiliations and indignities of one’s youthful plans and dreams being thwarted by adults who hold all the cards.

This is why going up to Oxford in 1936 proved such a release, and it also provided her with the freedom to conduct the great passion of her life, with her ex-tutor ‘Paul’. Instead of a Letter focuses on her betrayal by Paul, an event that cast a long shadow over her life, but without ever causing her to succumb to despair or depression. She has written ‘ . . . I owe Oxford much of the stability and resilience which enabled me, later, to live through 20 years of unhappiness without coming to dislike life.’

For a book lover, reading Stet is something like being a child let loose in a sweetshop. Living in a little flat, earning a pittance, she has an influence out of all proportion to this in the development of the André Deutsch publishing company through her careful tending of a dream list of authors, whose foibles and hazy concepts of deadlines she takes in her stride. She devotes several chapters to rehabilitating authors she thinks have been unjustly neglected: Mordecai Richler, Mollie Keane and Alfred Chester among them. Certainly Mollie Keane’s Good Behaviour is one of the most exquisitely tragi-comic novels I’ve read.

Finally, Somewhere Towards the End covers the last part of her life, observing shrewdly the processes of letting go and of accommodation with a creaking physique. But it was published in 2008, and she has continued to do a lot more living since then, regularly writing and reviewing in papers and magazines.

These memoirs are beautifully written and unflinchingly honest – documenting her abortion, her love of sex, her numerous affairs with married men in the wake of her early betrayal alongside the absorbing detail of her professional life. They are also studded with her succinct appreciations of the small things that are part of the texture of everyday life that make it worth living. And her account of the very singular family she forged for herself surely points the way forward in an age of family break-up and mass migration. When her one-time lover became just a friend, she was not in the least bit jealous of the young woman he took up with; they became friends, and when that young woman subsequently married someone else and had children, that family looked on Athill as their grandparent. Athill also eventually took the one-time lover back into her flat and nursed him till his death, which was literally a messy business.

Literary midwife and generous nursing friend – what a woman. I think I want to be Diana Athill when I grow up.


nawal-el-saadawi-6Nawal El Saadawi

The advance of women’s rights over the years owes much to the sacrifices and stands taken by many brave women. Here in the UK, the suffragettes are invariably cited as mould breakers in terms of their achievements in gaining women the vote. But who are their counterpart heroines in other lands?

I am nominating as one of them Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian writer and feminist, as someone most worthy of damehood. She was born in 1931 in a village near Cairo, the second of nine children. At the age of six, as was the custom, she was held down by four women while the local midwife cut off her clitoris. In her first autobiography she wrote: “Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed”. She has campaigned tirelessly against female genital mutilation (FGM) all her life.

El Saadawi did receive an education, and although she wanted to be a dancer, because she achieved top grades at school, it was decided that she would study medicine. She went on to specialise in psychiatry, and in 1963 she was appointed Director General for Public Health Education. She noted the links between women’s physical and psychological health and the patriarchal and cultural oppression in Egyptian society.

In 1972 her book Women and Sex was published. It was the first in a series of books that attacked the aggressions carried out in Egypt against women’s bodies, including FGM. The book became a key text for 1970s feminism, and as her political activities increased, she lost her job. At the same time, Health, a women’s magazine she had founded, was closed down.

In 1973, her best known novel, Woman at Point Zero, was published in Beirut, and in 1976, her novel about local corruption, God Dies By the Nile, was published. Then in 1977 she published The Hidden Face of Eve, a study of female oppression in the Arab world. The book included a description of her own circumcision, and how it had influenced her attitudes to men and public institutions.

As her reputation as a radical grew in Egypt, abroad she was increasingly recognised for her contribution to women’s health issues. From 1979 to 1980 she was the United Nations Advisor for the Women’s Programme in Africa and the Middle East. Then in 1981 she published a feminist journal called Confrontation, and Anwar Sadat, then President of Egypt, had her arrested and imprisoned. One month later, on October 6th, Sadat was assassinated, and she waited in her cell, writing memoirs on toilet paper with an eye pencil smuggled to her by another inmate. A few weeks later she was taken to see the new President Mubarak. He told her she was free to go, but she insisted on suing the government for unlawful imprisonment. She won her case and was awarded a huge sum, which she never received.

After this El Saadawi’s work was censored and she received death threats. Her then husband persuaded her to leave Egypt, and for several years she taught at universities in Europe and the US. But she returned in 1986 and continued as an activist, standing against Mubarak in the 2004 elections until the pressure grew too great.

In 2008 FGM was banned in Egypt, but the practice remains widespread. She was in Tahrir Square in 2011 when President Mubarak was deposed. She was awarded the North-South Prize by the Council of Europe in 2004, and in 2012 received the Stig Dagerman award for advocates of free speech. She is against the objectification of women’s bodies in the West and also supports legislation against Muslim women wearing veils in public. She has never shied away from controversy or her beliefs, and continues to campaign at the age of 84. Her prodigious literary output includes fiction, essays, memoirs, plays and short stories.

Ain’t that a dame?


Roy Hudd

Roy Hudd/AIM

Roy Hudd/AIM

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: Some are born dames, some achieve damehood, and some have damehood thrust upon them. In Roy Hudd’s case, it’s probably a mix of achieving and thrusting.

This Christmas marks his long-awaited initiation into damehood. He has written himself into Dick Whittington at Wilton’s Music Hall, in a production directed by his wife Debbie Flitcroft (running from 1st to 31st December). Interviewed by Sandi Toksvig for BBC Radio’s Chain Reaction, to be broadcast in January, she asked why he had only now decided to become a dame? “Well,” came the reply, “I thought I’d better do it quick before I go.”

Toksvig introduced Hudd as a master of timing, something which has never deserted him. Indeed, she joked at the beginning that her role as questioner was redundant, because he could play both parts – and so it proved. But it’s worth listening to for insights into music hall comedy and Hudd’s own life.

He was brought up in Croydon by his grandmother, his father having deserted the family and his mother having committed suicide. His love affair with comedy seems to have been part-inspired by his gran, and part by the Boy Scouts. They required him to take on an extra activity, and looking down the list the only one that appealed was comedy…so we have the Scouts to thank for his long career.

His gran also had a love of music hall comedians and, though money was tight, they were invariably to be found on a Tuesday night in the gallery of the Croydon Empire enjoying themselves. Her highest accolade, it appears, was “you silly sod”.

He knew he’d arrived when the Scouts put on a talent show and he cracked a few gags. On the way home, when he asked how he’d done, she gave him a playful clip round the ears and issued the words he’d been waiting for.

Hudd didn’t go straight on to the stage, though.  He did his RAF national service, and trained as a draughtsman at the Regent Street Polytechnic, now Westminster University, under Harry Beck, the man who designed the London tube map. Coincidentally, this was straight across from the BBC and at a time when Eric Gill was sculpting Prospero and Ariel outside Broadcasting House while wearing women’s clothing with nothing underneath. Beck would comment on the number of times secretaries would cross the road to pass underneath and peer up.

After training, his comedy act (which he shared with friend Eddie Cunningham) had to be squeezed in between when work finished and sleep started, frequently at midnight. Their act was spotted by an agent, who asked whether they’d like to perform at Butlins, so off they went. As Redcoats in Clacton they had little time to themselves between shepherding squealing kids, but they were billeted between two young men who were soon to become famous: Harry Webb on one side (Cliff Richard) and an ultra-hyper David Tynan O’Mahony (Dave Allen) on the other.

Hudd’s path to fame was not as smooth as those of Richard and Allen. Indeed, his comedic partner Cunningham bailed to “make it big in the wine business”. And there came a time when he thought everything was about to go right, with opportunities coinciding on the stage and radio, only for it to come crashing down around him. He was rescued, though, by a call from Arthur Askey’s daughter Anthea to his agent which led to them appearing together (although he’d never previously met Askey), and from then on he never looked back.

A career in variety and theatre comedy evolved into one that encompassed radio and TV, and he is quick to praise Ned Sherrin, not just for his ability to tell anecdotes, but also for his willingness to give new talent a chance – something which both Hudd and Toksvig claim is sadly lacking nowadays.

He can give Sherrin a run for his money in the anecdote stakes, however. He recounted the tale of Gertie Gitana, a British music hall performer famous for her rendition of Nellie Deane who also happened to play the saxophone but was searching for a way to include it in her act. Apparently in a production of Cinderella she uttered the lines: “Here I sit all alone, I think I’ll play my saxophone.” And removing her instrument from up the chimney, promptly did.

Hudd appeared in Sherrin’s Not So Much A Programme, More a Way of Life, the successor to That Was the Week That Was, then Radio 2’s The News Huddlines sketch show, and more recently played undertaker Archie Shuttleworth in Coronation Street (his story of fainting during one performance has to be heard to be believed).

Now this comedic giant and pantomime stalwart is to make his first foray into damehood. It is to be hoped he keeps his wits about him. In a previous panto he scoured the stage and finding no other performer on it asked: “Who’s on?” “You are!” whispered his wife loudly from the wings. You can imagine him writing lines like these into Dick Whittington. Go Dame Hudd!


The Gorgeous Twiggy 




Close your eyes and think Twiggy. It’s amazing what images will appear. There are those of her with spindly legs and huge false eyelashes from one era, hotpants from another, to stylish and assured in skinny jeans, black leather jacket and backcombed hair in a recent photoshoot.

She epitomises fashion of the late 60s, and is still at the heart of it today. Yet it was only when I asked Barbara Hulanicki, whose interview with Damesnet will appear later in the year, who she might like to nominate as a Dame, that I realised how little her achievements had been acknowledged.

“She’s done more for British fashion,” said Barbara, “over the last fifty years than virtually anyone. So why hasn’t she got an OBE or CBE?”

Why indeed? Until I started researching her life, I admit I hadn’t realised quite how rich and varied it has been. Leslie Hornby, as she was called, was born to Nell, a factory worker, and Norman, a master carpenter and joiner, the youngest of three daughters.

Her modelling career almost never took off. She was told that at 5ft 6in she was too short for fashion modelling, but while having her hair styled for some test ‘head shots’ at House of Leonard, she was noticed by the man himself, looking for the right girls to try out his new crop haircut.

Deirdre McSharry, fashion editor of the Daily Express, spotted her photo featuring the new cut, tracked her down, took her for tea (and a few more photos) and the rest, as they say, is history. Three weeks later the paper proclaimed her ‘Twiggy – The Face of 66’, the following month she did her first shoot for Vogue, and by 1970 she had been photographed by Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Norman Parkinson.

She inspired a ‘Twiggie Barbie’ from Mattel, and a board game by Milton Bradley. Countless bits of merchandise, from lunch boxes to paper dolls, all featured her nickname and at one stage she even had her own American publication.

But fashion is only one facet of Twiggy. Ken Russell encouraged her to study acting, voice and dance, put her as an extra in The Devils and then the lead in The Boy Friend, the role originated on stage by Julie Andrews. The list of films she has been involved with is too long to mention, but I’ll name just one more. Do you remember she cameoed in The Blues Brothers with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi?

And apart from fashion and acting, she’s an avid supporter of animal rights organisations and breast cancer research groups.

If all this makes it appear she has led a charmed life, well it hasn’t all been a bed of roses: her first marriage to US actor Michael Whitney was destroyed because of his alcoholism. But it also resulted in a daughter, Carly (Whitney died on an outing to celebrate her fifth birthday), and she has since married actor/director Leigh Lawson and acquired a stepson through his earlier relationship with Hayley Mills.

And now, it appears, the wheel has turned full circle. Twiggy came out of retirement to be photographed by Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue in 1993, by Annie Leibovitz, by Solve Sundsbo and rock star turned photographer Bryan Adams. She’s worked as a judge on America’s Next Top Model, and, of course, there is the ubiquitous Marks & Spencer campaign. Again, there is a bit of happenstance about this one: apparently Twiggy and Lawson popped in to a pub in Southwold, Suffolk, after a walk on the beach and bumped into Steve Sharpe, then M&S marketing director, who was lunching there with his wife and was struck by the idea of using her in a promotion.

But despite M&S using her in a tightly targeted manner, she does not let society pigeonhole her. She is a tireless campaigner against ageist attitudes towards older women, fighting pressure for them to wear ‘age appropriate’ clothes. She even came to Madonna’s defence, when she was subject to ageist taunts about wearing a thong and fishnet tights at the Grammies, saying “Women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they’re not allowed to behave a certain way. But I don’t follow the rules. I never did, and I’m not going to start.”[i]

So, m’am, where’s her gong? Surely Twiggy scores on a number of different levels, would you pencil her name in now, please?

Postcript: I have just realised that I, too, went to Leonard around the same time. Could he not have tamed my then afro into an urchin crop? Life could have been so different!

[i] Eccles, Louise, March 2015, The Daily Mail


Kate/Clare Balding/Parade of Champions, Sandown Park, April 2014/Flickr

Kate/Clare Balding/Parade of Champions, Sandown Park, April 2014/Flickr

Clare Balding: on a winning streak
My first question, when Clare Balding was awarded her OBE two years ago, was: why is this woman not being made a Dame? Is there a time-honoured path to damehood in which an OBE is just one step along the way? Because if not, I believe she has paid her dues.

I have been a fan for many years, drawn by her warm personality on screen and her encyclopaedic knowledge of sport. It was impossible not to marvel at the ease with which she delivered facts and figures in her coverage of the London Olympics – OK, an earpiece whispering information can also help, or hinder – but she puts her interviewees at ease, too. Who could forget her chat with Bert ‘unbelievable’ Le Clos, just after his son Chad won the 200 metre butterfly final?

So, let’s itemise some of The Dames’ requirements for damehood, and OK, these will vary person to person.
• Inspirational, tick
• Friendly personality, tick
• Hard working, tick, tick
• Funny, tick
• Living, tick (handy, but not essential)
• Overcomes adversity, tick
• Good role model, tick
• Likes/loves dogs, tick (my own personal contribution, not necessarily shared by the other Dames)
• Clever, tick
• Versatile, tick

Knowing I’m a fan I was given her autobiography My Animals and Other Family one Christmas, and promptly disappeared until I’d finished it. Bits sound too crazy to be true, particularly her relationship with her dad, horse trainer Ian Balding, who she loves to bits even though he is often cast as the sworn enemy of feminism and diplomacy (once telling her he preferred her before she lost weight).

She applied to read law at Christ’s College, Cambridge, but failed her interview and instead ended up at Newnham where she read English, graduating in 1993 with a 2:1. She even, she admitted before this year’s Boat Race, rowed at Cambridge during her time there, but described herself as pretty terrible at it. And between 1988 and 1993 she was also a leading amateur flat jockey.

Next year’s Olympics will be her sixth summer games, and that’s not counting two Paralympics, three Winter Olympics and the same number of Commonwealth Games, which represent only a minute proportion of her broadcasting coverage. On TV there’s racing, tennis and rugby, on radio Good Morning Sunday and Ramblings, and dog-wise her masterful performance on Crufts. Not forgetting the recent Boat Race(s). And many, many more.

Where does this woman find the time? I’d be hard pushed to manage just one, but she juggles them all, seemingly effortlessly, and with a smile. The one sad point to note is that her earnings still lag behind those of many male sports presenters, including Gary Lineker, but I’m sure she’s working on that.

What I admire her for most, though, is the way she champions women’s sport. In 2012 she appeared before an All Party Parliamentary Group on Women’s Sport with Katherine Grainger, Hope Powell and Tanni Grey-Thompson. “Women having freedom to play sport leads directly to women having political freedom,” she said.

She is the type of woman you’d happily have as a friend, but don’t worry Clare, I promise not to approach you when our paths cross in Chiswick Park. You must have quite enough of that. One of the reasons I might be tempted, though, is a quote that appears in this week’s edition of the Radio Times (1). She’s asked what would she like to hear St Peter say when she arrives at the Pearly Gates. Her reply is as follows:

“You know the Madeleine Albright quote that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women? I have a theory that there’s a special place in heaven with a really groovy party going on, including a lot of the coolest women in the world, for women who help other women. That’s the party I want to be at. So whatever St Peter says to me, I’d reply: ‘Peter, mate, where’s my party? The one I’ve got a ticket to.’”

Please St Peter, I’d like a ticket, too.

(1) Battersby, K. (2015) ‘I want to make Alice proud’, Radio Times


Unsung Hero # 2: Julia Fordham, by Alan Hyde

Julia Fordham/Phil Guest/flickr

Julia Fordham/Phil Guest/flickr

Towards the end of last year, I announced to my two daughters that I had secured tickets for a rare London concert by Julia Fordham. Teenage daughter said, ‘Who?’ Thirty-something daughter vaguely recollected the name from the 90s. And so I felt obliged to deliver one of my ‘Let me tell you about real music…’ lectures which always go down so well in my family. I shouldn’t have been surprised, however. My daughters’ view of Julia Fordham is no doubt representative of how she is regarded in the UK generally. Another view, which is also my own, is that she is one of the finest British female vocalists/songwriters to have emerged in the last thirty years and she ought to be cherished rather than consigned to the dusty backroom of our collective music consciousness.

Semi-obscurity was not what was meant to happen to Julia Fordham. She once enjoyed a period of acclaim and popularity and seemed to be on trajectory to stardom. Her first eponymously titled album brought her to international attention in the late 1980s. Over the next decade she produced a quintet of albums containing exquisite songs about love, loss and loneliness (and patches of happiness too). Her music fuses jazz and pop with other influences, including Latin, funk and world music but what raises her above the level of the ordinary is her unique voice, which ranges from honeyed depths to anguished heights, allowing a vocal delivery which is both powerful and wonderfully expressive. It enables her to pare back the musicians when a song requires just a voice and minimal accompaniment.

Happy Ever After, 1988’s South Africa-influenced hit and the first track on her first album, set the tone for many of the songs which followed: at first sight a celebration but actually a lament. Julia’s songs are full of such tensions: strength and weakness, happiness and despair, love and loathing, fear and courage. Many of her love songs concern relationships slowly falling apart, the individuals fatally at odds with and within the partnership. She is a sardonic observer of, as well as participant in, this everyday struggle and writes about the tedium of trying to hold things together, the fragility of happiness, the seed of ultimate pain in moments of pleasure. ‘Talk about a fine line between lovers and friends,’ she remarks wryly in Invisible War, a signature track from her first album, ‘We’ve never been lovers and now we’re not even friends.’

Her early albums sold well and Julia had seven Top 75 singles in the UK. She also enjoyed great success elsewhere, particularly in America and the Far East. In the 90s she moved to California to work on her fourth album and ended up living there. However, through bad luck and bad timing, the great breakthrough failed to happen for her. She worked with several record labels and has had some independent and download releases. In recent years, following a career break during which she became a mother, she has begun to engage in more tours. Hopefully this presages a return to a more mainstream recording career.

Julia Fordham is one of those artists adored by her fans and almost completely forgotten by everyone else. While it is inevitable that in the fast-moving world of popular music some talented musicians get lost in the mix, or are unappreciated, or just overlooked, in Julia Fordham’s case it seems to be all three. She is seriously undervalued. In a just universe she would now be heading not just for damehood but for National Treasure-hood too.



Unsung Heroine: Petula Clark, by Alan Hyde

Petula Clark/M. Beauvais/flickr

Petula Clark/M. Beauvais/flickr

This month Petula Sally Olwen Clark celebrated her 82nd birthday. A grand age for a grand dame of British entertainment, one might say. Except, of course, Petula Clark is not a dame, an oversight — or, as some might say, a snub — which many of her fans and admirers find baffling. Vera Lynn, a decade older than Petula, has been ‘damed’. So have Shirley Bassey and Julie Andrews, Petula’s contemporaries – and her accomplishments have eclipsed the achievements of both of these. Indeed, when Petula took on Julie’s role in the 1980s London production of The Sound of Music, Maria Von Trapp herself described her as the greatest Maria of them all.

However, the years roll by and, although she was awarded a CBE in 1998, Petula has been consistently overlooked for the ultimate accolade, despite a career spanning more than seven decades, from child star through film and pop stardom to acclaim as a musical actress, worldwide record sales exceeding 70 million and more gold discs than any other British recording artist. In her heyday she was without a doubt Britain’s most successful international star. On the basis of these achievements alone Petula might be judged to have made a “significant contribution to national life”, the requirement for investiture into damehood. But there’s more.

She has been a wonderful ambassador for Britain. She has scored international hits singing in French, German, Italian and Spanish and still tours the world (currently in France and Switzerland), delivering songs with a voice that defies the years. Her stature in the sixties was such that she became Fred Astaire’s last screen dancing partner, in Finian’s Rainbow. Thirty-five years later she was credited with almost single-handedly saving Blood Brothers from failure on Broadway. As testament to her enduring appeal, her most recent album, Lost in You, acclaimed by critics and the public alike, reached the top ten in the UK album charts earlier this year.

So why no damehood? Perhaps the key to that lies in Petula’s relatively low profile. She is not a showy singer, does not court publicity, and is not an icon in the same way as Dame Shirley. And, despite making so many recordings that even her own website is unable to provide a complete discography, only Downtown can be said to have achieved any kind of immortality.

Her lack of a prominent public image and reduced TV and radio exposure over the years mean that many people under the age of fifty may be unaware of the extent of her contribution to British popular music. In the sixties she had 15 Top 40 hits in the USA alone, including two number 1s, and kept company with the likes of Frank, Dean and Barbra in Hollywood and Las Vegas. However, she is often regarded now simply as part of the package of British female singers from that period, alongside Dusty, Sandie and Cilla. Easy then for the whippersnappers at No. 10 and DCMS to overlook her and ignore a petition calling for her to be damed, as they did in 2008.

There is, however, a ray of hope, if some recent knighthoods are anything to go by. For longevity now seems to be a valid consideration in deciding who should be honoured and surely somebody in No 10 will soon spot that Petula is an octogenarian! How ironic it would be if in the end, despite her many achievements, it was simply her refusal to fade away that secured Petula Clark’s damehood.

I’ll be back soon with another article about a scandalously neglected British female singer. In the meantime, let us have your thoughts on other women whose talent and achievements have gone under the radar.


Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr/Katy Stoddart/flickr

Judith Kerr/Katy Stoddart/flickr

Among reasons to be cheerful, the life and work of Judith Kerr must rank very highly. Successive generations of small children have been delighted by, among other things, her creation Mog: a cat whose very humanity is perfectly expressed by her feline behaviour. Mog is by turns affectionate, exasperating, cowardly, irrational, loyal and playful – and is adored by everyone in her family. As both author and illustrator, Judith Kerr brings to the Mog picture books a lightness of touch and a wry sense of humour that appeal to adults as well as children.

But the security and stability of Mog’s household are deceptive. Judith Kerr’s own childhood was disrupted by her family’s flight from the rise of Nazism in Germany in 1933. They lived in Switzerland and in France before finally settling in Britain. Yet Judith seems to have thrived on this, and has acknowledged that her parents were able to make her and her brother feel that this was all a big adventure.

At the age of 91, Judith Kerr is working harder than ever, and plans to carry on that way. She admits that work has become even more important since the death of her husband eight years ago, but without a trace of self-pity, and it’s clear that she has retained a child’s sense of wonder at the world she inhabits.

The unselfconscious potential for anarchy that children bring to their surroundings characterises much of her writing for children, and nowhere more so than in The Tiger Who Came to Tea. What is so satisfying about it is that it follows through to its logical conclusion the surreal disruption that entertaining a tiger in the average household would entail, but the humour is all the sharper for the depredations of this ravening — yet charming — beast being received with immaculate sangfroid by Sophie and her mother.

Goodbye Mog/Katherine/flickr

Goodbye Mog/Katherine/flickr

In Goodbye Mog, she tackles the ultimate taboo: the death of both a beloved character and — in the context of the book itself — a family pet. While the book does not try to hide the grief that all the family members feel (yes, even Dad), it focuses on continuity, in the form of the new rescue kitten whom Mog, in spirit form, helps to adjust to loud children and rustly newspapers. Her work done, Mog withdraws.

I haven’t read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, her award-winning children’s novel based on her own experiences of fleeing Germany, but it’s high on my list, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she produces next, as she admits she is working on something ‘new and terrifying’ at the moment.

Judith Kerr has been exactly the kind of immigrant the Government says it wants. Having arrived here as refugee, she went on to work for the Red Cross during the war, and subsequently for the BBC as a scriptwriter. She has also become a naturalised citizen. She has certainly enriched British life with her writing and illustration, and received the OBE in 2012 — but isn’t it high time she was made a dame?


Bearding them in their dens

 Mary Beard/The Cambridge Student magazine

Mary Beard/The Cambridge Student magazine

I went to one of those schools where you had to do Latin if you were competent on the arts side of the curriculum. I was certainly showing no signs of brilliance in ‘the sciences’, so when it came to selecting my O level choices I had to include Latin to achieve the magic number of 8 subjects which was de rigueur for the time.

I passed my Latin with a quite acceptable grade and then put classics firmly out of my life, together with all the other subjects that I was not continuing to A level. And that, as they say, would have been that, if it not had been for Mary Beard.

Forget about Richard Branson’s space trips, what I want is the chance to go back in time and study classics at Cambridge with Professor Beard. I love her blogs and her articles, the range and depth of her thinking. She has been quoted as saying ‘”I actually can’t understand what it would be to be a woman without being a feminist.”

Her recent piece in the London Review of Books on ‘The Public Voice of Women’ took us to The Odyssey, when Telemachus sends his mother Penelope back to her weaving and her womenfolk for having had the temerity to ask the bard to change the tone of his ballad. It goes on to highlight the numerous occasions in Greek and Roman antiquity when women were denied a voice on the public stage. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses there are many instances of women being silenced so as not to be allowed to speak out – Io is turned into a cow by Jupiter, so can only moo, and Echo is doomed to only be able to copy what others say. A double dose of violence is the lot of the princess Philomela, who has her tongue torn out by her rapist.

Professor Beard makes the point that it is often the sound of women’s speech that is derided – apparently women whine or whinge rather than simply speak.   This is borne out by the well documented fact that the first woman Prime Minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher, had coaching specifically designed to lower the timbre of her voice, so as to make her sound more authoritative. Yet, as Beard points out, there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones.

Elements from this article featured in a event I attended called ‘From the Roman Forum to Twitter: Why are we so afraid of outspoken women?’ This was a discussion hosted by the New Statesman with Mary Beard in conversation with Laurie Penny. Professor Beard was magnificent and stateswomanly, yet it was clear from some of her comments that she had suffered from the appalling online abuse she had received, and interesting to note that much of the diatribe focused on silencing her in a number of disgusting ways.

I salute her intellect, her voice and her determination, and although I know she is already an OBE, to my mind Damehood is something completely different, so she has my nomination – Dame Mary Beard.

1 Comment

  1. I read that article too. I felt for a moment VISIBLE and AUDIBLE. Her tone is so measured and reasonable – I think those that berate her are scared of such gently formidable intelligence in a woman.

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