Life on the Road

 

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My feet have hardly touched the ground since January, when Hearts and Minds was published. After a launch and lecture at the Women’s Library (LSE), I started on a round of talks and media appearances – 53 events at the last count – which won’t calm down till November. Perhaps naively, I had no idea how widespread publicity about the suffrage centenary would be. I have never been so much in demand as a speaker, and I love it. People ask if I get nervous. I don’t, because I’m used to public speaking and hugely enjoy interacting with audiences. It’s one of the best perks of my job as a writer. But there have been some unforeseen challenges. One of these was wondering how to respond live on air when a radio host introduced me with great aplomb as a historian not of suffragists, but ‘suffrage gits.’

Another was the visual media’s obsession with foundation, concealer, mascara and rouge. On 6 February, the very day of the centenary commemorating (some) women getting the vote in 1918, I had four TV things going on, with different companies. And each time I arrived at the relevant studio, I was greeted by bright and breezy make-up people who whisked me into their spangly lairs with tutting and rolling of eyes. “Ooooh, I think we need to colour you up a bit,” said the first one. She sealed my face completely in various products and made my eyelashes so bushy they scraped the inside of my glasses. Fine, OK, I thought. If this is what it takes.

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Woman at her Toilette, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (WikiArt.org)

The lady at my next stop took one look at me (by now as heavily made-up as I have ever been) and sucked in her breath. “Oh dear, Jane. Time for a bit of magic.” On went as much again. It was becoming difficult to smile. A quick taxi-ride took me to a lunchtime talk at a girls’ school where I apologised, mortified, for my bizarre appearance (though someone said I looked ten years younger. Only problem was I’d never met them before. How old did they think I was?). Then I dashed to studio number three. “Hi, Jane. Ah. We’d just like to treat you to a light going-over, if that’s OK? I think it’ll help.”

By now I felt inhuman. Greasy black smuts fluttered from my eyes every time I blinked, and my lips were not where I had last left them. I shrugged. What the hell. One must suffer for one’s art. The last engagement was back at the studio where I’d started. At least they wouldn’t try to tart me up any more. But my make-up artist had left for the day. The new one took one look at me, and…

It took me a good twenty minutes to get everything off that night. I have new respect for television presenters who go through this every day. Mind you, I’m a little more blasé now, and have more confidence; I just ask for the very minimum to make me look as though I’m alive (being Celtic, I’m naturally pale, and when I’m tired, turn a beguiling shade of battleship-grey). I’m not there as me, anyway; I’m there to talk about the people in my book.

And that’s been the greatest pleasure of the last few exciting weeks: the opportunity to introduce so many readers and listeners to the women’s march of 1913 – the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage – and to an alternative view of the centenary not exclusively involving suffragettes, but the non-militant majority, the suffragists. Theirs is such a live story; about #metoo, the gender pay gap, women’s activism and grass-roots solidarity; about having a voice and using it not so much to claim our own individual rights as to make the world a more equitable and responsible place for us all. Every time I tell their story, as I whisk from Glasgow to Brighton, from the Broads to the Dales, I am inspired anew by their courage and cheerful pragmatism.

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Pilgrims at Headington, Oxford (Duke University)

Here am I bleating about life on the road – too much make-up, or a late plane, or a projector not working properly. How would I do, I wonder, if I had to walk for six weeks on mud tracks through an English summer to make my point, in boots swarming with blisters with people throwing rocks at me and constantly being told I was an hysterical air-head with no more right to a vote than a lunatic or a criminal?

Maybe I should try it, and see.

 

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Authors and Alchemy

It’s hard to concentrate. I always get a little overexcited at Christmas anyway, but this year there’s the book to think about, too. ‘Hearts and Minds: the Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote’ is out on 11 January. I’ve recently received the first finished copies from my publisher: I love the earthy, muted colours and the sense of dynamism on the cover. The book feels good to handle, and I’ve even got colour pictures. Never had those before!

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I relish this part of the writing and publishing process. Sure, the research phase is exciting and the writing satisfyingly intense.  But then comes the awful imposter-syndrome moment when the typescript goes off to be read by someone else for the first time (have I been deluding myself these past 2 years? Has my bluff finally been called?). The production phase is necessarily quite nit-picky and fiddly, and it’s nerve-wracking reading the proofs. All that’s behind me now. It’s done and I can hold that idea I had right at the beginning, turn the pages, feel its weight. A strange alchemy.

Now, just for a short week or two, everything is possible. None of the reviews has come out yet – except wonderful comments by people to whom we sent proof copies (Shirley Williams calls it ‘a brilliant, witty and moving account of this remarkable and rare bit of our history’). The events page on this blog is filling up with juicy engagements, from ‘Start the Week’ on BBC Radio 4 (8 January) to Literary Festivals all over the UK, public lectures at the LSE, Westminster, the National Archives and around the country; with deadlines for features in newspapers and magazines; all exciting, daunting, full of promise.

In three weeks reality will hit, and there will be nothing I can do to protect this lively offspring. That’s the worst bit of the process. I won’t worry, though (she says, determinedly) because I have complete confidence in the characters who people ‘Hearts and Minds’. My ‘pilgrims’ changed the world step by step; with courage, determination and an infectious sense of joy they marched together towards democracy – facing unimaginable opposition – in the name of peace, freedom and natural justice. All I have to remember during the next few weeks is that this book is not about me but about them.

It’s been a privilege to have travelled with these unsung heroines and heroes for the past couple of years. I hope you enjoy their company, too.

Marching through History

I’m sorry to have been away so long. I’ve been engrossed in writing and enslaved by a deadline I met just before Christmas. Just now I’ve been tackling the publicist’s author-information form for Hearts and Minds, my people’s history of the fight for the vote. At the heart of the book is the story of the Great Pilgrimage of 1913, when hundreds of women (and some men) took to the roads of Britain to march for six weeks in support of female emancipation. They were suffragists: the non-militant majority whose courage and adventurousness has been eclipsed by their more sensational sisters, the suffragettes.

 

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Caroline Watts’s ‘Bugler Girl’ design for the NUWSS (1908)

I’m getting this background publicity business done well in advance. An awkward job: it’s hard not to sound unbearably pompous when blaring your own trumpet and I’ll be glad when it’s done. Can anyone tell me how to be graceful while shamelessly bigging yourself up? Who does it well? I can do the reviews and the relevant experience bit, but ‘Tell us five interesting things about yourself’? I’ve left that one blank. I could mention being banned by the local library when I was seven for using a jam-tart as a bookmark – thus neatly combining my two favourite things in the world, food and words – and how that forced a love of book-collecting on me. Or that I’m heavily into Formula One, especially live races, despite being a middle-aged matron who’s a member of an Oxford SCR, sings in a very seemly chamber choir and drives a Volvo. Or that my cat Captain Oates types and sends emails. None of that’s going to cut it in the market-place, though. Best to let the book speak for itself. First-hand history is more fascinating than any glossy commentary.

 

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Oxford Journal Illustrated, July 1913

One of the questions on my publisher’s form intrigued me, however. ‘What do you feel most passionately about?’ it asked (or words to that effect). I immediately thought of what I’ll be doing this Saturday, 21 January. Along with millions of women and men around the world, I’ll be joining a march to mark the Presidential inauguration (https://www.womensmarchlondon.com). A similar event took place in Washington in 1913, organised by Alice Paul and campaigners for women’s suffrage in America to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The march on Saturday is in support of tolerance, compassion, diversity, freedom of expression and the power of love. As well as for us, I’ll be taking part in memory of my pilgrims, who came together from different backgrounds and generations to capture the hearts and minds of the country and its Parliament. In doing so they discovered the tradition of people-power and peaceful protest (think of the Jarrow marchers) that has been a hallmark of our society ever since – thank goodness.

There’s a direct link between the summer of 1913 and this wintry Saturday in January and it makes me prouder than I can say that I’ll be a part of it.