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.

The art of waiting

It’s the end of July, and I’ve all but completed the first draft of my new book, provisionally entitled Birthright. We had been going to call it In the Family Way, my Penguin editor and I, but that’s a bit twee and patronising, I’ve decided, and – as a friend put it – rather too ‘nudge nudge’. I hope Birthright strikes the right tone. It’s about the stigma of illegitimacy, for parent and child, from 1918 to the late 1960s.

So what do I do now? I need to leave it to settle for a couple of weeks at least, so that when I return to it, I’ll be able to do so with a more objective eye. (The theory is that the re-drafting process will thus be simple, swift, and coruscatingly astute. Hmmm.) But I’ve been writing solidly since January, apart from the odd day or two off each week to give talks or meet a few short-term deadlines, and I feel lost.

Yesterday I cleaned out the back kitchen cupboard (that’s how lost I feel) and washed the dog’s blanket (thus coating the inside of the washing-machine with little white hairs for evermore). Today I might load up the ex-contents of the back kitchen cupboard for the dump. Tomorrow I’ll go through my study shelves culling books for the charity shop – and then squeeze them all back again, as I recall each volume’s associations.

My fingers are quivering, though; I’m so close to finishing Birthright that I want to get it done, get it in the bag, and then relax. It’s one of the hardest things about being a writer, I find: knowing when to stop, step back a few paces, and wait.

Displacement Activity

This post is automatically categorized as ‘work in progress’, but it shouldn’t be. I’m back at my desk after 10 days away from it, and work is most definitely not progressing. I’ve tidied my son’s room, posted a few feeble tweets, looked to see how many loo-rolls are left in case I need to add them to the shopping list, filled in a new 2014 calendar with people’s birthdays, and made some porridge. Now I’ve got my apron on and am sitting here all ready to embark on Chapter 8 – but something’s stopping me.

What is it that’s so intimidating about a blank page (or screen)? You’d think I’d be used to it by now; that I’d have disciplined myself to march purposely forward and turn the mental key that unlocks the words. This is my 9th book; I’ve been at it for 25 years. (Good grief! Really?).

But it’s always the same. Words are so relentless, so powerful; committing them to paper is daunting, especially when I know that they will be read by people who need to understand both what’s written and what’s meant. All this sounds impossibly pompous, even precious, but it’s genuinely what I feel: that the responsibility for a non-fiction writer to get things right (as for a fiction writer to make things true) should never be taken lightly.

Hang on, though: isn’t this is the perfect way to start? Writing about not being able to write? I can feel my flabby mental muscles beginning to limber up. Thanks, gentle reader. You’ve got me up and running.

 

Pomp & circumstance

So you’re not entirely imaginary, after all! Thanks so much for the kind comments here & on Twitter. To be part of a virtual community like this is important for a writer whose working life is usually solitary. I really value your company.

How pompous does that sound? I do find myself getting horribly sententious sometimes. Being an author makes you feel a bit precious occasionally. Especially when you’re used to writing about other people, as I am, rather than yourself. I’m always floored when people ask questions about me when I’m giving a talk (and the next one’s in Carlisle on Saturday!), rather than about the fascinating people my books are about. It’s flattering, but does tend to encourage some ill-advised showmanship.

When I was little, and even fonder of cake than I am now, I used to put my hands over my eyes so that no-one could see me while I tried to filch another bun from the tin at tea-time. I can’t help feeling that similar tactics now – a paper bag over my head, maybe – might help quell my nerves when people ask me writerly questions on stage. It might help a whole lot of things, actually.

Then again, one of the best things about what I do is talking to audiences and performing, and however shy I might be, I have to admit I absolutely love it. We all need a bit of adrenaline occasionally – and there’s not a lot of that to be had when you’re lying on a sofa with a comatose cat, a bar of chocolate and a half-written book.