Book Review: ‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot

 

'Sally Heathcote: Suffragette' by May Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot.

‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot.

Talbot, Mary M, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a graphic novel that follows Sally Heathcote, a fictional young woman from Manchester who works for the Pankhurst family before they move to London. The story of the suffragettes, from the early days in Manchester through to World War One, is told through the eyes of Sally, a young working class woman who grew up in the workhouse. The book is thoughtful, historically accurate and beautifully illustrated; and a refreshing alternative to traditional depictions of the suffragettes.

Protest and graphic novels are not strangers. I recently reviewed Fight the Power  on this blog, which tells the story of many key examples of historical protest in the English-speaking world. V for Vendetta is a well-known example, with V masks becoming a common feature at marches and demonstrations across the world over the past few years. The recent Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library had a whole section on the connections between comics, graphic novels and dissent, which showed that comics frequently constitute protest as well as just representing them.

Sally Heathcote in a WSPU march (Source: Sally Heathcote, 2014).

Sally Heathcote in a WSPU march (Source: Sally Heathcote, 2014).

In a nursing home in Hackney in 1969, an aged Sally dreams about her youth as a suffragette. After leaving the workhouse, Sally became a domestic servant for the Pankhursts. She moves to London several years after the family, and eventually gets a job working for the WSPU. All of the major features of the history of WSPU are then told through Sally’s own experience of them. She is arrested and imprisoned, where she embarks on a hunger strike and is force-fed, like many real-life suffragettes did when they were refused the right to be treated as political prisoners. She  joins the Young Hot Bloods, a secretive militant group within the WSPU, and participates in the bombing of a house belonging to Lloyd George. The divisions within the women’s suffrage movement are seen through Sally’s eyes, as is the death of Emily Wilding-Davison, who was killed by the King George V’s  Horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Apart from the fictional main character, Sally Heathcote is historically accurate and incredibly well researched, with several pages at the back of the book dedicated to explaining the historical sources and contexts of particular events in the story. Also, some speeches and newspaper articles in the book are lifted directly from genuine historical documents. The story does not idealise the WSPU, depicting many of the movement’s weaknesses and divisions. Throughout the book, Sally talks with a mancunian accent, and her story illustrates the class prejudices that were present amongst the leading members of the WSPU. The splits and acrimony between the Pankhursts and many of their closest allies are also shown. As a result the book is a balanced account of history, showing that maintaining solidarity across differences is one of the most difficult challenges faced by a social movement.

Sally is imprisoned in Holloway Jail (Source: Sally Heathcote, 2014)

Sally is imprisoned in Holloway Jail (Source: Sally Heathcote, 2014)

Sally Heathcote is not perfect however. Frequently with graphic novels I struggle to tell some of the characters apart, and I find myself failing to develop a connection with the characters, gaining little insight into their emotions and motivations. Although Sally can always be identified by her bright red hair (colour is used sparingly and to great effect within the book), I often couldn’t identify which of the other main protagonists were speaking. This difficulty may be accentuated if the reader is not familiar with the leading members of the women’s suffrage movement. In addition the reader never gets an explanation as to why Sally is so committed to the WSPU.  As the book progresses we learn she is headstrong and brave, and feels like she owes a debt to Emmeline Pankhurst for hiring her when she left the workhouse, but she never actually says why the right to vote is so important to her. I think this is a major oversight, as it is harder to identify with Sally if you don’t understand her motives.

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a poignant, realistic tale of struggle at the turn of the twentieth century. The Suffragettes are possibly one of the most well-known social movements in British history, so it must be a daunting prospect to try and tell their story from a fresh perspective. Sally Heathcote, with it’s unusual format and brave protagonist, does a pretty good job.

We are the Angry Mob: the Politics of the Kaiser Chiefs

The Kaiser Chiefs perfoming at the O2 arena in February 2014 (Photo by author).

The Kaiser Chiefs perfoming at the O2 arena in February 2014 (Photo by author).

Last week I saw the Kaiser Chiefs live at the O2. It was a fantastic concert, and nostalgic for me, because I last saw them live back in 2007 when I was a teenager in Brighton. But it also brought home to me the political nature of many of the Kaiser Chief lyrics.

The Kaiser Chiefs have been making music for over a decade now (Photo: Danny North)

The Kaiser Chiefs have been making music for over a decade now (Photo: Danny North)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, the Kaiser Chiefs are an indie rock band from Leeds that formed in 2003. They are named after a South African football club, the first club of an ex-Leeds United Captain. The band consists of Ricky Wilson, Andrew White, Nick Baines, Simon Rix, and Vijay Mistry, who replaced the previous drummer in 2012. The band has had a successful decade, releasing 5 studio albums, 2 of which reached number 1 in the UK. They have also done several memorable live performances, including opening the Live-8 festival in Philadelphia in 2005, and performing at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. They have also been one of my favourite bands since I was 13.

We are the angry mob

We read the papers every day

We like who we like

We hate who we hate

But we’re all so easily swayed

The Angry Mob, 2007

The Kaiser Chiefs have always had critical lyrics in their songs, and they haven’t been very subtle about it. With songs such as I Predict a Riot from the 2005 album Employment and The Angry Mob and Everything is Average Nowadays from 2007’s Yours Truly, Angry Mob, a sense a resentment is obvious. It doesn’t seem obvious to me exactly who, or what, this anger is directed at though, except perhaps modern society in general.

They tell you day after day

To make your way through the factory gates

‘Til they can’t break your will anymore

You are contractually tied to death’s door

The Factory Gates, 2014

The Kaiser Chief's most recent album, 'Education, Education, Education and War.'

The Kaiser Chief’s most recent album, ‘Education, Education, Education and War.’

More recently however, their critique has become more directed. The title of their most recent album Education, Education, Education and War (2014) is a clear critique of Tony Blair, British Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007. It is well known that Blair’s priorities for his time in office were “education, education, education,” and he is blamed by many for the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. The album also includes the poem The Occupation, written by Ricky Wilson and narrated by Bill Nighy. It is a modern anti-war poem inspired by the centenary of the first world war. It tells the story of an assault by a superpower on Hell, but could be applied to almost any recent conflict, and the result is a damning critique of war and imperial attitudes.

The Occupation

The occupation of Damnation Eternal

Decreed by Commander in Chief

Won by the infantry, led by the Colonel

Came at costs that would beggar belief

As they marched upon the inferno

And the infidels dropped to their knees

Millions of civilians crammed in pavilions

Came to watch it on big screen TVs

The population of Damnation Eternal

Went from millions to thousands to one

The survivor then wrote in his journal

“Why on Earth did it take them so long?”

Within weeks we constructed a pipeline

Within years we’ll have run the place dry

It’ll just about last us our lifetime

So it’s hip hip hoorays and high fives

On the factory floor there’s a whisper

We built cannons before it began

But the engines still pumping its piston

And the turbine still whirring its fan

The assembly line spits out the surplus

Into purpose built lead lined white vans

Rockets stockpile as ministry workers

Fill their pockets with all that they can

Secret meetings are held in the senate

What to do with this excess supply

There’s a plan to abandon the planet

One V.I.P at a time

So we get up each day and have breakfast

Read the news and the weather forecast

As we sit and we open our letters

And we pray that it won’t be our last.

Words by Ricky Wilson, narrated by Bill Nighy, 2014.

This is not the first time that I have written about the ability of music to make a political statement. Music, songs and chants have always been an important part of protest, and the popularity of modern musicians means they have quite a lot of power to publicise their point of view and influence people. The Kaiser Chiefs’ music has evolved over the last 10 years, but they have never been afraid to use it to express their opinions, which I think only adds to their appeal.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Adam Sherwin. ‘Kaiser Chiefs and Bill Nighy write modern day anti-war poem for the World War One centenary’ The Independent. Last modified 6th march 2014, accessed 16th February 2015.  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/kaiser-chiefs-and-bill-nighy-write-modern-day-antiwar-poem-for-the-world-war-one-centenary-9174405.html

Turbulent Londoners: Robert Lockyer, 1625/6–1649

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The fourth Turbulent Londoner is Robert Lockyer, a 17th Century Leveller and parliamentarian who became a martyr for his cause.


 

Radical campaigning during the period of Cromwell's protectorate (Source: The Independent, 2015).

Radical campaigning during the period of Cromwell’s protectorate (Source: The Independent, 2015).

Since 2009, Crossrail has been burrowing its way beneath central London. Considering London has over 2000 years of history, it is not surprising that Crossrail is engaged in one of the largest archaeological projects the UK has ever seen. Excavation is soon to begin on the Bedlam burial ground under Liverpool Street Station, which was used in the 16th and 17th Centuries, and is the location of the final resting place of Robert Lockyer, Leveller and parliamentarian.

Robert Lockyer was alive several hundred years before any of the Londoners I have featured so far, and he was not a member of the aristocracy, so relatively little is known about his life. He would have faded into obscurity if not for the dramatic circumstances of his death when he was just 25. Lockyer was probably born in Bishopsgate, London, and joined the parliamentarian army in 1642, the year in which civil war broke out between King Charles I and the Long Parliament.

Lockyer was a Leveller, a group that was considered radical even in the English republic established after the execution of Charles I in 1649. They were the first democratic movement in Britain, demanding universal manhood suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. Their ideas were influential in the American and French revolutions, and they continue to inspire activists.

London was politically volatile after Charles’ execution, and some units of the army were moved outside the city to separate them from Leveller influence. Lockyer’s regiment was already restless, and when the order was given to move to Essex on the 26th April 1649 Lockyer and the other men under Captain John Savage refused to leave. They took the troop’s colours and barricaded themselves in The Bull Inn, a well-known radical meeting place. Captain Savage found them and ordered them back, but they refused unless they were paid a fortnight’s wages with arrears. Lockyer was singled out with a direct order to obey, but still he refused.

Sea green ribbons were a symbol of the Levellers (Source: The Sea Green Society, 2009).

Sea green ribbons were a symbol of the Levellers (Source: The Sea Green Society, 2009).

Eventually the Commander-in-chief of the Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, and Oliver Cromwell himself arrived, and everyone was arrested. The 6 ringleaders, including Lockyer, were sentenced to death. Lockyer was the only one who was executed though, by firing squad in St Paul’s Churchyard the next day. He became a martyr for the Leveller cause, and his funeral was attended by 4000 Londoners wearing black and sea green (the colour of the Levellers) ribbons, a powerful show of force for the Leveller cause.

Robert Lockyer was not rich, famous, or politically powerful. Yet as a result of his actions he is still remembered nearly four centuries later, and out of the 3000 skeletons expected to be dug up during the Crossrail excavation, his is the one causing excitement. Neither Lockyer nor the Levellers managed to achieve their goals, and he and many others suffered a great deal for their beliefs. However he proved an inspiration for many activists and campaigners since, and it is impossible to tell how many successful campaigns his story played a role in motivating.

Sources and Further Reading

Benn, Tony. ‘The Levellers and the Tradition of Dissent.’ BBC History. Last modified 17th February 2011, accessed 9th February 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/benn_levellers_01.shtml

Gentles, Ian J. ‘Lockyer, Robert (1625/6–1649)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 2004, accessed 9th February 2015 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/47102

Keys, David. ‘Could Crossrail have uncovered the last resting place of Britain’s left-wing martyr in Bedlam burial ground under Liverpool Street station?’ Independent. Published February 9th 2015, accessed February 9th 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/news/could-crossrail-have-uncovered-the-last-resting-place-of-britains-leftwing-martyr-in-bedlam-burial-ground-under-liverpool-street-station-10032619.html

Sea Green Society, The. ‘For the Liberties of England…’ The Sea Green Society. Last modified 18th August 2009, accessed 9th February 2015. https://seagreensociety.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/for-the-liberties-of-england/ 

Disobedient Objects: Mainstreaming the Subversive

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The entrance to the ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition at the V&A museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last weekend, the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in South Kensington closed. For the past 6 months, when you walked into the front entrance of the museum on Cromwell Road you could turn right and walk into a gallery filled with the objects of protest, from a suffragette branded teacup, through a remote-controlled spray-paint machine, to giant inflatable cobblestones. Safe to say it’s not what you would usually expect to find in “the world’s greatest museum of art and design.”

Since its foundation in 1852, the V&A museum (named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert), has housed a collection representing 5,000 years of human history, in the form of art works of all kinds, from all over the world. The purpose of Disobedient Objects was “to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change” (V&A, n.d.) using “objects that open histories of making from below.” (Flood and Grindon, 2014; 8).

The 'Disobedient Objects' exhibition.

The ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I visited the exhibition several times, and I thought it was fantastic. It had objects of all shapes and sizes from social movements and protests all over the word, and it even had an empty space on the wall for visitors to contribute to as more social movements and contentious issues developed over the course of the exhibition. However I did notice some interesting conflicts between the culture of the museum and the cultures of protest represented by the objects in the exhibition. Protest is ephemeral, messy, and anti-hierarchical, and it was very interesting to observe how the museum, a place of quiet permanence, dealt with these characteristics.

The ceramic 'intervention' at the entrance to the V&A.

The ceramic ‘intervention’ at the entrance to the V&A (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The first example of conflict appeared before you even entered the exhibition. On the walls outside the main entrance to the V&A is a ceramic ‘intervention,’ made by Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective. It is beautiful, but it was done with the full permission and approval of the museum, and is mounted on metal frames, so it can easily be removed. It demonstrates a common phenomenon that occurs when subversive subcultures are accepted into mainstream culture; they lose some of their edge, their spontaneity, often the things that made them so exciting in the first place.

The seating provided for watching a short film.

The seating provided for watching a short film (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Another example I noticed of the clash between museum and protest culture was during my last visit. It was the final day that the exhibition was open, and it was very busy. A short film was projected onto the back wall of the gallery, and there were a few bench-like things in the ply-wood used for displays so that people could sit and watch it. On this day people were sitting on the backs of the benches, with their feet on the ‘seat’ bit, to watch the film because it was so busy. They were ordered down by a V&A employee, a triumph of the strict rules of museum spaces over the freedom of protest spaces.

A sticker in the exhibition protesting a pay cut for V&A staff.

A sticker in the exhibition protesting a pay cut for V&A staff (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

My final example is less a contradiction, and more just something I thought noteworthy. I have already mentioned the space in the exhibition set aside for visitor-generated materials as the exhibition progressed. On this wall, and dotted around the rest of the exhibit were stickers protesting a 10% pay cut at the V&A. If you celebrate methods and practices of criticism, you have to be prepared to receive some criticism yourself.

Subversive subcultures such as graffiti, skateboarding and protest have all been appropriated by mainstream culture to various extents over the past few decades. I think that Disobedient Objects is a good example of this process, and highlights some of the difficulties involved. The social norms and expectations of museums are very different from those of protest. Disobedient Objects existed on the border between the two, a precarious position that was reflected in the constant negotiations around how the space was used by visitors and controlled by the museum.

Sources

“Disobedient Objects: About the Exhibition.” V&A. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/disobedient-objects/disobedient-objects-about-the-exhibition/

Flood, Catherine and Gavin Grindon. “Introduction” in Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon (eds.) Disobedient Objects. London: V&A, 2014.

“Victoria and Albert Museum.” Wikipedia. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_and_Albert_Museum