Category Archives: Novels

Suffragettes: Fact and Fiction

It’s my second night in a row heading for the High Mill at Verdant Works, Scotland’s Jute Museum, and it’s good to a be a little more familiar with my surroundings on this occasion.  At the wooden gateway I am greeted by Anna Murray, Learning & Audiences Officer for Dundee Heritage Trust, who has been heavily involved with the High Mill Project and the wonderful programme of events over the coming months as well as those planned for the coming year.

She is resplendent in full Suffragette costume. Bedecked with flags, banner and sash, she helpfully guides me to our starting point for the event, up the outside stairway into the Verdant Works Museum.  Other staff members are also fully engaged with the evening’s theme and appropriately dressed in the clothing of suffragettes.  We are offered refreshments and encouraged to wander round the fascinating exhibits at our leisure for a while, before we are summoned downstairs into High Mill for Suffrage pies (Vegetarian option thoughtfully also provided).

The atmosphere of the Suffragette era has been skillfully recreated and it spins through the High Mill like microscopic fragments of linen and jute dancing on the chilled air.  As we settle into our seats, I read that, as well as hearing more from Lucy Ribchester, debut author of “The Hourglass Factory”, the conversation will be shared with Dr Clare Gill and Professor Gill Plain (try saying that after a couple of Suffrage Ales) of St Andrews University, and, as introductions are made, another panellist, Sasha de Buyl, Reader Development Co-ordinator at the The Scottish Book Trust joins us.

Before I continue, I must offer an apology.  The venue was to have been provided with a PA System, which unfortunately did not materialise.  This meant that there were general issues with hearing the questions which were put to Lucy from some of the panelists, and I know this was felt by everyone who was seated further back than the first two rows.  It also meant that I missed some of what was said, although Lucy herself was always loud and clear in her delivery, so I hope that the following review doesn’t fail to mention anything important due to the acoustic issues!

I haven’t read “The Hourglass Factory”, so I sought a helpful description of the novel which the conversation was to encompass on Lucy Ribchester‘s excellent website:

1912 and London is in turmoil

The suffragette movement is reaching fever pitch, but for broke Fleet Street tomboy Frankie George, just getting by in the cut-throat world of newspapers is hard enough. Sent to interview trapeze artist Ebony Diamond, Frankie finds herself fascinated by the tightly laced acrobat and follows her across London to a Mayfair corset shop that hides more than one dark secret.

 After some brief introductions, Lucy stood to read (in her beautiful, clear voice) an excerpt from her novel, which was a finely-constructed parallel tale of Suffragettes (Mrs Pankhurst amongst them) going to hardware shops in different parts of the country to purchase a specific number of hammers (25) and being mistaken for teachers at boys’ schools. Who else, dressed as modestly as they were, would possibly want so many such items, supposed the initially perplexed shopkeepers?  Lucy later told us that this was based on a true story she had read in a newspaper article during her extensive research.

After her reading, during questions from the panel, we heard more about how the novel had started as a play, and how, as a dance journalist (amongst other titles), Lucy wanted to explore the physicality of the musical/circus  angle  and link it in to the physicality of the protest actions of The Suffragette Movement itself, which was the inspiration for one of the main characters in the novel, Ebony Diamond, a trapeze artist.  Lucy went on to explain how she had spent time looking at research material about a Suffragette-gymnast who had been active in Dundee – for a publicity stunt the young woman had hidden in the roofspace of the old Kinnaird Hall in Bank Street for many hours, and had descended into the hall to disrupt an event on the end of a 24 foot rope.

We heard more about Lucy’s literary inspirations, from reading Christopher Pike as a child and young adult to the works of Agatha Christie, Jed Rubenfeld and CJ Sansom, and more direct influence from Tracy Chevalier’s “Fallen Angels” and Sally Heathcote’s Graphic Novel “Suffragette” (the rest of the panel also made approving noises at this point).

Many interesting questions and points of discussion followed; Professor Plain talked about the many new technologies which were coming alive in the time period the novel was set in, and Lucy talked some more about the detailed research she had undertaken, including hours of poring over Sylvia Pankhurst’s The suffragette; the history of the women’s militant suffrage movement, 1905-1910, and looking at The Times Digital Archive for 1912, to decide in which month she might set the novel.

Other research included reading GK Chesterton’s The man who was Thursday, and Sam Bourne’s The Righteous Men – this latter, interestingly to analyse the plot and chapter structure, in order to tighten her own – a helpful tip for other would-be novelists!  Having said that, Lucy later mentioned that she had produced a meticulous chapter plan which was actually dispensed with before she came to the final version!

At one point the conversation turned to the Police, and their involvement in the way Suffragettes were treated.  Dr Gill talked of the number of sympathetic Police Officers who gave anonymous reports of brutalities and violent and inhumane acts meted out by the Constabulary and by other authorities on the Suffragettes.  Of course the main Police character in The Hourglass Factory is sympathetic, despite what his duty requires him to do; Lucy admitted that her Dad’s influence was a decisive factor in this – he told her that if she was going to write a feminist novel, there had better be a sympathetic man in it!

Amongst the other points raised for discussion were Victorian female detectives created in the time period itself, always having to have very good (and thoroughly sexist) reasons to exist at all, and always being called into play when expertise at dealing with servants, fashion, the emotions and the management of domestic situations was required.  Common sense in women was valued, but intelligence was the sole preserve of men!

The Suffragist (non-violent) vs Suffragette (physical and sometimes violent protest) movements were also discussed, and the practical failure of the former over the eventual success of the latter.

Questions from the audience at the end of the event revealed that Lucy had started writing her novel in 2009, and after working with a number of agents and through a number of drafts, it had taken years of work and rework before eventual publication at the start of this year – a hopeful story of evolution for all budding novelists!  Finally, Lucy was asked about her next novel, which she confirmed is entitled Amber Shadows, and is set at Bletchley Park, to be released in early 2016.  Sounds like a must-buy!

This was a great evening, a combination of fun, education, historical immersion and lively and interesting conversation about the realities and fictions of the Victorian/early Edwardian period linked to a wonderful debut novel – now at the top spot on my extensive “to read” list!

I would like to finish with a big thanks to the stunning venue for this event, and for Dundee’s Four Marys.  Despite having lived in Dundee for many years, these are my first visits to Verdant Works, but they definitely won’t be the last.  The beautifully preserved and reconstructed architecture in the Mills, the photos and interactive displays and the way history is brought to life combine to make a unique and fascinating visitor experience. I can’t say enough good things about Anna and the team at Scotland’s Jute Museum; here, history, and the people long gone who made it are a living, breathing entity are part of the heart and soul of Dundee.

Lorna Hanlon


Dark Star: Oliver Langmead

“[Dark Star is] a love story for three genres – the originality is in how they’re put together.”

Oliver Langmead’s début novel was shortlisted for The Guardian’s Not-the-Booker Prize, and now, he revealed before an enthusiastic audience at the Bonar Hall, the story has been earmarked for a potential movie tie-in with the same creative group that produced Skyfall and American Beauty.

Dark Star was released in March – coinciding, conveniently, with the solar eclipse that month. Having undertaken so many press conferences and interviews in the preceding seven months, it seemed a challenge for the room to come up with questions that Langmead hadn’t answered a hundred times before.

Fortunately, for a change as much for himself as for the crowd, he chose to read an extract from the middle of the book, rather than the intro to which he and his audiences are accustomed (he has the opening stanzas embedded in his memory). Langmead meditated for a moment on the symbolic significance of trains and train journeys in fiction – the event covered in the extract – before the floor was opened to general questions.

The first concerned which element of Dark Star he had come up with earliest in its creation. The world came first , he replied; more specifically, the image of Vivian North – the university student found dead in a pool of luminescent blood in a dark alley, whose murder sparks the subsequent criminal investigation around which the story initially revolves. The police detective protagonist’s character developed from the language and dialogue – “Virgil was a voice,” Langmead explained, who then grew alongside the poetic meter in which the book is written. “How challenging was it to write in first person?” another question asked ; “You mean, how much of me is in there?” Langmead replied, wryly. He had imagined the dialogue between police partners Virgil and Dante as Sin City-esque, suggesting that a sequel from Dante’s perspective might be worth exploring.

A question regarding blending voice with verse asked whether he had made “linguistic concessions” when fitting authentic-sounding conversations into syllable counts. Langmead conceded that earlier segments flowed less smoothly, but that it got easier as the book progressed; the trick was to make it sound easy to read, and eventually counting the syllables became natural, almost subconscious. Another asked him whether his book, or any book, ever felt completed – “No-o-o-o-o…!” He recalled how Virgil (the real one, the epic poet) didn’t want his own work published as he felt it was less than divine, but that as an artist you never stop finding new ways of looking at the same parts of your own work. If someone had told Langmead their perspectives on particular elements of the book, he might have written them differently .

Asked for advice on publishing after writing, he encouraged perseverance – “Someone will be enthusiastic” (“someone” in this instance being Unsung Stories). Following up by returning to the subject of writing itself, he discussed how roleplaying plots within the Dark Star universe with friends allowed him to discover facets of its world he’d never have considered himself, e.g. without any light-emitting combustible fuels, guns would have no muzzle flashes. Langmead also suggested that writing to limits could, ironically, expand your imagination – “putting a lot of constraints on yourself is a good idea” as it means you “try new things all the time”, resulting in “crazy stuff” like the book in his hands – a “world that feels unlike any  ”.

Adam Learmonth



Human Being, with Gavin Francis and Prof. Sue Black (3:30pm)


A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum

This event had the largest audience of all the Dundee Literary Festival 2015 events I’ve been to. It was held in the larger hall on the ground floor of the building, and almost every seat was taken by the time I arrived, five minutes before the starting time. As I quickly and quietly took my seat and unpacked my notebook, music began to play and Gavin Francis and Sue Black entered, walking up the centre aisle and onto the stage to take their seats. Laughing, Sue Black explained that the musical intro had been provided by “naughty people behind the scenes”. I forget the name of the tune, but she explained its personal significance, as it was a melody used as a “warm up” by her piano playing father. This kindly introduction set the mood for the entire discussion that contained laughter and light-hearted comments, as well as serious and somewhat emotional topics.

Having never read the book Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis, only the Literary Festival programme description (which captured my interest), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from today’s talk. Sue chaired the discussion, introducing Gavin (who is a practicing GP as well as a writer), who Sue playfully commented had studied, unfortunately, at Edinburgh and not Dundee. This remark generated laughs from the audience and was a reflection of her admiration for Gavin’s expertise. Sue then allowed Gavin to talk about Adventures in Human Being before beginning to ask questions about the book and his general approach to medicine and being a doctor.

The book is “essentially eighteen essays examining different parts of the body”, Gavin began. He explained how the approach is not only scientific, but also takes into account cultural and historical perspectives. He talked about two particular chapters in his book, namely the one concerning the heart and pulse, and the other the human face. Playfully, Gavin asked the audience to find their pulse, showing us how to do this, and everyone placed their fingers onto their neck as he demonstrated. He explained some facts about the pulse and explained that the idea of a pulse is relatively new – only three/four hundred years ago did the idea of the heart pumping blood come to light. He also touched upon the “exhilarating” experience of finding a baby’s heartbeat, particularly when the pregnant woman has visited, anxious that they haven’t felt the baby move for a couple of days. It was through moving comments like these that Gavin’s love for what he does became highly evident.

Although the discussion had a very factual, practical level concerning the human body and its functions, there were also strong emotional aspects to some of the topics touched upon, such as “bequeathers” (organ donars), and those who are terminally ill – how different people take the information and also how can you train a doctor to give fatal news? From questions such as these, the talk also took a slightly different direction – a somewhat more philosophical approach, peeling back the edges of questions such as what it is to be human and the complicated but fascinating relationship between the mind and the body.

I found the talk today with Sue and Gavin honestly fascinating and I feel no review (including this one) could do the event justice. Even though I have not read Adventures in Human Being, I am moving it to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

Frances Kelly

Literary Cooties: Publishing and Prejudice (11:30am)

The Bonar Hall had a very calming ambience this morning, with soft, dimmed lighting. As the (what turned out to be mainly female audience) gradually entered, everyone was warmly encouraged to sit near the front where the first two rows were made up of chairs around desks. I think this was to create a more relaxed atmosphere, breaking down the typical forward facing rigidity of the audience, and to encourage conversation amongst attendees. However, never being one to optionally sit at the front of a classroom, I sneaked into a seat in the row second from the back.

This discussion definitely had more of a panel like feel, rather than an interview talk show. Sasha de Buyl chaired the conversation with author Zoe Venditozzi, Claire Stewart (Co-Founder of Electric Bookshop and Board member of the Glasgow Women’s Library), and Chitra Ramaswamy who is an Edinburgh based columnist and freelance arts and features writer. These women were at the Dundee Literary Festival today to discuss the gender issues that unfortunately exist in today’s book industry. Sasha began by introducing each woman and then led the conversation by asking, what is the “core of the problem”?

The perception of women writers appears to be one of the answers. Zoe began to answer this question by reflecting on her own experience of writing about domestic settings and how work of this type is not deemed “exciting enough”. She joked about how she felt if she were to write a book titled, “Sparkly Golden Vagina” that it would become more widely recognised because it shocks. But, (and rightly so) Zoe doesn’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, change what it is she writes about or how she wants it presented just to fit into what apparently sells.

This led the conversation towards the issues of literary prizes and reviewing. These are the main avenues through which books gain recognition, and both areas, as pointed out by Claire and the other speakers, are dominated by males (both male writers and male reviewers). I found out something today that surprised me, as I didn’t realise that publishers are the ones who put books forward for prizes, (embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure how selection was organised) and so the lack of women writers and books about women being recognised this way is partly due to the publishing houses in this respect. Claire (only part jokingly) suggested a new prize, something like, “the Women’s Voice book prize”. Even though this initially seems like it would only encourage the division of the ‘woman writer’ and ‘the writer’ (the male, yet non gendered, title), Zoe commented how we need to “push it [women’s writing] forward so it becomes normalised” because unfortunately, as it stands, it is not.

Although around 70% (I’m sure Sasha noted) of the overall readership is female, there is still something that is seen to be icky about women writing about normative women’s experience. Chitra herself has actually written a collection of essays on pregnancy but she told us these have been deemed “too woman-y” to be good sellers – as she rightly put it, “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”.

Today’s discussion on “Literary Cooties” (a term I believe to have been coined by Nicola Griffith) was a fascinating discussion that questioned the book industry and its norms, and attempted in offering solutions to the gender problems that exist within it. Although there is a long way to go before reaching equality, I feel that confronting the problem, and talking about it, making people face it, as these women have, is the first step towards some positive change. What we need now are more male attendees.

Frances Kelly