Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Women of the Left Bank series part 5: Sylvia Beach and Company

Welcome back to my series on Women of the Left Bank – perhaps my least read blogposts ever but also ones I very much enjoy writing. 

Today my attention turns to Sylvia Beach – a woman who was vitally important to the development of modernism and who first published the movement’s seminal text, Ulysses. 

Many bookish tourists visiting Paris head to Notre Dame to visit the wonderful Shakespeare & Company shop, with its towering shelves crammed with literary delights new and old. But what many people don’t realise when they think they’re walking in Hemingway’s footsteps is that this is the second incarnation of the iconic shop. The original Shakespeare & Company was on rue de l’Odeon and it was founded by the utterly fabulous Sylvia Beach. On the same road, literary people could find La Maison des Amis des Livres, run by Sylvia’s partner Adrienne Monnier. 

The first time I went to Paris when I was 20 I wandered up and down rue de l'Odeon for ages looking for the damn shop! I didn't know it had been moved...

Sylvia Beach was born in New Jersey, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She came to Paris as a young girl with her family in the years 1902 and 1905, an experience which had a profound impact on her. During World War One she returned to France to volunteer for the allies, and ended up doing agricultural work in Touraine. When the war ended she remained in Paris and opened her bookshop, which in 1921 moved to rue de l’Odeon. 

When Sylvia opened her shop, Valery Larbaud gave her a little model of Shakespeare’s cottage and some little green soldiers to guard it. They would, he said ‘protect the house of Shakespeare’. 

The shop was a hit with the American expats who flocked to Paris after the war. As they walked through its welcoming door to the room with its chessboard floor and scattered chairs, they could find the latest journals and reviews – Little Review, the Dial, the Transatlantic. They could browse the latest poetry, short story collections and novels from the writers who were creating modernism and surrealism in the Montparnasse cafes. And, more often than not, they could meet the writers themselves, looking through the shelves, flicking through the latest edition of Transition, or discussing their work with Sylvia. 

As well as a bookshop, Shakespeare & Company worked as a lending library. Along with Monnier, Sylvia really invented the concept of a lending library in France. For perennially skint writers like Hemingway, being able to borrow and return books was a real blessing. 

When the young photographer Gisele Freund came to Paris, she suggested to Adrienne and Sylvia that she took photos of all the writers who regularly visited the shops. She did, and her realistic and penetrating portraits were hung on the shop walls. 

This clip, from the film Paris was a Woman, features interviews with Sylvia, Gisele Freund and Janet Flanner, talking about the importance of Shakespeare & Company. 

Sylvia said that her three great loves were Adrienne Monnier, James Joyce and Shakespeare & Company. It was the second love that led to her embarking on a journey that transformed Sylvia’s life and made her one of the most important women of the modernist project. 

Joyce and Sylvia struck up a friendship during his visits to her shop. Customers would often find Joyce, with his thin moustache and white tennis shoes, sat at the table in the shop with Sylvia, discussing his work and the work of their mutual friends. A star-struck Scott Fitzgerald was famously too nervous to start a conversation with Joyce, so Sylvia invited him and Zelda to dinner to meet his hero. According to legend, Scott got down on one knee and proclaimed his gratitude to the modernist master. 

As their friendship grew, and Sylvia became more convinced than ever of Joyce’s genius, she became utterly determined that his experimental modernist novel, Ulysses, should be published. 

Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson (subjects for a later post!) had already attempted to publish excerpts of Ulysses in Little Review, printing Episode IX in the journal. The reaction was incredible. Both Heap and Anderson were hauled up in front of the law courts, accused of obscenity charges by Mr Sumners, the head of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. They were found guilty. In response, Heap said: 

It was the poet, the artist, who discovered love and created the lover, made sex everything that it is beyond a function. It is the Mr Sumners who have made it an obscenity.’

I love that quote. It exposes the nonsense of banning Ulysses perfectly. 

Sylvia was not deterred by the news from the States. She poured all her energy into finding a publisher for her friend’s book. In fact, her championing of Joyce led to a rift with that other great modernist, Gertrude Stein. Stein felt that Sylvia should be using all that energy to champion her writing, rather than Joyce’s. 

Despite her best effort, Sylvia couldn’t find a publisher. So she decided to publish the book herself. It was a venture that would lead to unimaginable success for Joyce, and near ruin for Sylvia. 

The costs of publishing Ulysses were far higher than Sylvia could have imagined – especially because Joyce was forever amending and correcting the text. Proofs would arrive back from the printer and he would annotate them until the type was buried in notes. Each new proof required more money. The costs mounted up.  

Finally, on 2nd February 1922, 1,000 copies of Ulysses were published. The run was printed by Darantiere in Dijon, and copies went on sale at Shakespeare & Company. I don’t need to tell you about its reception here. We all know Ulysses, even if we don’t all know Sylvia. 

Despite rapturous reviews from Eliot and the like, Ulysses remained banned in the UK until the 1930s. It was only made available in the USA in 1934, after a court case named ‘The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses’ ruled the book was not, in fact, pornographic. 

Sylvia’s publishing of Ulysses was an incredible feat, and an act of real faith in Joyce. She believed in him as a writer so much, she was determined that the world would recognise his genius and the genius of his book. But when the UK and US stopped banning Ulysses, and Joyce was offered a massive Random House contract a decade later, he tore up his contract with Sylvia Beach. She watched as the book that she had fought to publish became one of the most successful books of the twentieth century. Financially, Joyce was set for life. But after everything Sylvia had done for him, he never gave her a penny. 

It was quite the betrayal. Sylvia had nearly gone bankrupt publishing Ulysses. She had nearly lost her shop, and the stress had a terrible impact on her health. Eventually, Adrienne had to write to Joyce and tell him not to come back. 

The financial burden of publishing Ulysses left the shop struggling. Writers like Gide rallied around, doing free readings at Shakespeare & Company that brought in buyers. It’s one of the things I love about Shakespeare & Company. You have this sense of it being a place where writers and readers came together to celebrate one another’s work. 

The shop remained open until 1940, when Germany occupied Paris. Sylvia angered a German officer by refusing to sell him her copy of Finnegan’s Wake. He threatened to confiscate her stock, close the shop and intern her. That night, Sylvia and her friends hid the entire contents of bookshop in the empty apartments above. There the stock remained until she welcomed Hemingway back to rue de l’Odeon when Paris was liberated in 1944. 

Sylvia Beach died in 1962. She was an extraordinary woman who should be remembered for her vital role in promoting and celebrating the work of some of the most exciting and innovative artists and writers of her day. One can’t help but wonder what our understanding of modernism would be without Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and publishing energy. 

Other posts in the series: 

To find out more about Sylvia Beach, you can read Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation by Noel Riley Fitch, and Women of the Left Bank by Shari Benstock. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Writing I've done lately

It looks like my blog has been a bit sparse of late, and there are a few reasons for that. Christmas, mainly. And being very busy organising the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and writing my new book.

But one of the reasons has been "writing elsewhere". I've been doing words for other people. So I thought I would collect some links and if you missed them before, you can check them out...

FGM must be seen as violence against women, for Bristol 24/7

Domestic abuse victims face refuge crisis, for Bristol 24/7

Bristol leads way to change attitudes towards rape, for Bristol 24/7

Thoughts on Testament of Youth, for Watershed and Conversations about Cinema

As you can probably tell, I'm writing regularly for Bristol 24/7 now and will also be writing regularly for Bristol Woman magazine. So watch this space!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The support of Ched Evans reveals how little some of us value women's voices

In some countries in the world, a woman’s life is legally worth half that of a man’s. Her voice in a court of law is given half the weighting of a man’s. It’s a legal status that means women are not believed. That means women’s voices are worth less. That means when a woman speaks out about the crimes committed against her, the automatic response is not to trust or believe her but instead to give more weight to the voice of the man she is accusing. 

In UK law, a woman’s life and a woman’s voice are worth the same as a man’s. According to the law, when a woman accuses a man of committing a violent crime against her, her voice carries as much weight and is as trusted as a man’s. According to the rule of law there is no discrepancy. According to the rule of law, men and women are equal. 

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the re-emergence once again of the Ched Evans case in the news. In case you missed it, Oldham Athletic is having discussions about whether they want to sign the convicted and unrepentant rapist whilst he serves the rest of his 5-year sentence for rape under licence. Yes, Ken Clarke, rapists do get five years. 

Last night on Channel 4 News, Andy Davies interviewed people from Rhyl, asking them whether they thought he should be hired by Oldham Athletic. Thankfully, 3 in 4 people interviewed thought no. But one man – the first interviewee – said yes. He said, ‘after all, he might not even be guilty’. 

He might not even be guilty. 

The man said this, and I thought about the value we place on women’s words versus men’s words. I thought how we pretend men’s and women’s words have equal weight but how this case has shown that too many people don’t really believe that. Not really. They don’t really believe a woman’s voice is worth the same as a man’s. 

A woman accused Evans of rape. She went to the police. They believed the evidence was there to charge him. The CPS agreed. He was brought to trial where the jury believed there was enough evidence to convict him. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed and his appeal was rejected. 

And yet, people are still willing to argue that this was all a lie. That because Evans, a man, says it wasn’t rape, then he should be believed. It doesn’t matter about the evidence. It doesn’t matter what the court heard, what the judge weighed up. It doesn’t matter what the victim, a woman, says. What matters most to the people who defend Ched, is what a man says. Even when all the evidence and all the process has found the man guilty as all hell. And they believe this even though it is so hard to secure a conviction for rape in the UK - where the reporting rate is 15% and only 6.5% of those lead to a guilty verdict. 

As Frances O'Ryan tweeted me, 'we might as well just get rid of courts and ask if the man did it'.

I’m convinced that these men can make this leap because they value a man’s voice more than a woman’s. Because they believe a woman’s voice and truth is worth less than a man’s. How else do you explain it, really? 

It’s not just women’s voices. It’s also women’s lives – a fact that has once again been highlighted by this horrible case. 

A lot of Evans’ defenders have talked about how his life 'has been ruined'. Always in the passive voice, as if he has no responsibility for the crime he committed. As if it wasn’t an action he deliberately took. They argue that he must be allowed to return to football, that to say otherwise is to ruin his life. 

But what about her life? What about the woman they are naming on the internet – the woman who has been forced to flee from her home five times since Evans’ conviction? The woman who couldn’t spend Christmas with her family because it was too dangerous for her? Why don’t they care about her life? Why is Evans’ future worth so much more than her future? 

As one man interviewed on Channel 4 News last night said, ‘the girl still lives with the repercussions of what he’s done.’

Of course, as this interviewee proves, it’s not everyone. Many, many people see the injustice. Many people do hear this woman’s testimony and believe her. Many people do not agree that Oldham Athletic should sign a convicted and unrepentant rapist – hence the huge success of Jean Hatchet’s petition

But the strength of feeling against rape victims shows our society still has a problem with believing women, however equal we claim women to be under the law. When a woman discloses the violence committed against her, people find any way they can to undermine her claim. They call her a liar. They call her a slag; they say she was drunk. They argue if it’s a historic case that she should have come forward before (even if she did, and was called a liar then). They talk about 'witch hunts'. They crow over false accusations and ensure that this rare crime gets more coverage than rape. They do everything possible to avoid confronting the fact that every year in the UK there are around 97,000 of the 'most serious sexual assaults', including men choosing to rape 69,000 women in one year. After all, it’s easier to decide women lie. It’s easier to blame women than to confront the epidemic levels of male violence in the UK. 

The men who have gleefully named and attacked Evans’ victim have called her a liar who just wanted money (because accusing men of rape is such a great money-spinner!). They’ve called her sexual slurs and blamed her for getting drunk. They broke the law and named her online, sharing a video of her. They say that all men would do what Evans did given half the chance (proving once again that it’s misogynists, not feminists, who believe all men are potential rapists). They dress up in Ched Evans' masks, brandishing a blow up doll, and say they'd 'Ched Evans that bird'. 

Then they turn to the man who raped her, the man who she accused and who was found guilty, and call him a hero.  

Because in their minds, if a man says he’s not guilty then that’s the final truth. After all, why would you believe a woman? Who would believe a woman? 

Monday, 5 January 2015

Book Diary 2015

2014 was a year of reading women,  and knowing me 2015 won't be any different! I'm kicking off the list with the books I read over the Christmas break, and then 2015 started with The Last Tycoon by F Scott Fitzgerald...

Don't forget, if you are a bookworm you can read my books too:

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue

The Boys on the Bus

Happy reading!

The Love Affairs of Nathanial P, Adelle Waldman (new): I really enjoyed this book, I had such a reaction to the charisma and selfishness and immaturity of NP which was really refreshing.

Untitled for Barbara Loden, Nathalie Leger (new): This isn't out yet but is really an extraordinary book - part biog, part memoir, part novel, part study. Highly, highly recommended.

Liberty Silk, Kate Beaufoy (new): Very enjoyable read set in early 20s, 1940s and 1960s - covering three generations of extraordinary women.

Tender is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald (new kind of, I hadn't read the 1934 version before): Yeah, you know how good this is!

The Last Tycoon, F Scott Fitzgerald (new): It's unfinished! It's so sad that it's unfinished. Because you know it would have been wonderful.

The Summer without Men, Siri Hustvedt (new): A fantastic, precise and emotional novel that has a brilliant section on how utterly shit neurosexism is - as well as gorgeous allusions and discussions about books, science, philosophy and heart.

Persuasion, Jane Austen (re read): One of the best.

Paris France, Gertrude Stein (re read): Her memoir of Paris and France, written in 1939 and published the day the Germans invaded the city.

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (new): I've been reading this off and on for a year, it's Alice's memoir and it's packed with delicious recipes including the Veal Marengo I made last night (although swapped veal for pork).

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (re read): It's one of my favourite books. It's so vivid. You believe you are there, at the corner of the table, rolling your eyes at Camille as Danton slaps you on the back.

The Innocent Libertine, Colette (new): It's an interesting read this one, because she kind of disowned it and was under pressure when she wrote it. It's no Claudine but all the trademark Colette is there.

Monday, 8 December 2014


Hello you lovely lot.

Christmas is just around the corner and so it is time to do my obligatory 'buy my book for your relatives it makes a great Christmas pressie' post.

First up, my novel published by Our Street books.

It's called Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue and although it is aimed at an audience of 7-11 year olds, it's a rip roaring adventure story that can be enjoyed by grown-ups as much as by kids.

So what's it all about?

WellGreta’s best friend is her cat Boris. However, little does she realise her bewhiskered buddy is actually the Prince of the Kingdom of Cats. So when he is kidnapped by the Rat King, a young warrior cat named Kyrie Mi-ke is sent to find Greta, and together they face a mystical and magical adventure to bring Boris home again.

Greta must face the challenge of the staircase of the autumn leaves; cross Cloud Top Land and the Milky Sea; end the war between the two tribes of mice and face the truth of the Millpond; before facing the Rat King himself.

I think it's pretty great. But don't take my word for it! Here's what the critics say, starting with some feedback from North Somerset's schoolchildren:

It was really good hearing her inspirations for her book and how it was written and then illustrated.” said Ben

Her book sounds very emotional and heart warming. If I had made this book, I would be very proud of myself.” said Emily

Meeting Sian Norris was amazing because she went to Backwell School and then became an author.” said Imogen. 

Bidisha reckons: 

"Greta and Boris is touching, exciting, cheeky and vivid, with wonderful characters, a strong narrative and sudden delightful details. It is an adventure that is both heartstopping and heartmelting, at once sentimental and comfortingly predictable. The story's sprinkled with sparkling details, with each location fully realised and a joy to traverse."

And then there's the Amazon reviews: 

"Absolutely loved Greta and Boris. Exciting, brilliantly illustrated and with a beautiful message. I would recommend this book as a prezzie for all your grandchildren, nieces, nephews and very own kiddleywinks."

"A great story, well written with a lovely message. I would recommend this to anyone with children."

So there you have it. Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is the perfect stocking filler for the children and grown-ups in your life, particularly if they love books and/or cats. 

And that's not all...

Because when you are Christmas shopping, you might fancy buying a little pressie for yourself too - maybe in the form of two short stories for your Kindle. The Boys on the Bus is my Kindle single and it's the perfect treat for when you want to put your feet up with a cup of tea and a book after doing all your Christmas shopping. Here's the lowdown:

A writer attending a literary dinner recounts the traumatic experience of having her hair set on fire when she was a schoolgirl 12 years earlier. 

As she confronts the memory, she realizes how through telling stories, we try to find closure from the trauma caused by violence. 

This short story explores the nature of violence, memory and trauma in a sensitive and lyrically written way. 

This book also contains the short story Anna's Interlude. 

A married woman living during the Second World War embarks on an affair with a young man in the Navy. Through their affair she discovers how unhappy her marriage has made her. She becomes determined to leave her husband and build a new life, a life that is true to herself. But when the letters from her lover come to an abrupt end, she finds she is trapped all over again. 

And here's what people have to say:

"A moving account of bullying, written with clarity and totally free of self pity or false sentiment. Really effective use of repetition ("The boys on the bus set my hair on fire") which puts a pulse through the piece registering the effect of the flashback return of trauma. It's also a positive story of personal achievement and a moving on despite...."

"Absolutely brilliant book, incredibly powerful and thought provoking."

The Boys on the Bus costs £1.53 - what a bargain! 

Finally, because I am a generous person who wants to promote the fantastic creative work of people I know and love, here are a couple more recommendations. 

Gaptooth's debut album is a slice of electro pop perfection with a political edge. Ladykillers is just bloody brilliant. 

If you prefer your fiction to be of the gothic Victorian horror variety, then you can't go wrong with my publisher stable mate Ben Gwalchmai's Purefinder

And for the academic in your life, try the Para-Academic Handbook, edited by the fabulous Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers. 


Monday, 24 November 2014

My human rights shouldn't be up for debate because I'm a woman

There’s been a lot of debate lately. 

The debate about whether comedians whose stock in trade are rape jokes in a society where around 1,600 women are raped every week should be on primetime TV.

The debate as to whether a self-styled ‘pick up artist’ should have a visa to enter the UK. This is a man who – in a society where there are 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse every year in the UK – looks at the Duluth Model (a chart describing different forms of intimate partner abuse) and describes it as a checklist of 'how to make her stay'.

The debate about whether Ched Evans should be allowed to train at Sheffield United; the debate about whether the rape he committed was proper rape; the debate as to whether women should keep their knickers on and their mouths shut if they want to ‘avoid’ rape; the debate about whether men just can’t help themselves if 'they're whipped into a storm' (yes they can). 

There’s been the debates about whether Bill Cosby’s career should be over after multiple rape accusations; the debate about whether the freedom to promote violence against women is a freedom of speech issue (because only men’s freedom of speech matters – who cares that when you have a woman in a choke hold she can’t speak); the debates about whether a debate between two men on abortion should go ahead (this was never about whether anti-choice arguments were being silenced, it was about men using women’s bodies as objects to debate).

Debate, debate, debate. 

What the last few weeks have shown women all over the UK is that our rights are not absolute. They’re not guaranteed. Right to live free from violence? Right to freedom of movement? Right to bodily autonomy? It’s up for debate. 

Domestic abuse, stalking, threats? Time to debate men’s freedom of speech.

Rape? Let’s debate whether women are in truth the ones to blame. Let’s debate whether rape is really rape. 

Abortion? Let’s debate whether women can actually be trusted with their right to bodily autonomy. 

One of the arguments of feminism has been that in a patriarchal society, women are not seen as fully human. The human is the default male and women are positioned as other. 

The debates of the last few weeks seem to suggest this. If we saw women as fully human with equal access to the same human rights as men, then we wouldn’t debate whether women are responsible for the rape committed against them. We wouldn’t debate whether a man’s freedom of speech to incite violence against women is more important than a woman’s right to live free from the impact of male violence. And we wouldn’t debate whether a man’s right to tell a woman that she has no right to her bodily autonomy is more important than her actual right to bodily autonomy. 

Instead, we would recognise that the only person to blame for rape is the rapist. We would recognise that inciting violence against women doesn’t harm the speaker’s freedom of speech – it harms women’s. We would recognise that women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy. 

But we don’t see women as fully human. Our bodies are still battlegrounds. And so our bodies are used as objects in debates between men. 

So much of the debates these last few weeks have posited the right of women to live free from violence against men’s right to freedom of speech.

It’s such bullshit. Because men’s freedom of speech isn’t threatened by the cancelling of Dapper Laughs, or the denial of a visa to Julien Blanc. 

But women’s freedom of speech sure is threatened in an online culture where speaking out on these issues leads to rape and death threats. 

And women’s freedom of speech sure is threatened in a rape culture where male violence leads to around 1,600 rapes every week and the rape of vulnerable women has been effectively decriminalised

Women’s freedom of speech sure is threatened in a society where there are 1.2 million incidences of domestic abuse every year and two women a week are killed by a partner or ex partner. 

After all, as I said before, it’s hard to have a voice when you’re caught in a choke hold by a man who sees violence as a way to ‘pick up’ women. 

So enough of this so-called debate. It's a nonsense. There's no debate when it comes to rape, when it comes to domestic abuse. We don’t debate the crimes committed against men. We don’t invite women into hallowed halls to discuss dispassionately whether men deserve their full human rights. We don’t look at the crimes committed against men, and discuss whether they are real crimes at all. We don’t look at male victims of crimes and say they should have kept their mouths shut. 

My right to live free from violence isn’t up for debate. My right to bodily autonomy isn’t up for debate. If we saw women as fully human, none of this would be up for debate.