Thursday, April 19, 2007

Make a Difference: the Feminist Library

Considering I'm both a feminist and a librarian, I feel a little slow off the bat with this one, my only excuse being that February and March disappeared in a haze of conference-speaking and hard-nosed study of first-hand drug accounts ...

The Feminist Library, based on Westminster Bridge Road has been under threat of closure since 2003, and at a meeting in February the management committee called for volunteers in a final push to keep it going. (Press release, 25 February 2007, accessed 19 April 2007). describes the collection thus:

The collection, started in 1975, includes a large archive from the Women’s Liberation Movement, with lots of second-wave material from the late 1960s to 1970s. With more than 5,000 non-fiction works, 2,500 fiction works from all over the world and 1,500 periodicals dating from 1900, the collection is particularly strong in the arts (the poetry collection contains lesser-known and self-published female poets as well as better known works), politics, women's history, and mental and physical health – the Feminist Library recently acquired the collection of the Women's Health Library, as well as already holding the Matriarchy Collection, and the Marie Stopes/Birth Control Collection.
(Local voice: Feminist Library Appeal,, 4 March 2007, accessed 19 April 2007)

You can visit on Saturdays 11am - 5pm or volunteer to help with the Saturday opening or "regular weeknight cataloguing sessions" (Feminist Library: new opening hours, new management team, Managing Information, 13 April 2007, accessed 19 April 2007).

Find out more from the Library's myspace site or by expressing interest and support to

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Moving from the epitome of urbanity to an eco-centre in rural Wales - A Writer's Diary

When I first talked to Laura Wilkinson about writing a regular column on: Moving from the epitome of urbanity (central London), to an eco-centre in rural Wales; I said that my main concern about coming to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)1 in Machynlleth, Powys, was that the idyllic countryside and utopian lifestyle could prevent me from writing. Laura pointed out that that was an interesting idea in itself, because essentially it's like I'm off to spend six months in the environment of a writer's retreat: something most would expect to bear the most fruitful of prose. But I find that a lot of my work has been angst driven: a blatant escapism from the urban trappings and excesses of a typical London lifestyle.

I have come to CAT as a Long Term Volunteer (LTV), working 9-5 in their Publications Department. In London, I worked as the Publications Office for the Nursing and Midwifery Council, editing their quarterly magazine; a job I may well return to at the end of this six months. I have been lucky to get one of the few sought after LTV places on site. So I'm living as part of the intentional community, which represents the origins of CAT (in the seventies, a few crazy pioneers2 came up to this abandoned slate quarry, did up the tumbledown miners cottages, and started what is now the largest eco-centre in Europe). I live in what's known as The Bath House, the smallest and most basic cottage. There are 12 other people that live on site, all ages, one of them just six. We eat together twice weekly and pay subs for our food which is delivered three times a week; all as local, vegetarian and organic as it can be. We garden and grow, recycle, compost, are about to build a new communal building out of straw bales and timber, and we use minimal electrical appliances (no toasters, electric kettles or coffee machines). We live as sustainable a lifestyle as possible, as an ongoing experiment and to my mind, as an example that it can be done.

MAN is it different to my shared flat in Bethnal Green! But I knew it would be, and that's why I chose to come. In terms of getting in touch with my resources, I shall never, ever just be able to twist up a radiator without appreciating it again. Also, we have our own water supply here, completely off the mains, and it tastes absolutely delicious; there're compost loos (which don't smell at all, although it is still coldish) with the rest rainwater flushable; a brisk walk to the shower, or a jump in the icy reservoir if you're braver than me; and of course, there's the ever-fluctuating power.

The Diary - Weeks 1-4
Roaring in its metal box is my little heat creature. I light its belly each morning and evening, and it belches black smoke at me; its hinges squeak as latch shut the phoenix-embossed iron door and often it grows so hot that I have to open the window and let some air out. When it rains it sounds different: not just rain falling on concrete, like London rain, the rain I knew; but rain falling on soft things, leaves, round twigs, the earth roof of my house, running off gutters and falling on piles of slate: wetter somehow, damp, refreshing sounds that treble against the bass of the fiery belly of my stove. And then there's always the tapping of these keys, my subconscious heavy hits where the 'r' and the 'd' have started to stick; making me feel like the handicapped writer in Stephen King's Misery. But always, at the heart of the sounds, is an enthusiastic purr, reminding me that before Stove came along, Laptop was my favourite mechanical thing.
These past few weeks, as a newby at the CAT, have seen my writing, as I expected, take something of a back seat. But not for the reasons I anticipated: it's because my little heat creature, Stove, takes alot of looking after. He is a gobbly little greedbag. He needs more attention than I ever had to give anything. I imagine that having a woodburning stove is not dissimilar to having a baby, and like a mother loves her baby: I love my stove. When he's too quiet I worry and check on him; is he still breathing? Sometimes, after a quiet spell of neglect, I look inside his hot belly and am dismayed to see his heart has died to a rich embery glow; but now (after four weeks of solid experience) with just a few dry splits of wood and a gentle well-positioned blow, his flames lick up to life again and I shut the door and he roars away happily.
Stove and I have a fairly good relationship now: it initially started off with some distrust from me (will he burn down my small, wooden, house-on-stilts down while I sleep above him in my thin Heidi-style mezzanine bed?) he repaid my mistrust by refusing to light, belching out copious amounts black smoke and then suddenly becoming ridiculously hot. The latter was my fault. I the inexperienced was stacking him up to sauna-heat-levels. Now, Stove lights up in minutes and is quite well behaved - unless of course I have a guest, and then he shows off and resolutely keeps his cool.

So Stove has dominated my life here. I get up as early, as I did in London, at about 6.30am, in order to write. But instead of the ongoing Adventures of Norah Fleex (my novel-in-progress), week one was taken up with the diary led: Adventures of Hannah Davey. It cathartically archives my initial grapple with many new faces, a very rural life, a non-hierarchical working environment, communal living and whole heap of culture shock. But from week two until now (week four) I have been able to write fiction again, but in a desultory fashion, which, to be fair, has seen me complete two shorts - so I can't beat myself up too much. But these small fictional victories are overshadowed by the nagging fact that Norah Fleex has been laying next to her lover Benjamin Ambigraph, in a treehouse, for close to a month now. She needs to move on.
It has struck me, since being here, quite why people used to have servants. I have read my fair share of historical fiction: countless Jean Plaidy 'and' Victoria Holt3 books; some Catherine Cookson; Philippa Gregory; the Bront√ęs; Kathleen Winsor; Jean Rhys; Sarah Waters; Suzanna Clarke4; and of course, fairy tales unnumbered. I have never been able to get enough of bygone days when women stitched by candlelight; stoked fires; dipped curtseys, and men strode about in britches and rode wildly through the moors. When everybody had hardships and heartache and broke cultural taboos with their illegitimate children, witchcraft and whatnot. As a girl, I was often caught looking wistfully into the middle distance, imagining I was Cinderella or the Little Princess. What I am trying to illustrate is that my imagination is steeped in the romance of a bygone age: and through living on site at CAT I have inadvertently fulfilled each and every one of those historical heroine leanings. It's bloody brilliant!

As most Hags members will know, there are a lot of servant characters in historical fiction. After all, they made up a good proportion of the population and were often more interesting than the noble-born. I have had a glimmer of an insight into the life of, or at least the reason for hiring, a servant. Sometimes, I even have a smudge of soot on my cheek for goodness' sake. And I always have sooty knees and hands and all my clothes smell of wood smoke. In London, when all my clothes smelt of smoke, it meant I had hung around in some dingy bar for too long. Of course, I can only imagine what it was like to manage a household of fires; and bedpans; and fetching and carrying; and cleaning; all in a corset and mob cap. My little house is leaning towards the grubby side of clean, but it does look kind of like a hovel. Besides, I don't have any hot water. So really, this experience hugely facilitates me being Cinderella; Heidi; pic-a-Vicky-Holt-heroine; Little Two Eyes, etc. I like it. And I also think that's why I'm more into my whimsy short stories, as opposed to the marginally more developed and contemporary Norah Fleex and company.
Living here for six months, I know, is going to be, and is already, an experience not to be missed and if Norah has to lay next to Benjamin for another month while short stories trip out of my head instead, and Stove and I get to know each other even better - then so be it.
There are quite a lot of things I could talk about next month, and there's bound to be more things that haven't happened yet; or I can just tell it as it comes. To give you an idea of other miscellanea I could blather on about, here are some of the things I haven't mentioned:
Climate change: the biggie, this could include what CAT is doing with its Alternative Energy Strategy; sustainable living and other eco-stuff - but don't expect a very technical response, it's all about enthusiasm.

Our transgender hen phenomena: she thinks she's a cockerel, but her loud clucks don't sound nothing like a cock-a-doodle-do to me.
The sauna: which sits on the edge of the reservoir and they say is traditionally used naked! I am being proper prudish on this one.
The quarry: an amazing suntrap dell of wildlife, which has been officially closed since the mouth of the tunnel fell in on the unfortunate foreman back in the 1920s, a couple of hundred yards from my front door. There are steep paths in, or beautiful walks round the edge of it.
Or I could field questions! So please do feel free to ask me some.
Until next month!

Hannah in the hills

1. - have a look, it’s an amazing place, its mission: to inspire, inform and enable people to live a more responsible, sustainable lifestyle. From building your own wind turbine to identifying wild flowers, organic gardening and why you shouldn’t leave electrical appliances on standby, it’s ALL here. If anyone finds themselves on the west coast of Wales, Powys, do come and say hello!
2. There’s a book for sale called Crazy Pioneers that explains all
3. Jean and Vic being one and the same, along with Philippa Carr.
4. I just finished Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell – if anyone fancies an incredible detailed and therefore thoroughly believable account of the flamboyant return of English Magic in the 1800s and its aid of Wellington in the Napoleonic wars.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Prostitution Exhibition Extended

From the Women's Library newsletter:

"Due to demand from visitors, our current exhibition Prostitution: What’s going on? has been extended until 28 April 2007. It will be followed by What Women Want, a welcome return of our exhibition showcasing the fascinating range of material in the collections at The Women’s Library from 14 May – 24 August 2007."

More on the website.