I have a short list of books about activism that I think are excellent. Non-exhaustively, it includes the following
Vida by Marge Piercy
Death is Part of the Process by Hilda Bernstein
Local Deities by Agnes Bushell (incidentally, her other books are excellent too!)
And now – Mud by Nicky Edwards.
Published by the Women’s Press in 1986, it deals with a young woman who has returned to London after a year at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (and is licking her wounds). She’s trying to write a play about the first world war, and advertises for anyone who has any reminiscences. Thus she meets Ada, in her 80s…
It was Edwards first book (and, sadly, there seem to have been only two more). I can’t really do it justice in a short review. The writing is clear, honest, but crucially the level of insight into and critical reflection on “activism” and its treacherous smuggeries is simply brilliant.
Here is a taste, as she talks to Ada about a big set-piece protest at Greenham.
“OK. Once upon a time there was this big day out at a peace camp, when Janet and Janet and some Johns, but mainly thirty thousand or so Janets went and held hands and sang songs and generally had a good time.”
“…. Lots of adventures for the Janets. But time passes, until it’s a year after that first day out in the country, which so many of our heroines found so inspiring. Almost exactly a year to the day…. Well, our particularly Janet is there, of course, older and a bit more battered and generally fed up to the back teeth with being pushed around in the good cause that has brought everyone out in their thermal underwear again.”
“But still she went.”
“Couldn’t miss it really. Big day out, lots of women there, sense of obligation, not wanting to be left out. All sorts of things.”
“And how was it different from the first time?” Ada was really quite good at this cross-examining business.
“In many ways, not at all. Same thousands of women milling around, looking pretty similar, singing the same song. Same mud, same camera crews, same tail-back of coaches with posters in the windows jamming the Basingstoke road. More police helicopters, more barbed wire, more soldiers and watchtowers and floodlights and guns in evidence. More crackle of walkie-talkies filling up every bit of the airwaves, even the ones the Janets were trying to sing in. But a lot of the same looks on their faces. Untroubled.”
“Like I said, our particular Janet was wandering around feeling rather jaded, and wondering why they all thought the nastiness would go away because they’d turned out in such numbers to be nice all round it, when they’d done the same thing last year and not changed it for the better.”
Ada tutted gently to herself. Not sure how to interpret the noise, I carried on.
“And, of course, Janet felt guilty for being so cynical and making comparisons with the way she always got taken to midnight mass when she went home for Christmas, a pleasant and colourful, but fairly pointless annual ritual.”
“Sounds a proper shambles.”
“It was.” I chewed the end of a match reflectively. “And because there’s no mechanism for anyone to have less than a wonderful inspiring time on a big day out like that, there were all these women left thinking that the kind of chaotic scrum they’d just been involved in was what you were meant to do there, and suffering from guilt that they didn’t come away feeling good about it. Trying to convince themselves that they did feel good about it.”
There’s heaps else – including an hilarious discussion about the merits of (naked) meetings and pomposity,but I shall save them for another blog post!
Beg, borrow or steal this book. It may be 25 years old. It is out of print. But it ain’t out of date…
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