Review: ‘A Foreign Country’, Charles Cumming

AForeignCountryUKGiven my love of morally ambiguous older women in positions of power (see my three-month long biography binge after I saw The Iron Lady), it was probably inevitable that I was going to enjoy Skyfall, James Bond’s latest outing. Judi Dench’s M, with her acerbic pragmatism and reluctant fondness for her most troublesome agent, has been one of my favourite spymasters since she called Pierce Brosnan a sexist dinosaur in Goldeneye and it was good to see her out in the field one last time.

It also reignited the love of spy novels that saw me devour everything Le Carre ever wrote during my teenage years, whilst simultaneously dressing like Emma Peel from The Avengers. Given that Le Carre has been off the boil for years, and former MI5 boss Stella Rimington’s initially promising Liz Carlyle went down the predictable route of falling for her dull superior and being the least interesting person in the books, I was in the market for a well-written spy thriller with strong female characters. Enter Charles Cumming, who manages to both share the surname of the first Chief of the Security Services who leant his initial to his successors and be appropriately monikered to qualify as 007’s love interest. Although since he was legitimately tapped for MI6 after university, people probably don’t joke about that to his face.

A Foreign Country opens with the mysterious disappearance of a British au pair, Amelia Weldon. Decades later and now Amelia Levene, she has just been named the new Chief of MI6 before she disappears again. Thomas Kell, an ex-officer forced into retirement, is happy to leave the tedium of afternoons in the pub and a crumbling marriage in favour of finding his former colleague.

Cumming captures the entrenched misogyny of the boy’s club without imbuing it with nostalgia for the good old days – like the Brosnan-era Bond films did – or dwelling on it. Sexist jibes are woven into the fabric of speculation around Levene’s disappearance, tokenism is hinted at, and her husband is dismissed as a ‘Denis Thatcher type’. He captures Levene’s internal conflict well – sexual double standards, having to be twice as good to get half the recognition, the constant second-guessing to make sure that pragmatism overcomes the deeply-embedded societal messages ambitious women have to block out

‘Would a man behave like this?’ she asked herself, a reliable maxim of her entire working career. But of course, a man could never have known what it felt like to be in such a situation.

Actually, Cumming seems to have a pretty good idea. In contrast to Liz Carlyle, who always felt like Bridget Jones with a higher Security Clearance, Levene is prickly, ambitious and frequently calculating. Presumably Rimington, who for a while was one of the most powerful women in the country, felt compelled to put an identifiable gloss on her main character, but the result was an everywoman who could have stepped out of the pages of Marie Claire. Although Cumming is at pains to point out that the Secret Intelligence Service has an important role to play in the current political environment, he doesn’t whitewash his characters and they’re all the more real for it. I know more women like his politely cutthroat heroine than I do like Rimington’s, whose idea of stepping out of line is wearing a fuschia scarf with her bland grey suit.

Less convincing is hacker Elsa, a pseudo-Lisbeth Salander who inexplicably falls for Kell, overlooking his emotional constipation to focus on…what exactly, I wasn’t sure. After decades of blending into the background, he lacks the charisma of shambling renegade Rebus, probably his closest fictional counterpart, and whilst he’s an engaging protagonist I’m not sure I’d sleep with him.

Kell himself is a palimpsest, whose cover stories are frequently more fleshed out than he is, and his ability to slough off one persona and put on another hides the fact that beneath the subterfuge and deception there’s not much there. Still, Cumming has plenty to build on if he wants to bring Kell back in from the cold a second time. His ambiguous relationship with Levene, the marriage he can’t quite let go of but can’t revive either, and his longing to abandon retirement and return to the Service all pave the way for future instalments that I look forward to reading.

Edited to add: The lovely team at Killer Reads have let me know that Kell will be back in 2014 in A Colder War.

This Woman’s Work (Or, what the Government would rather women were doing than claiming benefits)

On Saturday, Bluebird TV posted a job on DirectGov, a Government-run website allowing users to access information about public services, including jobs. The advert was for “Females (sic) Presenters required for home internet work for internet babe chat” for Loaded TV, an offshoot of the lads’ mag of the same name.

A quick look on either website suggests that the chances of this being anything other than soft porn at best are slim. This job comes with the implicit approval of the Department of Work and Pensions. This is what the government would rather women be doing than claiming benefits.

I’m sure that by tomorrow morning they’ll have come up with an explanation, but I find it hard to believe that there are no checks in place for prospective employers who want to advertise on the site. If that’s the case, it’s negligent. If it’s not then someone, at some point, decided that this was OK. That exploiting women was fine, because that’s one more woman who won’t be claiming JSA this week.

You can argue that women who want to work in this industry, who are doing so entirely uncoerced and of their own volition, should be able to find employment the same way any other prospective employee would.

I am so fucking sick of the pornification of our culture. Of normalising the exploitation of women, of promoting rape culture. I want to see Page Three of The Sun taken up with what they laughably call news, not with pictures of naked women. I want to walk into the newsagents and not be afraid to raise my eyes above a certain level because I know I’ll end up with magazines like Barely Legal in my sightline. And I don’t want companies like Bluebird or Loaded given legitimacy by getting advertising on a Government-funded jobseekers website.

There’s a reason there are no adverts for gigolos or Chippendales on DirectGov. It’s not that women don’t like casual sex, don’t like looking at men. It’s that men’s bodies are not commodified in the same way that women’s are. Men are lauded for intellect, for physical fitness. Women’s are valued for how fuckable they are.

I’m under no illusion about how hard this recession is biting, especially for women. It sickens me that women, made vulnerable by financial hardship – especially in the run up to Christmas, for fuck’s sake – might see this ad, think it’s an easy way to make money and swallow their pride and their disgust and that last bit of self-esteem and go for it. Because they can’t find another job, because their benefits are being slashed, more women are going to end up in some variant of sex work. And the Government aren’t just allowing that to happen – they’re promoting it.

Strangely enough, on the drop-down menu of reasons for not applying for the job ‘because this demeans women’ is not listed.

Murder, Mystery and Mayhem

devouredwb2On a freezing November night, with a brass band playing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen on the streets outside, Richmond Old Town Hall played host to horrible crimes, delicious mince pies and a surprise ghost. Part of the Richmond Literary Festival, Murder, Mystery and Mayhem featured neo-Victorian novelists Essie Fox, Lynn Shepherd and D.E Meredith (provider of the mince pies) discussing the grim and grisly aspects of the period of history they’ve chosen to write about. Since I’m currently querying agents with my own Victorian thriller and I loved Meredith’s debut novel Devoured, I braved the elements and went south of the river to hear them talk last week.

It’s the second time that Fox, Shepherd and Meredith have taken their three-woman show on the road, and they’d clearly hit their stride. They each come to neo-Victoriana with different slants – Shepherd, whose books play with characters from Austen and Dickens and whose third novel about the Shelleys is out in early 2013, is the most obviously intertwined with the fiction of the period. Fox, who fell in love with the Victorians through gaslit costume drama on rainy Sunday afternoons, is mired in Grand Guignol and sensation fiction, and former environmental activist Meredith fell in love with the scientific writing of Alfred Russell Wallace, and  admits that when it comes to historical accuracy “with the language I’m a little bit flexible. With the science, I’m not.”

One of the great appeals of the Victorian period, as Shepherd pointed out, is that it is a transitional moment in history. Photography, the birth of forensic science, psychiatry – elements of our own society are present here in their earliest forms. In my own research, I’m constantly surprised at how much was discovered and invented over such a short space of time. Surgery went from butchery to…well, anaesthetised butchery, telegrams allowed long-distance communication that must have seemed as fast to them as texting does to us, and the police force was still in its relative infancy when fingerprinting was brought in.  Behind that age of science and invention, of course, was one of moral hypocrasy that went hand-in-hand with dire poverty. Although the social conservatism of the day tried to mould women as tightly as their corsets, the seeds of the modern feminist movement were starting to take root – and who doesn;t love a little idealogical conflict in their fiction?

Most writers of historical fiction I know scrupulously avoid reading novels set in the period in which they’re writing. Whilst this makes sense, it’s completely impractical for me – partly because I write a column on historical fiction, and partly because neo-Victoriana makes up a pretty sizeable chunk of my reading matter at any given time, and I’m not abandoning one of my chief pleasures in life for the nebulous chance of publication. Plus, I find it a useful shortcut to immersing myself in the period – if it’s good, then I’m already in the Victorian headspace, and if it’s bad then I scoff, tell myself I can do better, and sit down to write. Luckily, these authors fall into the first camp – and I’m glad I allow myself to indulge, or I’d have missed some of the most enjoyable books of the year.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Fern Riddell of Vice and Virtue (and now the Literary Women Twitter account). Finding someone else who gets as excited about mentions of the Contagious Diseases Act as she does about Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books, Tom Hiddleston and Javier Bardem was like Thelma meeting Louise but with more discussions of syphilis, and I’ve decided that we’re going to be friends for life.

Oh, and as for the ghost – halfway through the talk came an eerie tapping on the wooden panelling behind the writers, and a disembodied voice begging, in true Catherine Earnshaw style, to be let in. After a moment of audience and speakers collectively wetting themselves in fear, the ghost added uncertainly “Is this not the front door, then?” Never have two late-comers been greeted with more relieved hysteria.

My review of Devoured can be found in my (currently-on-hiatus) Bodice Ripper column over at For Books’ Sake

Mother’s Day: A Survival Guide

My mum & sister, Clare. (Thanks for letting me use the picture, Dad!)

Mother’s Day is terrific inspiration for anyone writing a feminist blog – it’s a day when it’s practically mandated to write about the inspirational women in your life, especially if they gave birth to/raised you. It’s also a little bit awkward when you’ve lost your mother and want to make that post, but don’t want to feel like you’re pissing on people’s parade.

  1. You’re not alone. Actually, I wish this one was a little harder for me to remember. Out of my closest friends, three of them have lost their mothers and a couple more aren’t on speaking terms for various reasons, and I wish more than anything that none of us had to go through this. But when all your friends are buying daffodils and chocolates and going for Mother’s Day spa trips with Mummy Dearest, it’s a little hard not to feel left out, jealous and pretty damn pissed off with the world. Remember that there are other people in your position right now – reach out to them if you can. There are online communities as well as support groups – Hope Edelman has some helpful links & resources on her website, and her book Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss is an incredibly helpful book for dealing with losing your mother at any stage of your life.
  2. Stay off the internet. Seriously. I made the mistake of checking Twitter this morning and ouch. Despite glowering silently at every advert and piece of spam mail that somehow got past the filter this past week, I’d somehow managed to forget this in the caffeine-free ten minutes between waking up and scrabbling for my iPhone. Don’t get me wrong – I’m really glad so many of my friends/acquaintances/celebrity crushes/people I have no idea why I’m following are having a great day with their parental units. But there’s no denying it’s difficult when your plans mostly involve chocolate for breakfast and wailing into a box of Kleenex whilst watching the Idina Menzel-Lea Michele duets from Glee. OK, the last part might just be me, but focusing on other people’s happiness is not what you need right now.
  3. Make sure people know how you’re feeling. I’m not saying that you get a free trip to Bitchytown today, but you’re not going to feel great and it’s important that the people around you know that. If you need a bit of TLC, then make sure you ask for it – equally, if all you want to do is hide in your room and not talk to anyone but your cat, that’s fine but make sure your flatmates/friends/partner know that it’s what you need.
  4. Remember the good times. If you’re lucky – and I accept that not everyone is – then you have some fantastic memories of your mum. Focus on them today, and even though it hurts I can promise you’ll feel better.
  5. Just because you can’t send it, doesn’t mean you can’t buy a card. I did this the first Mother’s Day without Mum – it just felt so bizarre not to get one, even if it was just going to sit in my desk drawer. I couldn’t write it without crying, but I’m glad I did. These last two years I haven’t felt the need to, but it’s nice to know I have that option. And there are other things you can do to mark the day as well – my Dad & sister are taking some flowers to leave at the cliffs where we scattered Mum’s ashes, which is something we do to mark special occasions. Shortly after she died, I went to Liberty (her favourite shop) and bought a beautiful notebook where I write things I’d like to tell her -  from long, emotional letters to descriptions of my new shoes – and where I write down memories. It’s also the most expensive notebook I’ve ever bought, but I think she’d approve.
  6. Start a new tradition. In Motherless Daughters, Addie decided to spend her Mother’s Days in the garden, “I made a ritual of planting flowers and praying for strength, light and life. It fits for me because I’m honouring my mother and nature, and celebrating the life-giving aspect of myself – which was truly the gift my mother gave to me.” [pg 24-5]

It’s never going to be an easy day, but it’s not supposed to be. Shortly after my mum died, someone told me that the amount it hurt was a measure of how much I loved her. You can’t make the pain go away, but you can ride it out knowing that it will fade (and come back, and fade again). And whilst it’s OK to take a few days to feel horrible, remember that you can’t hide from the world forever, and she wouldn’t have wanted you to.

Saturday Link Round-Up & Some News

I can’t believe it’s been a week since WOW12. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind – a former mentor passed away, I’ve been working flat out to get a short story finished, pitching left, right & centre and I’ve somehow found time to go out for dinner twice. Seriously, is there anything better than good food, good wine and even better conversation? But I’ve also managed to get a bit of blogging and column writing in there too, and you can find out what I’ve been up to at the very first…

Saturday Link Round-Up

For once, most of the stuff I’ve written this week has ended up here, but I can be found elsewhere as well:

Victorian Widows Fight Crime – my latest instalment of The Bodice Ripper, a fortnightly column on historical fiction I write for For Books’ Sake.

My Secret Style Bible – guest-blogging for the lovely Elizabeth over at Rosalilium whilst she’s moving house.

I also wrote a post about last week’s Body Politics panel for the staff intranet blog at The Day Job, talking about ageing and beauty and how they totally go hand-in-hand and screw anyone who says otherwise. Although I didn’t say ‘screw’, obviously.

Coming up next week, I have some reviews of this year’s Orange Longlist to write for The F Word – Emma Donoghue’s almost-perfect novel of adultery, early feminism and lesbian love The Sealed Letter, and Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s searing account of race, jazz and the early years of World War Two, and an article for For Books’ Sake on women and girls in Alan Garner‘s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. It turns out he’s currently working on Boneland, the conclusion of the trilogy he began in 1960. As a fantasy-obsessed Cheshire girl who spent her summers roaming about Alderley Edge armed with a stick in place of a sword hoping to fight the svart alfar, I am ridiculously excited and should probably save my squeeful ramblings for the article otherwise I’ll never get anything done today.

I also promised you some news – those of you who followed the official WOW12 festival blog will (hopefully) be happy to hear that the awesome digital media team at the Southbank Centre want to keep the blog running through the rest of the year, so expect more updates with a feminist slant on art, politics and current events there. I’d been cross-posting here as well during the festival, but from now on I’ll just link back to anything I’ve written in my weekly round-ups.

[note: I've also finally gotten around to updating my blogroll *points to sidebar*. If there's anything you think I should be reading that I'm not, I'm always happy for new recs. It's that or the washing up, and good blogs beat a sinkful of dirt dishes any day.]

R.I.P Gerard Donovan

I’ve written extensively in the past couple of days about the women who have inspired me – and with Mother’s Day on the horizon, I’m not quite done yet – but following some sad news earlier today, I’d like to turn my attention to one of the men who shaped my life and gave me and countless other young women the encouragement and confidence that they needed.

A month ago I shared my experiences about coming out at an all-girls Catholic school, and I emphasised the instrumental role that teachers can play in tackling homophobia in an educational environment. Although there were numerous incidents where the teaching staff were either not as supportive as they could have been, or were downright offensive, there were a couple who stood out as champions of tolerance – and crucially, they were the ones who most influenced me, and who have stayed in contact over the last decade.

Gerard Donovan was my Head of Sixth Form and Classical Civilisation teacher – in fact, he gave up some of his rare free periods to include Class Civ in the curriculum, even though by the time A Levels rolled around there were only two of us in the class. He also tutored me in Greek during lunch periods, and it was partly through his passion for the subject that I went on to study it as an undergraduate at Edinburgh. He encouraged me to apply to Oxford, and even though she and I weren’t a good fit, his belief that I was capable of it has stayed with me ever since.

Yesterday I learnt that he had died, suddenly although following a period of illness. The outpouring of grief on Facebook from his pupils past & present has been overwhelming – it’s clear that he shaped a lot of our lives. We stayed in sporadic contact over the years, and he always let me know how proud he was of my success, even though said success often went against the teachings of the Church that was such a big part of his life.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the person I was at 18, and what she’d think of the woman I’ve become. Overall, I think she’d be pretty darn impressed – I have a successful career as a journalist, I’m a published author and this weekend I got to share the stage with women who inspired her. I owe such a lot of that to the people who supported me then – in particular my parents, Mr Donovan, and the poet Ange Topping, who was my A Level English teacher. Both my mother and Mr Donovan are no longer with us, but I think – I hope – they know how their support and belief in me has helped me over the years.

Mr Donovan was a very kind, gentle man who was soft-spoken and maybe a little shy, but beneath that had a wicked sense of humour. Admittedly this once manifested itself in quizzing me in detail on the Peloponnesian War in front of the Ofsted inspectors – despite said war not being on the curriculum. I had been talking about bacchanals earlier though, so possibly he felt I deserved it. And anyway, one thing I learnt from Mr D is that ancient military history is cool. Everyone seems to be reminiscing about his teaching French with a Scouse accent – I missed out on that particular pleasure, but I imagine he was as endearing in French as he was in Greek. He was incredibly supportive when my mother was seriously ill during my A Levels, and I’ve heard similar anecdotes from countless people in the last 24 hours. He was everything a teacher ought to be, and will be very sadly missed.

What WOW 2012 means to me (and is it 2013 yet?)

I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing a bit of a comedown after the three days of non-stop feminist fabulousness that was WOW 2012. When I woke up this morning, I gave serious thought to rocking up to the Southbank Centre in my Wonder Woman t-shirt and acting like it had never ended.

It’s been an intense few days, not least because it included my very first experience being on a panel instead of in the audience. Body Politics: What’s wrong with you? was chaired by the fantastic Catherine Mayer and my fellow panellists were fat activist and academic Corinna Tomrely, fashion designer and boutique owner Jan Asante, journalist Katherine Baldwin and actress and writer Harriet Walter. Early on in the panel, we were all asked if we were comfortable in our bodies. I’d arrived primed to rave about those extra few pounds I can’t quite shift (because that would require eating less cake, and who wants to do that?), but was surprised to hear the words ‘Um…no, not really’ coming out of my mouth. What we discovered was the sliding scale of body acceptance as we moved up the age range of the panel. By the time we got to Harriet, who is in her 60s, we’d discussed fat positivity, eating disorders and fashion, and she opened by saying “Well, not much IS wrong with me.” If you’ve never heard a room full of women cheering a 60+ woman whose just announced that she’s happy with the way she looks – well, I recommend it. Harriet has very kindly posted her talk on her blog, and it’s well worth a read – as is her book Facing It: Reflections on images of older women.

I started the panel working out how to hold my notes in a way that would disguise my stomach, but I left reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to be attractive, and they have nothing to do with how old you are, or what parts of your body still work in the way they’re ‘supposed’ to. And when I looked in the mirror this morning and saw the first signs of crow’s feet around my eyes, my reaction wasn’t horror – it was excitement.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the chance to share our experiences, both in the Body Politics panel and in Undivided Attention: Having no children or grandchildren. As a confirmed fence-sitter when it comes to either passing on my genetic material or raising someone else’s, it was wonderful to express my fears and ambivalence in a space where my eventual choice would be celebrated rather than questioned.

Possibly the most emotionally-charged part of the festival for me was the speed-mentoring session. 15 minute conversations with four different women, where I bounced ideas around, confessed my deepest desires and most debilitating fears – it was challenging, terrifying and the most uplifting experience I’ve had in a long time. I left bubbling with ideas, full of confidence in my abilities as a writer, and dying to get started on the countless projects on my to-do list.

No celebration of women’s achievements and struggles would be complete without that classic anthem, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves. I think it might be enshrined in law that when a group of feminists get together to put on a festival, this song has to be played at least once. At WOW, it was the conclusion of Mirth Control: March of the Women 2012. Sandi Toksvig guided the audience on a whirlwind tour of female composers – some relatively well-known, like Clara Schumann and Hildegard von Bingen, and some undeservedly overlooked like Amy Beach. The WOW orchestra – who, to the audience’s amazement, had only met the day before at their first rehearsal – was the largest all-female orchestra in the world, and all 73 of them were amazing. Sue Perkins helped out with the conducting, and Sandi was joined by the ever-hilarious Jo Brand and West End star Sharon D Clarke, whose voice gave me goosebumps. As a theatre critic, I’m all too used to seeing performances like these dominated by men – Mirth Control was a rare treat, but I wish it was a regular occurance.

So that’s it for another year – next year will see the first WOW Brisbane, and there’s talk of performances in both Derry and South Africa. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’m so grateful for the wonderful Jude Kelly for putting it all together. She spoke about growing up in Liverpool with fantastically supportive parents but few role models when it came to women in the arts. As a teenager in Merseyside in the 1990s she was one of my role models, and ten years on she still is. Thank you Jude, and thanks to all the people who made WOW 2012 possible. I can’t wait for next year.