Sunday, 24 July 2016

Bloody difficult women - Reclaiming the Battleaxe

Ken Clarke's recent description of Theresa May as a 'bloody difficult woman' increased her popularity ratings. Our new woman Prime Minister joins the increasing numbers of women leaders, plus we also have a female Home Secretary and a female Lord Chancellor.  So, it's time to think about Battleaxes. What is a Battleaxe? Where does the term come from?  Can we describe these women leaders as Battleaxes? 

Theresa May and Angela Merkel

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'Battleaxe' as a 'formidably aggressive older woman', and gives these synonyms: harridan, dragon, crone, witch, hag, hatchet-face, ogress, gorgon, old bag, hellcat, harpy, virago, bitch, shrew, scold. Not pleasant.
     Many of the above words are commonly used to describe powerful women, or women who stick their heads above the parapet.  I don't want this post to be an anti-men diatribe, but I can't avoid mentioning the dislike of female power that some men exhibit, and the particularly disagreeable combination of fear, contempt and ridicule that surrounds powerful older women.
     I was in the cafe in Sainsbury's about a week ago, leafing through the vile Daily Mail, when my eye was caught by this, written by the even viler Quentin Letts.

    'When Mrs May arrived for the Cabinet meeting this morning she put on quite a show. Normally she has herself driven to the door of No 10 but yesterday the BMW dropped her at the bottom of the street and she waddled up the pavement swinging her hips as best she could. She even did a bit of a shampoo-advert pose on the doorstep for the snappers. Hello Boys, it's cos I'm worth it.'

      Ugh.What a truly horrible description of an older woman. Whatever you think of Mrs May, she is actually quite elegant.
      But can Battleaxes be reclaimed? Later in this post I've set out the characteristics which I think might define a battleaxe, but it'll be just my opinion. In the meantime, let's look at how the 'Battleaxe' stereotype came about.

Temperance and Suffrage - the birth of the Battleaxe
    Nineteenth-century American temperance campaigner Carrie Nation can be credited with popularising the 'Battleaxe'.  Carrie was a large, formidable Christian woman, who believed she had a divine mission to promote temperance by physically destroying bars. She set about her work armed with a hatchet. In later life she came to England, lecturing in music halls as well as chapels, financing her travels by selling souvenir hatchets, and promoting her approach. Her 'hatchetations' were widely parodied in cartoons and on postcards - see below.
Carrie Nation, with her hatchet
Popular postcard of Carrie at work.
      Both in America and in Britain, the temperance movement had close links with the women's suffrage movement, and both used direct action protest as a way of publicising and progressing their causes. The sight of women engaged in angry, frequently violent protests shocked and horrified society. 
      Contemporary anti-suffrage cartoons clearly show the development of stereotypical Battleaxe characteristics: suffragettes as aggressive, loud, ugly, sexless, man-hating harridans who had the temerity to speak out and demand what they saw as their rights.

The Battleaxe as Warrior/Crusader
Interestingly, in their own propaganda, the women activists of the temperance and suffrage movements portrayed themselves very differently. They appear as noble armed crusaders, fighting the good fight for justice.

     These images derive directly from portrayals of mythological warrior goddesses, such as our own Britannia.
      Leaving aside her modern imperialistic connotations, Britannia was a Romano-Celtic goddess, adopted by Roman Britain as its national symbol and closely associated with the goddess Minerva. Minerva's Greek counterpart is Athena, and images of all three goddesses are hard to tell apart. They are tall, strong, beautiful women with flowing drapery covering their armour, wearing helmets, carrying shields, swords, spears or tridents.

Of course we can't omit Boudicca, in her knife-wheeled chariot, another popular image of female power.
Boudicca - on Westminster Bridge, London
Ancient Battleaxe archetypes
     We think of actual battleaxes as sharp, savage weapons of war, frequently wielded to deadly effect by archetypal enemies such as Vikings, or Visigoths, but many feminist writers portrayed axes as symbols of the female divine, or Mother Earth Goddess, in early matriarchal cultures.
       In the Cretan Minoan civilisation, which reached its peak around 2000 BCE, the 'labrys' or double-headed axe was used as a farming implement. It is depicted on many vases, seals and in statues where it accompanies, or is held by, a  goddess or high priestess.

Labrys images from ancient Crete.

     The labrys was adopted by the feminist and 'goddess' movements of the 1970s and 80s, and many women wore double axe labrys jewellery, or had labrys tattoos to symbolise female power.
      Back then, Battleaxe wore her own silver labrys pendant - here it is - somewhat tarnished now.

Battleaxe as witch, crone, Hecate
      In mythology, the crone is the third, and most powerful, phase of a woman's life, following maiden and mother. The crone is the archetypal wise woman, associated with magic, the supernatural, darkness and the underworld. She is associated with the Greek goddess Hecate.
      The fear of witches and wise women is deep-set. Accounts of  the terrible persecution of women in the past are too common to need much discussion here , but it is interesting to remember that the last woman prosecuted and imprisoned for witchcraft in Britain was Scotswoman Helen Duncan - as recently as 1944.
      The last English Witchcraft Act was not repealed until 1951.
Helen Duncan
      Sadly, today, in some North African and Middle Eastern cultures, women and girls are still tortured and killed because they are believed to be sorceresses, capable of afflicting others with the 'evil eye'. 

Battleaxes in popular culture
As so often with things that are potentially scary, battleaxes have long been portrayed as figures of fun. There are countless examples: Hattie Jacques as Matron, Nora Batty, Ena Sharples, Mrs Slocombe, Sybil Fawlty.  Some battleaxes weren't even women - see Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough as Cissie and Ada.
Ooh Matron
Ena Sharples

Nora Batty

Real Battleaxes?
A recent article by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian lamented the decline of the traditional working-class battleaxe matriarch, scourge of the family and the neighbourhood. These formidable - and fearless - older women thrived in stable communities and extended families. The decline of these social structures led to the decline of the battleaxe.
    So are there other sorts of battleaxes? What are they like?  If they exist, battleaxes are, indeed, bloody difficult women.Their personalities won't necessarily make them popular, or make them good people.
    I'd describe battleaxes as firstly, plain tough. They are fearless and resilient. They don't appease others with a smiling face, or with humour. They are forthright, outspoken and speak the truth as they see it. They deal in absolute right and wrong, are convinced that they know what is best for others, and are not backward in telling others what to do. They believe in getting on with the job - fine words butter no parsnips. They press on regardless of what others think of them. Battleaxes are survivors.
     They also believe that achievement should be on merit alone, and that women should not need any special help, or have any concessions made to them.
     A good example here is the current publicity about babies/breastfeeding in the House of Commons, now suggested as a move 'to make parliament more welcoming to women' but originally and robustly banned as inappropriate and undignified by Speaker Betty Boothroyd in 2001. Betty would count as one of the few genuine Labour battleaxes, along with Barbara Castle and Mo Mowlem. Why don't battleaxes do better in the Labour Party? Although she is brave, Angela Eagle has sadly fallen by the wayside.
     Say what you like about these women's politics, but Margaret Thatcher was a battleaxe, so is Theresa May. Amber Rudd could well be a battleaxe in waiting. Andrea Leadsom is no battleaxe - that rictus appeasing smile, her inability to stand up to media pressure....
     Angela Merkel is a battleaxe. Nicola Sturgeon is battleaxe material. Caroline Lucas? Not sure yet.
     I sincerely hope Hillary Clinton gets elected as US President, but she is not a battleaxe. No true battleaxe would tolerate marriage to Bill....  
     So, finally, is Hastings Battleaxe a genuine battleaxe?  I don't think it is for her to say......


Sunday, 10 July 2016

Blacksmiths, Art Boot Fair, Pirate Day - Hastings round-up

Well, following last weekend, Hastings life has been busy.  We enjoyed seeing Leigh Dyer and his Blacksmiths on the Beach, went to the Art Boot Fair and mingled with celebs, and Battleaxe got stuck in with the WI for our Pirate Day event at the Jenny Lind pub.....

Our new local Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, with Jerwood Director Liz Gilmore
    First, the Blacksmiths on the Beach.  Battleaxe readers may have read about how, a few years ago, we gave a family flypress to local art blacksmith Leigh Dyer? We visit it every year at Open Studio time... Well, being the enterprising person that he is, Leigh is now producing a huge metal sculpture to be sited on Hastings  Beach, as part of the celebrations marking the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.  Part of the sculpture was forged in front of the public, in a massive display on the Stade, in association with the British Art Blacksmiths' Association. We went along to have a look.  Here are a few pictures.

The sculpture takes shape

Blacksmiths at work

Blacksmiths at work

Hello Leigh!
    Next, on Saturday, we went to the Art Car Boot Fair, again, on the Stade. This is not our usual boot fair thing, but a profoundly now and happening Shoreditch style art event, arranged in association with the Jerwood. We were astonished by the length of the queue - it stretched half way down Rock-a-Nore Road - at least 300 metres. Many of those in the queue were not local, and when the gates opened, they rushed, like lemmings, to line up at the Tracey Emin stall. We saw them leaving soon after, laden with cardboard tubes containing - what? She wasn't there, but  many well-known artists were.  Most of the art was not our style - lots of graphic art - big canvasses saying things like  'Fucked you over, mugs!' in very large letters, costing well over £200.  However, we got a nice Rachel Howard dog, signed, for £20.
     Our very own local Home Secretary, Amber Rudd was there - see picture above. Given that we have a female Home Secretary, and another woman Prime Minister, Battleaxe's next post is going to be about - Battleaxes.....
     I photographed some art celebs, includiing Sir Peter Blake, Gavin Turk, Rachel Howard, but missed punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke.  After the horrors of  my performance poetry debut last weekend, I somehow avoided making eye contact with him...  Here he is, painted after the event by up-and-coming local artist Danny Mooney - thanks for letting me use this, Danny!
Peter Blake

Gavin Turk

Rachel Howard
John Cooper Clark by Danny Mooney - thanks Danny

     Sunday was Hastings Pirate Day, back in full force after a slight glitch the past couple of years - the original organiser has now returned, much to the relief of all...  We had arranged one of our famous WI tearoom events upstairs at the Jenny Lind, but the celebrations were much more spread out than they have been before, taking on venues from the new Pier right down to the Stade. This left the Old Town High Street a bit quiet until a band started up at the pub at 4pm, by which time we were packing up!  Also, it was the most amazingly hot and muggy day.
The pirate gang....
     However, we had a slow but steady trade all day, and we all dressed up in our pirate gear. We made enough money to be respectable, and enjoyed ourselves.
     Battleaxe has been so busy this week - as well as the above, have had a day in London,  belly dancing at the WI, poetry Stanza group, a visit to Eastbourne, loads of gardening.....
     On Pirate Day I went out for a walkabout with Philospher at lunchtime and got Digby a pirate hat. He hated it, refused to pose looking piratical, and tried his best to destroy it. To finish, here he is:

Hastings Battleaxe learns her lesson - at the St Leonard's Festival

Right. Battleaxe knows this now.  She is not a performance poet. At least, not the sort that performs spontaneously at festivals. Our Hastings Stanza group was taking part in the poetry bit of the St Leonard's Festival, and I was included in the Performance group, which turned out to be a charabanc of pop-up wandering poets.....

You may well ask, what on earth gave me the idea that I might do something like that? Well, I enjoy reading my poems to an audience, and they are quite light, and sometimes funny..... However, there is a huge difference between facing an audience who know what to expect, for a defined time-slot at a defined event, where I have some control, and who are contained in an enclosed venue, and oh Lord busking on the Pier, or, total collapse of stout party, being on the Bandstand Stage in Warrior Square... Pop-up? Wandering? No.
       Now, don't get me wrong, I understand the festival is an informal affair run on a shoestring, but the organisation was a little, shall we say, ad-hoc.
       First, I went on the train to Ashford, in the company of  the excellent Tony Barrington-Peek, who does lovely poems for kids, and is well used to random rabbles of schoolchildren, and Antony Mair, the Co-ordinator of our Stanza group, who was not performing but had come along for the ride to give us support. Antony does lots for us, and I knew he was short of people to go on the bus, so decided to do the decent thing....
      We met a load of London poets at Ashford, and rode back to Hastings on the bus. You may well ask, why could we have not all got on the bus at Hastings station, but I would have no answer.... However, it was a nice little bus.
Our charabanc
       When we got to Hastings we had to wear large paper fish heads - again, don't ask me why, but I guess it was sort of an arty happening thing. The heads were very hot, and it was actually quite panic-inducing not being able to see out. Our bus joined the festival parade with us wearing those fish heads, with the obligatory Hastings drumming band behind us. Quite weird.

Nooo....You have to be codding...
Check out the driver's sou'wester
Fish-eye's glimpse of the parade behind us
        I had made it crystal clear at the outset that I would not go on the bus and above all, Would Not Wear a Fish-head, but ended up doing both. I'd thought that Isabel, the organiser, would tell us a lot more about what we were supposed to do while on the journey. However, she said she was a bit hung over and hadn't brought any of the paperwork - I had to give her my copy.... Then, of course some people had wimped out so there were not enough people to wear the heads......honestly, I make more U turns than a politician......
        Our first stop was the Pier. We asked Isabel what we were going to do - I had assumed we would be in the event room in the visitor centre - but she said we were going to have to 'busk' - she hadn't filled in the forms to let us perform on the Pier. It was very windy and noisy, and eventually we huddled by one of the huts and read to each other and one or two curious passers-by who must have wondered what the hell we were doing. I managed to read one quick poem..... Philosopher came down to hear us, as did friend Jill - not an edifying experience for them.
Jill, Battleaxe and Antony - windblown
        Real performance poets either sing, rap, or do what I'll call 'rant' poems - long passages of memorised material, delivered at breakneck speed and without drawing breath.  I genuinely believe they don't mind what their audience gets up to - I can only think they hardly see them. Without some eye-contact with people in the audience, and feeling some connection with them, I just feel pointles, rootless and out of control - panicky, in fact.
        At this point, I would have done well to give up and go home with Philosopher, but had developed a masochistic determination to have a go. So, we got back on the bus and headed for Warrior Square.
Battleaxe and bus...

     The stage in Warrior Square was just that, a stage with mikes etc, and a random body of people dotted about on the grass vaguely in front of it, mostly paying no attention to what was happening. Knots of people sitting on haybales, eating picnics and drinking, folk wandering about, kids playing, groups of young people chattering, shrieking and looking at their phones - you get the picture.  Friends Jan and Tom came to watch, which was nice of them, plus various other poetry people.  As I said above, the genuine performance types just got straight up there and spouted forth apparently without a thought. Gavin Martin, who is in our group, told me he did get nervous, but you couldn't tell.
     One bloke did an anatomically detailed piece about a rectal examination, which might not have been altogether the best family material.
Warrior Square - from Facebook. It was much fuller than this but you get the general idea....
         Being up on that stage would almost rank with the worst things I have ended up doing in front of an audience, and heaven knows, I have had enough experience of speaking in public, and have dug myself into some horrible situations over the years.  I'm remembering being trapped on stage with Ken Dodd at a conference entertainment night. I'm thinking about losing my temper with the CEO of one of our biggest customers in front of his senior management team and directors. (Actually, the losing the temper bit was fun, it was the moment after when I realised what I'd done...)
        I tell you, being on stage with the Queen at the RAH with 5000 women watching was not half so stressful.....
        I think I managed to get through it without making a fool of myself, but I did sound nervous. Never again.
       After, I abandoned the whole shebang without a backward look and headed for the nearest bar with Jan and Tom to drink gin....
       However, things did improve at the end of the day. The infinitely more sensible Stanza poets were reading at an infinitely more sensible event at a bookshop in St Leonard's, and I went along, to listen and support my friends and colleagues. Turns out one person didn't turn up, so I agreed with Antony to slot in instead, as a bit of therapy. It was so good to be in such an agreeable environment that I was more than somewhat manic - the gin, plus wine, did not help, but being able to read a couple of poems was very restorative. It was a really good do. We heard some lovely stuff,  and I hope I did not disgrace myself by laughing too much.
       A stressful day, but it is good to learn such a big lesson.