Responding to the Tate Britain display: Women and Work by Margaret Harrison (born 1940), Kay Hunt (1933–2001) and Mary Kelly (born 1941), alongside Sylvia Pankhurst’s intimate paintings and her Suffragette campaign artwork.
Between the Lines: Two Lists
Jean Alexander. Rivet Machine Operator, Metal Box Factory, Bermondsey
Joan Didion Writer, Journalist, Screenwriter, Los Angeles.
Jean 5.30am Start breakfast for family
Joan 6.30am Car to the airport
7.15 Leave for work in Bermondsey
7.15 Arrive for work in LAX
The Angel of Freedom
The Holloway Badge
8.00 Put on work overalls
‘My deliberately anonymous costume of skirt, leotards and stockings for passing either side of the culture and a mohair throw for trunk line flights and for motel rooms where the air-conditioning can’t be turned off.’
How many rivets do they punch in today?
Is my piece in The New Yorker today?
18.00 Home. Start dinner for family.
Hotel. Pour myself a Bourbon.
20.00 Start the ironing.
Have room service bring up something.
21.00 Make a cup of tea.
Pour another Bourbon.
22.00 Switch on telly. Forget the day.
Notebook in bed. Write up the day.
23.30 Joan: It’s a long day…type it up.
Jean: It’s a long day…go to bed.
Work: A Triptych
June, Ellen and my Mum, Poplar, about 1965
In a shed at the bottom of June’s garden,
1 table, 2 chairs, 2 sewing machines.
Mum and me pop in after school
to chat and joke over the drr, drr, drrr.
Time is money so no stopping,
10, 20, 30, 40
zips are fitted to skirts.
Mr. B arrives to collect the day’s work,
10, 20, 30, 40, at 10 shillings a bag.
June locks up,
Ellen says: night.
I run ahead to press the button for our lift,
No, says mum when she catches up,
I’m happy as a Dinner Lady.
St Victoire’s Convent Careers Guidance, about 1972
You don’t want to be a secretary.
You’d like to act.
What do your parents do?
Oh, what does your mother do?
I don’t have any information about Drama schools.
Have you seen the Sound of Music?
Have you thought about becoming a nun?
The Grandparents, a long time ago
Agnes shivers in her pink flannelettes,
Steam from the kettle fills the kitchen,
She splashes her face with cold water,
two cups of tea are made.
No time, says Michael, running to catch the boat,
a St. Christopher’s medal held tightly in his fist.
Hail Mary, Agnes prays as she waves goodbye.
I’ll write, he shouts, and he does, saying:
the streets are not paved with gold.
She was Mum’s big sister.
5 ‘1”, she bought her woolens from the childrens’ department of C&A.
Growing up in 1940’s Limerick, she used a hot poker to curl her hair.
She never left a dance hall at the time my grandfather said she should.
The love of her life was Johnny.
Sadly, no children, so they bought a dog.
Trixie bit, chewed and shredded the furniture when they were out at work.
One Sunday morning, finding Mum in tears, again,
she picked up our small hallway table,
the one Mum was saving to buy a telephone for,
and hurled it, at Dad, sitting up in bed smoking a cigarette.
“Fearless,” said Mum.
Fourteen Things I Know About Elspeth
- Her mother died the day after she was born and she grew up in an all-male environment with her father Michael and her six brothers, Nicholas, Walter, Alexander, James, Philip and Gus. Her father was an art teacher.
- Her favourite food was Weetabix, brown sugar and hot milk. It was the smell she liked not the taste. She preferred its smell rather than its taste.
- She was the only sibling who had inherited her father’s flaxen cowlick.
- She was also the only sibling who had her own bedroom although she slept in the same bed as her father until the age of six.
- There was one winter when she would only answer to the name of Michael. Except at school.
- She became obsessed with monkeys after seeing a six-page photo story about Snowflake, the world’s only white gorilla, in the National Geographic magazine.
- She was frightened of swimming underwater.
- There were very few visitors to the isolated farmhouse where she lived, but when there were, and if they asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up she always replied, ‘An anthropologist’. For several years her ambition was to go to Africa and study chimpanzees in the wild with Jane Goodall.
- Her brother Nicholas taught her how to make flapjack.
- She was given a nicotine – stained tiger skull for her sixteen birthday by her father. It came packed with screwed up newspaper inside a nicotine – coloured cardboard box. At first Elspeth wasn’t sure how to react.
- The first job she had was picking blackcurrants during the school holidays. At the time she thought she might do this for the rest of her life.
- One afternoon Clive, the owner of the fruit farm, cornered her in the packing shed and forced his cold, thick tongue into her mouth. It happened on more than one occasion. She also worked for her father in his studio.
- There were no photographs of Elspeth with her mother but Nicholas gave her a photo of their mother sitting at the kitchen table with her head in her vein-heavy hands. He told her that it had been taken when Elspeth was inside her. Elspeth thought her mother’s tummy looked very flat but kept it to herself.
- At nineteen Elspeth still lived at home with her father and brothers. She made her first attempt to break free from her family that spring. She was wearing a pair of white jeans and a purple and green stripped rugby shirt and she had a rucksack on her back. She was carrying a nicotine-coloured cardboard box in her hands.
Ten things I know about my Grandma
- Her name was Kate and she was a cook until the day she died at seventy-five.
- Though she had curly auburn hair, she was not beautiful. In a sepia photograph she stands next to two handsome brothers and her pretty, seamstress sister thrusting her her neck forward at an awkward angle, her hair scraped back, but escaping its pins.
- When her adored father died in Taunton she was the only one of her family not to attend the funeral. She was in service in London, with only one afternoon off a week.
- Her first job in service at fourteen was as a maid of all work to a clergyman, two counties away. She was a regular attender of high Anglican services, including evensong on weekdays, for the rest of her life.
- At thirty-six she married Charles, a butler, nearly ten years older than herself, but still could not attain the home of her own she longed for, unlike her brothers and sister.
- After the sudden death of her eldest child, she and Charles rented a small seaside boarding house, where she continued to cook, as well as shop, clean and make the beds, while her husband took trays of food in to the guests and flicked a rag around, which he called dusting. He also looked after the money in a post office savings book and at the back of drawers, rarely letting any out for clothes, even for his remaining daughter, my mother, who rapidly learnt to sew them for herself.
- When Charles died, after a particularly hearty English breakfast, my grandma rummaged through drawers to find caches of threepenny bits, sixpences and half-crowns and the post office book. She went out to buy clothes, new pans and small presents for her grandchildren. She spent the money in a week.
- In the 1950’s she was once taken in a car by my parents all the way back, through two counties, to see her old childhood home. My dad stopped the car at the end of the street. She did not get out of the car.
- When I was five I noticed she wore slippers with the fronts cut out to reveal her swollen, spreading toes and her bunion. Her red face glistened as she stood at the stove, or as she puffed up the stairs with clean bedding.
- She was always kind to me. I remember sitting on her lap drawing on the backs of old envelopes she had saved for me and also lying next to her in her bed, watching the ‘fairies’ dance above the undusted chest of drawers before her window. The next day her door was closed and I was told not to go in. A large brown box was brought up to her room. That evening two men manoeuvred it down slowly, banging it against the banisters and stopping now and then to get their breath.