Posted in Publisher Proof

Diamonds at the Lost and Found by Sarah Aspinall.

This memoir sounded so intriguing and had such a great write up from other authors who I love, so I was very keen to read it. This is the story of a woman who didn’t live life by society’s rules. Even with a child in tow, she lived life on a knife edge in the hope of fulfilling the childhood belief she was destined for greater things than the poverty she was born into in 1930s Liverpool. My mum’s side of our family are from Liverpool and this was my grandmother’s era so I had a real sense of the sort of poverty the author’s mother might have experienced. As one of five in an Irish Catholic family with a father who was a miner, it can’t have been an easy life. I had thought my Great-Aunt Connie must have lived an interesting life having become pregnant as a teenager, yet managing to keep her daughter and bring her up as single mum. It would have been brave of my great-grandfather and ‘Mother’ (as she was known) to accept the stigma from neighbours and their church community. Connie had earrings that looked like mint imperials and was incredibly glamorous, always ready with a laugh or a joke and always had an admiring gentleman in tow, right up into her seventies. I thought she was fabulous. However, this author’s mother was in another league altogether and I loved hearing these incredible and mysterious escapades.

The best word I can think of to describe Sarah Aspinall’s mother Audrey is incorrigible. Our opening chapter takes us to a Hong Kong hotel bar in 1965 when Sally (now Sarah) is eight years old. The opening conversation between mother and daughter really sets the tone for the type of woman Audrey is. A piano player is softly running through his repertoire of Frank Sinatra tunes. Sally knows them all, she’s heard them in every piano bar she’s been to, but something about this song makes her ask her mother:

‘Why is she a tramp? I ask.

‘ She wants to be free to do her own thing’ she says, ‘you know’, then she croons about having the wind in our hair and being without a care’.

This small conversation opens a window onto a life that is far from conventional and often, shocking, like what transpires next. Audrey calmly identifies a lone man at the bar to her little apprentice who lets her Mum know she’s going to the bar for a Coke. Sally then wedges herself onto a bar stool next to the man and calmly asks him if he will ‘look after’ her Mummy when she goes to bed. When she’s pointed out, Audrey pretends to be bemused, but in a heartbeat turns herself into a fascinating femme fatale. She apologises for her bothersome daughter and says she must get her settled in bed. The man is hooked – could they possibly have a nightcap? Back in their room, Sally watches her mother refresh her smokey eye make-up and step into a mist of perfume, then she departs. Sally knows she won’t be back till morning, so settles to read herself a book, wondering what scent she will wear when she is older. Books are Sally’s only education and she is fascinated with love, currently studying the love story in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

I didn’t want to ask my mother, as she didn’t like to talk about things in books, but […] why didn’t one of those men who my mother met ever love her, when she was so beautiful and could sing and dance and tell funny stories and make the room light up? It must have been a run of terrible luck.

The author is brilliant at occupying the mind of a child, who is by turns naïve and innocent, but also knowing and wise beyond her years. Often she can see when an ‘opportunity’ is going sour before her mother. She is definitely a willing accomplice, but is that down to her mother’s training or simply a family trait? The pair flee from one country (and prospect) to another, via luxury travel and the best hotels if lucky, or on a wing and a prayer if not. It is glamorous, exciting and full of adventure, as Sally mostly presents it. However, it must have been destabilising and possibly even scary at times, especially in her youngest years. For me there was something touching about this little girl, taking herself to bed in a strange hotel while her mother works on their chosen ‘mark’ down in the bar. Sally treads a very careful line; this is no misery memoir, as she makes clear in the afterword. She writes truthfully, but stops short of outright criticism of her mother. Nevertheless, I sensed loneliness in a little girl who only has adults to converse with and is reading books she manages to find left in hotels, some of which are way beyond her years and understanding. This is how she gets an education of sorts. Although the book really does celebrate the glamorous and irrepressible Audrey, there is a hint of anger and resentment too.

Even back in Southport, Audrey isn’t the settling down, cosy type of woman at first. She’s something of a local celebrity. What she doesn’t seem to recognise is the void opening up in her daughter – that need to know who you are and where you’re from – coming from the lack of knowledge around her father and his death. She doesn’t remember him, but has enough skill at reading people to know that just under the surface of her mother’s party personality, is a deep sadness and even perhaps, depression that surfaces from time to time. This keen sense of perception is what drives Sally forward, into completing the jigsaw puzzle that is her mother’s life, for herself and for the reader. I was deeply engaged at this point, eager to understand both of these incredible women. When, finally, Audrey does find some contentment in life and Sarah has the settled family she has always craved, the anger and resentment does start to surface. Audrey appears none the worse for her escapades, but Sarah has paid a heavy price including her lack of education and structure. Now she rebels against rules that are being imposed for the first time. Yet, this is such a generous book. Although she tells the story honestly, Aspinall never judges and shows incredible compassion towards her mother. Yes, this is a very unorthodox mother and daughter relationship, but she didn’t want her memoir to be a grenade lobbed backwards, detonating the past. She allows Audrey to shine out of the pages as the beautiful, dazzling and vivacious woman she was. Meanwhile she shows herself at peace with the past and her mother, by becoming a smart, capable woman with a beguiling set of storytelling skills.

Meet The Author

Sarah Aspinall is a producer and documentary maker. She has four children and lives with her partner in London and on the South coast.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy.

Fuck the Patriarchy!

This incredible book is a battle cry. So I thought I’d start with one. The one Mona uses whenever she is asked to speak at a podium on feminism. I started reading this morning, thinking I would sample a couple of chapters each day over the weekend, but before I knew it, the clock said 3pm and I’d read the whole thing. Once finished, I felt a renewed anger about things that had happened in my life, some of which chimed with the author’s experience. She shows that the patriarchy isn’t just ‘over there’ in the restrictions women live with in Saudi Arabia or in conflicts like the Balkan War or the massacre in Rwanda where rape was used as a weapon. It isn’t just with the celebrities and actors who accused Harvey Weinstein, it’s just that their voices were heard louder than the young black teenagers who accused R.Kelly. Every woman, regardless of race, colour, religion, class, sexuality or the gender they were assigned at birth, are ruled by a global patriarchy. It’s here, with a 47 year old middle class, disabled woman living in the rural wilds of Lincolnshire. You can shop at Waitrose and still be fucked by the patriarchy.

In case you wondered about the profanity, it’s one of the seven necessary sins the author would like women to reclaim and use to fight for equality. So I’m reclaiming it, because this book roused me and made me angry (another necessary sin).

‘Patriarchy is universal. Feminism must be just as universal. I want patriarchy and all who benefit from it to have the same look of terror, as that man in a Montreal club who, before he ran away, took a look at me so he could see the woman who dared strike back. I want patriarchy to know that feminism is rage unleashed against its centuries of crimes against women and girls around the world, crimes that are justified by ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ and ‘it’s just the way things are’, all of which are euphemisms for ‘this world is run by men, for the benefit of men’. We must declare a feminism that is robust, aggressive and unapologetic. It is the only way to combat a patriarchy that is systemic.’

Every woman who reads this book must be roused by these words and understand that unless we all fight this, unless we all fight dirty and loud, nothing will change.

I could tell you about the author’s arguments, the incredible and eloquent rage that comes through in her writing, and the journey that brought her to who she is today, but I want you to discover this for yourself. I want you to read it and find your own connections to the arguments, the events she describes and have your own awakening. I can tell you about two ways I felt a personal connection with the author’s story and as I was reading how a righteous anger started to awaken within me.

I had a late awakening, about ten years ago really. That sounds terribly late, but there are reasons for that. I believe my mother was a feminist. Until I was around ten years old, she subscribed to Spare Rib magazine and read feminist books. However, our parents then discovered a new church – an offshoot of the American Evangelicals that the author talks about in her book – and everything changed. Despite having been in the Roman Catholic Church previously I hadn’t been old enough to feel it’s restrictions and I had always felt the ability to argue with it’s teachings, encouraged by the visits of our priest to school every week for question and answer sessions. So unfortunately, just as I was becoming a teenager, I came up against one of the most fanatical and restrictive forms of Christianity we could find. I was taught I should be quiet, demure, pure, and ruled by my father. I was taught a shame I’d never felt before, an awkwardness about a body that was growing, sprouting, forming curves too obvious to fit into their rigid boxes. I had to cover up, be modest, but still dress like a girl. Then as I grew older, I was taught the most important rule of all; I should not share my body with anyone else. The author describes this from the Islamic perspective:

‘My upbringing and faith taught me that I should abstain until I married. I obeyed this until I could not find anyone I wanted to marry and grew impatient. I have come to regret that it took my younger self so long to rebel and experience something that gives me so much pleasure.’

It’s a reminder that the ‘cult of virginity’ isn’t restricted to just one religion or culture.

For me, weird youth group sessions ensued where we were taught about which sexual activities were ‘acceptable’ -kissing – and that everything else should be saved for marriage. I was told about the ‘Silver Ring Thing’ phenomenon sweeping America, where a teenage girl would go through a ceremony where she pledged to her father that she would remain a virgin until she married. A silver pledge ring was then placed on her wedding finger, until it was removed for her wedding ring; one symbol of ownership replaced by another. I remember feeling that this was beyond creepy. My sexuality had nothing to do with my father. He didn’t own my body. Eventually I made the decision for myself that what I did with my body was my own business. I couldn’t imagine that God would truly be that interested in what a young woman did with her body. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the actual word of God, but the truth was the Bible was written by men, edited by men, for the benefit of men. I reasoned that a supreme being had better things to do than police my vagina! So I did what I wanted and lied about it for a quiet life. Once old enough to decide I stopped going to church. This was the 90s, and I would sometimes drive to pick up Mum from church playing Rage Against the Machine and wearing my Hello Boys T-shirt and Wonderbra. We thought we had it sussed, that our mothers had sorted out this feminist lark. We were ladettes. We thought we could drink like men, have sex like men, and do any job we liked. The Spice Girls told us we had girl power and we believed it, but it was all surface and no substance. The patriarchy remained.

Years later, now a 35 year old widow with a disability, and in a very vulnerable place, I met up with my old youth pastor from the church. He didn’t attend any more and assured me he didn’t hold any of the beliefs he’d been trying to in-still us with as teenagers. I realise now that my world had turned upside down and I was looking for safety, but I mistook control for security. As we embarked on a relationship I felt happy and I really needed something positive in my life, not realising that given time, I could find my own happy. I thought the church was the origin of his patriarchal ideas, but really he’d been searching for a community that thought like he did. A place he could find a good, quiet, chaste girl who wouldn’t question walking three steps behind. The abuse started as soon as we were engaged, phases of total withdrawal of attention, time, and sex. Followed by rages if I questioned his behaviour, kicking furniture, throwing things and threats to leave. He was master of this house, he made the decisions, just like at work where he employed seven workers – all women. He isolated me from family and friends and made it quite clear that I was fat, ugly and nobody else would want me if he left me. If I’d had a bad spell with my multiple sclerosis he said I was lazy, needed to try a bit harder and did I realise how hard it was to find me attractive when I was ill? He flaunted cards and Facebook contact from other women and raged if I dared to complain. Luckily my family are persistent, so to get rid of them he took a huge gamble. Behind my back he made sexual advances to my Mum who was ‘more his type and age’ he admitted he liked her ‘quiet nature’ and had ‘fancied her for some time’. When I found out, a huge rage took hold of me so I drove home and asked ‘why haven’t you packed your bags yet?’ I ran round like a whirlwind, packing his bags and I threw them and him out onto the drive. I told him that I knew about his antics and that he had been psychologically abusive for the past three years. I told him I was done. That I wasn’t scared of him leaving any more. I’d rather be alone.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the letter he sent me afterwards, still controlling the situation by telling me he didn’t want to be with me any more, as if I hadn’t thrown his arse out on the driveway. He wrote that he found me ‘too much’. He wanted a Madonna and had found a whore. That he’d tried and tried but he simply couldn’t control me. Everything he wanted in a wife, was described by Mona in her chapter on profanity.

‘Women are supposed to be ‘less than’ and not ‘too much’. Women are meant to be quiet, modest, humble, polite, nice, well-behaved, aware of the red-lines. They are supposed to tread softly and within their limits. I am proud to be described as ‘too loud, swears too much, and goes too far’. When a woman is ‘too much’ she is essentially uncontrollable and unashamed. That makes her dangerous’.

At first his letter made me cry, I was hurt and vulnerable. Then that anger was roused again as I realised I liked the woman he described in that letter. She sounded fun, ballsy and exciting. She was intelligent and didn’t take any shit. She was formidable. So I made a pact with myself that I would always be that formidable woman and teach other women to do the same. Now I have two stepdaughters and I encourage them to speak up, to get angry, to be feisty and loud. This is the passage I read to them this weekend:

‘What would the world look like if girls were taught they were volcanoes, whose eruptions were a thing of beauty, a power to behold and a force not to be trifled with’.

I want my girls to know this. To go out into the world unashamed, uncontrollable and ready to smash the patriarchy for themselves and their sisters around the world. This book reignited my fervour. It may challenge you and your beliefs, but you must read it. Mona Eltahawy is a force to be reckoned with and I applaud her for this manifesto. It is moving and comes from a deeply felt sense of injustice. It is necessary. It’s impolite, brave, forthright and packs a mighty punch. Read it, then give it to your daughters, your nieces and your friends, because every woman should read this.

Meet The Author.

Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author and award-winning commentator and public speaker. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications around the world. She is a frequent commentator on current affairs on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera and other media outlets, where her goal is always to disrupt patriarchy. She is the author of Headscarves and Hymens and recently launched her feminist newsletter Feminist Giant. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @monaeltahawy

About Tramp Press

Tramp Press was launched in 2014 to find, nurture and publish exceptional literary talent. Based in Dublin and Glasgow, they publish internationally. Tramp Press Authors have won, been shortlisted and nominated for many prizes including the Irish Post Book of the Year, the Booker Prize, the Costa, the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Guardian First Book Award.

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