Drink acid or read lesbian fiction?

Enthusiasm is in short supply, as the arts world throws up a muted defence of the North and a temper

Grim up North?

In the week when David Cameron’s favourite think tank decided the North of England should be packed up and moved nearer the Thames, there’s been little outrage from the Northern arts world. Even the Liverpool Cultural Company, responsible for the events marking Liverpool’s year as European City of Culture had nothing to say about the fact said city was “beyond revival”. Perhaps it’s too much time around Ringo Starr, who kicked off the celebrations but admitted there’s nothing he misses about Liverpool.

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Poet Ian McMillan, Northern and proud, told us he’s got a few ideas about how to revive these Northern cities. “How about Parliament and the Royal family being based in the North?”, he wondered. “The Queen in residence in Clifton Park, Rotherham and Parliament meeting in Bradford Town Hall?”.

Somewhat rattled, he continued: “The report assumes, reading between the lines, that nothing from the North is of intrinsic value, and that we all want to move to the South to better ourselves. Of course that isn’t true, but the report certainly helps to rock (or re-rock) the North’s sometimes fragile sense of self-confidence.” Whatever next, he mused. “A state funeral for Margaret Thatcher?”

Preaching to the inverted

The book which rocked Britain is celebrating its 80th birthday. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was put on trial for its promotion of “sexual inversion”, with Virginia Woolf appearing in court in the book’s defence. Radio 4 is commemorating the occasion with a two-part guide to the history of lesbian novels, curated by crime writer Val McDermid.

Sadly it wasn’t much of a party for The Well of Loneliness with none of the invited guests having a kind word for it. Sarah Waters found it “a bit mawkish and a bit daft”. Jeanette Winterson was even less restrained. "It's so terrible," she wailed. "It's enough to make a girl straight."

Still, they view the book rather more highly than James Douglas, then editor of the Sunday Express. "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul." Funnily enough, I’d take the acid over the Sunday Express anyday.

Tessa takes centre stage

Having taken on the 1992 election, privitisation and the Iraq war, David Hare is turning his reproachful gaze to the moral vacuity of Tony Blair’s Labour. His new play, Gethsemane, takes on two recent scandals, cash for honours and the company kept by Tessa Jowell’s husband, David Mills, with both Lord Levy and Jowell making thinly-veiled appearances in the play.

Gethsemane opens in November at the National Theatre, the institution which Jowell previously had nothing but praise for. Speaking of the NT’s famed £10 Travelex season, she said “I hope it means thousands who don’t consider themselves theatre-goers decide to give it a try." Sadly Gethsemane isn’t part of the season but perhaps the thousands can still be tempted.

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser