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Queen wrote regular letters to their fans. I decided to analyse their handwriting.

Members of the Queen fan club circa 1990s may recall the quarterly magazine's highlight was The Letter, a copy of a handwritten note from one of the band.

If you were a member of the Queen fan club, as I was between 1991 and 1998, you received four magazines per year, in addition to your membership card and priority booking on events – of which, at that time, there were not many, because Freddie Mercury had died. The magazines were A5 in size and printed in a very small, nine-point type. They were edited by a lady called Jacky Gunn, who ran the fanclub, and they featured news of the band members’ various solo projects, photos of fans at conventions, and pictures of Brian, Freddie, Roger and John that may not have seen before.

The highlight of the magazine was The Letter, a copy of a handwritten note by a remaining member – with a few posthumous ones by Freddie dug up from the vaults for the Christmas issue. Queen never had a good relationship with journalists but they were loyal to their fans. They had written these letters, taking it in turns, one per quarter, since the early 1970s. They would start: “It’s been so long since I’ve written to you!” or “Hello from Queen Towers!” They gave you news of the records they were making. “We have what I think is a dynamite new single called ‘We Are The Champions’ – modest it’s not, but fun anyway!”

Rummaging through the parental home at Christmas I came across my old magazines and was reminded of the fact that my handwriting is a hybrid of Freddie Mercury’s and Roger Taylor’s, carefully fashioned when I was 12 or 13 at the point at which your signature is just becoming cemented. Freddie and Roger were my favourite members, but their writing also struck me as the most interesting. Freddie did his capital Fs backwards, the crossbars flying out in the wrong direction behind the stem like a scarf in the wind. As his name began with an F, you saw this a lot.

Roger favoured a great, round bulb for the R at the start of his name, then dead-straight drops on his gs and ys: you could almost hear the nib ploughing the paper. While Freddie’s writing leant all over the place (indicating a writer “subject to the moods and thoughts of the moment” according to Handwriting Analysis: The Complete Basic Book), Taylor’s was almost vertical. “Undemonstrative, independent, detached and even indifferent, this person functions well in emergencies,” says my book. Which rings true for a drummer who handled much of the press and always seemed to be in a relatively good mood. When you interview Taylor now, his answers are so controlled they’re over in ten seconds with time to spare. When I last met him, I ran out of questions after 20 minutes, and asked him about his hobbies to fill the rest of the time. “I like all the usual stuff,” he said – which just foxed me more.

Brian May’s handwriting leant as far to the right as it was possible to lean; around 45 degrees. “A volcano of emotional reactions,” says my book. “Passionate, susceptible to hurt... wears self out. An emotional brushfire!” Anyone who’s read the blog Bri’s Soapbox might recognise that description. Brian’s writing also bears a vague resemblence to Richard Nixon’s.

Bass player John Deacon has not made a public appearance since 1997. His fanclub letter from March the previous year read: “We’ve had a bad winter with our youngest having a lot of trouble with his ears.” John’s writing sat at a reclined angle. “Emotionally aloof…” says my book. “A well-constructed front made to cover up for inner withdrawal. The writer feels an inward longing to be different…” John: perhaps the most mysterious member of Queen, and not without his own emotional torments. His handwriting left little trace on my memory, and didn’t make it into my teenage script.

Queen probably hardly use a pen now, as I don’t. Gradually my own personality, such as it is, came through in my writing as I moved into adulthood, and took over from Freddie and Roger’s. I no longer do my Fs backwards (“a sign of homosexuality,” says my stupid book), and the stems of my Ys aren’t straight like Roger’s, but big and loopy. Big loopy Ys indicate a vivid sexual imagination, it says here. Whatever. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist