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Tracey Thorn: I’m nostalgic for revolutionary feminism and the whiff of patchouli

Off the Record.

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a BBC4 documentary called Property Is Theft, about squatting in the late 1970s and 1980s. Great old footage of Villa Road in Brixton was intercut with present-day interviews with the former squatters, reminiscing about those righteous, ideological times. Pumped full of theory, living out their ideals of deconstructing the nuclear family and opting out of capitalist society, they were a beguiling mix of the inspiring and the nutty.

Their fundamental point – that housing is a basic right and a nexus of inequality – still rang clear as a bell. They had inhabited buildings that were earmarked for demolition, and saved them. A three-bedroom flat in one of those houses now goes for half a million-plus. So much for the revolution they all believed was imminent.

But other aspects of their thought and practice seemed too niche to catch on, too purist to accommodate human contradiction. Their living conditions were pretty squalid, which probably put off any working-class families dreaming of a better life, and so the community consisted of young, highly politicised graduates, most of them white – the Rastafarians apparently all living in the next street along.

The old clips made the past seem both familiar and strange. You could smell the 1970s: the lentil bake and patchouli, the dope and the wet towels, all mixed up with a whiff of bullshit – cranky theories, a houseful of primal screaming. I was hooked and, on enquiring, discovered that this programme was the first episode in a series called Lefties, made by Vanessa Engle in 2006. I waited in vain for part two to appear, but eventually found it on YouTube. Called Angry Wimmin, it tells the story of the birth of late-1970s revolutionary feminism, and again, it’s full of cracking stuff.

It opens with Sheila Jeffreys singing a revised version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” – “Men grow bald as they grow old/And they all lose their charms in the end./All men are wankers,/Said Christabel Pankhurst./WIMMIN are a girl’s best friend” – and moves on to tell of how feminists broke away from the socialist movement, defining women as a class of their own and declaring, “Men Are the Enemy!”

There are scenes of women sitting around a campfire and making the vagina sign with their hands; in full karate kit taking self-defence classes; and in dungarees, doing DIY, resolutely sawing and hammering, manlessly happy. The women relate how the removal of the word “men” led to the new framing “womben” – or, more usually, “wimmin”, which was soon adopted as a term of mockery. I remember how, in the early 1980s, Ben’s parents had a party invitation from the playwright John Osborne propped up on their mantelpiece, at the bottom of which were printed the words “NO WIMMIN”. Even then it made me fume.

The language policing sometimes went too far, demanding, say, that instead of “Oh God!” you should cry, “Oh Goddess!” Separatism led some to establish all-women households, which were then taunted by local lads, one neighbour posting a nude photo of himself through the letter box in a kind of early, analogue trolling.

Male violence led women in Leeds to set up Women Against Violence Against Women. It was the era of the Yorkshire Ripper. I was in Hull at the time, just near enough to feel the chill of his presence, and I remember the Reclaim the Night protests, and the resentment at the police advice not to be out alone after dark, imposing a curfew on the victims, not the perpetrators.

The documentary ends with Vanessa Engle asking if they are all still revolutionary feminists, and they mostly are, many working in the field of domestic violence. One woman asks Engle if she calls herself a feminist. Momentarily nonplussed, she replies, “Yeah, I’ve always thought so, but no one really asks me any more.” They laugh and conclude that feminists are “on their way to becoming an extinct species”.

Well. We’ll see about that.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game