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10 March 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 5:53pm

How a school visit prompted me to re-assess John Ruskin

My week, from rediscovering John Ruskin and imagining H G Wells to chasing down a hero.

By Samira Ahmed

Like all good feminist students of the 1980s, I can remember where I was when I was first told that John ­Ruskin supposedly had a pathological horror of women’s pubic hair (I was in the college ­library). More recently, the film Effie Gray brought this urban myth into mainstream culture. But a visit to Queenswood school in Hertfordshire prompted me to rethink some assumptions. My radio documentary John Ruskin’s Eurhythmic Girls is the result. It’s a chance to reassess the old Victorian bloke’s agenda through the impact of his ideas.

The girls’ school, inspired by Ruskin’s celebrated speech “Of Queen’s Gardens”, was set up to further his then groundbreaking vision of women’s liberation. Pupils wore loose, flowing garments instead of corsets, and had the freedom to read and to study science (but not theology) with the aim of releasing their natural inner moral beauty to guide men. Dancing was part of that vision. It sounds trite but I sense something richer than the sometimes narrow vocational agenda pushed by many modern politicians (however well-meaning), obsessed with Stem subjects to the exclusion of all else.

The school archive holds the old registers going back to the 1890s, which list where every girl went when she left. Early marriage and caring for sick relatives soon start to give way to entries about office clerks, teachers and university students. Ruskin wanted British women to bear healthy children and help their husbands rule the empire’s “inferior” races. Women, it turns out, have been rather good at taking the liberation on offer and running away with it. Schools such as Queenswood now turn out capable young women from all over the world. Thanks, Ruskin.

Clubbing together

I’m at the Garrick for the first time and I get the full tour. I’m struck by how the changeless English tradition of the gentleman’s club is so rarely what it seems. The billiard room, with its brass lamps and oak scoreboard, seems original; I can imagine Laurence Olivier and H G Wells bantering over a game. But the whole room is new: part of a modern makeover that uses period antiques, thanks to clever management. Our lunch is served by bright young staff from all over the EU. Afterwards, my companion and I look out from between the chimney pots over London like Mary Poppins and Bert, marvelling at the view but wondering what changes Brexit might bring.

Human error

The Best Picture debacle at the Oscars still leaves me baffled. Not that it happened, but that the Academy managed it so badly. The first and best lesson I got as a BBC News trainee about crashing on air was: “You’re not landing jumbo jets.”

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Broadcast journalists know that stuff goes wrong, and it can be wretched. Lines go down, guests don’t turn up or they misbehave, the wrong clip plays. However, the audience understands if you explain as you go along. Better a delay to ask for guidance than a huge error. Actors, by contrast, think that the show must go on, so they cover up to look smooth. In this case, the Academy president should have come on stage and said: “We’re sorry, but phew, we got there. Now please give your attention to the worthy winner.” As it was, most news coverage cut out the speech by the Moonlight director, Barry Jenkins. That was shameful.

Making waves

It’s been a week for pondering heroes. I write a magazine piece about the late Richard Hatch – the California surfer boy who played the idealistic Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica. I have only realised with hindsight how unusual a hero he was for young fans, at this moment in the 1970s when, under the distraction of firing laser guns and alien robots, he showed that a leading man in Hollywood might be kind, rather than bullying. He was also dazzlingly handsome in an era of bafflingly hairy and macho box-office leads such as Burt Rey­nolds and James Caan.

Silence is golden

I have a 15-minute interview slot with Tom Hiddleston for Front Row. His new film, Kong: Skull Island, is rollicking good fun, which helps. I realise that he approaches work with the academic commitment of someone who aced his finals. “Did you really need to read another book about being a special ops soldier?” Yes, because he loves the research. At the end, I ask carefully but clearly about the media backlash over his much-publicised private life. He tries to duck the question with a charming smile: “You know the answer.” But I don’t, I smile back. “Let me think about this.” He looks down, thinking hard. There is a 20-second pause. I cannot tell you how long 20 seconds is on radio. We run only four seconds in the final edit, and it still sounds like an eternity.

A few fans will later complain that I’m being mean to him. I can feel his publicists’ anxiety as the seconds pass but I know he’s going to reply. Yes, he’s thought of a good answer. Congratulations, Mr Hiddleston, you’ve passed your viva. Now would you mind signing this vintage copy of Origins of Marvel Supervillains for my daughter?

A brief encounter

The third hero of the week, I have to chase after. Heading home from an afternoon film screening, I suddenly spy my brother getting on the escalator at Waterloo Station, fifty feet ahead of me. We share a rare half-hour together on the train, giggling like children. This star school athlete was once obsessed, like all 1960s boys, with Second World War films. He’s now a professional swimming coach. The swotty, adoring kid sister shows him a social-media clip of Radio 4 newsreaders redubbing the mumbling in the BBC1 Nazi thriller SS-GB: “Take your hands off me, you bloody Gestapo bastard.” He loves it, and waves through the window when I get off at my stop. Made my day.

Samira Ahmed presents “Front Row” on Radio 4 and “Newswatch” on BBC1

“Ruskin’s Eurhythmic Girls” is available to listen to on BBC iPlayer

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda