Sadie Hasler visits the Museum of London, zones out at some dreary old dry things, but comes alive when a section on The Suffragettes reaffirms that there’s still a bit of fighting to be done – and that we’re making a new history all the time.
I went to the Museum of London the other week. I’d never been.
I shall tell you no lies, reader, though I love a bit of culture as much as the next girl, I had glazed over well before I reached the bit where they presented fifty variations of 5th century belt buckles. I had. My heart was hard, my eyeballs dry. I perked up a bit when a Q&A at a proddy screen encrusted in the dubious smears of schoolchildren told me I would have made an excellent gun-makers’ apprentice, but they’d lost me again by Samuel Pepys’ foreskin.
I dreamed of the gift shop. I could tell it would have the sort of expensive organic soaps that smelled like Dickensian gutters or Doctor Johnson’s boots, and EXCESSIVELY LARGE PENCILS THAT NO ONE EVER USES FOR ANYTHING. I yearned for the cafe. I wondered if they did Bakewell tart, or if the food was just London-themed. Lord Nelson’s buns. Queen Liz the First’s baps. Dalston Spotted Dickhead.
I felt like a bit of a moron when my fickle attention span was coaxed back by much more modern exhibits. I wondered what was wrong with me; why wasn’t I welling up at broken pottery chastity belts and suspected dried cheese in a piece of wall from 16th century Clerkenwell? Was I mentally deficient? Did I have a massive wedge of intellectual scope missing? The bit that gives a crap about life before a time they wrote a good Blackadder about?
I shuffled around; looked at some cool pictures of Twiggy in a mini skirt. 60s London. That’s more like it. Go-go boots and big fringes. The Austin Powers music played in my head and I resisted the urge to forcibly gyrate a nearby guard into a groovy dance.
Then, as I drifted round the strange curves of the sixties building, as inexplicable as an inner ear, I found a dark little annex. I trailed my way back to the start to see what that particular exhibition was. Ah. The Suffragettes.
“A little screen played the footage of Emily Davison going under the King’s horse on loop. Her glorious ‘mistake’; did she intend death, or just distraction? We’ll never know.”
I’ll confess, girls, I felt nothing. I skirted over the introductory section like I’d seen it all before. Some black and white photos. Some text. The usual names. And then some gloves. A doily. Pin badges and membership paraphernalia. Worn fabrics in the tribal purple and green. I am a sucker for ephemera. It got me. These little personal touches that brought the history to life. A little screen played the footage of Emily Davison going under the King’s horse on loop. Her glorious ‘mistake’; did she intend death, or just distraction? We’ll never know.
I moved along, nose close to the glass as though my peering, my proximity, could bring it all ‘extra alive’, like I could see something rustle in the display. I looked at the little fabric things they’d made. The sashes and badges. The tiny pocket booklets. The leaflets. The painted crockery. I moved along, almost at the end. I felt a catch in my throat.
There was a Women’s Social and Political Union banner. A patchwork quilt of embroidered names – the names of eighty women hunger strikers in Holloway Prison, who had ‘faced death without flinching’, first carried aloft as they were freed in 1910. Some signatures were small and modest. Some were large and in capitals. Some feminine and swirly; joined up to mimic their own handwriting. Some block-type and militant. They were all different, every woman seemed to still be speaking from her little patch, though each were now long dead. Something of their spirits was still there in the fabric.
I’ve seen a few patchwork quilts that have moved me. One made for me by my friends. (Bawled, obviously.) One my Dad gave me. Others in museums. Tracy Emin’s quilts at the Tate touched me far more than I ever thought they would. There is something in the slowness it takes to say what you want to say that is poignant. Quilts are not fast fleeting things; you have to mean them. You have to make them. And then they last. They are made to last.
It was only a few days later that it made me think, as I sat to write, of what we’re all doing here, the motley crew at Standard Issue. These largely-unlinked women gathering together like different coloured threads to create something new. We have the internet. The suffragettes didn’t. They had doilies and brooches and teacups and banners to spread their message when the press would not. We, now, can create press if we like. This is a kind of wall-hanging. These are our voices, our stitched words. All different, but together.
That’s what we’re doing here, in this patchwork of voices. A bunch of gals trying to do something different; providing an alternative to the ‘accepted female voice’. Saying “those things you think of us are not true. (You dicks.)”.
We’re not quite in need of hunger strikes and King’s horses anymore, but this is a sort of something, isn’t it? A magazine set up to counter the women’s publications that gall us every time we pass them. The bare tits and suppressive stereotyping, the sniping gossip, the despicable pressures of image and materialism. The worrying effect these things still have on girls, women, and men – and their sense of what they can and should be.
There are some things still to be done. Maybe there always will be.
Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t moved by the Museum of London until towards the end of its meandering chronology. Perhaps I think history is at its coolest when it’s still being made.1976 Views
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.