Autumn: Not Transcendent, Not Inspiring, Not Worth The Read

Smith approaches prose in the same way a wood cutter might approach a log.

While I was getting ready to review Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016) I thought I should read a few online reviews. I was prepared for the usual Ali Smith fan-club slush about Autumn being a journey, one woman’s passage to self discovery, a celebration of nature even.

Most reviewers seem to have seen something in Autumn that has gone completely over my head. I’m tempted to suggest that because Smith’s work hints at greater meaning, these reviewers have mustered one out of thin air.

The story centers around the comatose nursing home resident Daniel Gluck and Elisabeth Demand, a woman who was Gluck’s neighbour years ago. Elisabeth reads to Gluck weekly, posing as his daughter for the beady-eyed nursing staff. Flashbacks are frequent, and show the friendship between Daniel and Elisabeth as the latter goes through her difficult teenage years. If the dialogue is anything to go by, the 32 year old Elisabeth seems not to have evolved from her teenage years: she is confrontational and uncompromising.

The dialogue and third person narrative style of Autumn keep the reader hovering just above surface level. Here is an exchange between Daniel and Elisabeth:

‘What are you reading?’ he’d say.

Elisabeth would hold it up.

Brave New World, she’d say.

Oh, that old thing, he’d say.

It’s new to me, she’d say.’

The New York Times writer Sarah Lyall hailed Autumn as the ‘First Great Brexit Novel.’ In reference to Elisabeth reading works like Brave New World and A Tale of Two Cities (readers open the first page of Autumn to the sentence: ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.’) Lyall writes that, ‘Smith teases out big ideas so slyly and and lightly that you can miss how she goes about it.’

Literary references aside, Smith’s approaches prose the same way a wood cutter might approach a log. No love is lost on the chapter beginnings. Two of my favourites are: ‘Time lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads,’ and, ‘It was one of the days of a week in one of the seasons in one of the years.’

Perhaps it is disingenuous to show you these chapter beginnings on their own. I wouldn’t mind them so much if they weren’t so gimmicky. Smith’s prose screams gimmick. Thoughts like ‘It’s funny to be sitting on such an uncommunal communal chair’ fall flat.

Everything pointed to this book being about nature, the beauty of it and how it relates to human life. Girl Meets Boy (2007) was bearable because of how well Smith used naturalistic imagery. I was expecting something Forster-esque, Larkin-esque from Autumn, or at least something that mirrored the intricate naturalistic imagery in Girl Meets Boy, and instead I got: ‘Time lapse of a million billion flowers.’

I felt deflated reading Autumn. Worse than anything else is Smith’s half-hearted attempts to create meaning out of her half realised imagery. While unconscious, Daniel dreams that he is on a beach, and ventures into some nearby shrubbery for coverage. Smith had the perfect opportunity to create a link between nature and the fact that Daniel is said- later on- to be nearing the end of his life. Instead, the writing is so detached from reality that the reader has to work hard to make sense of it.

Another comparison to Girl Meets Boy: I can appreciate Smith’s 2007 novel because she tackles an admirable cause: Smith reimagines one of Ovid’s metamorphosis (the myth of Iphis) and in doing so examines the complicated gender politics in modern day lesbian relationship in Scotland. In Girl Meets Boy there is triumph for a group of people who are marginalised, belittled, and stigmatised. In Autumn there is a few half-hearted references to Brexit.

Lucy Scholes, writing for The Independent, labels Smith as one of the ‘country’s foremost chroniclers, her finger firmly on the social and political pulse.’ At the first hints of immigration and Brexit, I expected Autumn to progress in much the same way Girl Meets Boy did: I thought Smith was saving herself for the denouement of the story, where she would bring all the strands of the novel together and reveal some underlying political subtext.

It must have flown over my head.



Healthy Carrot Muffin Recipe

Healthy breakfast muffins with a sweet kick.

Recently I’ve been in a baking slump. I want to bake but no one in my house eats what I bake, so I’m left with a batch of brownies or a a triple chocolate cake to myself. Not a good idea.

After hearing about Chocolate Covered Katie’s healthy brownies and healthy breakfast peanut butter donuts, I was seriously interested in baking something sweet but healthy for breakfast. So I was intrigued when I found this recipe from Tasty for Healthy Carrot Cake Muffins.

I followed the recipe almost to the letter, but I did end up substituting the 110 grams of maple syrup for 140 grams of honey. Here’s the full list of ingredients:

  • 3 eggs
  • 140 grams Greek yogurt
  • 140 grams honey
  • 60ml of milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 170 grams wholewheat flour
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 carrot, shredded

This recipe recommended two shredded carrots, but one was enough. I shredded the carrots by using a potato peeler, gathering the strands together, and then finely chopping until the strands were small enough. The recipe also recommended 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon, but I’m not a fan so I left it out.

The recipe is as follows:

  1. Preheat your oven to 175C (or 350F).
  2. Whisk the eggs until they are light and fluffy. I used my stand mixer because I don’t have a whisk. The eggs didn’t seem to be getting fluffy, so I ended up beating them with a fork. The eggs still weren’t fluffy.
  3. Add the 140 grams of Greek yogurt and whisk again until the mixture is light and fluffy. Again, I used my stand mixer and the mixture was not fluffy… maybe I didn’t let it mix for long enough?
  4. Pour in the 140 grams of honey, the 60ml of milk, and the teaspoon of vanilla extract. Beat the mixture until smooth.
  5. Add the 170 grams of wholewheat flour, the 1 3/4 teaspoons of baking powder, and however many shredded carrots you want. Fold the wet and dry ingredients together using a wooden spatula. In hindsight, I should have done this. Instead, I used my stand mixer.
  6.  Portion the muffin mix into twelve cases. The mixture was very liquefied, and I was expecting a thicker batter.
  7. Bake for twenty minutes.
the liquidy batter

They turned out fine! I put a bit too much mix into some cases so these muffins aren’t very uniform, but they are yummy! The casing does not peel away from the muffin very easily which makes me think the cake is too dry, but they are a nice change from the usual moist cake recipes I make. After all, these muffins are designed for breakfast.

The taste of the Greek yogurt and the wholewheat flour really come through, which makes these cakes sweet and bread-like, perfect for a kick in the morning!









Landmark event for men falsely accused: Roxanne Pallett’s false accusations against Ryan Thomas

Roxanne Pallett: ‘I am a woman more sinned against than sinning.’

This year’s celebrity big brother was set to be a flop: between view count heavy weight Stormy Daniels dropping out and the questionable contestant choices for this year’s show, viewers were changing the channel in droves. The opening episode attracted only two million viewers, one million less than the increasingly popular Love Island.

Scandal launched Big Brother back into the public consciousness when Rodrigo Alves repeatedly used a racial slur. Despite Big Brother giving Alves a formal warning, Ofcom still received 1,000 complaints from furious viewers.

Rodrigo Alvez
Rodrigo Alvez

By far the biggest viewer draw of this season is the 35 year old actor Roxanne Pallett, who is perhaps best known for her previous role on Emmerdale. Unsatisfied with the eyebrows she raised by flirting with fellow housemate Ben Jardine, Pallett (who is engaged to Lee Walton) accused Ryan Thomas of maliciously and vindictively punching her, ‘like a boxer would punch a bag.’

The slow motion video can be found here.

Roxanne made light of Ryan’s play fighting in the moment, but when she entered the bedroom she said, ‘Big brother that hurt. Can you call me to the diary room please.’

Click here to watch the fall out.

Sensitive or not (which has been Roxanne’s main defense since she has apologised for falsely accusing Ryan), it is confusing as to why Roxanne thought she could get away with saying Ryan viciously attacked her when every action in the Big Brother house is recorded.

Later, in the diary room, Roxanne describes the attack as ‘unprovoked’ and ‘completely deliberate.’

Roxanne Pallett Diary Room
Roxanne Pallett in the diary room

As the controversy unwound over social media, newspapers, and talk shows alike, Roxanne’s past accusations came to light.

More than twenty of her former co-stars (most of which worked with her on her three year stint in Emmerdale) publicly denounced Roxanne on social media. Her former Emmerdale on screen husband Kelvin Fletcher even went as far as to Tweet ‘She. Is. Evil.’

Kelvin Fletcher and Roxanne Pallett Emmerdale
Roxanne and Kelvin as an on screen couple in Emmerdale

He went on to Tweet:

‘She’s not ‘mentally ill’ or in need of ‘help’. That denounces that people with actual mental health issues are as vindictive and menacing as her. They are not. There is a big difference. That was calculated and manipulative beyond belief. Ryan ❤️.’

And here is where it gets interesting. Roxanne’s history of over exaggeration is far beyond the i’m-too-sensitive plea. Footage has been released of the recent crash she involved in. Before viewing the crash, it might be worth it to watch this interview, in which Roxanne describes her injuries, and how traumatic the event was for her.

Roxanne Pallett Crash
Roxanne Pallett leaving hospital with her boyfriend Lee after the crash

A trained first-aider (Lynsey Pannett) was on hand at the race track when Roxanne crashed, and later told The Sun newspaper: ‘After my initial assessment of her I knew there was nothing wrong.’

Despite this assessment, Roxanne was airlifted to hospital.

More disturbing still, Connor Byrne has spoken out about his experience with Roxanne while they were performing a panto version of Jack and the Beanstalk. He claims that Roxanne also falsely accused him of violence, and even went as far as to say that the incident with Ryan was a ‘carbon copy’ of what he went through.

jack and the bean stalk
Connor Byrne and Roxanne Pallett on the set of Jack and the Beanstalk

Roxanne’s quivering lip and doe eyes have served her well in her public appearances since the incident. During her Jeremy Vine appearance her fellow panelist turned to Roxanne and said, ‘All I can say… I met, we had a chat outside, I’ve seen you now, I do think we’ve got a big problem in this country with this idea that we, we are entitled to abuse people just because we’ve seen people very briefly, very fleetingly, do something. And then we create this storm.’

No mention of how Roxanne’s false accusations could have ruined Ryan’s career.

This is a land mark moment for men who are falsely accused. The sordid details of Roxanne’s past accusations have been laid bare for the public to see, but that does not change the face that she acted so convincingly. She cried on cue. When asked by her fellow house mate to show how Ryan punched her, Roxanne pounded on his ribs. When Ryan defended himself she stood, lip trembling, saying, ‘He’s lying.’

Thank god Big Brother was watching.

big brother logo

The price of of progress: homosexuality, homophobia, and melancholy in The Price of Salt (1952)

It is only when the stakes are laid bare that the couple’s affections become clearer.

The Price of Salt

Before Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985), Brokeback Mountain (1997), and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003), there was The Price Of Salt (1952).

Patricia Highsmith’s novel follows budding set designer Therese as she works in the doll department at Frankenberg’s during the Christmas rush. Highsmith’s New York is unforgiving, and very unlike the stereotypical literary New York. Frankenberg’s is an embodiment of everything Therese hates: the anxious parents vying over a doll with real hair (or, worse, ‘do you have the dolls that wet?’), the heaving, spluttering crowds, and her co-workers. Especially her co-workers.

Therese sees her future reflected in their lined foreheads, their creaky joints, their half-dazed look and, consequently, she is frightened and disgusted by them. Poor Mrs. Robichek.

Therese reminds me of Houlden Caulfield. I ache with melancholy for her: the orphaned girl living in New York, the tag-along boyfriend she feels colder and colder towards, the department store job she resents.

Who wouldn’t, in Therese’s situation, fall for a beguiling stranger? Carol arrives at Frankenberg’s to buy a doll for her daughter Rindy, and her eyes meet Therese’s across the room. Using Carol’s delivery address to her advantage, Therese sends her a Christmas postcard.

‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s.’

carol frankenbergs

The story line creeps up on you. Before reading The Price of Salt, I knew nothing about the plot. As Therese’s visits to Carol’s country home become more and more frequent, I wondered why one or the other had not made a move, or if I was misreading the situation completely. A quick Google search told me why: Highsmith’s novel is set in the 1950’s.

It is only when the stakes are laid bare that the couple’s affections become clearer.

Price of salt feature image

Deep Water (1957) is the first Highsmith novel I have read. Mel and Vic’s troubled relationship had such an impact on me that I expected a burst of violence, a psychopath, or at least a sociopath in The Price Of Salt. A crack in the facade seems imminent when, on their road trip across America, Carol’s words have an edge to them. The prospect of Therese’s romanticism crashing to the ground made me turn the pages quicker.

Highsmith railed against this kind of literary stereotyping: she even went as far as to publish The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The prospect having her own name across the cover made her wonder, ‘would I then be labelled a lesbian-book writer?’

Cracks do appear, in the form of a hole chiselled into the lovebird’s hotel room wall. Similar to Deep Water, Highsmith throws a spanner into the works in the form of a detective, hired by Carol’s ex-husband in an effort to prove her an unfit mother.

carol detective

‘The characters started off so flat that a steamrolled pancake might have more depth, and the book moved at the pace of a snail.’     –Bean Delphiki, Goodreads

Bean Delphiki’s review made me laugh because it is true in a sense. The characters do seem to be 2D, pale imitations of real people. They are whisps of personalities, stuck together though the idealised view of the narrator. Carol is seen through Therese’s love struck gaze, so she is faultless, beautiful, otherworldly.

Therese’s boyfriend Richard licks at the crumbs of her affection, trailing behind her burgeoning relationship with Carol. He is therefore boring and pathetic, and the reader is confused about why he is so devoted to the increasingly cold Therese.

These characters appear to be as flat as a pancake because Therese sees them as an embodiment of their most egregious quality or flaw until the end of the novel, where 1950’s American society’s homophobia trumps her idealism. Carol returns to New York and does, in fact, have her reputation sullied by her time with Therese. Richard sends Therese a letter saying, ‘ […] now the upper-most emotion I feel toward you is one that was present from the first– disgust.’ Her money dwindles.

Therese’s story is one of the quintessential coming of age trope: realising everything is not the way it seems. Relationships crumble, road trips are cut short, life happens.

It is only towards the end of the novel that Therese discovers the true price of salt.

Carol Cate Blanchett

My overwhelming emotion while reading The Price of Salt was melancholy. On melancholy, Brady and Haappala argue that, ‘The quality of the feeling resembles and overlaps with sadness, but is more refined, involving some degree of pleasure, although not as much as bittersweet pleasure.’ I think this best sums up how I feel: there is pleasure in knowing Therese and Carol have found their soul mate in each other, and there is an overlap into sadness when the reader realises they will have to hide their affections.

Highsmith handles this melancholy well. She rejects the shame that society imposed on homosexual relationships through her depiction of Carol and Therese.

“What still strikes me now,” Nagy says of the novel, “is how radical it was in terms of its overall conception-two central figures not giving a rat’s ass about sexual identity. No one frets about being gay; others fret on their behalf.”  Phyllis Nagy

Even when she loses the battle to see her daughter, Carol does not shame herself or Therese, instead carving out a nook for them to live together in New York.

In the afterword to her novel, which she would only acknowledge as hers in 1990, Highsmith wrote that, ‘The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters […] Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality […].’

The Price of Salt must have been received as a beacon of hope to those in the gay community, to those who wrote to Highsmith saying, ‘We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.’

One modern reviewer wrote: ‘I am doomed to die an ugly death or at least to be separated from my partner, probably violently.’ She goes on to write, ‘We are all doomed, it seems, because this is the only story American media tells about queer women.’

The Price of Salt tells the true story of homosexual relationships, namely, that they are fraught with the same difficulties as heterosexual ones: jealousy abounds, love is just as intense, and there is compromise, always compromise, and a price to pay for those that cut across class, country, and family ties.



‘Eye Of The Storm’ Season Brings Out The Slimiest In Society: Big Brother 2018

Far from the light-hearted Candid Camera, today’s reality TV programmes shows are littered with the sewer scum of society.

Since the advent of British reality TV with Candid Camera in 1948, the genre has exploded on to the small screen with a pace that increased with programmes like Big Brother and The Apprentice. Far from the light-hearted caught-on-camera moments that viewers enjoyed with Allen Funt’s hidden camera show, audiences now tune in to see cat-fights, bickering, and surprise evictions.

As the definition of reality TV show is stretched beyond recognition by producers and programme creators alike, we have to wonder whether the mantle of reality show fits the biggest names in the business, and whether they are accountable for who they drop into their pressure cooker environments.

  • Reality TV definition:

uncountable noun

Reality TV is a type of television programming which aims to show how ordinary people behave in everyday life, or in situations, often created by the programme makers, which are intended to represent everyday life.

…the Americans’ current infatuation with reality TV.

Reality television programmes like Love Island have come under fire for their choice of contestants with a specific body type: the slice of society on the programme is a thin one. Love Island is ranked as the most watched programme for 16-34 year olds, and has 1.6 million 16-34 viewers, which is 52% of the audience.

Love Island Contestants

Reality TV programme Big Brother has always included housemates who are less than stable, even once having Nikki Graham and Pete Bennett on the programme. Some think they should have been barred from entering on the grounds of emotional vulnerability. The Big Brother producers would probably argue they make for better entertainment, and bigger view counts.

Big Brother 2018 has hit a new low in allowing Daniel Osborne on the show. Daniel has a history of threatening physical violence towards his ex-girlfriend, but at least he starred on The Only Way Is Essex from 2013-2015. A claim to fame, as small as it may be, seems to be the only requirement for prospective Big Brother contestants, regardless of their history.

Daniel was allegedly motivated to threatened Megan because he feared being unable to see their son, Teddy, if Megan began a relationship with someone else.

  • ‘As long as you’ve got my son, you’re part of my property.’
  • ‘You’re making Teddy cry because you’re a fucking slut.’
  • ‘Shut your fucking mouth you fucking slut.’ To which Megan replied, ‘Don’t start hitting me or I’ll start going mad.’
  • ‘If you go near another man I promise you I will stab you in the fucking throat. I swear on this boys’ life I will end your fucking life if you shag another man.’ Megan replied, ‘You can’t threaten me, Dan, so just stop.’ Dan then said, ‘It’s not a threat, it’s a promise.’
Megan released the tapes in an effort to show friends and family members the extent of Daniel’s abusive behaviour. She also describes the tapes as ‘not a one-off’ and said, ‘they were typical of Daniel’s behaviour towards me.’

In the light of these tapes, which were released as recently as 2015, why have the producers of Celebrity Big Brother allowed Daniel Osborne on the show?
dan osborne
Dan Osborne

Their decision was obviously motivated by the desire for higher ratings: this season, after all, is called ‘eye of the storm.’ Daniel’s involvement in the show becomes less shocking when we see the whole line-up: this year’s programme is littered with the likes of Jermaine Pennant, a footballer who has served time in prison for drunk and disorderly driving, and Hardeep Singh Kohli, a presenter who was agreed to take six months of leave from the One Show in 2009 for behaving inappropriately towards a female colleague.

Hardeep Singh
Hardeep Singh Kohli

In a recent episode Hardeep’s co-stars questioned him about his disappearance from main stream television. He labelled his 2009 dismissal as ‘boring and nothing.’ He went onto imply that he was targeted for his race, saying, ‘if you’re a man of colour in this business, you get one chance.’

Does the series title ‘eye of the storm’ justify allowing these men having air time? Time that could be better spent advocating against domestic violence, drink driving, and sexual misconduct? Does it matter that both Dan and Hardeep apologised for their actions?
Is Big Brother turning into Doctor Who’s Bad Wolf version of the show? A relentless cash cow that is solely focused on a contestants pulling power?
I could fall for the argument that the contestants are chosen because of their dis-likability, and that Big Brother’s view count (which often reaches over a million) is a vindication of how slimy and unlikable these people are, rather than an avocation of how they can be redeemed. If only these people did not walk out of Big Brother and into another reality TV contract, and another, and another, glossing over their abusive behaviour as a result of being in a ‘bad place,’ as Daniel Osborne did after threatening to stab his ex-girlfriend.

A Psychological Thriller To Sink Your Teeth Into: Panic Room (2002)

Panic Room (2002) is a psychological thriller you can really sink your teeth into.

Jodie Foster is my go-to for psychological horror. Since finding fame as Iris in Taxi Driver (1971), Jodie Foster has been pegged as the gritty female lead for a number of psychological movies like The Accused (1988), The Silence of The Lambs (1991) and Flight Plan (2005).

Directed by David Fincher, Panic Room (2002) had the benefit of Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), and Fight Club (1999). Hot on the tail of Fight Club, Fincher uses a lot of the same camera angles- the rapid zooming in and across the brownstone house to give an idea of its enormity- which show the playground these robbers have to run around in. Fede Alvarez might have been influenced by Fincher in his creation of Don’t Breathe (2016), another psychological thriller which relies on unusual shots to move the audience around the house.

Fincher was quick to distance Panic Room from his other, more critically acclaimed movies by hailing it ‘popcorn movie-making […] good B-movie stuff.’

Newly divorced Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) view a house on Manhattan’s upper West side to start their life afresh, away from Meg’s cheating ex. The estate agent sweeps into the master bedroom on the uppermost floor of the house and Meg’s forehead wrinkles.

‘That’s strange. Is this room smaller than it should be?’ she says.

The panic room nestled behind a secret door in the master bedroom doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point, really.

With the purchase made, the mother and daughter sit down over a glass of wine and cola respectively. Watching her mother pick at a sad salad, Sarah says, ‘Fuck him. Fuck her too.’

They toast to that.

The pair are asleep by the early hours of the morning, Sarah comforted by her night light, and her mother by the glass of wine which follows her from shot to shot. As night falls Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), and Junior (Jared Leto) enter the house just loud enough, of course, to wake Meg.

panic room leto and whitaker
Junior (Jared Leto) and Burnham (Forest Whitaker)

When Burnham has no luck with the front door key (rookie mistake) he enters the house through a hatch in the roof. The audience no doubt wonders why a house with a security system worth what must be thousands of dollars has such a weak point.

Whitaker fans will be happy to know that Burnham is the thief with a heart, the thug with a conscience. His eyes widens as he sees the night light, and when he lets the other two thugs in downstairs he says the job’s off. That’s it- he’s done. He wasn’t counting on a woman and child being there.

But of course he isn’t. Despite his reservations about Raoul- who increases the stakes by carrying a gun- Burnham grudgingly agrees to continue with the job, just as long as he gets his hands on the millions supposedly hid in the panic room.

Meg spots the thieves on her security cameras.

Panic Room sets everything you need to know up in the first fifteen minutes. A lot like Don’t Breathe in this respect, it dedicates most of the film to the psychological nightmare Meg and Sarah have to overcome, with little preamble about the specifics of their situation. Panic Room has been criticised as having a bare-bones sort of script, but what would be added to the film by seeing Meg’s husband cheat? What can be gained form seeing the messy divorce, custody battle and all? Would the movie have the same effect if, half way through, the plot was still plodding through Meg crying in the bath?

Panic Room is a psychological thriller you can really sink your teeth into. And I love the gender imbalance. Burnham is worried about continuing with the job because his conscience rails against hurting a woman and a child. He does not consider that he will be chased, fought against, defeated. He assumed that the woman and child will defer to his plan, screaming hysterically, arms in the air.

Panic Room is a B-movie which defies all over B-movies: the carefully crafted cat and mouse game makes for an intense watch. It’s more nail biting than popcorn biting.

panic room 2




Pioneers in the Pit: A Review of Queens Of The Coal Age

Queens Of The Coal age is Maxine Peake’s exploration of the real life female force behind the anti-pit closure fight in Britain.

1993. 12 pits are closed following years of pit closures, years of unfed mouths, years of women seething by the kitchen sink, years of the fight against Thatcher. Four women band together and occupy the Parkside colliery as a call to arms. One clear message: take a stand.

I went into Queens Of The Coal Age knowing that Maxine Peake wrote the play, and vaguely knowing it had something to do with coal pits. The programme told me the rest: Peake spoke to the women against pit closures in a 2016 interview she conducted for her 45 minute radio play: Queens of The Coal Age.

After failed attempts from Dot (Jane Hazelgrove), Elaine (Eve Robertson), Lesley (Danielle Henry), and Anne (Kate Anthony) to protest the pit closures (which began in 1984) the woman banded together and occupied the Parkside colliery.

queens of the coal age
Left to Right: Lesley, Elaine, Dot, Anne

The women, disguised as teachers, are taken on a tour of the pit by the manager Des (played by John Elkington).

Elaine: ‘We actually did an official tour. To be honest, once we got down, we had no idea what to do next. And oh we were tired. I’d not slept all the night before.”

Des instructs the woman to get into the lift. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered how the director (Bryony Shanahan) would pull it off. Wracked with nerves, and Dot with claustrophobia, the women step onto the lift platform.

Gravitas should be given to Elliot Griggs (lighting designer), Pete Malkin (sound designer), and Jennifer Jackson (movement director) who managed to transport the women from centre stage at The Royal exchange to the bottom of a coal pit within seconds. If I had just stepped into the theatre and watched the scene unfold, I would have known what was happening.

Finally down in the pit, the women rejoice.

Annie: ‘I put my pit gear on and then we got to the cage, and as soon as it set off down I got hold of your hand and I said, “Elaine, we’ve cracked it.”‘

As it becomes clear the women will not be moved, Des disappears evaporating around the women’s laughter.

Arthur Skargills wife
Anne played by Kate Anthony

Justifiably, Anne is the leader. Wife to Arthur Scargill (President of the National Union of Mineworkers 1982-2002) she has the most to lose by rebelling publicly. For their first act of rebellion, the women tidy up the office they have taken as their home. After the paper flower is put into the vase there is not much else to do, except pick at each other.

What follows is four days of sleeping on the ground, fighting with the pit boss Ramsey (also played by John Elkington), and general exhaustion. Dot, Elaine, Anne, and Lesley go hours without food and water. The onlooker might wonder, why did they do it? Hidden in the depths of the mine, they do not know whether their rebellion has peaked public interest.

Peake’s interview gives us some answers.

The women’s motivation was as feminist as it was political.

Betty: ‘My ex had always told me that I was thick, and I was stupid, and it were no use explaining things to me because I wouldn’t understand. All of a sudden because of the strike- and we’d gone speaking all over – I suddenly realised I know as much as some of these people at university; in fact, I know a bit more I’m sure.’

Dot: ‘ […] if there’s something wrong, you try to fix it. It changed a lot of women – there were writers come out of it, poems, songs, there were all sorts come out of that strike – so we achieved something, even if we didn’t stop them closing the pits. Something was evolving, women were changing.’

Peake’s humour sparks like fire crackers in the darkness, illuminating the women and their stories. Elaine is often the butt of the joke, the other women finding fun in her knicker contraband and her lust for the coal darkened pit men…

Butt of the joke
Elaine played by Eve Robertson

She is the only childless rebel in the pit. She is apart from the others, and knows it. Peake frames the coal pit closure strikes as an assertion of women’s power, a renouncement of the ties that bind the ladies to their homes, and an assertion of it. Family and duty to the cause is linked so closely that they have to be separated, one has to come first. Dot found her family on the rally lines, and so she left her kids at home to rebel against the system. She is the first to want to leave. A bout of guilt overwhelms her, and she admits that she sometimes wishes she never had kids. The divide is too much.

Anne: ‘Dot said to me, “I’m tired, Anne, I’ve had enough.” And she says, “I’ll go out on my own,” and I says, “No you’re not. We’ve come down as four, we’re all going out as four.”‘

Peake’s writing for Queens of The Coal Age reminds me of a passage from The Ruins in which the main character lowers a lantern down a pit and watches as it illuminates the walls it passes, and then gets smaller and smaller until it hits the bottom and everything around it is flooded with light.