Speculum is here

Fresh from the box of author copies

Although it doesn’t officially come out until October 31st, early copies of Speculum have began to appear through people’s letterboxes. It’s incredibly lovely to get sent pics of the book out in the wild. I don’t imagine it’s a feeling that will ever fade.

There’s still time to pre-order your copy, or indeed simply order it once it’s out. Obviously there’s the Amazon route (and please do leave a review there too!) as well as other booksellers. But you can also support indie presses and by getting your copy straight from the Broken Sleep Books here.

‘Speculum’ is now available to pre-order!

Cover of ‘Speculum’

It’s getting real now. Speculum is now available to pre-order from the Broken Sleep Books shop (it is also available on Am***n, but please buy independent and at the source if you can – thank you!). The book comes out on October 31st, so order now and give future you the gift of poetry.

Here’s the blurb:

In Speculum, Hannah Copley considers the difficult history of the female body. Mirroring the title object used for centuries by gynaecologists, the poems uncover the hidden lives behind scientific progress. From the enslaved women exploited in the name of invention to the anonymous residents of mother and baby homes, Copley navigates personal, historical and forgotten legacies with equal exactitude and tenderness. Speculum is not only important as a feminist text, but its poetry is immaculate; a virtuosic first collection

And here’s a sneak peek in the form of ‘Juice’, which also won the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2019, and ‘An archive’, which introduces some of the historical issues and ideas that drive the collection.

I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Mother and baby homes – File [1] and File [2]

Video reading of two sonnets

These two poems, named ‘File [1]’ and ‘File [2]’ are taken from a sequence of sonnets that run across ‘Speculum’. They are both found and imagined pieces that recreate the admittance notes for girls and women entering mother and baby homes at various points in the Twentieth Century.

Within the poems the names of the patients – or ‘guests’ – are redacted to emphasise the erasure of their agency, identity, and history by these institutions.

To read other poems and prose on the topic of mother and baby homes, see Kimberley Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME and Lemn Sissay’s ‘My Name is Why’.

Online launch of Speculum – Saturday 30th October @19.30

event poster

I’m looking forward to officially launching my poetry collection into the wide world alongside an amazing line-up of poets. I’ll be reading from Speculum alongside Gregory Leadbetter & Phil Thomson, Luke Kennard, Morag Smith, and Scott Manley Hadley. All amazing writers and all with poetry out with Broken Sleep Books.

It’s going to be a great night of poetry, and I personally can’t wait to read poems from a book rather than a stack of paper. Sign up for your ticket here (pay what you want) or else if you need a free ticket contact Aaron at Broken Sleep.

There’s still time to get your copy of Speculum in time to read along at the launch. Get your copy via the Broken Sleep Books shop here

Charlotte Brontë’s morning sickness

Charlotte Brontë, Evert A. Duyckinck, 1873.

In her poem ‘Matter’, Sinéad Morrissey imagines her ‘love making as a kind of door / to wherever you were, waiting in matter, / spooled into a form I have not yet been shown’. Later, in ‘Returning from Arizona’ she describes the moment when her body spills its secrets and what was waiting now begins to arrive:

Getting too much of what you’ve acutely missed
	too suddenly
	— the median notion botched — 
can render you wary of wishing’s blunt chicanery:

like longing for weeks to be sick
	to prove the baby’s taken,
	then failing to find a tonic
for another being’s foothold in your person. 

Like Morrissey, most women now no longer discover they are pregnant from morning sickness. They are waiting for it, half-longing for, half-dreading its confirmation. There are other signs that come before — a missed period, sore breasts, exhaustion — but it is sickness that is so often the unofficial ‘event’ of discerning what it means to be pregnant. 

Of the 70% estimate of those who experience morning sickness during pregnancy, there is a good deal of variety as to the exact symptoms and impact of this symbolic and physical ‘foothold in your person’. According to a recent BMJ article, of those who develop morning sickness, 40% suffer mildly, 46% suffer moderately, and 14% suffer severely, although the study does not explicitly describe the particularities and overlaps of these states or define what they take to mean by suffering. What these percentages do show is that there is enough variation in that 70% estimate to divide a room – to have one person swear by ginger while another can’t bear to think of it; to have one woman deigned as ‘weak’ while another ‘powers on’. The umbrella term reminds me of a literary movement. Think of Modernisms, not Modernism, I tell my students. Think of morning sicknesses, not morning sickness.

In the same article, the authors categorise another, fourth percentage, granted its own separate category outside of the 70% umbrella.  Only 1.5% of pregnant women suffer from Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG). This is not a symptom, but rather a complication – a syndrome that often lasts for the entirety of the pregnancy. Yet, like so many ‘women’s’ conditions, diagnosis and treatment vary dramatically between healthcare providers. Often, it is diagnosed retrospectively. A sufferer needs to have lost over five percent of their body weight before they are deemed to have HG rather than severe morning sickness. To get to this point, the woman in question – in her first trimester, vulnerable, often still feeling bound by the vow of secrecy they feel they must keep until the twelfth week – will have already undergone a considerable amount of pain, suffering and psychological turmoil, not to mention financial, personal and emotional strain. They may well have already had to stop working, had to stop leaving the house. If they already have children or caring responsibilities, they will be unable to carry these out. They may have stopped sleeping. They may no longer wish or believe it possible to carry on with the pregnancy.

The experience of HG varies wildly between the 1.5%. One woman may be consumed by nausea and be unable to eat or leave her bed, another may be so frequently and violently sick that she tears open her throat. Through now rarely fatal in developed countries, HG is still listed as a significant ‘cause’ of abortion. Before anti-emetic medication, the risk to the sufferer’s life was great.

‘A wren would have starved’

Newly married to the curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, and expecting her first child at the age of 38, Charlotte Brontë was one such victim. In the final two months of her life she was ‘attacked by new sensations of perpetual nausea and ever recurring faintness’, her ‘dreadful sickness’ increasing until ‘the very sight of food occasioned nausea’. These notes on Charlotte’s condition, provided by her friend and supporter Elizabeth Gaskell, offer an account of a sickness unchecked by drugs, ketone measurements and intravenous drips; ‘a wren would have starved on what she ate during those last six weeks’ laments a witness, perhaps Martha, her maid, the woman tasked with emptying the sick bowl and replacing the untouched water at the bedside. And yet until her death Charlotte remained hopeful, caught in that small space between dread and longing: “I dare say I shall be glad sometime,” she would say; “but I am so ill – so weary” Then she took to her bed, too weak to sit up.’

Charlotte’s death, like her sister Anne’s and all of her siblings before her, was officially recorded as phthisis, or tuberculosis. Yet it is far more likely that she died from malnourishment and dehydration brought on from morning sickness, or even from re-feeding syndrome – a complication first coined at the end of the Second World War among Japanese prisoners of war. After weeks of nothing, food can become a poison as well as a cure.

In her account of Brontë’s final days, Gaskell notes how after a period of weeks where she could keep nothing down, ‘there was a change’:

a low wandering delirium came on; and in it she begged constantly for food and even for stimulants. She swallowed eagerly now; but it was too late.

Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte would have been around four months pregnant and entering the second trimester at this point; a time when sickness and nausea often (but not always) subsides just enough to allow many pregnant women to feel more like their old selves (or at least, their old selves with a new self growing inside them). Estrogen and Progesterone levels continue to increase, but the amount of human Chorionic Gonadotropinthis – or hCG – has now begun to subside after its peak at eleven weeks.

Yet she did not recover and go on to have a healthy pregnancy. At four months pregnant, her hCG levels began to decrease. Yet, as Gaskell notes, without anti-emetics and the proper treatment, it was ‘too late’. Whether from malnourishment or sudden re-feeding, Charlotte Brontë did not follow Jane Eyre, her most famous protagonist, into motherhood. Instead, her ‘abiding-place’ was, like her siblings, an early grave in St Mary’s Church, Haworth.

‘Haworth, 1855’

I had no idea about Brontë’s HG and the circumstances of her death until I became pregnant and sick with the same complication. Rather than feeling scared or further depressed by this discovery, she became a sort of talisman – a way of understanding and articulating my own descent into a world of yellow and toilet bowls and pills and exhaustion. It was through writing her experience that I was able to find the words to articulate something of that surreal and traumatic time. ‘Haworth, 1855’ was the result:

'Haworth, 1855'

‘Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming. “I dare say I shall be glad sometime,” she would say; “but I am so ill – so weary” Then she took to her bed, too weak to sit up … Long days and longer nights went by; still the same relentless nausea and faintness.’   Elizabeth Gaskell 

It was there already, yes, 
in those bone cold classrooms,
in the chants of homo, hominis, homini 
drifting out between the iron bars. 

But this is different. This is slow, 
this is fragile. This is all sighs and rustlings, 
retching and sobs. Loneliness, 
I now know, is guttural. 

I dare say I’ll be glad 
when it’s over, but as it is I feel like 
I’ve been cleaved. Stomach, lungs, throat 
frayed like a caught seam, 

mind spooling on the floor. 
Under night’s cloak, beds slip 
their posts, sheets tie themselves in knots, 
pillows calcify and crumble to a fine dust. 

I wake each morning hot, threadbare, 
my linen twisted, this makeshift body 
kept in place by the smallest dart of nerve,
this makeshift heart still in my ear. 

I dare say though, that I’ll be lighter
in a month, but in my throat 
there’s a bitterness that will not shift. 
My teeth are bird’s eggs crunching 

under coach wheels, my tongue 
is torn cocoons on garden lawns, my lips 
the dull skin of a cobra coiled behind 
museum glass. But I shall be glad 

sometime, I’ll forget the smell 
of an egg yolk, the slimy warmth of butter 
as it runs across my tongue. I’ll want 
other things than unripe plums 

and blackberries green and hard as stone, 
In two months I’ll see the white heather, 
the dappled breasts of merlin, sheldapple. 
My eyes will catch the winchat flushed 

and bolting from its thicket bed. 
In a year, I’ll feel the backwards pull 
of a skirt hem through tangled gorse, 
the sharp embrace of a bramble hedge. 

As I lie here soft and raw as dough, 
I know tomorrow will prove infinitely
brighter. Even now, I can almost feel 
your uncut letter in my hand.
 

‘Haworth, 1855’ won the 2018 YorkMix/York Literature Festival Poetry Competition. It appears in my forthcoming collection, ‘Speculum’, published by Broken Sleep Books in October 2021. Writing it started me on a much longer, still unfinished project on morning sickness and the pregnant and sick body. This prose in part comes from that.

For more information, guidance and support for HG, head to pregnancy sickness support.

Poetry Collection. Coming October 2021

I’m very excited to finally be able to shout about the fact that my first full collection of poems, Speculum, is coming out in October 2021 with Broken Sleep Books. Researching and writing these poems has been a labour of love – one which has been ongoing for many years now. I’m so happy that they have found a home at such an exciting and ethical press, and with such a brilliant editor, Aaron Kent.

cover design by Aaron Kent

Here’s the first glimpse of the cover. The image comes from a 1794 anatomical drawing called ‘The Action of Quickening’. It is a colour engraving (by J. Pass) of an illustration by the artist Daniel Dodd. It is originally labelled as ‘Dissection of the torso of a pregnant woman, showing the internal organs and the foetus’. Looking at the placement and size of the organs, it’s hard to imagine such a dissection actually took place.

Watch this space for pre-orders and publication!

Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. Events 8 and 9: High Jump and Long Jump

It’s the final day of the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge! Thank you for taking the time to join in with this week of stories, hidden histories and creative and sporting inspiration. I hope you’ve come away with some new drafts and ideas. I’ve certainly learned a great deal in the process of putting together these posts. When we first came up with the idea of a poetry ‘Olympiad’ I knew comparatively little about the 1921 event, or about the athletes who took part. It’s been a pleasure to discover more about their achievements and legacy.

Our final events are the jumps – high jump and long jump.

High jumpFrédérique Kussel
 France
1.40Hilda Hatt
 United Kingdom
shared GoldMadeleine Bracquemond
 France
1.35
Long jumpMary Lines
 United Kingdom
4.70Hilda Hatt
 United Kingdom
4.60Lucie Bréard
 France
4.52

These were strong events for the GB team. Hilda Hatt won joint gold with Frédérique Kussel in the high jump, and in the long jump Mary Lines took gold, with Hilda Hatt taking the silver.

Rare footage and photos from these events shows the very different technique used by these athletes from today’s long and high jumpers.

There was no mat for the high jump, so competitors had to land on their feet or else risk serious injury. Variations of the scissor kick were really the only option!

Hilda Hatt in the middle of a high jump
Hilda Hatt in motion

For the long jump, competitors did, thankfully, have a sandpit to land in!

Mary Lines in mid-flight
Hilda Hatt

Mary Lines excelled in this event – she won gold in the long jump in almost every international and national championship up until her retirement from competitive sport in 1924.

Lines was twenty-seven years old in the 1921 Olympiad, the oldest competitor on the GB team. She had never run a race before the games. In the next three years she would set world records and win championships in events ranging from 50 metres to 880 yards, as well as in the long jump and the hurdles. She worked as a waitress in London and attended evening gymnasium classes at the Polytechnic (a 1924 article in the Dundee Evening Telegraph later has her as working for a ‘well-know mineral water firm’ [18th Jan, 1924]). Her success is an example of the fact that, unlike many other sporting activities open to women at that time, athletics at the Poly provided opportunities to keen sportswomen from a variety of backgrounds.

Unlike Florence Birchenough, who continued to compete at an international level after her marriage and the birth of her son, Mary Lines’s engagement to a man named ‘Mr Smith’ signalled the end of her international athletics career. Lines, the ‘famous Streatham lady’ slowly starts to disappear from the lists of competitors, her records gradually matched and beaten by emerging athletes.

After the death of her husband in 1946, Mary Smith (Lines) continued to live in London until 1971, when she moved to Worthing to live with her two unmarried sisters. She was killed in a traffic accident in 1978 at the age of 85 – she was running to post her Christmas mail, and was hit by an oncoming van.

There is so much left to learn about Mary Lines. The new plinth in the foyer of the University of Westminster’s Regent Street building is only the beginning in what will be a much longer process of discovery and re-writing her name back into the history of the University and of UK sport.

Legacies and Impact

On April 2nd, 1921, the GB team arrived back at Victoria Station, London after three days travelling. Hot, tired, and dishevelled (apparently they didn’t think much of the French train systems) the athletes weren’t greeted by fanfare. They went back to their homes and back to their regular jobs as teachers, dressmakers, typists and waitresses at Lyon’s Corner House. They resumed their studies and competed alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.

But they did change the conversation around women’s sport, provoking heated debate in sporting circles and beyond about women’s physical capabilities, modern femininity and of women’s status as sportspeople and competitors on the world’s stage.

The Women’s Amateur Athletics Association (WAAA) was formed in early 1922 at the Regent Street Polytechnic, now Westminster, with many of the early committee members coming from the 1921 team. The WAA would change the nature of women’s track and field, regulating, organising and supporting women’s athletics for the next sixty years. The members of the WAA would also champion the cause of women’s sport in the face of sexism and dismay at the apparent loss of propriety brought about by these new physical excesses.

This article from the April 6th 1921 edition of the Evening Telegraph is a little hard to make out, but it expresses the concerns shared by many in athletics and wider society about the ‘physical and nervous strain’ placed on the fragile female constitution by ‘excessive’ levels of exertion. It is interesting to note how athletics is compared with women’s football. The many links between these two emerging sports is fascinating, particularly given the parallel degrees of discrimination both sets of sportspeople faced.

The nature and level of participation in women’s football and women’s athletics changed dramatically during the First World War, and in many ways demonstrated the shifting role of women in British society and the workplace during that time. After 1918, there were some who sought to reverse these changes, including those in the sporting establishment. While the IOC chose to ban women from taking part in Olympic track and field events – leading to the 1921 Olympiad – in December 1921 the FA banned women’s football on the grounds of ‘unsuitability’. This ban would not be lifted until 1971.

The Bystander, 13th April 1921.

Yet while some publications were wary of the rise of these ‘unnatural’ women, there were also clear signs of the shifting attitudes towards women in sport, as this patronising but ultimately celebratory piece in the Belfast Telegraph from 2nd April 1921 highlights:

Change was on its way, and the 1921 athletes were at the head of the sprint.

Poetry Challenge

For the final challenge in the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Olympiad we’re going to think about the many ways that histories and achievements can be erased and censored, and what we can do as writers to address and alter this silence.

One technique that I turn to a lot in my own work as a poet is to engage directly with archival material. That might mean ‘finding’ poems in the text of a historical document (such as a letter, a census record, or a newspaper article of the time) or directly responding to images and objects to create a written ‘artefact’. Either way, poetry is a powerful tool for historical excavation. It can shine a light on forgotten stories, it can allow silent voices to speak, and it can interrogate ‘official’ histories.

Here for instance, is my light-hearted attempt at taking on a historical document. Using censorship, I have attempted to change and interrogate the original text of the 1921 Evening Telegraph article:

Today’s challenge is to have a go at your own censorship poem. Here is the article I used:

Why not print it off and get busy with a black marker pen. Or else download it and start highlighting the text in black. Or if you don’t want to use this article, head over to a particularly awful national newspaper and choose an article to copy and paste into word and then erase into something new. If you want to save time, you could even copy and paste your chosen text into a ‘blackout generator’ and have a go there. Then share the results!

Finally…

I hope you have enjoyed these poetry challenges. It has been a pleasure to put them together. Happy writing, and get in touch if you’d like to learn more about the Writing Between the Lines project and the women of the 1921 Olympiad. I’m certainly going to be writing a lot more about them in the coming months!

Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. Event 7: The Javelin

The penultimate challenge! We’re almost at the end of our week of poetry challenges and 1921 stories.

On April 2nd, 1921, the GB team arrived back at Victoria Station, London after three days travelling. Hot, tired, and dishevelled (apparently they didn’t think much of the French train systems) the athletes weren’t greeted by fanfare. They went back to their homes and back to their regular jobs as teachers, dressmakers, typists and waitresses. They resumed their studies and continued to compete alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.

In my final post tomorrow I’m going to talk a little about their impact; about how their trip to Monte Carlo changed the conversation around women in athletics and ignited debate at a time when women were being actively excluded from competitive sport.

But before that, let’s do a bit more throwing!

Violette Morris in training for the Olympiad in 1920. Via Gallica.

The javelin, like the shot put, was won by France’s star, Violette Morris. I have already written about Morris’s controversial life and career in the Shot Put poetry challenge. She is a fascinating and troubling figure, but her relationship with the French sporting authorities of the time also reveals a great deal about the anxieties surrounding sexuality, gender identity, and bodily ‘propriety’ that these athletes’ performances provoked.

In the UK, the GB athletes were met with similar derision. As I’ve explored in earlier posts, you can see this a little in the media focus on the ‘exhibition’ events rather than the athletes’ specialisms, as well as in the inevitable focus on their appearance and levels of attractiveness. Looking ahead to a subject I’ll cover in my final post, in the months and years after the Olympiad, the proof of their athleticism proved difficult to accept for certain journalists and athletes.

But let’s not let all this sexism distract us!

What is perhaps most remarkable about the 1921 javelin competition is that it was a two-handed event. That didn’t mean that the athletes had to lob a spear over their heads like a football from the sidelines. Instead, each athlete was required to throw using their right hand, then their left. Their final mark was the total of the best mark with their right-handed throw and the best mark with their left-handed throw. This was also the case for shot put. Looking at the footage from the 1921 and 1922 Games, there does not seem to have been a run up. Athletes would often throw from a stationary position, as depicted by Morris in the above photo.

Although she wasn’t placed in the finals of the 1921 javelin, Florence Birchenough again shone through as the emerging throwing star of the UK. More than Mary Lines, Birchenough would emerge as the household name of UK athletics in the decades to come. She played a vitally important role in women’s athletics in the 1920s and 1930s. She also made headlines for continuing to compete at an international level after marriage and children – an unusual and noteworthy occurrence at the time.

From the Daily Mirror, 28th March 1935. Via British Newspaper Archive.

The Daily Mirror have got it wrong in their caption. Florence Birchenough, or Mrs Millichap as she was then also known, was not the bare-headed woman in the picture, and her son was sixteen months old rather than sixteen years. But the fact that she was back in training, this time for speed walking, was enough to cause a stir.

Here’s another picture of Birchenough, this time competing in a cross-country match in 1928. If anybody knows why she might be carrying that large cross body bag, please get in touch!

Going back to the Olympiad, in this image Florence practices her right-handed javelin technique before the crowds arrived and took their places in the stands.

Compare her technique to that of her French rivals. She doesn’t bend into the throw as deeply. Look at the way she seems to hold the javelin almost like a pen. It looks staged for the cameras. It might not have been a winning throw, but it’s a stunning shot.

For her achievements in athletics, her coaching, her activism on behalf of women’s sport and her decades of active participation at the top of UK sport, Florence Birchenough deserves far more attention and celebration than she currently has. I came into Writing Between the Lines knowing nothing about her, and am still exploring. But there is so much more to say.

Poetry challenge

Today’s challenge is inspired by the trajectory and shape of the javelin, as well as the challenging technique involved in mastering the two-handed throw. We are going to have a go at creating a narrow poem that stretches down the page, and we are going to do it in a form that demands that you ‘hold’ the words in a way that might feel a little strange at first – syllabic poetry!

Syllabic verse is a poetic form that has a fixed or constrained number of syllables per line. It is not measured in meter, but instead on syllable count. If you fix on a syllabic rule, then you don’t deviate from that, even if it means breaking up a word over two lines. Often, syllabic poems will have a specific rule or patter that is decided upon by the poet before they begin. For instance 7/7/7/7 – which is a four line stanza, with each line totalling seven syllables. You can mix up your syllable count in any formulation you like, for instance 5/6/7/8/9 9/8/7/6/5, which would create a lovely ascending/descending pattern. You may also already be familiar with syllabic poetry. Haikus – or Hokku – with their (traditionally) 5/7/5 rule and 17 syllable total, are one of the oldest syllabic forms.

For poetic inspiration today, here is an extract from Caroline Bird’s poem, The Amnesty. If you count the syllables, you’ll see how every line is made up of 7. The poem never breaks from this rule:

I surrender my weapons:
Catapult Tears, Rain-Cloud Hat,
Lip Zip, Brittle Coat, Taut Teeth
in guarded rows. Pluck this plate
of armor from my ear, drop
it in the Amnesty Bin,
watch my sadness land among
the dark shapes of memory.

Syllabic poetry offers another way of engaging with form and poetic ‘rules’. It also creates a different sort of rhythm from free verse, or a poem in iambic pentameter. Abiding by a set syllable count (but not a set meter or rhyme scheme) can create an interesting and productive constraint. It can shape the language choice in ways you’re not used to, forcing you to either locate a new word that fits within the line, or else break up a single word over two lines – an act that draws attention to the phrase, giving it new significance within the piece.

With this new technique – and the technique of the two-handed javelin in mind – today’s poetry challenge is to write a narrow syllabic poem. Each line must be 5 syllables long – no more and no less. As for your starting topic/line, you have two options: 1.) things I’ve thrown away… or 2.) with my other hand….

Happy writing!

Now get out your dancing wands! Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. The exhibition

Today marks a brief intermission in my poetic exploration of the athletics events of the 1921 Olympiad. But don’t worry, after you’ve caught up on yesterday’s hurdles I’ll be back to annoy and delight you with facts and challenges tomorrow.

Today I want to simply lament and celebrate the fact that alongside competing in multiple events, the athletes of the 1921 Women’s Olympiad were also expected to perform pre-assigned European folk dances (in costume) and show off their ‘wand-waving’ in a public exhibition.

Depressingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this exhibition received a disproportionate number of lines in the already narrow newspaper columns dedicated to the Olympiad.

In the April 6th edition of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, for instance, reporter Eustace White lists the activities that ‘Les Charmentes Girls’ performed.

They also gave a splendid display of physical exercises, which consisted of wand exercises, Indian clubs, free exercises, parallel bars, vaulting-horse, Dutch dance and Grecian tableaux.’

Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Wednesday 06 April 1921

White goes on to note the comparative slowness of Mary Lines’s winning times with her male peers, commenting that they could give her a ‘200yd’ head start and still win with ease. Charming indeed.

In the lead up and during the events of the Olympiad, there is very little in the British media about the athletes. However, the London Daily News and the Daily Mirror did publish pictures of the ‘graceful athletes’ rehearsing their Dutch and Greek dances.

The presentation of these women as a sort of exhibition in their own right was further cemented in the brief reporting of their departure. It is hard to imagine GB men getting a similar write-up in the Daily Mirror:

‘Laughing Amazons’. ‘Pretty Girl Athletes’. ‘Sturdy’. ‘Romping’. ‘Sweet seventeen – with pigtails’.

I’ll leave it at that.

Writing Between the Lines: Poetry Event 6. The Hurdles

The wonderful thing about exploring an archive – any archive – is that you never quite know what you’re going to come across, or what direction that new lead might take you. As a researcher, you often begin with one intention or line of enquiry, but all it takes is one glance down a list of records, one spot of an inconsistency or passing reference, or one click of a digitalised subject list, and you find yourself exploring a whole new set of stories. It’s hard to explain that excitement, and occasionally the hunt itself can be more fun than the finished find. However, sometimes you really do come across some gems.

If you haven’t ever taken a look through Gallica – the digital library of the National Library of France – then I would highly recommend it. Today I spent far too long going through 1921 newspapers and searching for anything i could find about the Olympiad. It turns out there was quite a lot! It’ll be fascinating to compare these documents against those in the archive at Westminster.

Today’s poetry challenge is the hurdles, and I had planned to share the little we know about the competitors. France dominated the event, winning gold, silver and bronze, and so, unsurprisingly, it is not focussed on in the few British (tiny) news reports that were written about the Olympiad. However, via Gallica who hold digitalised records of some of the French media from the event, we can see the the Poly athletes and GB team in practice and in action. Here, for instance, are GBs Daisy Wright (left) and Hilda Hatt (right) practicing before the event. Wright’s leading leg is nice and high!

And here is Mary Lines caught in mid-flight, with the packed balconies of the Casino and the Monte Carlo scenery behind her.

These pictures are remarkable – they show the athletes in action, they show the crowds and dramatic backdrop, they even show the patchy grass on the pigeon shooting field. They bring the heats and the practices and the women themselves to life, and give us a sense of the grit, humour, and even form and gait of the athletes. I’ll leave the hurdlers to judge how they look.

But without wanting to fall headfirst into a clunky athletics metaphor, it wasn’t only wooden hurdles that these women had to scale. A brief look at a contemporary report of the time also demonstrates the unabashed sexism that Alice Milliat and the athletes encountered, not only from their male peers and the IOC, but also in the contemporary media.

Here’s an extract from the April 9th edition of the Menton and Monte Carlo News. reporting on the events of the Olympiad:

‘To think of there ever being such a thing as a female Olympic at all!’ Shades of Zeus indeed…

In another opinion piece from the April 2nd edition of the same newspaper, this is what the columnist had to say about the athletes:

excerpt from the Menton and Monte Carlo News, April 2nd 1921, via Gallica.

The focus in both pieces on the appearance, ‘flush’ and attractiveness of the athletes is distasteful to read, but it doesn’t feel all that far away from some of the media coverage of women’s sporting events and sportspeople now. There are still plenty of hurdles left to to clear..

The Poetry Challenge

Today’s poetry challenge is all about working with a refrain. Like evenly-spaced hurdles on the track, a refrain is a phrase or line repeated at intervals within a poem, especially at the end of a stanza.

In his poem, ‘In Paris with You’, for example, James Fenton takes his title and brings it back to conclude his subsequent stanzas.

Don't talk to me of love. I've had an earful
And I get tearful when I've downed a drink or two.
I'm one of your talking wounded.
I'm a hostage. I'm maroonded.
But I'm in Paris with you.

Yes I'm angry at the way I've been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I've been through.
I admit I'm on the rebound
And I don't care where are we bound.
I'm in Paris with you.

While the mood within each stanza shifts up and down and the speaker sways between ironic complaint and wounded bitterness, the refrain brings the poem back each time to the intimacy and romance of the titular address. It creates a humour and affection that builds to the final stanza, so that in these final lines we find a bold, laughing declaration of desire.

Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris.
I'm in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I'm in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I'm in Paris with... all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I'm in Paris with you.

In Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘They’ll say: she must be from another country’, we find another example of this poetic hurdle. In her brilliant exploration of what it means to exist in the vibrant spaces between countries, cultures, identities and languages, Dharker turns the words used to dismiss her into a declaration of independence and a celebration of individuality.

When I can’t comprehend
why they’re burning books
or slashing paintings,
when they can’t bear to look
at god’s own nakedness,
when they ban the film
and gut the seats to stop the play
and I ask why
they just smile and say,
‘She must be 
from another country.’

When I speak on the phone
and the vowel sounds are off
when the consonants are hard
and they should be soft,
they’ll catch on at once
they’ll pin it down
they’ll explain it right away
to their own satisfaction,
they’ll cluck their tongues
and say,
‘She must be
from another country.’


The poem ends on a triumphant note, as the speaker by takes back and reclaims the refrain. 
And I’ll be happy to say,
‘I never learned your customs.
I don’t remember your language
or know your ways.
I must be
from another country.’

With this defiance and celebration in mind, in today’s poetry challenge we are going to engage directly with the archives. Zoom in and choose a short phrase/extract from the Menton and Monte Carlo News reports above, or else take a bit of one of Pierre de Courbetin’s recorded statements on female athletics that I’ve discussed in the 800m challenge as your title and refrain, and use your poem to interrogate, ridicule or reflect on your chosen statement. Feel free to adapt your phrase slightly as you go through, but have it there as something to return to and overcome in each of your stanzas.

I think I’m going to take ‘To think of there ever being such a thing as a female Olympic at all!’ or else ‘the girls gave evidence of the physical strain’ as my hurdle.

Happy Writing!