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.
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:
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:
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
‘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.
Today is all about passing the baton, both in terms of the legacies of 1921 and in our poetry challenge.
Led by their star runner Mary Lines, the British team took home gold medals in both the 4 x 75 m and 4 x 200 m relays. Their B-team also won bronze in the 4 x 75 m.
Aside from the switch of Daisy Wright for a ‘Miss Bradley’ (first name currently unknown) in the 4 x 200 m, the team line up for both events was the same: Mary Lines, Hilda Hatt and Alice Cast. Both Lines and Cast were students at the Polytechnic and they, along with Hilda Hatt, all belonged to the Polytechnic Ladies Athletics Club. The photograph below, which is from a few years after the 1921 Olympiad, definitely contains a couple of the team: Hilda Hatt (middle, third from left) and Florence Birchenough (middle, fourth from left) – although there may be others in there (thanks to this excellent post by ‘Running Past’ for the identification of Hatt and Birchenough, as well for as the fascinating information on the Inauguaral WAAA championships).
I have already written a little about the brilliant Florence Birchenough in the Poetry Challenge Shot Put event. 1921 really was only the beginning in her long career in athletics and as a member of the WAAA. Yet alongside Birchenough, Hilda Hatt is another name that continues to crop up in the decade to come in, both national and international rankings and medal lists.
In 1921 she won joint gold in the high jump, silver in the long jump (coming second to Mary Lines), bronze in the 60 m (after Mary Lines and Daisy Wright) and gold in the relays. But for Hatt – just as with Birchenough – 1921 was only the beginning. In future events, such as the 1922 Women’s World Games, her talents as a jumper shone through as she took on and matched the records set by figures like Mary Lines.
Passing the Baton
The relay is a good time to discuss another set of absences from the history of athletics. As some of my previous posts have explored, the athletes of 1921 – and others like them – were clearly discriminated against and even excluded from elite track and field events for decades on the grounds of their gender, their sexuality, their status as child bearers, and their supposed fragility and femininity. However, they still carried the privilege that came with their position as white women. As far as I can tell, the 1921 Olympiad was comprised entirely of white-European athletes.
On the UK team, it was not until 1930, at the third annual Women’s World Games (still organised by Alice Milliat) that an athlete of Caribbean heritage would represent GB in an international athletics competition. Ethel Edburga Clementina Scott, a sprinter and relay racer, would be part of the highly selective squad of 15, and would go on to win silver with her teammates in the relay.
Interestingly, she would also be the first athlete to match Mary Lines’s 60 m British record. On 30 August 1930, Scott set a personal best for the 60 m at a track meet in Mitcham, London. Her time of 7.8 seconds was 2 tenths of a second off the world record of 7.6 seconds and equalled Lines’s current British record.
Ethel Scott was the first black woman to represent GB at an International Athletics Competition. She was a record -breaking athlete. She took on the sprint and relay baton from Mary Lines and the athletes of 1921. Indeed many of them would go on to be her teammates in future games. And yet her name does not appear enough in the history of UK sport. She should be a household name.
In the spirt of passing the baton, today’s poetry challenge is all about picking up a line from somewhere else – your favourite song, another poem, the opening line of a novel – and creatively running with it.
There are many ways of going about this. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary example of this is ‘The Golden Shovel’ form, coined by the American poet Terrance Hayes in his poem of the same name. Hayes takes ‘We Real Cool’ by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and effectively spells out each word of the original in the final word of each line of his new piece. So…
We Real Cool The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
The Golden Shovelafter Gwendolyn Brooks
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
This is just an extract of Hayes’s remarkable poem. I urge you to read the whole thing here. What he achieves in this complex piece is not an erasure of Brook’s vibrant original, but a tribute and an extension of it. ‘The Golden Shovel’ is a form of translation. It is also a carrying on the conversation, as the lines of the Pool Players in ‘We Real Cool’ are picked up and carried into the new century.
In many ways, this poetry project is trying to do exactly the same thing.
If you want to attempt your own version of The Golden Shovel technique with a line of your choosing then go for it!
However, as a shorter, alternative option, here’s another way you can run the poetry relay: take your line from your chosen poem, song, novel, short story etc. and make it the first line of your poem today. See where it leads you!
Click here to catch up on yesterday’s 800m event and learn about why women were not allowed to compete in many International long distance events for 30 years
It’s event 4 of the Writing Between the Lines poetry challenge. How’s the cramp?
Today we’re going to think about the 800m – one of the most surprisingly controversial events in women’s track and field. Did you know that after the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, women were not able to compete in the 800m until 1960? It is astonishing to think that the consequences of one race would go on to block women’s access to any Olympic competition longer than 200m for the next 32 years. And yet it was completely mis-reported. As Roger Robinson sets out in his Runners World article on the race and its aftermath:
It’s one of those stories that gets told over and over. When the women’s 800 meters was included in the Olympic Games for the first time at Amsterdam in 1928, several runners collapsed at the finish. Shocked at the public spectacle of women in such distress, the all-male Olympic establishment cut the event.
Some eyewitness versions give even more dramatic accounts.
“Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape,” wrote John Tunis of the New York Evening Post.
Other newspapers preached that women would be desexed and their reproductive capability impaired by such “terrible exhaustion.” England’s Daily Mail affirmed that women who raced longer than 200 meters would age prematurely.
Roger Robinson, “Eleven Wretched Women”
Except that none of this was true.
In fact, of the nine (not twelve) women who reached the final, all completed the race, with Lina (Karoline) Radke-Batschauer (Germany), Kinue Hitomi (Japan)and Inga Gentzel (Sweden) all coming in under the previous World Record (along with three others).
So too do the comments of Baron Pierre de Courbetin, the founder and president of the IOC, and a contemporary of Alice Milliat and the athletes:
Here’s another remark from Courbetin, which again provides a great deal of insight into just how bold and vital the 1921 Women’s Olympiad really was:
With statements like this from the founder of the IOC, it’s easy to see why many of the achievements of the 1921 athletes and organisers have passed relatively unseen in the 100 years since. Even some of the historical reporting of the 1928 Olympics, which unintentionally portrays women’s track and field as a brand new phenomenon, misses out the fact that women had been successfully competing in middle and long distances, and breaking world records, for years. For instance in the 1921 Women’s Olympiad.
Not only has women’s sport been mis-reported. It has been erased too.
The 1921 800m
Before internationally renowned athletes were being excluded from their sport on the grounds of their supposed fragility, Mary Lines and France’s Lucie Bréard were battling it out for the 800m gold.
In the end, Bréard clinched it in 2.30,1, beating Mary Lines by two seconds. Suzanne Porte (France) got the bronze. Here she is celebrating her win. The fact that she was able to do this in what look like slip on loafers and a belt is even more impressive!
Bréard would go on to break the world record for the 1000m in subsequent Women’s World Games, whereas Mary Lines focussed more on the 250m, relay, and jumping events in her future games. But both’s involvement in the 1921 800m race – dressed in their various team uniforms of long shorts, tights, leather belts, plimsols, buckled shoes and berets, with added pearl earrings, chains and hair bows – offer the vivid and wonderful proof of a very different version of the ‘wretched women’ described by the New York Evening Post in 1928.
Taking Courbetin’s notion of ‘impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper‘ women as initial inspiration, today’s challenge is all about the clothes we wear when we exercise.
I am fascinated by the team uniforms and footwear of the 1921 athletes – from long skirts to smock dresses, to tights and plimsols, to berets, headscarves and brogues with a slight heel – Monte Carlo has such a wonderful variety of active wear.
For today’s challenge, write a poem about your own active wear. Choose one key item – that might be trainers, sports bras, lycra shorts, jogging bottoms – and write a short history of the different iterations that you’ve owned.
For instance, if you were to choose trainers, you might start by describing the first pair you remember, and how you felt in them. Then you might move on to your teenage trainers, and how you wore them (did you draw on them? Did you change the laces?), before finishing with a more contemporary pair. Really focus on describing your chosen item of clothing in forensic detail. And access all of your senses – how did they look? what was their texture? how did they smell? What sound did they make as they hit the pavement?
If you’re looking for inspiration, here’s an excerpt from ‘Investigation of Past Shoes’ by Vahni Capildeo. This is one of my favourite poems, and a piece I always share with my creative writing students.
Capildeo shows how clothes can tell a story, and how our evolving relationship with a chosen item can speak volumes about so much more than simply the thing itself. The mode of ‘investigation’ – prose-ish, sub-headings, a sparsity of ‘I’, close forensic description – is also striking because of how moving it is. It’s a lovely example of how it is not necessary to spell out the emotional ‘point[s]’ of what you are writing. The reader can find and create them in the spaces between the images that the words create.
Investigation of Past ShoesINSIDE THE GATEWAY: 1970S RED CLOGS WITH SIDE BUCKLE
The forever shoe, which points homewards, belongs to my mother.
When our house was being built, she stepped onto the driveway while
the tarmac was still wet, still setting. Ever since that step, the driveway,
which slants upwards, bears an imprint of her 1971 footwear. Her foot-
print says, Climb! Come with me. Whoever steps into that impression
becomes, for a moment, the leggy wearer of a fire-red clog with a pirat-
ical silver buckle on the side.
OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE: GOLD AND SILVER SANDALS
The sandals which will make a female of me belong to many women.
The front of the temple entrance hides itself behind shoe-racks. Vis-
itors enter barefooted, leaving behind the dung, dried frogs, spilled
petrol and ketchup traces of the streets. Hundreds of pairs of gold
and silver sandals wait here for the women who will re-emerge from
the vigil with the taste of basil leaf and sugar in their deep-breathing
mouths and carpet fibres between their toes ...
Usually run over a curving track, the 250m demands that its runners think about their turn as well as their speed. Taking the bend requires that you adjust your style, re-balance and then regain the momentum. And don’t forget to stay in your lane!
The 250m race was won by Mary Lines, the star of the English team and the Regent Street Polytechnic. Lines would go on to achieve three 1st prizes and one 2nd at the 1921 Games. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes her as “[t]he first star of British women’s athletics between the wars”.
That this ‘star’ would fade from the official narrative and history of UK sport, and would never appear alongside the names of The Polytechnic Harriers and male cricket stars engraved on the Studd Trophy and mounted on the wall of Westminster’s 309 Regent Street, is the reason that Writing Between the Lines first came into being. Her story demands to be (re)written.
As for adding her name to those celebrated already, Guy Osborn has been busy taking care of that:
Our foyer is a beautiful space but there is a further specific absence. If you look carefully in the room there are three plinths, on two on the ‘Gallery’ side you will see busts, of Hogg and Studd, very important figures in our history …
Above the entrance to the cinema on the other side there is a third plinth, but this has been empty for years …Drawing on the concept of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square we mark the centenary of the 1921 successes of our Polytechnic women at the Womens’ Olympiad by recognising Mary Lines, on behalf of all Polytechnic women, on the third plinth in the Regent Street foyer. This will be lit on 21 March 2021 to mark the centenary of the departure from Victoria station and remain lit for the period of the competition and until the centenary of their return.
The Poetry Challenge: Celebration
My first instinct for the 250m challenge was a sonnet. Both are still relatively short, but involve a vital turn (or volta) that demands a different sort of balance. However, while I was planning this out, I thought instead about Mary Lines and the (previously) empty third plinth, and what a privilege it is to be able to use research and writing to help to shed new light on this previously under-appreciated athlete.
So in honour of Mary Lines and the third plinth, today’s poetry challenge is all about celebrating someone who doesn’t receive the credit they deserve…but feel free to do this challenge as a sonnet too!
In his gorgeous poem ‘Unsung’, Kei Miller ‘sings’ the quiet, everyday praises of his father:
There should be a song for the man who does not sing
himself – who has lifted a woman from her bed to a wheelchair
each morning, and from a wheelchair to her bed each night;
a song for the man recognized by all the pharmacists, because
each day he has joined a line, inched forward with a prescription
for his ailing wife; there should be a song for this man
who has not sung himself ...
The poem offers up the actions of love and care as a way of showing the reader more about the ‘man who does not sing himself’ than any list of qualities could.
For your own poem, choose someone you admire – sporting, historical or relative – and celebrate them!
Tip: Try and focus on representative actions rather than attributes. If you look at the extract from ‘Unsung’, you’ll notice that Miller never directly tells us of his father’s patience, kindness and love. Instead, he shows us by listing his daily tasks. If you’re struggling, make a list of the things that you admire about your chosen subject, and then ‘translate’ each of these into a single event or action.
To catch up on previous poetry challenges and learn more about the project…
Yesterday, for the 60m sprint, the name of the game was ‘speed’. Today, we’re dealing with heavier matters…
Today’s poetry event is the shot put competition, which was won in 1921 by the French athletics star and controversial sportsperson, Violette Morris.
Morris was a gifted athlete. She excelled at shot put and discus and also played football and water polo at a national level. She was a boxer, a motor car and road bike racer, motorcyclist, wrestler, archer, swimmer, tennis player – just to name a few of her sporting interests. She also played on the French women’s national team.
In 1928 the French Women’s Sports Federation refused to renew her licence amid complaints about her lifestyle and she was therefore barred from participating in 1928 Summer Olympics. The agency cited her lack of morals, in particular, Morris’ penchant for wearing men’s clothing. Her homosexuality was clearly the major factor in the decision…although she had also punched a football referee. Afterward, Morris decided to undergo an elective mastectomy, which she said was in order to fit into racing cars more easily.
After her ban from sport, Morris’s life didn’t quieten down and she became a controversial figure in a different, altogether more sinister way. Courted by the Nazis and personally invited to Berlin by Hitler, Morris likely became a Nazi spy and collaborator, although the extent of her crimes and involvement are debated. She was assassinated by the French resistance in 1944.
The Polytechnic star – Florence Ethel Birchenough
Representing the English interests in the Shot Put was Florence Ethel Birchenough – a Polytechnic student who would go on to become a hugely influential figure in shaping women’s athletics in the UK.
Birchenough was a pioneer in the throwing events, representing her country several times in the javelin, shot and discus. Although she didn’t win the Shot in the 1921 Olympiad, she would go on to become a British and Olympic champion in future events, becoming the WAAA title-holder for discus 1924–8 and captain of the British team at the 1926 Women’s World Games. The 1921 games were her first taste of international competition, and a chance to learn amongst the best.
Here’s Florence in action in 1922 – along with some extremely questionable captions…
Florence continued her work in athletics throughout her life, working as a coach, official, committee member and staunch advocate of women’s athletics. Although Mary Lines was the medal star of the 1921 team, Birchenough’s name is more well-known in the history of UK women’s athletics, due to her long involvement in championing women’s sport.
The Poetry Challenge
To celebrate the incredible balance, technique, precision and strength of Florence Birchenough and her fellow Shot Put competitors, today’s poetry event is all about manoeuvring heavy things.
First, some inspiration. Here’s an extract of ‘Scale’, by the poet and keen sportsperson Helen Mort:
My weight is
two Chinese gymnasts,
half a shot-putter.
It can be measured
in bags of sugar, jam jars,
enough feathers for sixty pillows,
or a ﬂock of dead birds
but some days it’s more
than the house, the span
of Blair Athol Road.
Here, Helen takes on the heavy topic of body image and individual and societal expectations and skilfully uses the list form to subvert the measurements by which we calculate our relationship to the bathroom scales. Measuring herself through pets, household objects, childhood homes, streets, and strange, uncanny images, Mort converts lbs into lived experiences and in doing so creates an effective litany of the self.
Just as ‘Scale’ uses the list form to explore both physical and metaphorical weight, today’s poetry challenge is all about making a list of shot puts and other heavy items.
Using the title: ‘The heaviest thing I’ve ever carried’, make a list of all the weightiest things you can think of…including shot puts. Why not start realistic/small and grow more and more outlandish, so that by the end of the poem you’re taking over from Atlas. Or, why not move between the concrete/object and the metaphorical, so that your poem becomes a list not only of bulky Ikea cabinets and boxes of books, but also the burdens and expectations that you might want to pick up and hurl away in the style of Florence Birchenough.
On March 25 1921, a large crowd of spectators gathered on the lawn beside the ‘Tir aux Pigeons’ or the pigeon shooting range, just below the famous Monte Carlo Casino. It was a warm spring day, and the crowd were in good spirits – they had brought along picnics and had settled themselves in along the stands. A dozen photographers in casual suits and derby hats stood together with their equipment in the centre of the field.
They were there to watch the first day of the 1921 International Women’s Olympiad, a landmark event organised by Alice Milliat after the International Olympics Committee refused to allow women to participate in athletics in the 1924 Olympic Games. 100 female contestants from England, France, Italy and Switzerland and Norway had travelled to Monte Carlo to compete in 60 metres, 250 metres, 800 metres 4 x 75 metres relay, 4 x 175 metres relay and hurdling 65 meters, high jump, long jump, javelin and shot put, as well as take part in exhibition events in basketball, gymnastics, pushball , rhythmic gymnastics and standing long jump. This was the first international women’s sport event.
I’ve already written a little bit about their achievements, and there is lots more information on some of the things we’re going to be doing to explore and honour their legacies. However, I also wanted to mark the anniversary of the Women’s Olympiad in another way..by putting on a Poetry Games!
Over the next few days I’m going to be putting up some challenges to match up to the events of 1921. No teams this time – we’re all entered as individual competitors.
There may not be a gold medal to play for, only the warm glow of participation. However, hopefully you’ll also get some new writing out of it. If you do have a go, I’d love to read your work. you can post in the comments below, or get in touch on twitter.
So secure your competitor number with the safety pins available, double check your laces, and let the games begin!
Event 1: The 60 Metre Race
1921 Winner – Mary Lines, England (Polytechnic). Time: 8.2 seconds
There’s not much time to think in the 60 metres. It’s a race of fast beginnings, fast middles, and even faster endings. So to mark that in our writing challenge, we’re also going to focus on speed.
I take things lightly
that perhaps are heavy.
For example, I know I’m the gap between two pavements,
yet I cross it as fast as I can — why?
And because I take risks with my voice,
I trip on air.
And the first bead of sweat that trickles down my forehead
There is a physical lightness in this poem by Abdullah al Ryami, despite the heavy subject matter that lurks just behind the surface. It seems to jump – or ‘trip’ – from line to line, racing across its subject matter without stopping. The line breaks keep us constantly on the move, so in the end the ‘speed’ of the title is as much about our own quick inhalation of the poem as the quick-footed language and body of the writer.
Taking the subject of ‘Speed’ as our big idea – whether that’s the physical speed of Mary Lines in the 60m or the imagination of the writer, in this first set of trials we are going to ‘trip’ and ‘race’ across our challenge and try not to ever slow down too much. Be nimble, don’t think too hard, don’t stop. Go!
Get a timer and set it for 2 minutes. Now write without stopping on the subject of ‘speed’. Embrace whatever comes into your head and don’t allow yourself to pause for breath or reflection. Just put one word in front of the other until the alarm goes.
Set your timer for 2 minutes again. This time, write about a specific time in your life where you have gone too fast – for better or worse. Do the same as before. Embrace whatever comes into your head and don’t allow yourself to pause for breath or reflection. Just put one word in front of the other until the alarm goes.
You should now have two interesting and potentially overlapping prose passages. Go through each and circle/highlight your favourite phrases, images and ideas. Now have a go at drawing those out and jumbling them together in a poem. Don’t worry too much about full sentences and punctuation. The goal here is to move fast and capture that sense of the sprint (between images, between words, between lines) in your finished piece.
Subscribe or stay tuned on twitter for more challenges. And let me know how it goes!
One of the (many) great things about the University of Westminster, where I’m lucky enough to work as a lecturer in creative writing, is its rich sporting history. Walking up the grand staircase by the Regent Street foyer, you pass huge panels bearing the names of famous Polytechnic Harriers. There is the Deep End – the old pool, now a cafe and work area. If walk to the archives in Little Titchfield Street you’ll pass the iconic photo, blown up to cover the wall, of pinafore clad women practicing gymnastics on the roof of the law school, the central London skyline behind them.
Westminster, then the Polytechnic, organised the 1908 Marathon and helped in the organisation of the 1908 and 1948 Olympic games. As I said, there is history there.
However, there is something missing in the many records and monuments – the names of the University’s female athletes. For far too long they have been absent from this official, inscribed history, invisible between the lines of names. This is all the more surprising given the groundbreaking nature of their achievements.
On 21st March 1921, a hundred years ago today, 10 Poly women set out from Victoria Station to Monte Carlo to compete in the first Women’s Olympiad. The international event, organised by Alice Milliat and Camille Blanc, was set up in response to the IOC’s decision not to include women’s events in the 1924 Olympic Games.
There were 100 participants from 5 nations: France, Italy, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Norway. Accounts of the events vary slightly, but they include the 60 metre sprint, the 250 metre race, the 800 metre race, the 75 metres hurdles, the high jump, the long jump, relay races, basketball and rhythmic gymnastics.
The games took place over six days, and the English team dominated the winners list, winning gold (and often bronze and silver too) in every event but the 800 metres and the 75 metre hurdles. Indeed on Poly athlete, Mary Lines, broke multiple world records and earned her place as an star of post-WW1 athletics, winning six gold medals.
More than that though, Mary Lines and her teammates competed as legitimate athletes, with and against fellow sportspeople. For those six days they were celebrated for their abilities and hard work. They met the Prince of Monaco. They were taken on a motor tour to Nice by an admirer, they attended an evening banquet in the grand Hotel de Paris. In London the women worked as waitresses and typists, attending the Poly for evening classes and training in their spare time. Many had never even left London before that trip. It must have been glorious.
And then they came home, and resumed their lives, and for the most part their incredibly achievements were forgotten or lost. Even at Westminster, there is almost nothing to mark these women’s incredible achievements.
Which is why I’m so excited to be involved in a new project, Writing Between the Lines, which aims to interrogate and remedy this lacuna. I am going to be producing new, commissioned poetry, working with material in the Westminster archives, drawing on research, interviews, and historical material, and also hopefully taking some inspiration from own passion for running and athletics. I am keen to commemorate Mary Lines and the Poly 10 but also to interrogate the gaps in the history and representation of women’s sport in the 1920s. It is not only the 1921 Olympiad that does not get the coverage it deserves. The fact, for instance, that there does not seem to be any athletes who would not identify as white European amongst those 100 competitors raises interesting questions about the limitations of this groundbreaking event.
Even more excitingly, we have chosen 10 student poets – one for each member of the 1921 Poly cohort – to produce their own (paid) commissioned pieces for Writing Between the Lines. These chosen poets will be attending online workshops, working together as a writing team, and will eventually get the chance to perform their pieces and contribute towards a Writing Between the Lines anthology.
As I mentioned right at the beginning of this post, today marks 100 years since the team set off from Victoria. And today, joining the stone statues and plaques in the Regent Street building at the University of Westminster, is a new plinth. Behold Mary Lines!
This installation, like this project, is the brain child of Guy Osborn, and his enthusiasm has been inspiring right from the first mention of Mary Lines. Anna McNally, a Senior Archivist at the University of Westminster, and another leader of the project, has also provided a wealth of fascinating material and ideas that I’m already trying to find ways to include in poems. They’ve written excellent blogs on the project and the centenary and records. These also contain links to resources to learn more about the athletes their achievements, and their legacy.
I’m so excited to get writing, to get workshopping, to read the student’s work, and to do my small bit to ‘write between the lines’ and fill in some of the gaps between the names on the walls.
Finally, as part of the project, I will also be posting some poetry ‘events’ up here to prompt some new work and get people in the spirit of the Olympiad. Keep an eye on the blog, and let the games begin!