Saturday, April 8, 2017

Offside at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol

Last evening I went to see Offside at the Wardrobe Theatre in Old Market, Bristol. The play, by Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish, was performed by Daphne Kouma, Tanya-Loretta Dee and Jessica Butcher. It tells the story of two women footballers who dream of playing for England. Mickey is inspired by the story of black Scottish goal keeper Carrie Boustead, and Keeley by Preston player Lily Parr (1905–1978).  

One of the play’s pivotal moments is the ban imposed on women’s football by the Football Association (FA) in 1921 – a ban which was not lifted until 1971! It also looks at how women athletes are portrayed in the media, issues around body image, what women wear, and the pressure on women to conform to imposed gender roles – such as not playing football. In addition, it references links between Scottish football and the women’s suffrage campaign. For example, though not mentioned explicitly in the play, Scotland’s first female football team was set up by suffragist Helen Graham Matthews (see link to Daily Record below).

I’m not the least bit interested in football, but I am interested in seeing traditional gender and race stereotypes challenged into the ground, and Offside certainly brought home the absurdity of the FA’s claim that football was not suitable for women’s bodies. Women’s strength is certainly an adjustable thing so far as the male is concerned: they are too delicate for football but not for skivvying and fetching and carrying. This was brought over in a scene that put me in mind of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in which she challenged the white male view of women as delicate creatures who had to be helped into carriages by pointing out that she, who worked as hard as any man, was never helped into a carriage – because she was a black woman. Women’s strength is allowed only so far as it is appropriate to their allotted roles in terms of class, race, labour and gender. Perhaps that’s why women playing football, or engaging in any sport, is such a threat: this is women being strong in and for themselves. And didn’t the cast play their parts with a strength and energy it was a delight to watch!

Football as it should be played?

The play is short – only seventy five minutes without an interval – and it certainly moves along quickly. For all that, I didn’t think it lacked emotional impact. Far from it. The characters’ fears, their will to freedom, the burdens they carry in terms of family, professional and societal needs and expectations, were powerfully portrayed.

In the end I felt the play wasn’t just about football: it was about women pursuing perfection in their chosen field regardless of the pressures and expectations that seek to hold them back. That’s how it spoke to me, anyway. I’m a writer – an activity about as far removed from the football pitch as you can get. Yet this play left me feeling renewed inspiration to continue what is often a struggle to keep writing in spite of all the pressures: you should be doing the housework; women are supposed to write either chick lit or feisty heroines; more men’s books get reviewed than women’s; if you want to write in certain genres you better pretend you’re a man (heard of J K Rowling?). All the nasty negative stuff that doesn’t want you to succeed – all the FAs under another name.

If the measure of a good play is when you leave the theatre buzzing with ideas and impressions and feelings and admiration and just sheer love of theatre, then for me Offside was a good play. I loved it.


It has been suggested that Carrie Boustead was a white player who has been mistaken for Emma Clarke (1896–?). That being so, it’s a puzzle as to why the production continues to use the name Carrie Boustead instead of Emma Clarke. Do they have evidence refuting this suggestion? If not, why not make the change? Too many women have been erased from history, and if we are to recover them then surely the first step is to get their names right.

For information about Offside at the Wardrobe Theatre see

See also:-

‘Offside: The shocking moment that female footballers were banned for fifty years’, The Guardian, 20 March 2017

‘Secret history of women’s football reveals how riots during Auld Enemy clash led to Scotland banning the developing game’, Daily Record, 1 September 2013

Image: The British Library on Flickr 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Silver Sound 31 March 2017: World Music, Theatre and Dance

Today’s guest was Stephen Pritchard, a Bristol-based drama consultant and practitioner, lecturer, workshop leader and music enthusiast.  Stephen is also a co-founder, with Peter Gabriel, of WOMAD, the world music and dance festival. He first met Gabriel when he was working as a music journalist on the Bristol Recorder (later the Recorder), a print and audio music magazine. Stephen and Peter Gabriel were inspired to establish WOMAD because of their concerns that many British and American musicians were using music from other cultures without acknowledging its provenance. Thirty five years on, WOMAD is still going strong  

Stephen has worked with Ekome National Dance Company, and written, directed and performed in community theatre. He taught drama for 27 years, studying and experimenting with the French theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud’s work through pedagogy and performance. He has also produced a series of best-selling Drama DVDs for global distribution. He has led drama workshops in many countries, for participants of all ages. Stephen has a life-long fascination with visionaries, William Blake in particular, and has also developed a strong interest in the ideas of Carl Jung. He has contributed to the Jung Lecture series with lectures on Artaud and Blake, and most recently with a drama workshop entitled Theatre of the Mind.

Today’s show was part of our Radiothon – 24 hours of sponsored live radio celebrating BCfm's tenth birthday. BCfm receives no core funding, so this year we are aiming to raise £10,000 to keep the station on the air for another ten years! Today’s 10 am to 11 am Silver Sound show was sponsored by SilverWood Books of Bristol – who are also celebrating their tenth birthday this year. SilverWood Books has established a reputation as one of the UK’s most professional and supportive publishing services companies. Their friendly, expert team works closely with self-publishing authors at each stage of the publication process. SilverWood has helped hundreds of writers publish books in a wide variety of titles in popular genres and formats, from memoir and family history to bestselling crime fiction (and I'm one of them!). Find out more at, or telephone Editorial Assistant Rowena Ball on 0117 910 5829.

If you’d like to make a donation to help keep BCfm on air you can do so at the Just Giving website.

Find out more about WOMAD here.

There’s some information on the Bristol Recorder here .

Stephen is a fabulous story teller and had some hilarious tales to tell about those early WOMAD days. We also played some music from Shu-De, the Tuvan throat singers whose album Voices from the Distant Steppe Stephen produced in 1994. If you missed the show first time round, you can listen to it here (10 am to 11 am)

Silver Sound is broadcast by BCfm 93.2 fm between 10 am and mid day on Thursdays and Fridays. I’ll be back on the show on 28 April 2017 when we’ll be celebrating World Book Night (23 April).  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Commoners or Kings

Stourhead, the mansion and 2,650 acre estate in Wiltshire run by the National Trust, is one of my favourite places for walks, picnics and marvelling at the concentration of wealth in a few hands. It belonged to the Hoare family, who made their money in banking. Henry Hoare bought the manor in 1717 when, we are told, he replaced it with the Palladian house that’s there now. The next Henry Hoare created the landscape gardens, and then there came Richard Colt Hoare, who added the library and picture gallery.

It’s a story we hear over and over again. Lord this built such-and-such a house. Bishop that built such-and-such a palace. King so-and-so built a cathedral. And it never fails to irritate me. Did these lords, bishops and kings lay the bricks? Saw the planks? Raise the roof? No, they didn’t. The work was done by hundreds of craftsmen and women who are entirely written out of the picture.

According to Richard Holmes in his book Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket, Bertold Brecht asked, rhetorically, whether Caesar crossed the Rubicon all by himself. Holmes answers, “Of course, he did not, any more than…Wellington won Waterloo single-handed.”

But for far too long, the lives of so-called ordinary people were judged to be of little or no account in a history focussed on what Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey called, “The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page…and hardly any women at all.” And yet the nameless people who prop up the history of the great and the good are not so easy to silence. You find evidence of their presence in the grotesque carvings on the end of cathedral benches, in the weird and wonderful beasts in illumined manuscripts, in the rude graffiti on the walls of Pompeii.

Those pesky ordinary people hanging around a coach
 I think the novelist Jane Smiley, in her introduction to The Sagas of the Icelanders (Penguin 2005), had a good go at defining what we mean by “ordinary” people. She suggested that since the eighteenth century, “We have been trained by the form of the novel…to accept the significance of a prose narrative that concerns itself with the doings and opinions and fates of what we would call ordinary citizens, that is, men and women who live in communities of people who are more or less their equals”.

I don’t think Smiley is entirely right about fiction telling the lives of ordinary citizens – unless by ordinary you mean “middle class”. There has, of course, been a move away from the courtly, aristocratic tradition, but a great deal of fiction – including Jane Austen’s – has tended to focus on the middle classes. In recent years, though, we’ve seen more stories centred on people beyond this circle. Two good examples are Jo Barton’s Longbourn, which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants’ hall, and Martine Bailey’s fabulous “culinary gothic” novels, the first of which, An Appetite for Violets, is the story of a cook.

I don’t much like the phrase “ordinary people”, but whatever we want to call the rabble, the cannon fodder, the huddled masses, I think their lives are just as important and just as interesting as the lives of the elite. The problem is that these are people who have left few if any records behind. Not only that, but the records that do exist were often produced about them by people whose interests were opposed to theirs: aristocrats and lawyers, clergymen and employers, those with the leisure to write or paint or versify.

So how do we find out about “ordinary” people?

I think the most important thing we need to do when we are looking at the historical records is to read them against the grain. Don’t accept what they tell us at face value. Ask: is this the whole story? Who wrote it and why?  Whose voice is dominant? Is there another voice hidden away in there?

Luckily for us, many historians have been doing just that ever since E P Thompson declared in The Making of the English Working Classes: “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. 

For the era my Dan Foster Mysteries are set in, the eighteenth century, there are now a number of historians who are asking those questions. Richard Holmes’s book, Redcoats, mentioned earlier, is not about the generals but the men in the ranks. V A C Gattrell’s book, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868 looks at the criminal code from the point of view of the people it was directed against, rather than those who administered it. Tim Hitchcock’s book Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London is a fantastic resource, as is London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690–1800, co-authored with Robert Shoemaker. 

A picture of poverty

 Tim Hitchcock is also one of the founders of the website, Old Bailey On Line 1674 to 1913, a collection of trial transcripts described as “the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published”. It’s unparalled in its insight into the lives of the non-elite. Here, for example, in 1792 Daniel Stubbs is giving evidence against Susannah Gilling who he accused of stealing a bag of money out of his pocket:-

“I went with one of my shopmates to Billingsgate to buy some mackrel; we came back to the Ship and Wheat-sheaf, the corner of Nightingale-lane…the prisoner came to my side; and presently I thought I felt something at my jacket pocket; and I saw the bag in her hand, which she placed under her arm pit; I put my hand in my pocket and I said, you impudent whore, you have robbed me; she struck me, and said, you lying b - r I have not been near you.”

No doubt Stubbs’s evidence has been cleaned up. The word “bugger” isn’t written out in full, and the spelling is correct. No doubt, too, Stubbs telling the story in court was very different from Stubbs telling the same story to his friends in the local tavern. Nevertheless, I think something of his voice and experience comes through even this official record.

Many of the people who ended up at the Old Bailey, either giving evidence or in the dock, had been soldiers or sailors, trades or crafts people,  labourers or beggars. The stories of their lives are stories of life and death struggles, love and hate, heroism and cowardice, good and ill fate. They were the people who won Wellington’s battles, built the Hoare family’s house, and dressed, cooked and cleaned for their rich employees into the bargain – and their stories are at least as important, as gripping, and as much about the human condition as the oft-told tales of the elite who lorded over them.  

Images: British Library Collection on Flickr

The Susannah Gilling case is at

The next Dan Foster Mystery, The Fatal Coin, will be published as an e-book novella by S Books in April 2017. The second full-length novel in the series, The Butcher’s Block, will be published in summer 2017.

‘Commoners or Kings?’ I'll be at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival at 12 pm on 22 April 2017 when I’ll be chairing a panel of historical novelists in a discussion about the pros and cons of writing about royalty or ordinary folk. Join me and Celia Boyd, Jean Burnett, Glynn Holloway, Christine Jordan, John Lynch and Ellie Stephenson. There will also be a series of readings from our novels at 3 pm. All events are free, advance booking not required. For details and a full programme of Festival events see the HULF website 


What do you think? Do you prefer reading and/or writing about commoners or about aristocrats and kings?