Marx Memorial Library is hosting a series of readings from left-wing fiction writers. Each month a fiction writer, dramatist or poet will read from current work and discuss their writing processes with the audience. These sessions are ideal for avid readers as well as writers. The writers in February will be Jan Woolf and Anne Aylor. Here is one of Jan's stories, The Baton.
We make our way along the Sidmouth prom, two feet and four wheels: a warrior queen in her chariot, me her slave. A Happy Birthday banner covers her knees, the red felt tipped lettering percussive against white. ‘Happy birthday,’ strangers say. But my mother ignores them, looking resolutely ahead, the beach to our right, stalls to the left. Selling joss-ticks, jewellery, vegan curries, fish and chips, ice cream: and hippy clothes like there’s no tomorrow.
‘Bloody hot Mum,’ I shout.
‘Even for August.’
‘Aye, the sixth, and dinnae shoot.’
Fuck off, I mouth. ‘Sorry,’ I say.
We pass a young man crooning into his ear with cupped hands. Morris dancers skip and lurch; a woman in a leather dress decorated with spoons, feathers in her high black hat sings at the sky. ‘Barmy isn’t it?’ I say, leaning over her, trying not to shoot.
‘As ye said, bloody hot.’
‘No Mum, barmy, bonkers, not – ’
‘Wit d’ye expect, it’s Sidmouth not ma darlin’ Clydeside.’ Another pop at me for bringing her down here.
I push her on, into the glare of the sun. ‘Put your sunglasses on, you’ll hurt your eyes, you’re friggin’ ninety.’
‘Och.’ But she does.
We reach the end of the promenade’, where the river Sid flows into the sea. There are railings and a bench. Briny, mineral smells dominate. I position the chariot, pull at its brake, and sit beside her: an audience for the water theatre, as fresh meets salt – swirling and whorling – warm meets cold, silt meets sand, working out how to be together. Like me and Her. My mother looks mesmerised, almost content, her hands folded, nestling between the Y and B of her birthday banner. I look up at the great Jurassic hill, its dorsal hump turning to cliff face as it zigzags into the sea, a shed squatting precariously on the edge. I point it out. ‘Hanging on for dear life, eh Mum?’
‘Aye, like me.’
I change the subject. ‘That hill, so dramatic, like a ginormous humped back whale.’
‘Tha’s twee,’ she snaps.
Not as twee as that daft frizzy perm you just got yourself. ‘Monstrous, then!’
‘Aye, tha’s better, yir a writer, remember.’
She called me a writer. She called me a writer. Oh Mum. I pat the stiff white hair kept in shape by the aerosol glue she calls lacquer. ‘When I was your age,’ she says, ‘I was rattlin’ the fence at Greenham, while ye were jus’ writin’ aboot it.’
She’s been picking fights all morning. ‘Journalism is action Mum,’ I say, ‘and anyway, Cruise Missiles have gone.’
‘Aye.’ That edge in her voice.
I know we’re both right – as usual. But that I have allowed her the last word – as usual! ‘What about Faslane!’
‘Ye dragged me doon here.’
‘You’re too old to get arrested, Mum.’
‘Bin arrested before, ah know what to do.’
‘You were only 79.’
I put my arm around her, my mother the heroine. She pats my hand, her daughter the writer. She checks her watch. ‘It’s time,’ she says.
I turn her around, wheel her back a few metres, then cross the road, into an empty car park, a Mr Whippy van lurking at the edge.
‘Nothing doing, Mum.’
‘Will yir just wait.’
A trim, bearded man in Birkenstock sandals, not yet old enough to be called sprightly sets up speakers and a microphone. A couple of middle-aged women slide poles and black flags from canvas bags. Another grey beard, balding with a ponytail sets up a stall with pamphlets and papers. Something is about to happen, something the middle aged would call a happening, the muddle-aged a pop-up. The flags unfurled, reveal CND symbols. They are attached to poles, placed in each corner. It is as if pirates are capturing a ship in dry dock. Mr Whippy starts his bells. He’s asked to turn them off. He does, halfway through Lily Marlene. A rack of chairs is pulled apart like vertebrae. Up goes a banner:
HAPPY 60th BIRTHDAY CND
A gaggle of teenagers turn up, a few children with their parents. But it’s mostly the middle-aged: people in linens, cottons and defiant denims. Good people. People who talk about integrity to the young, as their elders talked about character to them. People who played in woods, crawled through hedges, camped in fields, watched Pinter plays, laughed at Morecambe and Wise, loved the NHS, wept when their children went to university, sang in choirs, marched on demos, picked blackberries, bought stationery, felt the seasons change, went to evening classes, posted letters, picked up grant cheques, wept again as their first grandchild was put in their arms. People who knew the old fear; wise enough to know it could be the new. Who’d lived through the old Cold War, worried about the new hothead in the White House.
An old man arrives, also propelled by a carer/daughter. The caught‘er and I exchange empathic glances. As she tucks a bottle of water down the side of her father’s wheelchair, my mother gets out of hers – insists on standing as she does every year. She lays her birthday banner on the ground, then, taking my arm, stands as tall as she can. It used to irritate me when her wee claw as she calls it, poked through the crook of my elbow, but now I’m pleased to see it, a sign she’s still here. Maybe I’ll have it chopped off when she’s gone – get it wind dried like those ducks in the windows of Chinese restaurants. I could put rings on the fingers, paint the nails scarlet and fold my arm around it when I miss her. I laugh out loud.
‘Whit yir laugin’ at Hen?’
‘Nothing Mum.’ I squeeze her wee claw to my side.
‘It’s open microphone time,’ says a henna haired woman in a white linen dress.
‘Open mic, Nan,’ corrects a Young Person in shorts and tee shirt, looking all of sixteen.
‘Sorry Molly, open mic.’
The woman resumes. ‘Seventy three years ago today, August the sixth 1945, the day I was born, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb called Little Boy on Hiroshima. Two days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. 380,000 were killed.’
The facts hang in the air like ghouls.
‘And now Molly will read something written by one of the survivors of Hiroshima,’ she says, handing the mic to her granddaughter. Molly takes it in her right hand, a piece of paper in her left – her voice clear and strong.
Through a darkness like the bottom of Hell I could hear the voices of the other students calling for their mothers. I could barely sense the fact that the students seemed to be running away from that place. At the base of the bridge, inside a big cistern that had been dug out there, was a mother weeping and holding above her head a naked baby that was burned bright red all over its body, and another mother was crying and sobbing as she gave her burned breast to her baby. In the cistern the students stood with only their heads above the water and their two hands, which they clasped as they imploringly cried and screamed, calling their parents. But every single person who passed was wounded; all of them, and there was no one to turn to for help. The singed hair on people's heads was frizzled up and white-ish, and covered with dust – from their appearance you wouldn't believe that they were human creatures of this world.
She steps back, into the silence she has created, her grandmother’s hand out for the mic’. But Molly doesn’t let go – holds it tight. A breeze, as if an oven door has opened, carries sounds from the beach: the hawing of gulls, kids running into the sea – and a lone female voice; ‘Put some cream on sweetheart – you don’t want to get burned.’
Jan Woolf was at Sidmouth Folk Festival, 6 August 2018, for the 60th birthday of CND.
Marx Memorial Library is hosting a series of readings from left-wing fiction writers. Each month a fiction writer, dramatist or poet will read from current work and discuss their writing processes with the audience. These sessions are ideal for avid readers as well as writers. The writers in February will be Jan Woolf and Anne Aylor.
Jan Woolf is currently writer in residence at the Marx Memorial Library. Her first collection of short stories Fugues on a Funny Bone was published in 2010 with Muswell Press, and many others with New River Press and International Times. She is working on her first novel, Hannibal and the Masked Girl, set in Tate Modern in 2003, where a painter plans a citizen’s arrest of Tony Blair.
Her plays Sphinx and Porn Crackers were produced at the Hackney Empire, and You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know at the Royal Court in 2013 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Her latest play The Man With the Gold was started on an archaeological dig in Jordan 2013, and being prepared for a run in 2019, the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles that divided the Middle East.
Jan also has a campaigning history: a leading member of the Free for All museums campaign, founder director of the recently re-launched Left Book Club and cultural coordinator at noglory.org where she has many articles and reviews. Further details of her work are here.
Jan Woolf is a playwright, writer and reviewer. Pic: Roelof Bakker.