A tribute to Helen Dunmore

I’m writing this crying over my laptop, having just heard the news that the wonderful Helen Dunmore has died of cancer at the age of 64.

It’s hard to know what to say when we hear news like this. But I wanted to write something. Helen took part in the first Bristol Women’s Literature Festival in 2013. I remember her generosity and her kindness, her warmth and her enthusiasm. She spoke so wonderfully about her own work, the writing process, and I remember especially her wise words about the different attitudes women and men have to calling themselves a writer.

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Helen Dunmore listens to Salma Dabbagh at the 2013 festival 

At a time when, suffice to say I didn’t really know what I was doing events wise, Helen’s enthusiasm for the project and the need to promote women’s writing meant a huge amount to me. The support of her (and the other speakers) made the whole venture feel so much more achievable.

Helen Dunmore was an exceptional writer. A poet, novelist and short story writer, she wrote with a sense of wonder. Her novels were often frightening and chilling, connecting with survival and the complexity of human relationships. From The Siege to Your Blue Eyed Boy she was not afraid to look into the darkness. Reading The Siege, you feel the rawness of the cold, hunger, and desperation. Her novels span genres – historic, horror, thriller, contemporary fiction.

I recently read Helen’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. It really is an extraordinary novel that deals with motherhood, male violence, revolution and the city we both lived in, Bristol. I wrote to tell her how much I enjoyed it and I’ll treasure Helen’s reply.

I feel very lucky that I had the chance to work with this wonderful woman. That our paths crossed. I am so so sad to hear that she has died and my thoughts are with her family and friends.

Thank you Helen. We will miss you.

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Helen Dunmore talks to Bidisha at the 2013 festival. 


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Two brilliant feminist events to book

This is a guest post on behalf of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. 

Out of the Backstreet: 50 Years of the Abortion Act

Sat 27 May 2017, 19:30-20:45



The 1967 Abortion Act is marked as an historic victory for the pro-choice movement and an important part of Britain’s social history. The Act took abortion out of the backstreet, particularly for poor and working class women, and introduced safe, legal abortion. Now 50 years on more people than ever before support a women’s right to choose and make their own reproductive decisions in Britain.

Kerry Abel (Abortion Rights Chair), journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, Sally Sheldon (Professor of Law, University of Kent) and sociologist Jackie West discuss the Act, from examining how it was won and commemorating the activists to exploring current barriers to abortion access.

In partnership with Abortion Rights.

Abortion Rights is the national pro-choice campaign. They are campaigning to defend and extend women’s rights and access to safe, legal abortion.

Kerry Abel is the Chair of Abortion Rights, the only national pro-choice campaign in Britain. She has promoted the campaign in the media, including appearing on BBC’s Newsnight and in the Observer. Follow her on Twitter @kerryabel

Reni Eddo-Lodge is an award-winning journalist. Her work can be found at the New York Times, Voice, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Stylist, Inside Housing, Pool, Dazed and Confused and the New Humanist. She is the winner of an MHP 30 to Watch Award and was chosen as one of the 30 Most Exciting People Under 30 in Digital Media by the Guardian in 2014. She has been listed in Elle’s 100 Inspirational Women list and The Roof’s 30 Black Viral Voices Under 30. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4’sWoman’s Hour and was a panellist for Woman’s Hour’s 2014 Power List. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is her first book. Follow her on Twitter @renireni

Sally Sheldon is a Professor of Law at the University of Kent. She has published widely in health care law and the legal regulation of gender, including books on abortion law, feminist perspectives on health care law, fatherhood, and fathers’ rights activism.  She is currently working on large project funded by the AHRC, entitled ‘The Abortion Act (1967): A Biography’. She is a founder member of Lawyers for Choice and a trustee of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

Jackie West is a sociologist who worked at the University of Bristol. Campaigns for employment equality and reproductive rights inspired her teaching and research. Particular interests included work, the family and sexuality. She was vice chair of the Brook Advisory Centre in Bristol for many years and undertook  research for the Health Authority on young people and sexual health. She is currently involved in an EU project on sex work and prostitution policy.

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Michèle Roberts

The Walworth Beauty

Wed 31 May 2017, 19:00-20:00



Author and poet Michèle Roberts discusses her work, in particular her new book The Walworth Beauty, a sensuous and evocative novel exploring prostitution and poverty in Victorian London.

2011: When Madeleine loses her job, she decides to leave her riverside flat in the heart of the city, where history never feels far away, and move to Apricot Place. Yet here too, in this quiet south London cul-de-sac, she senses the past encroaching, a shifting in the atmosphere.

1851: Joseph Benson has been employed by Henry Mayhew to research his articles on the working classes (which will be published asLondon Labour and the London Poor). A family man with mouths to feed, Joseph is tasked with coaxing testimony from prostitutes. Roaming the Southwark streets, tempted by the brothels’ promises of pleasure, he struggles with his assignment – and seeks help in Apricot Place, where the enigmatic Mrs Dulcimer resides. As these two stories unfold, they begin to entwine, and the ghosts of the city’s past erupt in the present.

Michèle Roberts is the author of 13 highly acclaimed novels, including The Looking Glass and Daughters of the House, which won the WHSmith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her novel Ignorance was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013 and her memoir Paper Houses was BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. She has also published poetry and short stories, most recently collected in Mud-Stories of Sex and Love. She is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.  The Walworth Beauty is her latest novel.

In association with Bristol Women’s Literature Festival.

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Patricia Lockwood at Bristol Festival of Ideas

This is a guest post on behalf of Bristol Festival of Ideas

Patricia Lockwood


Wed 26 April, 19:00-20:00



Book tickets

The childhood of poet Patricia Lockwood was unusual in many respects. There was the location: an impoverished, nuclear waste-riddled area of the American Midwest. There was her mother, a woman who speaks almost entirely in strange koans and warnings of impending danger. Above all, there was her gun-toting, guitar-riffing, frequently semi-naked father, who underwent a religious conversion on a submarine and discovered a loophole which saw him approved for the Catholic priesthood by the man who would later become Pope Benedict – despite already having a wife and children.

When the expense of a medical procedure forced the 30-year-old Patricia to move back in with her parents, husband in tow, she had to learn to live again with her family’s simmering madness, and to reckon with the dark side of a childhood spent in the bosom of the Catholic Church.

Patricia Lockwood’s poems have appeared widely, including in The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, Tin House and Poetry. In 2013, her poem ‘Rape Joke’ was published on The Awl and went viral. She is the author of two poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, New York Times Notable Book. Follow her on Twitter @TriciaLockwood

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Online modernist women reading group: Kay Boyle

Kay Boyle is a writer I am eager to read more of and learn more about.

She wrote poems, short stories and novels.

So I am starting to discover her this poem, sourced from PoemHunter

Monody To The Sound Of Zithers – Poem by Kay Boyle

I have wanted other things more than lovers …
I have desired peace, intimately to know
The secret curves of deep-bosomed contentment,
To learn by heart things beautiful and slow.
Cities at night, and cloudful skies, I’ve wanted;
And open cottage doors, old colors and smells a part;
All dim things, layers of river-mist on river—
To capture Beauty’s hands and lay them on my heart.
I have wanted clean rain to kiss my eyelids,
Sea-spray and silver foam to kiss my mouth.
I have wanted strong winds to flay me with passion;
And, to soothe me, tired winds from the south.
These things have I wanted more than lovers …
Jewels in my hands, and dew on morning grass—
Familiar things, while lovers have been strangers.
Friended thus, I have let nothing pass.

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Online modernist women reading group: Mina Loy

I don’t know a huge amount about Mina Loy and what I do know is very much through a Stein prism.

I know for example that her husband once suggested Stein put more commas in a piece of work, and she agreed but later deleted them.

And I know that at Natalie Barney’s salon in celebration of Stein, which took place in January 1927, Mina Loy read some of Gertrude’s work.

I need to do better, in other words!

Here’s a poem by Mina Loy. I hope you enjoy it and please share your thoughts in the comments.

Nightingale singing—gale of Nanking
of Ming-dynasty
in Ming
sing long


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Modernist women reading group: Colette

It all started with Colette for me. Discovering an orange and cream Penguin ed. of The Vagabond in Alnwick’s Barter Books aged 14 got me hooked. Soon I was reading every Colette novel I could get my hands on, as well as her short stories and the superb biography by Judith Thurman.

The more Colette I read, the more I wanted to discover about the women living in Paris during her period. And so from Colette I learnt about Stein, and Djuna Barnes, and Bryher, and H.D, and all the women I’ve been talking about in this series.

Colette’s short-story The Hand is something I read as a teenager and it has always haunted me. It pops into my head all the time, the intense description of the hand, the move from joy to revulsion to submission.

When you read it, think on:

  • How does Colette communicate sensuality?
  • What do you think of her use of description?
  • How does she manage the transition from lust to disgust?
  • What is the significance of the young wife’s feelings at the end of the story?


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Modernist reading group: Bryher

After H.D last time, it makes sense to talk Bryher this week – her long-term partner. She’s really fascinating but very little known. If you have a chance to read her memoir The Heart to Artemis then I’d really recommend it. A great piece of travel writing, as well as a good history of the first few decades of the 20th century and exploration of Freud and psychoanalysis.

I found this poem in a Transition anthology in Shakespeare & Company when I went to Paris in 2014 and I absolutely love it.


If I am a needle on a disk,

got to play the record out,

got to go on,

whatever voices break across me

or what shadows,

knees or shoulders,

silverpoint the blackness;

got to play the record out

til I break or am lifted,

I don’t choose the sound I make,

you don’t choose the groove.


No good saying,

take a knife and cut me from the past.

If I am a needle on a disk,

I’m not the new record

nor the old silence.

There is nowhere that we join together


And it’s not your job to lift me at the finish.


Isn’t it lush?

Have a think about the use of the body, new technology, and who the poetic voice is addressing.

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