Summer reads to make you laugh, cry and think

Emmeline Pankhurst – the first female statue in Manchester

Emmeline Pankhurst – the first female statue in Manchester

Finally, the summer months have arrive and with them come the holidays. Well, mine don’t, not until September, but I’m already on top of some beach reading.

With a book full of strong women and another jam-packed with people determined not to go down fighting, they’re perfect for all you 50Sensers out there.

Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (Bloomsbury) Diane Atkinson

rise up women diane atkinson.jpg

I’d been after this book for the last year but it’s a thick tome that I knew would take time to read that I just didn’t have. In the end, I realised I would never have the time unless I made it so I’ve been reading it in small chunks as my “me time” at the end of the night.

I’m glad I did. Rise Up Women! has such an effect on me that the Pausitivity WhatsApp group knows when I’m reading it. “You’ve gone all Milly Tant again,” they’ll say, as I come up with a campaign idea that’s a little out there (just wait till they hear my plan to cover the entrance of the Department of Health in oestrogen patches so Matt Hancock can’t get in. That’ll make him do something about HRT shortages…)

Atkinson covers the full extent of the militant suffragette movement (as opposed to the more diplomatic suffragists), from the rise of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, to getting the vote at the end of the First World War.

In incredible detail, she lists the acts of militancy carried out by 200 suffragettes after they realise the politicians will promise women the vote but never deliver it. After Christabel Pankhurst’s relatively mild spitting at a policeman (she says she didn’t actually spit), the acts increase in rage and destruction, leading to Emily Davison’s protest at the Derby, arson and attacks on priceless paintworks.

I can remember – just – the 1970s series on the suffragettes Shoulder to Shoulder, which featured the force-feeding the suffragettes went through in jail. In Rise Up Women!, Atkinson reveals the full brutality of this torture (there is no better word to describe it) and the damage it inflicted on the women. It is horrific reading, but something every woman should read before they say their vote isn’t worth anything.

Atkinson’s admiration for Pankhurst and her suffragettes is clear in every word. However, their actions left me questioning my previously unfailing support. The more the suffragettes fought and became more militant, the more government was determined not to give them the vote. I couldn’t help thinking that a Mo Mowlam may have got the job done quicker…

Added to that the casual way Emmeline Pankhurst cut off anyone who disagreed with her, from staunch supporters (and chief financial support) Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence to her own daughter Adela Pankhurst, who was banished to Australia, and her halo appear a little wonky.

Nevertheless, Atkinson’s book is such a fascinating read full of girl heroes (I love you, Annie Kenney and Lilian Lenton) I ploughed through this much quicker than I imagined.

Best of all, at the end is a photo of some of the remaining suffragettes and suffragists pictured together in December 1967 – less than ten months after I was born. It’s an honour to have been alive the same time they were.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old (Penguin) by Hendrik Groen

Our lives are so long that we don’t notice changes; it’s only when we look back that we realise how different we are now from the person we were five, ten or 30 years ago.

But when do these changes start? When do we go from being the girl scribbling Solidarnosc over the blackboards at school (sorry, the ghost of Mr Hoey) and wearing a Soviet badge on a Lenin hat to shaking your head at the current Labour debacle? (“A little bit of politics there” – and that’s a reference only those around in the 80s will get) And are those changes good? Are we older and wiser, or just older?

As far as Hendrik Groen is concerned, it’s definitely just wiser. While I want to follow the suffragettes, I want to go for a drink with Hendrik and the rest of his Old-But-Not-Dead-Yet Club.

Hendrik is the both author and main character of The Secret Diary… (no one knows who the author truly is) and I love him. He lives in an old people’s home but he’s damned if he’s going to be old. So he and a select group of friends form a club and each month they have days out, which generally end up with a liberal amount of alcohol being taken.

In the days between, Hendrik and his friends “fight the man” – the tyranny of institutionalised life. He also falls in love.

It’s impossible not to read this without smiling, but the themes run deep: euthanasia, dementia, community living and how to grow old with dignity (even when you’re back in nappies). It’s Waiting for God without the farce – funny, sad, moving, thought-provoking and wonderful.

I want to be Hendrik when I get older – and it seems I’m not the only one. An old schoolpal got in touch not long ago to say how we were growing older and she wrote:

I wanna be 86.......
Still havin a laugh.....
Still dyeing me hair !!!
With all me faculties.....
Go to sleep after seeing me family and then just go ......
I wish u could
Put an order in cos that’s what I’d do ......

(I don’t think she’d consider it a poem, but it is. And beautiful poetry at that.)

It is a wish the Old-But-Not-Dead-Yet Club would heartily agree with.

I reserved the sequel, On The Bright Side, at the library. And forgot to collect it so it’s on reserve again. Hendrik will understand.

What are you reading this summer? I need new suggestions please. Let me know in the comments below.

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