Flow of Ideas

MICHÈLE ROBERTS: NOVELIST AND RADICAL FEMINIST



COMPARISONS WITH MICHÈLE ROBERTS AND RUTH RIKOWSKI: WRITERS, BOOK LOVERS, FEMINISTS, RADICALS, LIBRARIANS AND PRO-ACTIVISTS

INSPIRED BY MICHÈLE ROBERTS SPEAKING AT CILIP MEMBERS’ DAY AT THE BRUNEI GALLERY, SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES (SOAS), UNIVERSITY OF LONDON, ON 16th OCTOBER 2008, ORGANISED BY CILIP IN LONDON COMMITTEE


1. Introduction and background information about Michėle Roberts


Two years ago I went to hear Tony Benn speak at CILIP Members’ Day and found it to be wonderful and inspirational as well as interesting and amusing. I enthusiastically wrote a long piece about it (which is on our website – The inspiration of the Benns: Reflection and Report (Rikowski, 2006a). A shorter and slightly different version was also published in Managing Information in May 2007 (Rikowski, 2007).

So, when I discovered that Michėle Roberts was speaking at CILIP Members’ Day this year, I went along to the event full of hope. I was not disappointed! It was also wonderful! There was less than half the audience than there was for Tony Benn’s talk – that was disappointing. She deserved better than that. Still, quality made up for quantity and I had a good time networking with some of the other interesting people there afterwards, as well.

As for Michėle Roberts herself – well, what can I say, and where can I begin? She is an amazing person with a very vibrant character who has had a very interesting and successful life. Michėle Roberts is the author of 12 novels, including The Looking Glass and Daughters of the House , which won the WHSmith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (1992). On the back cover of Paper Houses (2007), which is her autobiography it says that Michėle Roberts is “…one of Britain’s most talented and highly acclaimed novelists…” She has also published short stories and poetry, held writing posts in academia, and been Chair of the British Council literature advisory panel. Furthermore, she sits on panels for literary prizes, is a regular book reviewer and broadcaster. Additionally, she was offered, but on principle, refused an OBE in 2003. Michėle Roberts is half-English and half-French.


2. Religion

For me, though, the whole experience was quite uncanny because of some of the similarities that I found I had with her! Indeed, she has led the life that quite a part of me would really love to have led! We also have many similar interests and I will talk about some of these similarities throughout this piece. Michėle Roberts had a very religious upbringing, as I did, although hers was somewhat stricter than mine, as she was bought up a Catholic and went to an all-girls convent school, where she was taught by nuns. Whilst I went to a mixed-sex technical school in the East End of London, but did go to the local church (Church of England) very religiously and regularly. I was indeed a very devote Christian; praying several times a day; reading the Bible with Bible notes daily; attending church 2 or 3 times on a Sunday (which included helping my mother with the Sunday School) etc. I became confirmed as a Christian when I was 14 years old, and then suddenly rejected it all – it did not make any sense to me any more. I could no longer believe in the virgin birth, Noah and his ark, the Adam and Eve story etc.etc. Suddenly, I saw it all differently; it was all just a fairy tale. That was the opinion that I suddenly held when I was 14 years old; and one which I have not deviated from since!

Michėle Roberts also started hating the church when she was about 15 years, when a new parish priest started going on in the pulpit against young people and the permissive society. This greatly concerned her. Yet, as Miller writing in The Guardian says, giving up religion was an intellectual decision for her, but it was still in her consciousness with images and ideas etc. First of all that was a bit scary, but then she thought that she could write herself out of it (again, writing has also been very liberating and a great therapy for me). Miller speaks about Michéle Roberts saying:

“When she found herself living in a commune in the 70s, and participating in a women writers’ collective, she found there were similarities with the empowering convent life of medieval nuns.” (Miller, 2007, p.2)

Whilst in a piece on the BBC World Service website, Michele Roberts talks about religion and women saying that:

“The way that women were treated in the religion I grew up in, which was Catholicism, made me a writer – because women were seen as the source of evil in the world, the source of sin. We led men astray, we had to be forgiven for being women before we even began to try and be good, we had to get over having the bodies we had. This really pushed me to wanting to write as a way of opposing what was very constricting and actually painful in my life.” (Roberts, n.d.)

Perhaps, this extract from one of Michėle Roberts poems, says something about her religious upbringing and how she decided to follow her desires rather than lead a strictly religious life. Entitled: ‘Christina Rossetti scribbles a memo to a young friend’, she says:

“Unclasp your hands from bibles and prayers
Let your desire race you whistling up the stairs.”


3. Oxford

Leading on from her time at the convent, Michėle Roberts went to Oxford, to Somerville College to study literature. I certainly did not make it to Oxford and my own connections with Oxbridge are, indeed, very limited. I have visited Oxford and Cambridge a few times though and enjoy looking round. I also gave a talk at a ‘Cambridge Teach-In’ at Cambridge University in October 2006 on the topics of ‘What is happening to education and student life today?’ And ‘Globalisation, Information and Libraries’ – see ‘What is happening to education and student life today?’ And ‘Globalisation, Information and Libraries .The students were really interested in what I had to say, and really grasped it and understood it all very easily (unlike quite a lot of audiences that I give my talks to!). I also spoke at the Moller Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge in March 2005, at a conference organised by EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations) and SCONUL (Society of College, National and University Libraries) on the topic 'Trading in Knowledge?: The World Trade Organisation and Libraries'. I spoke about 'TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) and Libraries'. George Monbiot, columnist in The Guardian was also one of the speakers.

But for me, a girl from the East End of London, I always saw Oxbridge as being completely out of my reach. What hope did I ever have of getting to Oxbridge? It was a miracle that I got to university at all; only 5 people from my year at school (Lister County Technical School), in 1974, went to university. And for me that was only due to me studying Sociology and feeling inspired and having my confidence boosted by realising that some of the difficulties I was having were due to the poor background I came from and the problems that children from the working-class encountered if they wanted to do well at school and go to university. Incidentally, the only subject that I could possibly have contemplated studying for a degree was Sociology – I did not feel knowledgeable enough, inspired, motivated and confident enough, to study any other subject. For me, it was a great salvation, and a brilliant decision. No-one from my school dreamt that they could make it to Oxbridge, although one person did make it to the London School of Economics, to study for a law degree. Later, incidentally, Alan Elias became a partner at Clifford Chance, a large international law company that I co-incidentally also worked at for a brief period (1999-2000), taking them through the first stages of the implementation of their library computer system (Unicorn). Indeed, I have written and published material about this project (see Rikowski, 2005b and Rikowski, 2008).

Wonderfully, though, our eldest son Alexander Rikowski, is now studying Philosophy at King’s College, University of London, and King’s is joint top in the country in the league table with Cambridge, for Philosophy. And a couple of years ago, I met up with a second cousin of mine, Deborah Dawes, for the first time, and found out that she studied languages at Oxford and then went on to become a languages teacher in a private school. Later on, I did study for an MSc in Information Science (Computerised Systems) at University College London (1991-94), and certainly really loved that experience. Also, by strange coincidence, my publisher Chandos (who I also commission books for) is based in Oxford – Chandos Publishing

I was interested to read recently in The Guardian about the fact that Alan Bennett had decided to given his entire archive to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Kennedy, writing about this says that Bennett:

“…is giving his archive out of affection for Oxford and in passionate defence of free state-funded education. “ (Kennedy, 2008, p.3)

Bennett was educated at Oxford, having won a scholarship to Exeter College. He said that he was happy to do this, because he can afford to give his collection. Furthermore, that libraries are not well-endowed and he wanted to give something back to Oxford and the state to show his appreciation for what they had given to him, and how they helped him to have a successful and fulfilling life. Bennett says:

“…giving the manuscripts to Bodley – it sounds rather pious – is a kind of small recompense for what I was given. And not merely given by Oxford. I also feel I was given it by the state, and the state isn’t something that people would normally thank or think well of and hence the phrase ‘the nanny state’ “. (Bennett in Kennedy, 2008, p.3)

Many others that have given collections to the nation have only done so for money. In October 2008, for example, the British Library announced that it had purchased the papers of the late poet Ted Hughes for £500,000.

As Max Hastings says about Alan Bennett’s donation:

“It makes all of us feel better, to see a good man do something wholly benign, in a universe where bunglers and four-letter types otherwise appear to be in untrammelled control.” (Hastings, 2008, p. 28)

I have always admired Bennett’s work, and this generous gift of his, and the way in which he has placed art, libraries and scholarship centre-stage, really heartened me.

I have also just read a biography about Dorothy L. Sayers, by James Brabazon (1981). What an amazing person DLS was herself! She also studied at Somerville in Oxford, and was one of the first women to get a degree from Oxford. One of her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels 'Gaudy Night'(which I am also reading), was set in Oxford. What an intelligent woman, who despite this wonderful achievement was still hampered by society and conventions, in many ways. She was also a devote Christian, and spent a lot of her energies working for the Church. She had to keep writing her successful detective novels, in order to earn money, which it seems meant that she did not write a full-scale novel. As Brabazon says:

“For her sake I cannot help wishing that she had more happiness; for the world’s sake, I cannot help thinking that without that guilty secret [an illegitimate, ‘secret’ child] and with a more positive experience of life, she might have been able to trust herself to speak more freely, to break away from the detective convention into a full-scale novel, to use her religious understanding with more liberality and more personal authority.” (Brabazon, 1981, p. 276)

Yet, Brabazon says that her detective stories are ‘ingenious’ and that what draws readers to these novels is:

"…Dorothy herself, communicating her energy, her amusement, her intelligence, her love of writing, her enthusiasm, her sense of fun." (Brabazon, 1981 p. 277)

Dorothy L. Sayers was, indeed, some woman.

Anyway, let us move on from Oxford!


4. Librarianship

Following on from her literature degree at Oxford and her great love of books, Michėle Roberts then decided to train as a librarian. She won a scholarship and worked at the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum and from there went on to study librarianship at University College London (UCL). Hey – I did the same thing – that is, decided to become a librarian, leading on from my Social Studies degree. As Michėle Roberts says the Library School at UCL was “housed deep down in the depths of UCL.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 63). For her special subject she chose ‘Female emancipation’ (another subject which has been very dear to my heart ever since my teens). But she said that “The lectures bored me. The other students were more committed and hardworking than I was” (Roberts, 2007, p. 64). So, she continued to educate herself outside Library School and read a lot of different material.

“Looking back, I think I was like a young nun making up her mind to leave the convent: how difficult to go against a community you have chosen, ferociously loved and supported and now criticise. You feel you are betraying them.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 69)

Guess what? I also found my library course at Liverpool rather boring. Sorry, but I did, although it obviously proved useful to my career! But it did not inspire me in the way that my Social Studies degree had done. Like Michėle Roberts I read and educated myself in many other ways outside of the course; I read a lot of complex philosophical material and in particular I read Karl Marx’s Capital Vol 1 in depth.

Anyway, Michėle Roberts then worked as a librarian for 2 years (from 1973-4), for the British Council in Bangkok. She also worked with the Housebound Readers Service and visited the reading room at the British Library. The idea was that she would finance herself through librarianship, whilst becoming a writer. She says:

“…writing felt secret, still. A secret activity. A safe house of art in which my illegal emotions might hide. I did think that becoming a librarian, temporarily, would enable me to go on reading. Books mattered more than anything. “ (Roberts, 2007, p. 20)

Also,

“I knew I wanted to put writing at the centre of my life but did not dare yet admit it openly. “ (Roberts, 2007, p. 82)

She wanted to be a revolutionary librarian. Whilst delivering books to pensioners around Islington one afternoon she:

“… fantasised about becoming a revolutionary librarian. I could radicalise the Fawcett Library, I thought. Or else start a women’s movement library. Perhaps Germaine Greer would put up the funds? “ (Roberts, 2007, p. 67)

But shelving books was dull and:

“I realised I was not going to make a librarian when I did library practice in the local public branch at the top of Holloway Road. I disliked the librarians, frosty-faced ladies who spent too much time slapping down the black children in the junior library.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 64)


5. Librarianship, revolutionary politics and feminism

Michéle Roberts was a socialist and a feminist but she was not exactly a ‘revolutionary librarian’, she says (all this also applies to me!) Somehow, she tried to marry up her radical ideas with her other needs for conformity. At one point in her autobiography Paper Houses she says:

“Groping my way towards feminism, I hovered on the edges of organised leftist politics. I observed from a distance.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 17)

Then:

“I didn’t think much of myself at all as a revolutionary. I couldn’t connect politics to my continuing intoxication with London… “(Roberts, 2007, p. 36)

Also, that:

“…I knew that I ought to be living in a more revolutionary way, whatever that meant” (Roberts, 2007, p. 74)

She also spoke about all the different activities that she wanted to pursue, and the difficulty she was having, marrying them all up. She says:

“How could I be a librarian, a revolutionary feminist, a would-be novelist, a nice girl who loved her parents, a street theatre actor, a bibliophile, all at the same time? Surely I was a hypocrite? Weren’t you supposed to be just One Thing? Either married or single, Either a mother or a career woman. Either sane or mad. Either radical or straight.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 39)

I have also always had that dilemma, and need to marry up various sides of me, and this is also reflected in how my life has gone. This has included trying to deal with various contradictions and wanting and aiming to enjoy many different aspects of life, and having to make difficult decisions and choices. And I have also had the feeling over the years that really, I should be living in a more revolutionary way. When working in the public library sector, I wanted and encouraged the people in the local community to cherish their library and I tried to encourage and increase usage of it through having activities in the library (such as story-time sessions and senior citizen events) and through outreach work. Yet, I was also actively involved with the union (NALGO, then Unison) and in particular, went out on strike for a long period at one point, against compulsory redundancies in the London Borough of Newham. At the same time, I enjoyed reading my novels and listening to music and going home to my children etc. Now, I marry up my non-fiction writing with my politics; writing from an Open Marxist perspective, attending various left political meetings and giving talks to different political groups and meetings etc. Yet, at the same time, I love my sons and my home; and pursuing activities like going to the theatre, classical concerts and opera; visitng art galleries; watching films; reading; going dancing (my latest interest is Ballroom and Latin American dancing); listening to music; singing and swimming etc etc.

Coming back to Michėle Roberts and her work as a librarian, she then realised that it was not for her – she was not going to ‘make it’ as a librarian! She said that:

“Falling in love with feminism, I was falling out of love with the Library.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 35)

She now calls herself a ‘lapsed librarian’ rather than an ‘ex-librarian’. She loves books and libraries, but her real passion was to write – now that is also exactly the same for me! Libraries and librarianship also allured me, but my main passion was always to write – the desire within me to be pro-actively creative in writing is overwhelming, in fact. But I came from a more insecure background than Michėle Roberts, so having a secure position was quite important to me (hence my decision to work in the library and information profession for many years). Whilst Michėle Roberts parents were appalled that she had given up a safe, secure job as a librarian, and was instead, making writing her priority, she found that she was fortunately able to led the life in some fashion, make writing her number one priority, and then, indeed, become a successful fiction writer. As she says:

“Looking back, I know I felt driven to write. Writing meant voyaging into the unknown and having adventures; asserting myself and my capacity to tell tales.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 109)


6. Part-time jobs and the road to becoming a writer

So, following on from her 2-year stint as a librarian Michėle Roberts then concentrated on how to become a successful writer, and took up various part-time jobs (but not as a librarian!) in order to support herself whilst she wrote. The first two jobs she had were part-time temporary jobs; one as a clerk at a unit that did sociological research; and one as a pregnancy tester for Pregnancy Advisory Service. Later, she did got a job as a writer-in-residence to Labour-run Lambeth council and toured all the Lambeth libraries, meeting her new colleagues. Quite a few of the jobs complimented her writing and must have helped her to get her work published. She was the Poetry Editor for Spare Rib in 1974, for example, and for City Limits magazine in 1981-3. I was the book reviews editor for Managing Information (MI) from 2002-04, and I really enjoyed working for a magazine. I have also had several articles of mine published in MI.

Yet the life that she had chosen was hard and she says:

“I wasn’t good at admitting to friends…how hard life felt. I tried to be brave and repress mentioning my struggles. A chosen poverty, after all, oppressed less an imposed one. I was a privileged middle-class woman who could always get a job as a librarian. I wasn’t really oppressed. I had a way out. I just didn’t want to take it that was all.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 227)

Well, I parted company with her here. I did not take that risky route. I stayed in the library and information profession and had children (thus temporarily abandoning my passionate desire to write a novel – a wish that I had had since I was a child). Still, in the year 2000 I started to get my non-fiction writing published (my first article being published in Managing Information, Rikowski, 2000). And my first non-fiction book was published in 2005 with Chandos Publishing (Rikowski, 2005a). Now, my third non-fiction book, Perspectives on Digitisation is to be published next year (2009). I also have over 50 non-fiction articles published, and many published reviews. Yet, I would still like to write that novel – perhaps, some day I will.


7. Writing books and partying

I did not take comprehensive notes whilst listening to Michėle Roberts talk – I was too engrossed in what she was actually saying! Then, hey – I was asked if I would like to do a write-up about it for CILIP London News. But how can I do the write-up without notes? Luckily I bought a signed copy of her autobiography Paper Houses at the event, and upon returning home I read it in a very short space of time – I could not put it down! So, some of the information for this piece has been gathered from material obtained from this gripping book, as well as some other information that I found about her on the internet.

Another thing that really struck a chord with me was when Michėle Roberts said that, as a writer, she wants and needs long periods of solitude so that she can think and write. Then afterwards that she likes to go out to party. In Paper Houses she says:

“Writers are part-time hermits. We need lots of time alone and then we need to get out and party. So we have to invent the lives that suit us.” (Roberts, 2007, p. 336)

I am exactly the same in that regard as well! To write a book one really has to focus, and put the book at the centre stage of ones’ life (other things have to wait). Otherwise, it just will not happen. And then when it is published, one wants to go out and celebrate and party – that is what I have found anyway. I certainly did that with my first single-authored book, Globalisation, Information and Libraries (Rikowski, 2005a). I was quite hermit-like whilst I wrote it, and then when it was out, I had a very special book launch for it. For me, it was almost the equivalent of the white wedding that I never had; and never wanted to have. It was a book that I always wanted to write since I was a child; I certainly never fantasised about having a white wedding when I was a child, or indeed, any time since then. There were some 70 people at my book launch; 10 speakers (including Professor Deian Hopkin, the Vice-Chancellor at London South Bank University), food, drink and music. Also, Martha Spiess came over from the States specifically to film the launch, which was very exciting. I wrote a report about my book launch, which is now available on the Rikowski website, the ‘Flow of Ideas’ – Report on Book Launch for Ruth Rikowski’s Book, ‘Globalisation, Information and Libraries’

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