Thursday 24 April 2014

Not communicating - about seasickness and love

Seasickness is gendered. Women seem to be more afflicted than men, according to new research.
And men, it seems, feel unmanned by their stomach's acrobatics.
Certainly that's how funny historic postcards represented it.
Most of the cards I've bought from Ebay don't have anything written on the back that refers to actually feeling queasy or having mal de mer. But today I've just found one that does.
This postcard was sent in July 1926 to a young man in Northants. It's typical of a classic trope in historic cartoons about seasickness. People feel that in throwing up they are giving up all they posses in a donation to Neptune.
(Other tropes include a dialogue with the steward about how much they want to die: Coffee or Coffin. Some show green passengers desperately asking the crew on where one should do this impolite action.)
Young woman to man being sick over the ship's rail. 'Darling, I said I'd give up everything for your sake, and in five more minutes I'll have done it.'

On the back it says:
Dear E ...,
I knew you would not be able to resist seeing me. I know this card just says what you would wish me to know and so I am so happy darling. My heart is yours
[signature undecipherable, in Scarborough].

I like it because the young woman correspondent is so unaware of the potential meaning. And the irony! She's talking about incandescent love but sending her beloved a picture of a man enduring public humiliation and loss.
Who knows if it ever became a relationship.

Saturday 5 April 2014

Dr Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson advises on 'cruel' cruises

Sometimes in researching my book on women's history of seawork the oddest connections emerge. I’d never have expected that Britain’s first woman doctor was interested in the sea.

But here Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is in January 13 1900 writing to the British Medical Journal to strongly warn against the myth that taking a sea cruise was restorative for patients with consumption(TB.

Several doctors at the time all said effectively, ‘use extreme caution before prescribing such a trip’ for patients with what they then called pulmonary phthisis. The reasons were summed up by Doctor Garrett Anderson.

On ships, she said, life was ‘almost exactly what would be carefully avoided in a good sanatorium.’

• It’s constantly violently draughty. ‘People have, perforce, to spend their days as if they were on a railway platform open at both ends and moving swiftly through the air.’

• If you have to take refuge in your cabin or even in a public saloon the air ‘is bad even in the day time …[and] intolerably bad at night time and when the ports have to be shut.’

• Often you endured all this lonely distress far from home and loved ones for six weeks, only to arrive in the Antipodes and ‘die alone in lodgings … [or] boarding houses.’

The BMJ pages had several items of public correspondence on this subject at that time. Doctors also pointed out that:

• people who had no money, would be sharing a very cramped cabin for four (meaning they accessed only shared and limited air.

• A busy ship at that time had only one doctor for 300 or so patients, and no nurse. Good health therefore partly depended on how many other people needed his help – and whether he was any good. And at that time ships' doctors tended to be novices on a kind of gap year; (the job was ill-paid, like working in McDonalds, so many doctors would only do it as a brief holiday, not with real commitment.

• If prostrated and debilitated by seasickness for a week or two, as so many steam passengers were, they would be in no fit state to hoist themselves up several companionways and go on deck to get fresh air.

So all in all, EGA concurred that ‘an ocean voyage is excellent for tired people if they are good sailors and have nothing organically wrong with them. To order it for anyone really ill is in the last degree cruel.’

EGA’s letter had the most impact of any of these ‘don’t do it’ letters on me. It’s not that I would say that about a heroine, wouldn’t I. Long before noticing the signature on the letter I was feeling impressed by how remarkably direct and cogent this writer was. Only then did I notice it was Dr Garrett-Anderson.

It turns out that she held that opinion after herself sailing to Australia in 1885. She found Sydney ‘full of stories of the suffering caused by sending consumptive patients across the sea.’

Friday 4 April 2014

Making art about gendered whaling history

Hondartza Fraga(above)is an artist working on the sea from very wittily and with a particular interest in gender in whaling.
Because I’m researching British women on whalers for my next book we met, deliberately, to talk about this under-represented subject.

She’s probably more into whales than me, and I’m more into the women on whaling vessels. But it’s such a delight to explore an obscured and obscure subject with someone so passionate.

Girls Circle, pencil on paper, part of the series 'As it falls, either remembered or not seen', 2010

Women waving, pencil on paper, 2010

Mappa, digital drawing, 2010
Mappa is a combination of a doily with the polar map of the Arctic. The subtle references to gender are in the use of the doily as a domestic object, normally associated with women's craft. They contrast to the maps which evoke 'masculine' subjects such as navigation, exploration, and dominion.

In whaling historiography it’s almost impossible to find even a sentence about British women who were whaling wives – and may even have been aboard disguised as boys.

The best way to tackle the gap in knowledge seems to be to read Joan Druett’s Petticoat Whalers, (see pictures below, of the cover and of Joan looking at an old book on whaling) which is about the US and Antipodes, and use it to wonder how the British picture differed.

Hondartza was drawn to whaling in 2009 by seeing some photographs of beached whales. And she began to combining old photographs into her own drawings in a project called As it Falls: either remembered or not seen.
Website (

Then she became the Leverhulme Trust’s Artist-in-Residence at the Maritime History Studies Centre, University of Hull, with the backing of Michaela Barnard, a lecturer there.

The result was the exhibition “…a still better seaward peep”: An Artistic Perspective on Whales, Whaleports and the Marine Environment. This was displayed in six venues in Hull last year.

Hondartza’s currently raising fund for the new project Curio•sea•ty in Kickstarter, with artist Lorna Barrowclough. Link:
Her next steps are:
• A solo exhibition in Santander in May (see her website for news):
• Possibly a book about looking at the sea
• She also hopes that some situations, e.g. museums, will offer her residencies
• In August she and Lorna are going to New Bedford, the key US town in whaling history, as part of Curio•sea•ty, in order to document and research objects from its maritime collection. Her maritime works will also be included in a group show at Wayfarers, Brooklyn
• She’s looking at textiles, including knitting, as a way to think one of women’s connections with whaling and fishing – knitting ganseys and making nets

So what do we now understand about gender and whaling, or even women and whaling, now that we’ve met (albeit in a Leeds patisserie far from trypots and harpoons)?

I continue to be struck by the absence of women, British women, from whaling history. If she can’t find women, and I can’t, after huge efforts, then who can? And why are these British women absent – in a way that US women are not?

The answers may be:
• Fewer British women went than did US (and it was probably because voyages were shorter – and maybe superstitions stronger?)
• Families later didn’t see the whaling voyager’s diaries and letters as records worth keeping and donating to museums.

One of the great uses of art – visual arts and fiction – is that it can suggest ways to understand a subject when too little is known about it. So … that’s what needed.