Tuesday 30 December 2014

Norman Atlantic: NOT women and children first

Greek ferry Norman Atlantic with chopper hovering to winch people to safety

36 hours ago, on Sunday 28 December 2014, the Greek ferry Norman Atlantic caught fire in the Adriatic Sea. Off Corfu 422 passengers and 56 crew tried to abandon ship in terrible weather; at least ten have already died.
This morning the British headlines are, astonishingly, focusing on the old chestnut of gendered evacuation.
Some passengers are reported as ignoring the old 'women and children first' protocol, also known as the Birkenhead Drill.
The Guardian reported that Christos Perlis, a 32-year-old Greek lorry driver, said he and another man tried to impose order. “First children, then women and then men...But the men, they started hitting us so they could get on first.”

Dimitra Theodossiou (pictured,) a Greek opera soprano heading to Rimini to sing in Nabucco said 'some of the men had been put below to give precedence to women and children. “But they climbed up and punched and tugged and pulled you out of the way, elbowing their way to safety. It was very ugly. I shall never forget it.”

To focus on gender misses two main points:
People should be given priority according to need, not gender. For example a disabled elderly man deserves more help than a young woman bodybuilder.
Women, including suffragettes, have now been arguing this for a century.
The human tragedy is that in a crisis some human beings, of both genders, forget to be kind.
And the practical problem is that selective evacuation can cause more loss of life because it wastes precious time.
The central issue is that the ship was unseaworthy and the crew weren't trained. It's the shipowner's culpability, and the fact that operators can evade international safety laws, that merits attention.
An inspection on December 19 reported that there were "safety deficiencies” including missing emergency system parts and faulty fire doors.
Seemingly only three liferafts were available. The alarm was given too late and crew weren't giving passengers directions.

How about replacing that 'women and children first' slogan with 'to each according to their needs'. Better still: 'Make ships safe.'

Sunday 21 December 2014

Mermaids ain't wot they used to be

Here's a review I've just found of a book on mermaids to which I contributed last year:
The book is Lines Underwater, edited by Laura Seymour and Kirsten Tambling. It's an anthology of poems, short stories and art.
In an review on August 26, 2013 Caroline M. Davies of Sabotage (http://sabotagereviews.com/2013/08/26/lines-underwater-ed-laura-seymour-kirsten-tambling)explains:

'Lines Underwater ... brings the mermaid into the twenty-first century ...
'Mermaids are used as a metaphor for contemporary issues and dilemmas. Most memorably, Jo Stanley’s ‘Adaptation’ recasts the mermaid as a WAG, the girlfriend of a racing driver undergoing surgery to transform her tail into legs.
'It ['Adaptation’] provides an incisive commentary on celebrity culture and cosmetic surgery and also includes veterans from the war in Afghanistan and transgender surgery:
'“Mainly I visited Stella, who was in supported housing in Slough. She was feeling lonely for all that some of her army mates visited between tours. Seeing their injuries upset her but she loved feeling one of the boys again, as they tried to drink themselves sane.”'

The above extract is too brief to convey that my mermaid's main pal, Stella, formerly Alan, was a war veteran who, like her, was seeking female genitalia and happiness, at the same time as her and in the same clinic . She lost her tail. He was about to lose his 'manhood'.
I chose the subject after reading a lot of seafarers' stories about mermaid sightings, and thinking about men's sexuality at sea.
It's mixed in with my empathy for many trans people I know who've struggled through gender reassignment surgery. In going for the most important goal of their lives some have been lovingly supported by very macho ex-comrades from the armed forces. I wouldn't have expected these men to be natural allies. But they were, because camaraderie is far thicker than old prejudices about what a 'real man' 'should' be.
In other words I wrote a story about about comradeship, bravery, mobility (in identity as well as physical movement) and gender. I'm glad my story worked for that reviewer. And I'd love to write a novel-length version of it.

Caroline M. Davies goes on to say 'Like much of the work ...[in this book,'Adaptations'] is a long way from the somewhat clich├ęd traditional view of a mermaid as an enchanting woman with a fish tail. Lines underwater is by turns playful, thought-provoking and above all packed with original work.
'The anthology is organised into four chapters covering various aspects of mermaids in story and myth: ‘Stories of washed up things, ‘Nets, nerves and wires’, ‘Bricked in and crossing borders’ and ‘Skin, scales, skirts’ ...
'Lines Underwater also includes multi-media elements. There are scannable barcodes so you can access songs and short films. These are also available via the website if, like me, you don’t have a smart-phone.'Go to http://poemsunderwater.wordpress.com/buy-the-anthology/

Sunday 14 December 2014

Women & Christmas at sea

For the crew and officers on British ships in the 1950s Xmas celebrations were enriched through the actions of the women working on board.
By the 1950s such women included stewardesses (the majority), women assistant pursers (many of whom were ex-Wrens in those days) telephonists, children’s hostess, hairdressers and the nursing sister.

There might be say five stewardesses and one-to-three women in each of the other roles. Women would have amounted to about fifteen in all, depending on the ship.
They were always less than 5 per cent of total complement at that time.
Purser Nelson French wrote about this Christmas at sea on Orient Line ships to Australia via Suez (‘The Purser’s Tale of Christmas at Sea’, Sea Breezes, vol 61, no 504, December 1987, pp 843-848.)
I’ve extracted the sections that suggest what’s going on, gender-wise

He wrote that in 1953 on the Orcades women officers persuaded the captain to have a nine-lesson carol service. Apparently it worked so well that ‘This became tradition throughout the Orient Line.’
On the Orion women enriched carol singing both visually and aurally. The ship’ 40-strong choir processed around the ship, led by ‘a nursing sister with her cape reversed to show the red lining on the outside, and carrying a candle.’ When it came to singing, the women led off singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, then the whole choir joined in the next verses and other carols.

Like grand houses and the armed forces, passenger ships had the carnivalesque tradition of the upper order serving food to the lower order on Christmas Day (a bit like Midsummer Eve where everything is topsy-turvy and where revelry can be shockingly frisky, as Bakhtin points out)
Referring to the Orontes, Nelson French pointed out – though not in so many words - what a difference the gender of the server made, especially if she was serving young men who didn’t normally have contact with women on ship (as lower deck and engine room males didn’t):
‘while some ratings may have thought the deputy purser a little patronising serving slices of turkey, when it came to a pretty woman assistant purser offering stuffing it was a different matter.’

On New Year’s Eve on the Orion (still in the 1950s, seemingly) ‘a pretty young girl in a bikini burst into the ballroom [as arranged] with a shriek of joy and headed for Old Father Time and chased him' and his scythe and his hour glass, away from festivities.
So these stories show us that women in these hegemonically Christian situations did at least three things socially, on top of their usual jobs. They:
~ influenced the format of the religious service (a gift given by hospitality staff to guests)
~ they were enjoyed as eye candy in a conventionally-gendered ways in an unconventional exchange where class, not gender, was the main point
~ their voices were an important dimension enriching the collective singing, contrasting to the mass of c30 male voices. They were a welcomed symbol of diversity accepted.

In other words, there was a lot going on that was not to do with the nativity but with cooped-up peoples’ appropriation of a festival that could give a wonderful marginal space for other kinds of pleasure.

Friday 5 December 2014

Enslaved women on ships

Adjua (June Carryl) and Dembi (Kimberly Scott) in 'The Liquid Plain'. Photo by Jenny Graham

Today in Britain there are estimated to be 10,000 to 13,000 slaves, mainly women (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30255084). We have a Modern Slavery Bill going through parliament and a Minister for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime, Karen Bradley (pictured)

In these days of increased trafficking (mainly by air) it's telling to look back and see the parallels with the 15-18C slave trade, in which 4-5 million women slaves were transported (about a third of the estimated 12-15 million.)
Not many experts have written about gender on slave ships, let alone written for popular audiences.

The Liquid Plain
But US playwright Naomi Wallace has, in The Liquid Plain, a play that won the 2012 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play. So far it has only been staged in the US, not here in the UK. (http://www.tcg.org/tools/newplays/details2012a.cfm?ShowID=213)
It's about two runaway slaves, Adjua and Dembi, and the docklands community in late-18C Bristol, Rhode Island, which was a major slave marketplace. With sailors Adjua and Dembi make common cause and plan to return to Africa and 'freedom'.
The play's title comes from a poem by Phillis Wheatley (c1753-1784),who was herself transported from West Africa as a child but became the first African-American to have a book published, and at only twenty.
In her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral she writes:
While for Britannia's distant shore
We sweep the liquid plain,
And with astonished eyes explore
The wide-extended main

Naomi Wallace was inspired to write the play after reading Marcus Rediker’s book The Slave Ship. She refers to the 1791 indictment for murder of slave ship captain James D'Wolf.
He'd wanted the crew of the Polly to heave the nameless woman overboard because he thought she had small pox and would infect the whole crew and thereby cause him to lose his profitable cargo. The sailors refused so,according to seaman John Cranston:
D'Wolf 'himself ran up the Shrowds [he'd had the woman put high up in the mainmast two days earlier] ..then he lash'd her in a Chair & ty'd a mask round her Eyes & Mouth & there was a tackle hooked upon the Slings round the chair when we lowered her down on the larboard side of the Vessel.

That chair, that mask

I know about the story because I've just finished reading Rediker's book. For me the most potent of all many potent images in this history is that chair, and the idea of a captain who was so afraid to touch her skin that he tied her to a chair (presumably she was too ill to move unaided.The sailors themselves were quite keen to get exposure to smallpox and thereby gain immunity).
And then there's the mask, which Cranston said was tied onto the woman so that she could not see what was happening to her so that she would not struggle.
'It was [also]done to prevent her making any Noise that the other Slaves might not hear, lest they should rise.'

Comprehending the full horror of appalling histories, such as slavery and the holocaust, can be hard to do. But the chair and mask somehow helped me take in the horror of a trade that treated human beings in this way. It is similar to the impact on me of seeing the mountains of human hair at Auschwitz: just a commodity.
James D'Wolf (pictured) got away with it, just as so many slave captains got away with their appalling 'business practices' over 244 years. On ship the millions of kidnapped African women were the sexual targets of officers and sometimes crew too. There was rape and there were relationships too.

Regulating women on ships
I started grasping slave women' stories when researching the chapter in my forthcoming book that discusses the regulation - and entertainment - of women passengers in transit. Over the centuries there were matrons, conductresses, escorts, social hostesses - and always natural leaders among the 'human cargo' too.

Rediker retells the stories of two such natural leaders on slave ships: both nicknamed ‘The Boatswain’ they were on the Nightingale in 1769 and the Hudibras in 1787.
On the Hudibras there was also a cultural leader and griot of enslaved women, a ‘songstress ‘ and ‘orator’ who would stand or kneel at the centre of concentric circles of women on the quarterdeck, elders in the outermost circle.
She sang ‘slow airs of a pathetic nature’, and gave orations. Watchers who didn’t speak their language thought these were epic poetry as the women all responded with a chorus at the end of significant sentences.
Seaman William Butterworth, watching, was so moved that he ‘shed tears of involuntary sympathy.’ Rediker reports that at least one captain found the songs of resistance ‘very disagreeable’ and had the singing women flogged so badly their wounds took two to three weeks to heal.

For the women it was, Rediker explains, ‘an effort to retain historical identity in a situation of utter social upheaval … a central element of an active and growing culture of opposition aboard ship.’
It was solidarity and comforting company - something the poor masked murdered woman in the chair so needed.