Living by our own lights

I’m just back from a refreshing week in the Cornish sunshine. One of the accidental themes of the holiday was discovering a series of stories about individuals who lived their lives in defiance of the conventions that surrounded their status as women, or perhaps simply without reference to those conventions.

At Tate St Ives, we saw an exhibition of the work of Marlow Moss.

Marlow Moss was born in 1889. She studied art, against the wishes of her family, and lived alone in London, Cornwall and Paris. In 1919, she began to wear jodhpurs, jackets and cravats, cropped her hair and changed her name from Marjorie to Marlow. She lived in Paris from 1927 until the outbreak of war, where she found love with a Dutch writer, Antoinette Hendrika Nijhoff-Wind. When the war made it unsafe for her to stay in Europe, she returned to Cornwall and lived the rest of her life at Lamorna, visiting Paris frequently.

Marlow Moss

The exhibition at the Tate included some heartbreaking letters written by Moss to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during World War II, when she was living at Lamorna and they were at St Ives, just a few miles away. She invited them for lunch and wanted to work with them to promote abstract art in Britain. They never replied.

It’s not possible, from this distance, to apply current labels to someone like Marlow Moss. She didn’t follow expected paths, but made her own way in the world, living by her own lights. For that she found herself excluded, by fellow artists and critics alike, and this exclusion has persisted since her death in 1958. The most complete account of her life and the significance of her work can be found in this excellent thesis by Lucy Howarth.

Just a few miles from Lamorna, another determined individual was living an unconventional life at around the same time. Rowena Cade was the driving force behind the creation of the Minack Theatre. She built it herself, alongside her two gardeners, and worked determinedly on the project from 1931 right up to her death in 1983.

The theatre is built into the cliff face at Porthcurno, with stone and concrete seating and the sea and sky as a dramatic backdrop for each production. It looks both natural and preposterous. The physical challenge of building anything in that location would have been overwhelming for most people.

Minack Theatre 7149

There’s a frustrating lack of information easily available about Rowena Cade’s life other than her work on the Minack. Maybe she really was that single-minded. Maybe she was fiercely private. Who knows? It seems pretty certain that she was not a person who took much notice of convention.

Rowena Cade

At the Minack last week, we saw Brighton Little Theatre’s production of A Woman of No Importance, a play that’s all about how women in Victorian society were punished for breaches of convention, while men’s transgressions were forgiven, even celebrated.

Oscar Wilde’s character, Mrs Arbuthnot, didn’t choose her unconventional life. She was seduced and abandoned to bring up her son alone. Unlike Marlow Moss and Rowena Cade, her position as a mother and lack of inherited wealth meant that she couldn’t simply reject society’s norms – instead she had to internalise the shame and quietly create a respectable life for her child.

When the secret is finally exposed and she is expected to accept an offer of marriage from her son’s father – a mere 20 years too late – her defiant refusal is stirring.

It’s easy to see how much things have changed in Britain since 1893, when A Woman of No Importance was first performed. For my children, it’s difficult to comprehend the significance of a child being born out of wedlock. The marital status of people’s parents is simply not an issue for them and their peers.

The difference between the world Marlow Moss and Rowena Cade knew and the one we live in now is also vast. Wearing short hair and trousers is hardly a transgression for women where I live (though women are not so free everywhere, of course).

And yet, these rules and conventions are very resilient. Even though people resist, break, bend and ignore them, they persist and reassert themselves in new forms. What women choose to do with their clothes and hair remains the subject of intense scrutiny and judgment. The tabloid demonisation of large families claiming benefits is a direct descendant of the shaming of fallen Victorian women. Single mothers still find their choices curtailed by being left with sole responsibility for raising their children.

Now the government wants to give Victorian values a boost by attaching a financial incentive to marriage. A £150 tax break for married couples where one partner does not work is a purely ideological proposal. Like Section 28 in the 1980s, it’s more about appeasing the religious right within the Conservative Party than anything else. But the message it sends could have damaging repercussions for people already on the sharp end of vicious cuts to social security.

Being married is not a more or less worthy way of living than any other. Unmarried people – like Mrs Arbuthnot, Rowena Cade and Marlow Moss – have always contributed plenty to society. Imagining – and living – their lives outside of convention is in itself an inspiring contribution.

As Brighton Pride approaches, and the same sex marriage bill inches towards the statute book, let’s not forget our debt to all the outsiders, queers, mavericks, eccentrics and weirdos who helped make the unthinkable possible for us. I think people should be able to marry whoever they want, but it’s more important to me that people should be free to be whoever they want – whatever that looks like.

Last night I watched Amanda Palmer sing this song on Brighton beach, after an exhilarating gig with the most diverse Brighton audience you could possibly imagine. Brighton has always been a refuge for people who needed to escape the stifling conventions of their time and it still is. That’s what Brighton Pride represents for me – not a celebration of some of us being allowed in to the citadel of respectability, but a statement of defiance against all the conventions that aim to channel and restrict people’s lives.


When was the first Brighton Pride?

Originally posted on 1st September 2012, at Reflections in the Greenhouse


Every year it irritates me, the way people are so slapdash about the history of Brighton Pride. This year, the papers are full of a “20th anniversary” story, which is odd, because the current run of Pride events in Brighton began in 1991, 21 years ago. I remember it well. I was there. I helped to organise it.

I know this makes me sound like a mad old aunt in the corner at Christmas, making nitpicking criticisms of other people’s family stories. Maybe that’s who I am, now.

I haven’t been to Pride for a few years now. It’s not really a fun family event for us and our kids. I don’t enjoy getting pissed in the daytime very much. I find the overwhelming commercialism hard to stomach. We might have gone down to watch the parade this year, but family commitments prevented it. As it turned out, I’m quite glad I wasn’t there to see the Queers against the Cuts contingent subjected to heavy-handed policing and treated like troublemakers by the parade organisers, while commercial firms like EDF Energy, Easyjet and Mastercard are welcomed with open arms.

Why does it bother me if people get the dates wrong? I think it’s because Brighton Pride in 1991 is the radical political root of the commercial tourism-fest celebrated today by the Argus, Brighton & Hove City Council and the Conservative Party.

By 1991, we had been campaigning against Section 28 for 3 years. We were tired, still angry, and proud of what we’d achieved. We hadn’t stopped Section 28 from becoming law, but we had begun to build a community that could lessen its pernicious effects.

We had spoken out about homophobia in schools. We had protested about the lacklustre police response to queerbashing. We had publicly remembered and mourned our dead. We had defined family our own way, declaring our relationships with lovers, friends and children to be as real as anyone else’s, whatever the law said about it.

That community defiance was what we were celebrating in 1991. Joining the Pride march was not a vote-winner in those days. There was no eight-page spread in the Argus. Hell, even the gay clubs didn’t join in. We didn’t have sponsorship money or council funding, we just had each other to rely on.

We had also begun to take our history seriously; the campaign against Section 28 spawned the wonderful Brighton Ourstory project. One of the highlights of Pride in 1991 was a walking tour of queer history in the city, led by Ourstory founder Tom Sargant. We knew that there had been a Pride parade in Brighton in 1973, but that the momentum had been lost and there had been no local Pride events since.

The Brighton Pride events in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 were organised largely by political activists who had been closely involved in the campaign against Section 28. In 1993, after the previous year’s Preston Park event had over-reached itself and gone bust, Pride was coordinated by just two people, who thought it was important to keep the idea alive, to prevent the flame going out for another 20 years. I know this for sure. I was one of those two people.

I know things have changed. I’m not saying I want to turn the clock back. I’m happy that people can get married (if that’s what they want to do) and be out in the police force and win votes by supporting equality.

I guess all I’m saying is, let’s not forget how we got from there to here. Let’s not pretend that attitudes have changed by magic. Brighton Pride started in 1991 with a demo, not in 1992 with a piss-up. When it took some courage to join the Pride march in solidarity with LGBT people, many of the straight people who stood alongside us were socialists, like Queers against the Cuts and their supporters. They have every right to march in the parade now.