Her Brilliant Career - Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties had been one of my most enjoyable reads of 2013 so I was delighted to learn, when I met Cathy St Germans for a very early tent-planning meeting last November, that Rachel would be attending the festival and would be happy to converse in the tent.
Being a Primary Source for the fifties, had made the book something of a revelation for me. Who knew all this was going on while I was happily gunning around Woolworth's in my roller skates because the wooden floors made just the right sort of noise. My friend Ann and I could usually manage one complete circuit before we were evicted, but I doubt we gave much thought to the world inhabited by our mothers who were likely to be spending 60-70 hours a week doing housework. It is quite a startling and eye-opening realisation when part of your life becomes history in this way.
I started our conversation with two quotes from two of you on here quite recently which gave an Ameriacan perspective on the decade and which I hoped would allow some comparsions with the UK...thank you Shelley and Susan...
Shelley had suggested that the 1950s were the hardest decade of the twentieth century to survive. No powerhouse Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, no Rosie the Riveter (the wartime cultural icon) and Gloria Steinem had yet to arrive on the scene. Life was a stifling conformity meant to tamp down all the agony and random loss of the war, a grey fog.
Susan disagreed remembering the 1960s as far more frightening than the 1950s, with scandals and assassinations and Vietnam, arguing that with all that made life for women less than ideal there was at least stability, hope and peace much of which came to a brutal end with the assassination of JFK.
I wondered how Rachel Cooke felt all this compared with life here in the UK...
Was it all stifling conformity or was it stability and hope...
And do you know what..I can't for the life of me remember the exact answer.
But I think we did agree that life for women was dependent on many things, not least social class, education, what sort of a war they had encountered, financial resources and more. Ultimately the women that Rachel Cooke chose had been written out of history, and though artist and designer Peggy Angus wasn't included I did cite her as an interesting subject.
Peggy Angus currently the subject of an exhibition at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, studied at the Royal College of Art with Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden but achieved nothing like their fame. Her professional life was a struggle and she needed to be tough, verging on rude, in order to be heard, and we had an interesting discussion about whether this needed to be part of the armour for these 'warrior' women...and were they nice to know...and why did this 'niceness' matter when for men it didn't.
Margarete had mentioned (in comments) the slow fading of that unquestioned admiration for those in authority... doctors, priests, the local gentry and we talked around this, and also in relation to Richard Benson's book The Valley (he would be visiting the tent on Sunday) where he cites the arrival of television as key to this shift. People no longer looked to the Big House for a lead or to doff their caps, now it was the TV stars and presenters who held sway.
We ended by sparing a thought for the millions like my mum for whom the war had been so traumatic both educationally, emotionally and socially, and for whom the 1950s had been all about having children and being aspirational for them. Ensuring that, whilst their own ambitions may have been thwarted, nothing wouldn't stop them raising children who would be able to achieve something different, to have choices, and for girls especially...to have that Brilliant Career.
It is something I have only really come to understand clearly since reading Rachel's book so thanks mum x
As always there was a Quiltsuke and a Knitsuke to come.
I chose a block which I called Margery's Choice and based it on the gardener Margery Fish, one of Rachel's extraordinary women. Margery married the tyrranical Walter Fish, editor of the Daily Mail, some years her senior and a tyrant in every respect. Walter hated yellow flowers in the garden so I made this block using as little yellow as possible...as you can see...
and the Knitsuke.
Well the book all began with an Ercol sideboard and we thought and then quickly unthought that idea deciding instead to focus on one of the women and in the end it was Sheila van Damm's sports car for Rachel...
And here is the Knit Angel's account of the making of...
"This turned out to be the most challenging book to interpret, partly because of the subject content and partly because I was so challenged by the approach to motherhood that some of the women took. Lynne suggested I do a “Shelia Van Damme in her racing car” – so I managed to find a suitable pattern via the internet and adapted it to suit Sheila’s persona. You can imagine our delight when Lynne asked Rachel which of the women she had liked the most, and she said Sheila..."
Thank you for a memorable event Rachel.
And that was the end of Big Saturday, three more events to come on Sunday.