Tag Archives: stories

Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 1)

This book, this Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman…I loved it with a love reserved for few other books really. For its lyricism and beauty, the sharp insights about mothers and daughters, about how we are classed and gendered, about how we just might break free of this yet never break free…the pain of all of it. The complexities of all of it, and the complexities of our own inner lives too often flattened by words like working-class, woman, mother. I loved this book for an ability to share a world with her briefly and watch her theorise so beautifully from there, there, this complex, working class landscape. This place usually only the object of theory, the ‘problem’ for theory.

She manages it so beautifully, you long to try but feel pretty certain this is a high wire act not to be emulated lightly or without years of training. She opens so:

Death of a Good Woman

She died like this. I didn’t witness it. My niece told me this. She’d moved everything down into the kitchen: a single bed, the television, the calor-gas heater. She said it was to save fuel. The rest of the house was dark and shrouded. Through the window was only the fence and the kitchen wall of the house next door. Her quilt was sewn into a piece of pink flannelette. Afterwards, there were bags and bags of washing to do. … She lived alone, she died alone: a working-class life, a working-class death. (1-2)

This conflicted moment of loss is the beginning. Not the lovely quote from John Berger which follows, describing how we carry our biographies with us.

The present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present: but nevertheless with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past which is inseparable from it. ‘I am’ includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical.
(John Berger, About Looking)

She writes of the borderlands (not the margins):

This book is about lives lived out on the borderlands, lives for which the central interpretative devices of the culture don’t quite work. It has a childhood at its centre – my childhood, a personal past- and it is about the disruption of that fifties childhood by the one my mother had lived out before me, and the stories she told about it. Now, the narrative of both these childhoods can be elaborated by the marginal and secret stories that other working-class girls and women from a recent historical past have to tell.

This book, then, is about interpretations, about the places where we rework what has already happened to give current events meaning. It is about the stories we make for ourselves, and the social specificity of our understanding of those stories. The childhood dreams recounted in this book, the fantasies, the particular and remembered events of a South London fifties childhood do not, by themselves, constitute its point. We all return to memories and dreams like this, again and again; the story we tell of our own life is reshaped around them. But the point doesn’t lie there, back in the past, back in the lost time at which they happened; the only point lies in interpretation.

And this point, which somehow I have never heard before

The past is re-used through the agency of social information, and that interpretation of it can only be made with what people know of a social world and their place within it. It matters then, whether one reshapes past time, re-uses the ordinary exigencies and crises of all childhoods whilst looking down from the curtainless windows of a terraced house like my mother did, or sees at that moment the long view stretching away from the big house in some richer and more detailed landscape. (5)

Where are you now when you remember and tell your stories? How does this change how you make sense of them? Of the world?

My mother’s longing shaped my own childhood. From a Lancashire mill town and a working-class twenties childhood she came away wanting: fine clothes, glamour, money; to be what she wasn’t. However that longing was produced in her distant childhood, what she actually wanted were real things, real entities, things she materially lacked, things that a culture and a social system withheld from her. The story she told was about this wanting, and it remained a resolutely social story. When the world didn’t deliver the goods, she held the world to blame. In this way, the story she told was a form of political analysis, that allows a political interpretation to be made of her life.

Personal interpretations of past time – the stories that people tell themselves in order to explain how they got to the place they currently inhabit – are often in deep and ambiguous conflict with the official interpretative devices of a culture. This book is organized around a conflict like this… (6)

I have been thinking about this so much. Her mother’s story not just in conflict with the materiality of her life and the promises of the society she lived in, but with the understandings of what it has meant to be working class, to be a woman, to be a mother that have been constructed over time.

She goes on to describe a number of working-class biographies — so many! I have a list of them somewhere, we share the desire to read ALL OF THEM. But my desire is clearly more diluted, I have made little headway. She finds a sameness in them, she writes

When the sons of the working class, who have made their earlier escape from this landscape of psychological simplicity, put so much effort into accepting and celebrating it, into delineating a background of uniformity and passivity, in which pain, loss, love, anxiety and desire are washed over with a patina of stolid emotional sameness, then something important, and odd, and possibly promising of startling revelation, is actually going on. This refusal of a complicated psychology to those living in conditions of material distress is a central theme of this book… (12)

She relates these to her own experience at the University of Sussex in 1965, and how that itself would have been framed by her reading of these earlier works.

…should I have met a woman like me (there must have been some: we were all children of the Robbins generation), we could not have talked of escape except within a literary framework that we had learned from the working-class novels of the early sixties (some of which, like Room at the Top, were set books on certain courses); and that framework was itself ignorant of the material stepping-stones of our escape: clothes, shoes, make-up. We could not be heroines of the conventional narratives of escape. Women are, in the sense that Hoggart and Seabrook present in their pictures of transition, without class, because the cut and fall of a skirt and good leather shoes can take you across the river and to the other side: the fairy-tales tell you that goose-girls may marry kings. (15-16)

These markers of class have shifted such that I recognise them, but it all feels more complicated now. Still, it seems that we cannot know where we are until we know where we were, first seeing it in all of its plurality.

The first task is to particularize this profoundly a-historical landscape (and so this book details a mother who was a working woman and a single parent, and a father who wasn’t a patriarch). And once the landscape is detailed and historicized in this way, the urgent need becomes to find a way of theorizing the result of such difference and particularity, not in order to find a description that can be universally applied (the point is not to say that all working-class childhoods are the same, nor that experience of them produces unique psychic structures) but so that the people in exile, the inhabitants of the long streets, may start to use the autobiographical ‘I’, and tell the stories of their life. (16)

But then, of course, you must manage the results of this storytelling. She talks about how middle class women hear her stories and say it was like that for them too

What they cannot bear, I think, is that there exists a poverty an marginality of experience to which they have no access, structures of feeling that they have not lived within (and would not want to live within: for these are the structures of deprivation). They are caught then in a terrible exclusion, and exclusion from the experience of others that measures out their own central relationship to the culture. The myths tell their story…  (17)

This is so telling, so…familiar. So awful about the ‘we’ I hear thrown around so often, ‘we’ women, ‘we’ academics that does not acknowledge these differences. Like this one she gives as an aside — understanding patriarchy without actually having experienced it the way working-class hagiographies so often demand:

A father like mine dictated each day’s existence; our lives would have been quite different had he not been there. But he didn’t matter, and his singular unimportance needs explaining. His not mattering has an effect like this: I don’t quite believe in male power; somehow the iron of patriarchy didn’t enter into my soul. I accept the idea of male power intellectually, of course…(19)

So here we are working out how to bring together history:

…the processes of working-class autobiography, of people’s history and of the working-class novel cannot show a proper and valid culture existing in its own right, underneath the official forms, waiting for revelation. Accounts of working-class life are told by tension and ambiguity, out on the borderlands. The story-my mother’s story, a hundred thousand others – cannot be absorbed into the central one: it is both its disruption and its essential counterpoint: this is a drama of class. But visions change, once any story is told; ways of seeing are altered. The point of a story is to present itself momentarily as complete, so that it can be said: it does for now, it will do; it is an account that will last a while. Its point is briefly to make an audience connive in the telling, so that they might say: yes, that’s how it was; or, that’s how it could have been. (22)

In thinking history and class she weaves a tapestry of life of course. My time in Manchester already marks much of it as familiar, my soul that seeks to know everything about a place delighted so much in thick descriptions of Burnley, of lives lived there and its day to days so distant from anything I can ever experience now. This is part of what she does here.

What historically conscious readers may do with this book
is read it as a Lancashire story, see here evidence of a political culture of 1890-1930 carried from the Northwest, to shape another childhood in another place and time. They will perhaps read it as part of an existing history, seeing here a culture shaped by working women, and their consciousness of themselves as workers. They may see the indefatigable capacity for work that has been described in many other places, the terrifying ability to get by, to cope, against all odds. Some historically conscious readers may even find here the irony that this specific social and cultural experience imparted to its women: ‘No one gives you anything,’ said my mother, as if reading the part of ‘our mam’ handed to her by the tradition of working-class autobiography. ‘If you want things, you have to go out and work for them.’ But out of that tradition I can make the dislocation that the irony actually permits, and say: ‘If no one will write my story, then I shall have to go out and write it myself.’

The point of being a Lancashire weaver’s daughter, as my mother was, is that it is classy: what my mother knew was that if you were going to be working class, then you might as well be the best that’s going, and for women, Lancashire and weaving provided that elegance, that edge of difference and distinction. I’m sure that she told the titled women whose hands she did when she became a manicurist in the 1960s where it was she came from, proud, defiant: look at me. (Beatrix Campbell has made what I think is a similar point about the classiness of being a miner, for working-class men.)32 (22-23)

I love that Lancashire weavers were the ‘best that’s going’ for women, that mining may be similar for men. But how is it that women can see that, know it, claim it.

This book is intended to specify, in historical terms, some of the processes by which we come to step into the landscape, and see ourselves. (24)

More about all of that at some point.

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.

Economic Bubbles and the Blue Line

I rode the train home late last night, the blue line down through South Central and Watts; L.A. makes me sad sometimes. There is so much speculation on the state of the economy, you can read it in the papers. Taking the blue train late at any time through South Central and Watts, most of that speculation seems rather out of touch. There haven’t been any good times here for a very long time, and when the economy turns, it hits here hardest. And it keeps on hitting. The contrast is stark between this world inhabited by tens of thousands of people, and the world of financial speculation. From here the bubble is very clear, and entirely maddening. Most maddening is that the bubble requires the world of poverty to exist, it is built upon it, immense wealth cannot be held by everyone. It depends on millions of poor in this country, many millions more around the world…

I was talking to an older guy who was only wearing one shoe last night, and white tube socks pulled up high. He was riding the green line train up and down, having nowhere else to go. His legs were swollen the way my gran’s legs became swollen with her diabetes and lack of exercise, the way my friend Mark’s legs became swollen when he was turned out into the streets. Like age and diabetes, the streets swell you up, make you sick, kill you. He was voting for Hillary Clinton, he said he had a crush on her. I laughed at that. He asked me if I was a model and I laughed at that too. He told me I could be anything I wanted to be, this was America, told he was working on his own modeling career. I can forgive this man his bubble, I can forgive him almost anything he needs to survive.

I can’t forgive the people who speculate on the economy night after night on the news, and I can’t figure out who they’re talking about. I don’t know the world they’re talking about either. None of them address the growing gap between rich and poor, growing numbers of people in the streets, growing poverty, growing legions of police to control the poor and protect the wealthy. The only things shrinking are the job pool, the supply of affordable housing, the access to health care, the number of teachers, support for veterans and the elderly, the water table, the ice in the arctic…

Tuesday morning at 9 o’clock

Ahh, beatles reference, nothing beats it! It is of course late afternoon and I am sitting in my uncle’s office with a torrent of water pouring down the little waterfall, it is quite incredible what some rain will do. Today on the train back from Glasgow I saw a rainbow between Paisley Gilmour Station and Johnstone and it made me extraordinarily happy. I do not believe that rainbows represent God’s promise to Abraham never again to destroy the world by flood…even if they are nothing but a refraction of light and water they are miraculous, but I like to believe they are promises of something, pure beauty flung across the sky, living colour against the darkness, a call to remember that life is fucking marvelous and to be lived as deeply as possible. My ipod was presenting a classic rock moment as I watched, a little Marshall Tucker band and led zepplin, it was perfect.

I have this ring I wear all the time, silver with amber set into it. I was sitting on the rapid bus down Wilshire in L.A.next to this guy who was tatted and pierced and covered with jewelry and scarily thin. He liked my amber earrings so we started talking and I was telling him about all of the wonder and magic of the Tucson gem and mineral show, and as we approached La Brea his friend sitting across from us pulled out a rubber tourniquet and wrapped it around his arm, then a little vial and shook some heroin into a spoon and held his lighter under it and then he pulled out a syringe and filled it up and I know my face changed. The pain of his addiction hit me like a hammer for some reason even as I pretended not to see not to know not to feel, I raged at the sadness of the human life before me because every human life is beautiful and I wished there was something inside of me strong enough to stop him, to make him choose life, to give him hope as a gift without judgement…I wished I were more like a rainbow than a girl. He sat there, hand with syringe in pocket, veins bulging beneath the rubber, leg nervously bouncing up and down from the balls of his feet, waiting for the bus to stop so he could shoot up. The guy I was talking to leaned over and said it’s alright, there’s nothing anyone can do but him, but us. And then he pulled this ring off of his pinky finger as he stood to go and gave it to me and it was so unexpected I took it without thinking and then protested but he was already on his way out the door…it’s a prized possession though I don’t know why looking at it makes me happy…

Friday in Edinburgh

The old man burst out of the door of the old tenement building, wearing cropped silver hair and nylon navy track suit. A track suit with shorts no less. He stood a moment at the top of the steps, chest out, proud surveyor of a city waiting to be conquered and impervious to shafts of curiosity or laughter. A deep breath and he was carefully, quickly down the stairs, an old roller suitcase bouncing in offended protest behind him. It appeared empty, a brilliant battered red against the day’s muted grey. As the old man shuffled in a determined jog down the main street sidewalk the battered case trundled behind him yielding reluctantly to the afternoon’s adventure. I stood a moment and thought, but of course I followed.


The unlikely pair moved slowly down the street, taking the most direct route in and among and around the masses of Friday’s pedestrians. From time to time the old man’s thin legs would slow to a walk, the suitcase slowed its wheels, confronted with an impenetrable wall of prams or hooded teenagers travelling in packs. A breath only. The old man would slow to a walk but looked neither to the right or the left; he looked always straight ahead and picked up his shuffle as soon as he was able. The suitcase rolled confidently behind him, its wheels trapped in the rut of the road most taken. My own feet were delighting in the absurd and the new and the unknown. Smiles blossomed along our path like flowers, and heads turned to watch him like blades of grass before the wind.


Why would an old man go jogging pulling a roller suitcase behind him? Training for the great roller suitcase derby, senior division. Training for his next holiday with its short layovers and mad rushes from train to train, train to bus, bus to plane. Specialized training for the muscles in his arm and lower back. Perhaps the suitcase wasn’t actually empty, perhaps it held dirty track suits, microfilm, a kilo of cocaine, the maltese falcon, the novel he’d been writing for the past 40 years, the last piece of his wife needing disposal, a hot meal in Tupperware for his granddaughter, his vintage porn collection rescued from diligent housecleaning, smuggled Russian cigarettes, a genuine Renoir, a bottle of chocolate milk to be shaken, black-market watches for sale, pink lingerie, crisps, an entire flea circus, a lock of his lost love’s hair, brilliant poetry on crumpled up paper, the answer to life’s greatest question which he had just resolved through physics and that he now needed to urgently deliver, the winners of tomorrow’s horse racing, his wig collection, cabbages…


And so I followed him, slowly, for my walk was faster than his shuffle. Rain fell. It fell lightly all across the great fucking beautiful city, a web of silver spun silk to shroud ugliness and hide tears and awaken a deep throbbing loveliness of colour in the world. It cleaned the sky. People hurried through their afternoon, hurried through their lives and I exulted in rampant loneliness and adventure, following an old man pulling a battered suitcase. The ordinary become extraordinary. I love how that happens every day.