Bad Blood: Book Review of Lorna Sage’s memoir of a Welsh childhood

I bought this book for 50p from a plastic tub of second-hand books in my GP surgery. Its cover denoted quality and the spine seemed vaguely familiar (I realise now, my mother has a copy on her shelf). One of the best 50p pieces ever spent, Lorna Sage’s memoir turns out to be just what the doctor ordered.

Well-remembered and exquisitely observed, Bad Blood is a poetic blend of personal psychology, social history and an academic love of literature, which never succumbs to schmalzy sentimentality or nostalgia. The past is palpably present in Sage’s prose, as vivid as a painting, yet even painful personal experience is dissected with the precision of the academic Sage became.

The book spans the 40s, 50s and 60s, the years from her unconventional upbringing in a filthy vicarage, through her council house teens to her graduation from Durham university. One of the most compelling sections is her analysis of the failings of her vicar grandfather, responsible for the ‘bad blood’ she is later believed to inherit. Without reverting to bitterness or emotionality, but instead approaching her grandfather as text — it is his diary she plunders for evidence of his depravity — Sage painstakingly pieces together the clues as to what drives his hypocritical and unethical behaviour, not only as vicar but as husband, father and man.

This may be Lorna Sage’s unique story, a rural upbringing in a North Wales she paints with the same intellectual eye, and a cast of locals specific to that time and location, who are given the same searing treatment as her family, but all the time Bad Blood invites us to look again at our own pasts and families with fresh perspectives. Seeing laid bare the damage family members do to each other and themselves, we cannot help but examine more deeply the characters around us we take for granted, whose own stories we were born into, at how we too have been shaped by their actions, personalities and dysfunctions. By the final closing of its cover, perhaps we too discover what we have inherited.

The quotes on the back cover refer to the book’s importance as social history, as a document of the rapidly changing post-war era, and on one hand it is. For me though, the book takes an astonishing, but welcome, personal turn. Without spoilers (don’t google her if you don’t like surprises) Sage’s experience resembles my own. By the end of the book, for my own reasons, my face was awash with tears. Lorna Sage had spoken to me, personally, from the grave.

When I spotted this book in my GP surgery, I had no way of knowing Bad Blood’s dispassionate style, coupled with Sage’s prevailing humanity, was just the tonic I needed.

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Book Review: Secrets and Tea at Rosie Lee’s

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and ‘Secrets and Tea at Rosie Lee’s’ is no exception. The cover features a scene whose café and street lamps look more in keeping with Paris or Vienna than the East End greasy spoon where Jane Lacey-Crane’s début novel is set. The season, too, looks particularly wintry, with what appears to be pine trees and snow, and all helps create the wrong impression of this book. Its title, too, though hinting at the East End with its suggestion of Cockney rhyming slang and inclusion of tea (there is a lot of tea drunk in the book) feels imposed on this story. It is probably the case books are ‘marketed from the outside in’, but in this case I feel publisher Aria has got the marketing wrong. Readers expecting a whimsical fairy-tale romance will be disappointed by what is actually a fairly gritty East End tale based in realism (the word fuck features quite heavily from the off), and potential readers who would be partial to what this book actually is, will be put off by the ditsy middle-class froth of the cover illustration.

That said, ‘Secrets and Tea at Rosie Lee’s’ is an enjoyable read, one that zips along at a pace and keeps you turning the page to the end. It has a bit of everything: romance, crime, family drama, sex, humour, along with a rags-to-riches trajectory. The East End setting is authentic and well-observed, acknowledging the current gentrification of the area, as well as harks back to a bygone East End (without glamourising it) that is fast disappearing. Abby’s greasy spoon is one woman’s last-ditch attempt to hang on to the past, and not give in to the 21st century’s hipster-driven innovations. Even green tea is a stretch too far for Abby’s caff.

The past is ever-present in the novel, and comes back to haunt Abby in more ways than one, not least in the form of her first love Jack Chance. Other reviews have touched on love-interest Jack as having stalker tendencies; even Abby herself, when Jack sends her daughter Lucy a present, says he is controlling. However, it is not Jack, who is the eye-candy equivalent of how female love-interests have been depicted ad nauseum, but Abby who is the compelling character here. In Lacey-Crane’s Abby we have a woman who is instantly likeable, relatable and sympathetic. Abby is a thirties-something single mother for whom life hasn’t been kind, nor honest. She swears, has stretch-marks, flabby bits and a self-deprecating wit that endears the reader to her. Abby has an East End trait of hiding her pain beneath the brittle shell of a wise-cracking exterior. It is this mask she wears — and the cracks in it, revealing her soft interior, with all its insecurities — that is truly heartbreaking.

Abby’s childhood sweetheart Jack is now a multi-millionaire living in America, who wears fancy suits and hangs around with Barbie doll younger women, which intimidates Abby rather than attracts him to her. The reader is invited to look beyond Jack’s wealth to the boyfriend he once was. Rather than be impressed by his wealth, Abby knows too well the difference money makes. Abby’s working-class mindset assumes it makes her less worthy of Jack’s love, and never goes along with Jack’s insistence that it is difficult being rich. It is Abby, Lacey-Crane suggests, who deserves a break. It is this child of the East End who has been given a raw deal and, at the beginning of the novel, is stuck in the unjust impotence of being ordinary. The reader sees Abby’s raw potential, but we are reminded that this is a potential that could just as easily go unrecognised and unfulfilled.

‘Secrets and Tea at Rosie Lee’s’ is a pleasurable read. It is warm, funny, and depicts a world I would have been just as happy to spend some time in as a teenager as I am an adult. It is more than a traditional Romance novel, whilst fulfilling the Romance criteria equally well. Yet it is the writing I am most impressed by. Tiny details signal the flavour of Abby’s complex relationships with her parents. How Abby hates the buzz of the lighting in her mother’s sterile kitchen, the mug her father only ever rinsed out and never washed up. These additions elevate this novel above the fantasy froth of its cover and suggest to me that there is an even greater writer in Jane Lacey Crane struggling to break out. Just as Abby is confined by her circumstances, the author is perhaps confined by the limitations of her genre and its marketing. I look forward to reading more from Jane Lacey-Crane.
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We did it (and we did it well)

Well, what a whirlwind.

The past 4 1/2 months have been a single-minded slog on this one project which was Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk. But what a show! It is going to take some time to fully process all that has just occurred, but the overriding feeling this morning is, somehow, we not only pulled it off, but it was a triumph.

The audiences were good at the beginning of the run, but by the last two weeks they were full houses. The last week was extraordinary, with people clamouring for tickets each night, and by the final night pleading to stand. Each of our wonderful cast put everything they had into the last night and gave their performances of the run.

I had often heard sniffing in the audience, but on Saturday there was sniffing in every direction; no-one could fail to be moved by Sarah Whitehouse’s astonishing performance. Tussy is a huge part, and one that has meant so much to me for almost four years. Sarah more than did the real Tussy the justice she so sorely deserves.

I am proud of our cast and proud of ourselves, and all that we achieved, on a tight budget, in our space with its challenges and limitations, and in such a short, intense space of time. In the end I was more than its writer. I helped produce, assistant-directed, made props, sewed up torn trousers, and put up lace curtains.

Of course we hope there will be life for the play yet, ideally transferring to the West End or an off-West End theatre, but even if Saturday was the very last performance this play will ever see, we can be proud of the fact we did it. We put this play on in the right place and at the right time.

The play was conceived as my gift to the people of Sydenham. I believe it was a gift well-received.

Photos courtesy of Mark Drinkwater @sydenhamphotos

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Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk (The Reviews)

IMG_0549 photo Mark DrinkwaterWe are now halfway through the run of the world premiere of my play Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk. So far we’ve had fabulous audiences, wonderful feedback and some amazing reviews (Spoiler alert!):

A 5***** review from The Morning Star: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/poignant-tribute-foremother-socialist-feminism

A 4.5 star review from Breaking the Fourth Wall:
https://breaking-the-fourth-wall.com/2018/05/17/eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk-sydenham-centre-review/amp/?__twitter_impression=true

A 4**** review from LondonTheatre1: https://www.londontheatre1.com/reviews/eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk-sydenham-centre-review/

A review from International Marxist-Humanist Journal (no star rating given): https://www.imhojournal.org/articles/a-revolutionary-betrayed-review-of-the-play-eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk/

A review from Susan Elkin for Sardines Magazine (no star rating given): http://susanelkin.co.uk/articles/eleanor-marx-jewess-jews-walk-susan-elkin-reviews/

A review from author/blogger Carl Packman (no star rating given) https://medium.com/@CarlPackman/remembering-the-jewess-a-review-of-eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk-d8b2f882c6a3

And if you don’t want spoilers, here’s the Audience Comments:

“That was wonderful! Amazing! A brilliant illustration of her life, superb direction, and a glorious take down of the patriarchy. Thank you!” (Carl Packman via twitter)

“Excellent play … excellently acted and directed, which I can thoroughly recommend. The central Marx/Aveling relationship is very convincing portrayed, with some fine dialogue. Don’t miss it.” (Robin Orton on Sydenham Town Forum)

“Loved it! Congrats!”

“So good to celebrate such an important figure! Well done!”

“Great performance!”

“V. good production”

“Fantastic acting – so impressed. Such emotion!”

“Very well done!”

“Great 2nd act!”

“Wonderful! Thanks”

“The production was excellent, thank you”

“Loved the local / international connection”

“Well done!”

“Excellent”

“The actors were excellent. Thoroughly enjoyed the play. Thankyou and congratulations to all involved”

“Loved this play. Great cast. Great story. SE London’s history. Go and see it.”

“EXCELLENT Production/World Premiere – Eleanor Marx – ‘The Jewess of Jews Walk’. Faultless work. Sophisticated script, careful, detailed direction, incredible performances. A riveting piece of theatre. Not to be missed!” (Niki Mylonas, on facebook)

“V. good!!”

“A really enjoyable night”

“Great performance. Thank you!”

Tickets are still available for the remaining two weeks of the run (Tuesday 1st May – Sat 12th May) from http://spontaneousproductions.co.uk/events/eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk-from-weds-18-april/ (Click on your chosen date to book)

Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk is Upstairs* at the Sydenham Centre, 44a Sydenham Rd, Sydenham, SE 26

* There is full disabled access

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My Gift to the People of Sydenham. And My Gift to Eleanor Marx

I am now entering the week of our opening night. We have our final rehearsal tomorrow, then the tech and dress rehearsal, and then that’s it. We open.

It is nerve-wracking, of course, knowing how ready we have to be on Wednesday, for our paying audience, but ultimately it is exhilarating. It has, after all, taken four years to get to this point. To be able to sit here, writing nonchalantly about my play and the fact it is really going to happen.

It has been a roller-coaster ride to get here. A couple of years ago the play was shelved indefinitely and it looked as though there was no hope for my play ever to be brought to life. So I am thrilled that it is not only being staged, but being staged in Sydenham, where it belongs. Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk was always, from its conception, my gift to the people of Sydenham, just as it is my gift to Eleanor Marx.

Back in 2014, I was busy rehearsing Till the boys come Home, my 4-part WW1 music set in Sydenham. We were rehearsing in St. Bartholomew’s church, when a member of the choir, and of the Sydenham community, Rabia Rahim, came up to me and thrust a pamphlet under my nose and was pointing to it excitedly, saying, ‘You must write a play about this woman. This woman founded the gas workers’ union. She lived in the next road from here. Jews Walk. You must write a play about her.’

So I looked at the pamphlet and this little thumbnail of a book that had just been published, written by someone called Rachel Holmes: Eleanor Marx: a Life and quickly googled her, as you do, when you’re told you must write a play about someone. I discovered this remarkable woman, and amazing-sounding story, and nipped to Jews Walk to have a look at number 7.

So that was my first encounter with Eleanor, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, and with Rachel, and became the inspiration for my next play.

I read Rachel’s book and fell in love with Eleanor Marx, both the real person and the character I wanted to write. As the youngest daughter of a penniless socialist, with a big bushy beard, huge ideas and a German-Jewish surname, I had much in common with the young “Tussy”, as she was known to family and friends.

Eleanor was an early translator of Ibsen’s plays and I knew, immediately, upon reading Rachel’s excellent book, that I wanted to write it in the style of an Ibsen play and I wanted to set it entirely at Jews Walk.

Ibsen’s plays are notable in that they tend to have a single domestic setting and span a short time-frame, and often have a strong female lead. The Ibsen style and structure fitted very well the vision I had for this play, set in the house and spanning only the last few chapters of Rachel’s book. Although, just as in Ibsen plays, the past would be ever-present in the play.

Due to Eleanor’s fascination with her Jewish heritage, and her saying of herself ‘I am a Jewess’, I came up with a title immediately: ‘The Jewess of Jews Walk’. So I told my brother Jonathan, ‘I’m going to write this play, it’s called ‘The Jewess of Jews Walk’ and it’s set entirely at Jews Walk’ (which is around the corner from him) and, being Jonathan, he commissioned me to write it.

And I went off to research further.

Rolling onto December 2014, I went along to a screening at LSE of a documentary about the miners strike, at which a humble Labour backbencher was speaking, called … Jeremy Corbyn … who I knew best at the time for being someone my dad had once had lunch with. I mentioned to my friend I went with, just in passing, ‘I’m writing a play about a woman who founded a union’. She must have remembered, for two months later she got me a ticket to hear Rachel Holmes speak.

I sat through Rachel’s talk, and took copious notes, and I went up to her at the end, when she was busy signing people’s books (anyone who knows me will know I never do things like that, go up to them and tell them about what I’m doing) but I knew I had to.

So I plucked up the courage to speak to this wonderful biographer I was totally in awe of and told her about my play. And … she was interested.

Back in 2014 Marx was a dirty word, his ideas were deemed old-fashioned, and wrong. But since then the world has changed. There’s now Brexit, a reality TV star in the White House and we’ve seen the rise of a humble Labour backbencher called … Jeremy Corbyn. Marxism is back in the news again, as is — by coincidence — Jewishness. Add to this the #MeToo campaign and the fact the play is about domestic abuse, Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk has become timely.

Last Friday, we had our pre-play event ‘Eleanor and Friends’, at which Rachel Holmes and I both spoke, alongside Dr. Dana Mills, poet Tara Bergin and local historian Steve Grindlay. At this event we unveiled a couple of extracts from my play, to a phenomenal reaction from the audience, as well as — I’m pleased to say — Rachel and the other Friends of Eleanor.

I made my speech, which was similar in content to what I have written above, but due to nerves, skipped over the name Rabia Rahim. I had hoped Rabia had heard of the event and come along, but because we only left a message with her at lunchtime that day, I was not at all hopeful she would be there. However, in the interval Jonathan said to me, ‘Lucy, Rabia’s here’ and was promptly reunited with her. Of course I said, ‘You must meet Rachel’ and took her to introduce them to each other. Rachel must have recognised Rabia’s accent, for immediately they realised they are from the same small town in South Africa.

Eleanor Marx does things like that. She unites (and reunites) people.

Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk opens this week (Wed. 18th April) at The Sydenham Centre, Sydenham, around the corner from where she lived and died, in mysterious circumstances. It runs for four weeks until May 12th.


Tickets here: http://spontaneousproductions.co.uk/events/eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk-from-weds-18-april/

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Organisation and the Creative Mind: Put it on a list

In 2015 I attended Paradise Road Project, a day workshop run by Jacqui Lofthouse and Clare Barry. The workshop was intended as a chance for creatives to unplug from technology and cyberspace, refocus our minds, and allow inspiration available in our real, urban environment to inspire us. As both a playwright and author, I juggle a multitude of vying ideas and, back in 2015, struggled with deciding which project or projects to focus my attention and energies on.

For one workshop exercise we created a list of projects we’d love to bring into the world, and were aided in prioritising those projects and allowing a particular project to come to the fore as the one we wanted to tackle next. I made long list of plays, novels, and short stories I wanted to write: projects I had begun working on and some I’d put on the back burner, along with brand new ideas that were generated by the very act of sitting down and allowing what I love to emerge. I still enjoy referring to that list now and again, to see how many of the projects listed there have come to fruition.

On that list is the idea that became Pretty Bubbles, my novel about my mum and Bobby Moore, that came 3rd in ‘Pen to Print: Real Stories, Real Lives’ competition. On the list is an idea for a YA novel I plan to tackle later this year. On that list is The Wig Show, a short story I had been playing over in my mind for a number of years that I wrote in the days immediately after attending the workshop and can be found here: https://lucykaufman.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/happy-international-womens-day/ And on the list is Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk, my play about Karl Marx’s remarkable youngest daughter that has a four-week run in Sydenham, around the corner from where she lived and died, April 18th – 12th May http://spontaneousproductions.co.uk/events/eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk-from-weds-18-april/

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Death By Suicide? Or the Husband Did It? You decide.

On a bitterly cold Thursday, 120 years ago today, a woman was found on her bed at 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham, dressed in a thin white summer dress, and turned bright blue from prussic acid poisoning. The woman was Eleanor Marx — Karl Marx’s youngest daughter — and the verdict given at the inquest was ‘Suicide by swallowing prussic acid at the time labouring under mental derangement’. She was 43.

All these years on, Wikipedia states Eleanor Marx’s death as suicide, indeed the jurors’ verdict of suicide has come to be accepted everywhere. This is in spite of the discrepancies in the testimonies at the inquest and the fact her friends were suspicious of her common-law husband Dr. Edward Aveling and planned to take a civil case out against him for murder.

Eleanor Marx is a largely forgotten figure, recently revived in the public consciousness by Rachel Holmes’s wonderful book Eleanor Marx: A Life. Eleanor (or ‘Tussy’ as she was affectionately known by her family and friends) is best known for being Karl Marx’s youngest daughter and one whose identity was particularly enmeshed with his own; he said of Tussy, ‘Tussy is me’. Despite this inseparable relationship with her more famous father, Tussy was a remarkable woman in her own right.

The foremother of socialist feminism and the first woman to lead a union, Tussy was a woman ahead of her time. For a Victorian, let alone a Victorian woman, she was transgressive. She was the first to translate Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English (a book banned for obscenity in France at the time) and the first to perform Ibsen’s Nora in his groundbreaking play A Dolls House, which questioned whether a woman’s place was one of subordination to her husband. Unconventional in her dress and hair-style (she wore her hair loose and had no interest in fashion), Tussy also flirted with controversy in her domestic arrangements. She was not married to Aveling (he was still legally married when she met him, to his estranged wife ‘Bell’ from an earlier marriage) but lived with him as though married, writing to tell all those she loved and respected that this was her intention. Upon her ‘marriage’, Eleanor double-barrelled her name to Marx-Aveling, thus keeping her maiden name — something modern women are more familiar with.

Eleanor bought her first and only house on Jews Walk with money left to her by Engels, her father’s friend and her mentor. The years leading up to her buying her house had been stressful and a surprise revelation about her father had rocked her world. For Eleanor, Jews Walk meant stability, solace and something of her own. She was largely drawn by the name of the road and joked about it with her friends, who ribbed her that it was the only reason she had chosen this particular house to put down her roots. Tussy was proud of her Jewish ancestry, describing herself as a ‘Jewess’, regardless of the fact her father had no interest in religion or his heritage — one thing that set her apart from her father. She said, ‘I am Jewishly proud of my house in Jews Walk’ and wrote to everybody, inviting them to come and see ‘the Jews’. She moved to 7 Jews Walk — ‘The Den’ as she called it — determined to be happy there.

Less than three years later, on 31st March 1898, Tussy lay bright blue and dying, to be found by her trusted maid Gerty Gentry too late for anything to be done. Was Eleanor Marx’s death caused by her own hand, as the jury at the inquest believed, or did her ‘husband’ Edward have a hand in it? Dr. Edward Aveling: a man described as physically repulsive, a man her friends called a ‘reptile’, ‘a little lizard’, ‘a disreputable dog’, and whose Engels’s biographer said had ‘the thieving instincts of a jackdaw, the morals of a tom-cat’.

What led Eleanor Marx to her untimely death is painstakingly pieced together in Rachel Holmes’s biography and is dramatised in my new play Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk. The play, which is to be performed Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre, around the corner from where she lived and died, is set entirely at 7 Jews Walk and spans the final seven months of Tussy’s life. The production marks the 120th anniversary of her tragic, and mysterious, death.

Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk has a four-week run from April 18th – May 12th 2018, Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre, Sydenham, SE London. Tickets can be purchased from spontaneousproductions.co.uk/marx

Learn more about Eleanor Marx in preparation for my play, at a special event marking the 120 year anniversary of her death Eleanor & Friends, when Eleanor’s biographer Rachel Holmes, poet Tara Bergin, political theorist Dr. Dana Mills, local historian Steve Grindlay and I will be speaking about Eleanor; and Sydenham’s professional theatre company Spontaneous Productions will be unveiling two short extracts from my upcoming play. Tickets can be booked here: spontaneousproductions.co.uk/eleanor-and-friends


sp_eleanor_a5flyer_front (2)sp_eleanor_a5flyer_back (2)Eleanor Marx teaser

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