Focus on the Positive – IWD 2019

Mary Vindication Louisa annotated v2

This International Women’s Day, I will be offering another walk featuring the heroic Mary Wollstonecraft and other inspiring female writers and fighters in Hackney for social justice who don’t get the recognition they ought to, like Anna Laetitia Barbauld.

I could give you countless negative reasons why this man has ended up hosting polemical walks about women’s history; a long-running theme of Hackney tours is “making the invisible visible” (DuChamp), part of which involves holding up to the light things that clearly do not serve us any more.

But on the 9th March IWD walk we will focus on the positive. There will be a pop-up art exhibition by the talented artist Louise Albani – my collaborator on all things Wollstonecraft, Blake, Romantic and Gothic – and as we explore the inspiring radical history of Hackney women we will also celebrate the poetry of protest by powerhouse of positivity Salena Godden.

Some posit that the very values of the Enlightenment are under attack right now. The argument that we move irreversibly towards a better world is not held by all scholars; some believe that everything is cyclical and a better future is actually less inevitable than global turmoil.

But unless we just give up, the positive message of the women of Hackney who fought against gender inequality, slavery and intolerance is needed as much as ever. Mary Wollstonecraft is sometimes said to have mixed the reason that the Rational Dissenters of Hackney were known for with a compassion that was lacking in some of the ‘grands hommes’ of the time. The excesses of the French Revolution were not for her, she wanted equality, not vengeance.

I was reminded of this listening to Selena Gordon deliver her powerful poetic message ‘Pessimism is for Lightweights’ at Faversham Literary Festival. Contrasting the daily drip feed of negative news as she premiered ‘The Poets are on the Rise’, she reminded us that whilst chauvinism is more visible at the moment, so is poetry. An upsurge in the less mainstream but more glamorous form of wordplay (‘if prose is the infantry, then poetry is the aviation’) may seem at first glance to be of little comfort.

But it is part of a wider wave of resistance to the intolerance of the Trump and Brexit era. Echoing the thoughts of Enlightenment champion Stephen Pinker, there is the suggestion that the linear-progressive post-Enlightenment constant-evolution argument is correct. Or, at the very least, many positive progressive responses are coming from the grass roots – and it’s still all to play for…

Half of the funds from this walk go to the campaign – because symbols are important – Mary on the Green and also to the trust responsible for so much good work in Abney Park Cemetery. Book here for the 9th March walk and celebrate International Women’s Day with a focus on the positive. Catch Salena Godden doing her thing at Rough Trade Books on IWD Fri 8th March.


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