FLORENCE HOWE

activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press




Florence in Words

A Week in London

August 27, 2014

Tags: traveling

It is hard to explain why London is so fraught for me with emotional longings, for home, for missed opportunities, regrets, losses, and, at the same time, filled with anticipations of joy and even magic. I like the look of it—yes, that’s one simple pleasure. I connect it with memories of youthful adventure, including the month I spent at the British Museum copying out the manuscript of Mrs. Dalloway, each morning greeted warmly by the guards, to whom I had made presents of political buttons calling for an end to the Vietnam War. I remember the visits to the National Gallery, the old Tate and then the new Tate Modern. I remember the little hotel on a street one block long, just off Piccadilly, where I stayed with daughter Alice one year, with friend Helene another, and once with Mariam Chamberlain as well. Five years ago, I shared an apartment in the suburbs with Susie Tharu and her husband, and I remember a very hot day, when we walked across the pedestrian bridge to see a play at the National Theatre. And the early days of the National itself, gleaming white in the sunlight, pristine still. I’d visit on the very first day to buy tickets to whatever was on in its three theatres. And in those days, there would be live music an hour before curtain time in the extensive lounges on the ground floor.

But this visit bound to be different not only because of my walking problems—we took many taxis--but also because I was going to share the time with Christiane Owusu-Sarpong, the French translator of the Women Writing Africa volumes, two of whose children lived in London. Didier, Christiane’s son, and his fiancée, Clare Podbury, had just bought the apartment in Canary Wharf they had been living in for a decade. The area, on the river, and within a short bus ride or a long walk to the underground and ferry wharf, is the new financial center of London (see skyscraper photos). They invited us to stay with them for a week. The apartment is spacious, beautiful, decorated in what Clare calls “greige,” and ornamented as well by the river and by exquisite sunsets off a deck outside the living room’s glass wall. One day Christiane and I walked along the river from the apartment to take the Thames ferry to the Tate Modern.

Christiane and her daughter, ColetteDidier and ClareCanary Wharf
Christiane and her daughter, ColetteDidier and ClareCanary Wharf


In all, we saw three plays, viewed four art exhibits, and ate two lunches at the Tate Modern, one at the Globe, another at the National Gallery, and took Clare and Didier out to two dinners in upscale restaurants. The plays: Julius Caesar at the Globe, a special experience because of the theatre, and a good example of how discomfort can vanish when one is caught up in language and movement. We were at the National twice, catching it in some disarray, as it prepares to revise itself in time for a 50th anniversary celebration. There, we saw Alan Ackbourne’s A Small Family Business, an old play but totally contemporary in our greedy world; as if to prove it, we also saw Great Britain, the brand new riff on the newspaper scandals that tore open other veneers of our shared greedy culture.

Out the window during the dayThe GlobeStorm over London
Out the window during the dayThe GlobeStorm over London


View from the apartment
View from London flat in Canary Wharf


On our first day in London, we went to the Virginia Woolf exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, a new experience for Christiane, who is just beginning to read Woolf, and overwhelming for me, for many different reasons. Later in the week, we took the boat to the Tate Modern first to have lunch with Christiane’s daughter, Dr. Colette and her young niece Ohemma, who would also like to be a doctor, then to view the huge exhibit of Henri Matisse’s “Cutouts,” which included snippets of film showing him making them. Still later in the week we returned to the Tate to see a large retrospective of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, whose work I had first seen in Russia in 2006. As our last exhibit, Christiane chose an unusual riff on “Color” at the National Gallery, focused not only on the paintings but on the creation of paint itself.

I should mention one sharply different experience of London. When traveling with Mariam, for example, we always did a bit of shopping, and never missed a trip to Liberty’s, Mariam’s favorite. We ate in little tearooms she enjoyed in the shopping area, or off Piccadilly. This time, when Christiane and I took the bus to the Canary Wharf stop of the underground we took escalators down to a huge mall, where we could have coffee at Starbucks, use the bank machines, and buy the International New York Times. One morning, all four of us went to that underground mall to choose a Nespresso machine as a thank you gift to Clare and Didier. We could also have done the week’s marketing right there as well. Yes, London was different, but for me still a charmed place.

The Workshop Weekend at the University of Lincoln, England

August 26, 2014

Tags: traveling

Formally, the workshop I attended during the weekend of July 19/20 was part of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Collaborative Skills Development Programme, an innovative, imaginative creation funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain, and directed by Dr. Lucie Armitt and Dr. Susan Watkins, two women I met at a conference in Taiwan during the summer of 2012. Apparently, my talk, “Lost and Found—And What Happened Next,” had, in part, inspired them to apply for funding. They asked for permission to use my name and cite my work. The impetus for their energy: along with their interest in contemporary women writers, they knew that graduate students and young faculty were challenged by a difficult and changing job market, for which new skills were needed even for the most diligent and accomplished.

As Lucie wrote to describe the program: “Some sessions have been very practical in focus (e.g. how to construct a successful CV) but others have been based around the first-hand experiences of high-profile figures . . . and provide an invaluable opportunity for…a more interactive conversation.” She said I was welcome to attend both days. The participants were 20 postgraduate researchers, some writing doctorates, some working at temporary teaching jobs, and a few early career researchers. Saturday’s curriculum was, to me, both novel and practical. Dr. Yuwei Lin, of the Creative Arts, Farnham, offered first a talk on “Gendered Innovation in Information, Communication, and Entertainment Technologies,” and then, instruction in “How to Use Digital Mapping in Writing-Related Research.” The first session reminded me of the early days of women’s studies when we focused on sexist language and usage in all spheres of language and movement. The second was an area I’d like to know more about, since I like using maps and had not imagined their sex-bias. As part of the learning process, the group went out to a nearby neighborhood to remap an area, keeping in mind what might be useful to women with baby carriages, for example, or elderly people needing a place to rest.

On Saturday afternoon, a novel training experience: Organized by media professionals at Lincoln University, each participant taped both a radio and a television interview, both of which would be reviewed by the group on Sunday afternoon.

On Saturday evening, the participants, the two directors, and the two invited speakers attended a formal dinner at Wig & Mitre, whose address factually describes its location—12 Steep Hill, in an historic area of Lincoln, near the Cathedral and the Castle. The food was wonderful, and slow to arrive, which allowed me to get a sense of the participants, and to ask my own questions. “You all look very young to me,” I said, “Some of you could pass for teenagers.” They smiled happily, I thought, and when asked “How many of you are under thirty?’ more than the majority raised their hands. Most of the others were in their thirties.

No one had understood that I was 85—I think they thought they were inviting someone who was 65. Perhaps that’s the age that young people imagine when they think of someone who is, well, “old.” I asked other questions: Are they feminists? Have they been activists? What do they know about the past 40 to 50 years? And soon enough, I knew I could be useful even if I simply described what life was like for academic women half a century ago. And so on Sunday morning
I talked about my long, thwarted relationship with Virginia Woolf, my attempt in the 1950s to establish her as my dissertation subject, despite my professor’s negative views. I talked about making decisions later to give up scholarship for the Feminist Press, and what that meant now to my life. In short, I talked about choices. And I came away, as I had back in Taiwan, with mixed feelings, wondering whether anything I said had been useful. I came away seeing myself as something of a “relic,” a “throwback,” a living fossil, though I ignored the word “living.”

Sunday afternoon provided the excitement of radio and TV playbacks and some discussion, while a photographer worked around us. (The photograph of me is one he has asked to post on his web site.) In the final summary session, participants discussed the “wider impact of intellectual work,” beyond a single course of study or teaching. They noted their appreciation of entrepreneurial aspects of the workshop that might make them additionally employable, as in learning how “to market one’s self.” There was also a bit of talk about the “wider impact of intellectual work.”

It’s a month later, and I’m willing to say I don’t know whether I was of use. I am grateful to Susan and Lucy for the invitation and I want to offer special thanks to Rosalyn Casbard of Lincoln University, who arranged my air and train travel with special “care,” which meant that people met me to help me with luggage and provide a wheelchair. And I am very grateful.

Travel 2014

August 4, 2014

Tags: traveling

Christiane Owusu-Sarpong
I was so certain that I would never travel abroad again that I gave away my large red suitcase, perfect for a two or three-week journey that, with careful planning, could even be stretched to four. And so the only annoyance facing me as I decided to accept a summer speaking engagement at an English university, was that I would have to buy a new suitcase, if, indeed, I wanted to stretch the weekend, for which I would have a flight ticket, into a longer stay in England, even stretching to the continent. Of course nothing is ever simple, and so about a month before I was to leave, I suddenly could not walk, for pain on the right foot when I stepped on it. It was not pain that would disappear with an aspirin. And for a few weeks, I thought I would have to scrap the delicious plans I had already made.

The plans: for more years than I’d like to remember, my friend, Christiane Owusu-Sarpong (the translator into French of the four volumes called Women Writing Africa published by The Feminist Press), had been asking me to come to Strasbourg, France, where she lives, and go with her to her friends in Luzern, Switzerland. She also wanted to meet me in London so that we both might together enjoy museums and theaters. So I wrote and told her about the invitation from the English organizers—professors Lucie Armitt and Susan Watkins, both of whom I had met in Taiwan in 2012. Christiane was headed for London to visit her children who lived there. And so the first plan was to meet in London after the weekend workshop with 15 professionals in contemporary literature at the university in Lincoln.

In another blog, I will write about that weekend in Lincoln, but here I want only to outline the plan, the first obstruction which had to be overcome, and a bit of my experience thus far. The obstruction: How could I travel if I could not stand on my right foot? A podiatrist figured out that the knee surgery on the left leg had increased the difference between the lengths of each leg, causing intense stress on the right leg and ankle—all of which was confirmed by a pair of MRIs. Then, with some aids in my shoes, and with some heavy-duty but not ugly New Balance shoes, all of this completed within a week of departure (along with the purchase of a new large suitcase), I was able to depart on schedule, and without frightening any of the people who were expecting me.

The travel plan: After the weekend in Lincoln, I took a train to London, where Christiane met me, and took me to the elegant apartment in Canary Wharf of her son Didier Owusu Sarpong and his partner of many years and fiancée, Clare Podbury. We were there for a week, and from there went to three plays, four art exhibits, and one lecture, as well as much walking about, dining out, once at a famous Argentine restaurant, Gaucho.

Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral


We arrived in Strasbourg three days ago--in the last week of July—and will stay for two more, and leave for Luzern, Switzerland (by train) on Monday morning. There we will stay for a week with friends of Christiane, two women in their early eighties and their brother who is a decade younger. They have large summer house on the lake, and are eager to have us visit.

So there it is for a start. I am writing this on a computer that is difficult and with email that doesn’t work well on it, but I am going to try to send this to dear Jeannette Petras, who has been posting my blogs ever since I began to write them. She is in Ohio, and if all this works, she will have it up for me before long. I will try to send photos to her as well. And if all of this seems to be working, I’ll try again tomorrow to write something about each piece of the excursion I never thought I would enjoy. So here’s a moral—for me to remember. Don’t write off in haste what you have always enjoyed. Surprises are possible even in one’s eighties. And travel now is possible even for the moderately infirm, given the concern and attention of airlines and rail travel folks, to whom I feel grateful.

Select Works

"Everyone concerned about global feminism, women’s contributions, and humanity’s future will be enhanced and enchanted by A Life in Motion.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I and Volume II
Lecture delivered by Florence Howe on January 8, 2011, at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention
“It is impossible to imagine women’s studies without Florence Howe. Myths of Coeducation shows her vision and courage, insight and dauntlessness.”–Catharine R. Stimpson, Rutgers University
A revised and expanded edition of the classic groundbreaking anthology of 20th-century American women's poetry, representing more than 100 poets from Amy Lowell to Anne Sexton to Rita Dove.

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