Writing protest

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Last weekend, we sat down with our family to watch 'Suffragette'. I had high hopes  for the film, because, when the campaign group 'Sisters Uncut' threw themselves on the red carpet in protest at cuts to domestic violence services, the movie's stars were quick to support their action. Helena Bonham Carter felt the protest was a 'perfect' response, whilst Romola Garai said, 'I’m happy to see the suffrage movement is alive and happening', which suggested that 'Suffragette' might actually be a true reflection of the movement's history, rather than a sanitised biopic.

I'm glad to say I wasn't disappointed. Abi Morgan's fine screenplay took her fictional laundry worker, Maud (brilliantly played by Carey Mulligan) from a life of quiet submission, to embattled activist, losing husband, son and job along the way. It was a film that showed the costs of activism (husband or protest?); the brutality of the response (women beaten on the streets and force fed in prison); the arguments about tactics (is blowing up the Chancellor's summer house legitimate?), whilst also demonstrating exactly why such actions were necessary. The daily sexism faced by every character, having to cede authority to a husband, fending off a sexually rampant boss, being told they were nothing, helped flesh out a familiar story and made us root for every one of them to get the justice they deserved. It's a masterclass in how to write about protest effectively, without ramming the message down the audience's throats.

As a peace activist myself, married to a peace activist who has often undertaken acts of civil disobedience, I'm very familiar with the world of protest. Our lives regularly involve demonstrations, arrests, court cases, and twice, a short period of imprisonment. It's a world that is unfamiliar to many, and one I wanted to reflect in 'Echo Hall' without being  too preachy about it. Each era of the novel features people who go to war, and those who resist. Two characters are RAF pilots, one is a reservist who fights in the Gulf War. Two are conscientious objectors and in the 1990's section, one character lives in a peace activist community, some of whom take part in the Gulf War Peace Camp.  I have tried to include arguments for and against war, and to ensure that there are sympathetic and less sympathetic characters on both sides of the debate.I have also tried to show that both fighting and resisting war require courage, and incur huge costs.

I hope in this way that I have done justice to the bravery of people who fight (even though I disagree with them) and the commitment and courage of the many wonderful activists I'm privileged to know. On the night 'Suffragette' was launched, Carey Mulligan said 'Hopefully this film will inspire everyone in the way they view the world', I hope 'Echo Hall' will have the same effect.

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