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Archive for July 8th, 2010

This month back in 1937, Amelia Earhart went missing. Radio contact with her plane was lost as she crossed the central Pacific Ocean and she was never officially heard from again. The following January, one of the most celebrated aviators of the period was declared dead. The US pilot had the true high-flying lifestyle – she was feted and celebrated on a circuit famed for its showmanship and flamboyance. There’s some evidence [that should really read ‘speculation’] she may have died as a castaway, but ultimately it seems her life was cut short due to her passion for flight.

But there was another winged woman in that era of dare-devil barnstorming and aeronautic record-breaking. One who also had worldwide fame and acclaim, and who many argue was a more competent pilot and technician. Mary Heath from Limerick moved in the same circles as Earhart and captured the media’s attention with her glamorous antics both high in the air and on terra firma. It seems quite bizarre that Lady Heath (her second husband – of three, no less – was a an elderly peer with the funds to bankroll her insatiable appetite for the flying life) is all but forgotten from our lore. It’s particularly surprising because in celebrity terms she ticked every box to make her story last: a hideous take-off, a stratospheric career, sudden accident and slow, downward spiral to a pitiful crash death just a couple of years after Earhart went missing.

Heath was born Sophia Theresa Catherine Mary Peirce Evans in 1896 at Knockaderry, Co. Limerick. Her father, a volatile character, bludgeoned her mother to death as the toddler Sophie lay bundled up asleep. Raised by her aunts and grandmother (her father was detained in an asylum until his death) Sophie was an energetic tomboy. She was schooled in Dublin and went to college but dropped out to help with the war effort, where she met and married husband number 1.

At this stage Sophie was a keen and highly successful athlete in England and on the back from a sports meeting in Prague in 1925 she got chatting to a pilot. He suggested she come to a flying show in London and it was there she got her first flying lesson and was hooked. From there she rapidly became part of the scene and campaigned vigorously for women to be able to hold a commercial flying licence – at the time menstruation was cited as a reason for banning women from being pilots! – and she eventually became the first woman in Britain to be recognised as a commercial pilot.

Aviation in the 1920s was all about excitement – during the Great War planes were considered war machines, but now the focus was on antics and derring-do. Lady Mary dazzled crowds with her bravery in races and stunt shows, and won the media over with her glamour and wit. She set international flight records and hung out with the US set, including Charles Lindburgh. But in 1929 she suffered horrendous injuries in a crash in the US where she went through the roof of a building. She went on to fly again but her career was on the wane and she returned home with hubby number three and trained young pilots. I spoke to one man who went up in the plane with her at that time and he laughingly recalls a formidable woman with a mouth on her that was not for the feeble of heart.

Mary’s reliance on the drink became more apparent and she eventually moved to London where she died from head injuries sustained when she fell down the stairs of a tram. A tragically understated end to a one-time blistering career. Journalist and author Lindie Naughton is one of the foremost authorities on Mary Heath and you can find out more and see videos of Heath in full flight here .

Claire O’Connell

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On a recent visit to my parents’ house, I was given a huge box of assorted junk to sort through. In amongst the Leaving Cert notes and photographs and cassette cases were the diaries. Innocent-looking copybooks, mostly, covered with brown paper and scrawled REM lyrics. I had to wait until I was back in my own flat with a cup of tea before I could bear to open them up.

And oh, I was a moany teenager. I moaned at length and in terrible handwriting about boys I fancied who didn’t fancy me back (and vice versa), about getting braces, about the social injustice of not being allowed to go to the school disco. I seem to have left the most embarrassing stuff out, like the time I tried to cut my own fringe, but still, the copybooks made for stomach-lurching reading. They’ve since been tucked away out of sight in the spare bedroom.

But while I don’t reckon my adolescent rants will be seeing the light of day again any time soon, plenty of people in Ireland and the UK have been dusting off their diaries and taking part in so-called “shame parties”. Part confessional, part group therapy, participants in the gatherings take turns to read the most squirm-inducing diary entries, song lyrics, poems and letters from their teen years aloud. One such party, the Cringe series, has spawned two books of assorted angst from its contributors, including some gems excerpted by the Guardian here.

So, ‘fess up, readers – did you keep diaries as a teenager? And could you stand to re-read them now – in private or in public?

Catherine Brodigan

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Let’s clear the air here. There should be no more debate about whether the lifestyle of the Sex of the City women is one to aspire to.

The characters of the TV series, the ones that lived in a city where I wanted to live, who had wardrobes that didn’t look completely like a four-year-old high on Cheesy Puffs had sketched them up, and who were allowed to put down the penises and let some decent one-liners pass through their hi-shine lips from time to time, are long gone. The cutout dollies that totter through the films are turgid, unwatchable, sick-making puppets.

Literally sick-making. When I was watching the first one in the cinema – purely for the purpose of patronising my sister afterwards, I assure you – a girl actually vomited. Right on the floor two rows over. She and her friends left before the lights went up and the cleaner who came in as the credits rolled eyed us all with suspicion when she found the mess. I don’t blame her – we all looked pretty green around the gills after being forced to eat crap for nigh-on two hours.

I guess I was always ruined for SATC though because I’ve known what my dream lifestyle would be since I was 10 years old and came to know one Jessica Beatrice Fletcher. I’ve been recently reminding myself of what I should be aiming for in about 30 years’ time because RTE One are showing re-runs of Murder, She Wrote as a mid-afternoon delight.

They don’t make daytime TV heroines like crime-novelist/murder-mystery-sleuth JB Fletcher. I can now appreciate how impressive it was at all that an older female actress could anchor such a huge TV series in the 1980s.

But back then, I didn’t care about that. All I knew was that this was a dame whose life I wanted.  How amazing was she? Here was a pensionable woman jogging – actually jogging – in the opening credits. This was revolutionary to me because the most exercise old ladies I knew got seemed to be picking up dropped stitches in their knitting.

If she wasn’t cycling around Cabot Cove solving localised murders and tapping away in a disciplined fashion on her typewriter in her nicely-appointed study (She had an actual study! With bookshelves!) she was jetsetting off on some book tour, all expenses paid. This was a woman who was earning enough money from her own talent to be put up at the Plaza.

It hadn’t been easy for Jess, we knew that. We got a nod from her androgynous pen name, JB Fletcher, that she had to be smart to make it in the macho world of crimewriting. As far as I was concerned, that just put her on a par with George Eliot. (I liked Silas Marner. I was a strange child.)

She was also a widow but she wasn’t going to wallow in it. She was out there doing her thing. I admired how easy she was in any social situation, from gutting fish with Amos at home in C.C. to gently keeping leery old millionaires at arms’ length on her many business trips to the metropolis.

This was also a woman who had genuinely platonic male friends in Dr Seth and Sheriff Amos. Jess didn’t play coy games. She liked men but she knew she was absolutely their equal (although secretly, we knew she was more astute and clued-in than them). Jess had friends everywhere – and they were friends with country club memberships and penthouse suites at her disposal.

You or I might be flustered by this kind of social whirl but Jessica was a smart packer. She did city-casual well. Neat crew-neck sweaters, crisp cotton shirts – never blouses, mind – with the cuffs nattily folded back, sharply tailored tweed slacks. But Mrs F. she could pull sophisticated glamour out of the bag. Dinner at the Bosmanian Ambassador’s residence? No problemo; check out Jessica’s night-sky blue silk skirt suit. Charity function with the Guggenheims? Certainly, just give her a moment in her hotel suite to slip into a smart black batwing frock.

Of course the show was formulaic, and she always got her murderous man or woman. But it was the way she moved through the plot, self-sufficient but friendly, wealthy but not complacent about it, her curiousity always tempered with concern and compassion, that made Mrs Fletcher special. I wanted her fulfilling life but more importantly I aspired to be at least half the woman she was.

Do yourself a favour and treat yourself to Jess and the City.

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A few years ago, I tried to have a conversation with my Dad about how pornography objectified women – a conversation that I’ve had with almost all of my friends and, typically, I have convinced almost none of them. I remember talking about how threesomes, in particular, were gruesome to me; it’s all, I said, about pleasing the man. Because what a man in these movies wants, essentially, is a girl who’ll eat pussy, but only if a man’s watching.

As a slight aside, that reminds me of one of my favourite lines in Colum McCann‘s As the Great World Spins:

They fuck you like they’re doing you a big favor. Every man wants a whore to rescue, that’s the knockdown truth.

My Dad – and yes, sure, let’s all talk about how strange it is that I had this conversation with my father – asked me if it was the same if it was two men and a woman; how about if the woman is the one, and they are the two. What then? Are they performing for her? And I realised that, no matter how many women there are, or how many men, it’s always the woman who’s the performer.

A woman’s role in our society, at least as defined by pornography and sexual norms, is as the object. The man is the voyeur; she is the painting, while he, the fine art lover, to give more credit than is due. I think it was Susan Brownmiller who taught me that, no matter how much a woman may be enjoying it, the language of sex means that she’s always going to be the one getting fucked. The man is active, while she is passive. She may be the performer, but she is performing for him. Which brings me nicely to Janet:

At the Essence Music Festival, Ms Jackson brings a “lucky concertgoer” on stage to perform for. That’s all she’s doing: performing for him. When Enrique Iglesias brings a woman onstage (I know, I know, the lucky girl), he sings about loving her (“I can be your hero, baby”); when Janet brings a man on stage, she sings about sex (“I touched myself, even though you told me not to”) and, for that matter, obeying orders. With role models like these, who needs Lindsay Lohan?

Rosemary McCabe

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