Archive for the ‘Anti-Heroines’ Category

A week ago it was my grandmother’s birthday.

Nanna lives all by herself in a little council flat in central London, a flat with a tiny paved square in front which is filled with carefully tended pot plants, like a leafy bubble in a grey, concrete world. I phoned her, as you do, and my timing was spot on, because she’d just put her birthday lunch in the oven – a pork chop with stuffing, roast potatoes and veg followed by her homemade banana custard, which she’s dished up since I can remember – and so I caught her sitting down, which must have been a first. Perhaps she’s slowing down, but then I guess that’s allowed at 93.

My grandmother, Florence Heathcote, during her military days.

Everyone marvelled at Queen Elizabeth, but she’s a mere sprightly, well-cared-for 85.

Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman, my grandmother, born Florence Alice Rose in 1918, now Florence Heathcote. She looks like all grandmothers should in her pastel polo shirts, with a halo of soft curls – washed and set at the local salon on Thursdays – and spectacles permanently on her nose. But her eyesight isn’t failing at all. No, she already had glasses in the picture I have of her  during World War Two. In it she’s wearing a tie, a uniform and a military-style peaked cap set at a jaunty angle – “ooh, that was very naughty of me,” she chuckled when she gave me the photo – but then this portrait was an official identity photo, taken when she was serving in the Royal Air Force in Bombay in 1943.

Her ration card shows that she bought a surprising number of cigarettes. I’ve never known her to smoke but maybe she did back then, or maybe she had a thriving micro-business selling on fags to the troops. I like to imagine she had a naughty side like that, something to match her non-regulation hat angle. Oh, and she bought a lipstick on her ration card too. Good woman.

She remained in active service until 1951, rising to the rank of Sergeant, then went back to Britain and worked, quietly, stoically, for the telephone company until she retired. She married my granddad several years after his first wife – my mother’s mother – died too early, and never had children of her own. She happily took on all of us though, crocheting us dresses, hoarding Dolly Mixtures for my mum, and arguing with my dad about politics. We went to visit her once and couldn’t get up her street because some mad IRA chap was waving weapons about. We went around the back way and had to crawl under the windows in the stairwell so he wouldn’t see us.
Well, that’s when she wasn’t visiting us in South Africa bearing gifts of Smarties (in tubes!) and ever-more pastel crocheted jerkins, before patiently potty-training my sister, or cheering on Manchester City or gardening or making lemon curd or shouting at the cricket on telly or striding about the lakes and parks of the world, reminding children not to talk with their mouths full. She threatened to tie my legs to the chair for swinging them at the table.

One of Nanna's newspaper cuttings. (Yes, that's her in the background, but don't tell.)

I went to see her last year, and she met me at the door holding a walking stick, but her grip on it was so light she could have been Liza Minnelli interrupted during a (gentle) tap-dance to New York, New York. Her legs “aren’t what they used to be” she said, although when I left she walked me all the way to the canal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left her stick at home.

I turned to shout goodbye from the banks and she stood on the bridge, firm and unswerving, waving until we rounded the bend, and I felt tearful, knowing she was 92 and wondering if I’d see her again.

But still, now 93, she continues to walk everywhere, taking her wheelie shopping bag for her groceries and wool. The wool is very important, because she keeps her fingers nimble knitting hats for premature babies. She makes baby blankets for charity too. Sometimes stillborns get buried in her warm hats, she told me, clearly a bittersweet point of pride to a lady who has lived for so long.

The day previous to her birthday she made herself a pile of her favourite lemon biscuits as a treat, and her beloved Manchester City winning the FA Cup was her own personal birthday present. Not that she watched the match though. “I couldn’t,” she said, “The stress would have killed me.”

She’s of another era entirely, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but perhaps that was my fault, my unyielding temper, because she’s still mentally flexible. When I called she was delighted to hear from me and chatted brightly about everything, from her much-loved new HD satellite telly (she’s a demon with technology) to her great-nephew, who’s “unf… gay”. “Oh dear, I nearly said he’s unfortunately gay, but we don’t say things like that anymore,” said Nanna. “He lives in Manchester with his partner, and they’re happy, which is all that matters.”

Yes, she’s still completely mentally flexible, able to oust her prejudices and bend to changing times, even graciously accepting that her favourite great-niece has moved in with a chap. “Her father was a bit upset,” she said, “But I told him that people do things differently nowadays, and it’s their world.”

There won’t be a big obituary in all the papers or a state funeral when my grandmother eventually dies – possibly years after me at the rate she’s going –  and nothing will be said of her in the history books, even though she’s surely quite remarkable in this age of gimme and impatience and fame. So, while she still lives, I feel the need to shout that she’s an inspiration and a marvel, both her and the others that remain of her generation, the formidable, useful, capable, polite, principled, quietly noble generation, the generation that did what had to be done, that Just Got On With It, the generation that “looked after number one” very last of all.

We should treasure them now, and learn from them while we still can.

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A few weeks ago I met a delegation of Swedish journalists on a visit to Dublin. Fresh from a visit to the Irish Times offices, they remarked on the fact that there seemed to be very few women in the newsroom. They pointed out that in Sweden, men and women are so evenly distributed across the workplace that equality is something that’s hardly even discussed any more. It’s taken for granted. Inequality is a historical curiosity, or something to be noticed in other countries.

I’d been thinking about this, off and on, when I first heard that Easter Sunday would see the publication of a biography of Rachel Beer. Beer (born in 1858) was the first woman editor of a national newspaper in Britain; actually, she edited two papers at the same time – both The Sunday Times and The Observer.

As a young woman, Beer deliberately delayed marrying, because she didn’t want to land up with someone who was interested only in her fortune (her family, the Sassoons, had amassed quite a pile through the opium and cotton trades) or in squashing her independence. She ended up marrying (for love) financier Frederick Beer, who inherited the Observer from his father. (Why has no-one ever written a will leaving me even, say, a local freesheet?) He’d converted from Judaism to Christianity, which caused Rachel’s mother, and other members of her staunchly Jewish family, to refuse to see her.

At any rate, Frederick installed his wife as editor of the Observer in 1891. It wasn’t just a rich woman’s hobby – there was no fooling about on the fringes of her husband’s work for Rachel Beer – but a real job. She wrote news copy and editorials, and sniffed out stories even though as a woman she was unable to gain access to the spaces where news stories developed: the House of Commons and the exclusive city clubs where gossipy politicians, tycoons and male editors sculled madeira and snorted snuff. One of her great scoops was persuading Count Esterhazy to admit to the forgery of the letters which had led to Captain Dreyfus’s conviction and life imprisonment for treason – ultimately Dreyfus was released and Esterhazy was court martialled.

In 1894 she bought the Sunday Times and edited it simultaneously with the Observer, but by 1896, Frederick had become seriously ill with tuberculosis, and by 1903 he was dead. His death devastated Rachel, and her family reported her behaviour as being increasingly erratic. They had her sectioned (always so convenient), the newspapers were sold, and she lived in care for the rest of her life.

No woman was to edit a Fleet Street newspaper for eighty years after Rachel Beer. It’s about time we took our hats off to her. This biography, First Lady of Fleet Street The Life, Fortune and Tragedy of Rachel Beer by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, was published on 24th April.

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Self-portrait with Monkeys (1943) - Frida Kahlo

Who needs or wants to know about the inner workings of other people’s relationships? About the minor detail of their lives? We may not need to know but we certainly want to know about some couples. Often the stormier the pairing, the more drawn we are to the drama. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, for example; or Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are a good example of a couple that excite curiosity. And because of their meticulous recording of their lives through art, as well as some artful myth spinning, we know a lot about a lot of their life together. They married each other twice. He – and then she – was serially unfaithful. Between them they notched up as lovers famous communists and actors, painters and photographers, including Leon Trotsky and Paulette Goddard. Rivera even had an affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina.

A joint exhibition of Kahlo’s and Rivera’s work was launched on Tuesday night at IMMA in Dublin. It is comprised of masterpieces from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman. At the opening we were treated to Mexican beer and margaritas and even a sparky mariachi band, who had their Irish-based compatriots singing along with gusto. The great hall was thronged with people, excited about this particular exhibition making its way to Ireland. It is a splash of carnival in a dull, grey country and we surely need that.

Our new Arts Minister, Jimmy Deenihan, gave his first major public speech since his appointment and he mentioned several projects with enthusiasm: a new Centre for Literary Excellence in Dublin; he also plans to set up an Arts TV Channel and he is going to prioritise arts education in primary schools. All good news.

Frida Kahlo lived her life in pain and her colour-rich paintings are an autobiography of her love-hate relationship with her physical self, her love for and nurturing of Diego, and her missed chances at motherhood. Rivera’s work is more monumental and political – they were both Communists – and his palette is often more muted than his wife’s.

Kahlo’s self-portraits – and there are many – are compelling: her gaze is head-on and she is often dressed in the vivid Tejuana style of dress she adopted, with elaborate neckpieces and braided hair. My favourite of these is Self-portrait with Necklace, a quiet, earlier piece, though the exhibition includes more well known works such as Self-portrait with Monkeys. Rivera’s stunning Calla Lily Vendors is also on show; he was a painter of the people and he delighted in ordinary scenes of workers going about their business.

The exhibition contains – as well as paintings – drawings, photographs of the artists, diary pages with sketches, collages and lithographs. It is a rich collection of artworks and there is no doubt that thousands of people will flock to it over the next few months, and so they should. It is well worth the trip to see such iconic work ‘in the flesh’.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Masterpieces of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection runs until the 26th June at IMMA. Admission €5, concessions €3.

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In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana an undercover agent, Beatrice, is sent from London to assist Wormold.  On her first night in Cuba she goes out to the most popular nightclub in town and douses a prominent policeman in soda water.  When our (anti)hero chastises her for making herself so conspicuous, she replies with a wonderfully insightful piece of human observation: “Nobody will ask questions any more about who I am. They have the answer.”

Just as Beatrice became “the woman who siphoned the policeman”, Beatrix Potter is the author of the Peter Rabbit books, and Florence Nightingale is the “Lady with the Lamp”. Right?

However, there is more to these two famous women than is commonly known: both of them were talented scientists.

Beatrix Potter didn’t only draw rabbits in blue jackets, she also made careful drawings of her observations down the microscope – at the time the only way to record microscopic images. Through careful observation and experimentation she was one of the first to discover that lichens – those flaky, crusty things you see growing on tree bark and rocks – are not one organism, but two organisms, a fungus and an alga, living in a close, symbiotic relationship.

Unfortunately, she was seriously discouraged in her career by the scientific establishment. As a woman she was not permitted to present her own work to the Linnean Society and had to send her uncle in her stead (the Linnean Society eventually apologised in 1997 for how they had treated her). Beatrix put away her microscope, and focussed instead on her children’s stories.

Florence Nightingale’s story is different in that she was recognised during her lifetime; it seems it is only in retrospect that we have simplified her biography to “Lady with the Lamp”.

The woman who invented nursing did much more than dab an occasional brow and console the dying.  She revolutionised hospital care and crucially demonstrated the importance of hygiene and sanitary practices in patient outcomes. This was at a time when reputation and standing were the most convincing attributes someone could possess, neither of which Ms Nightingale had in abundance.

How could this unconventional person, who happened to also be a woman, persuade the medical establishment to alter their practices?

Florence Nightingale harnessed the undeniable truth and clarity of carefully collected and presented statistics to demonstrate the clear benefits of proper sanitation. It sounds obvious to us today, trained as we are from childhood, that washing your hands, keeping wounds clean, and household sanitation are important for good health, but at the time it was not accepted that there were microscopic things on your hands and on other surfaces that could make you sick.

Florence Nightingale’s work collecting, analysing and presenting statistics was brilliant, and succeeded in convincing the skeptical medical establishment of the importance of santitation.  In recognition she was made the first ever female member of the Royal Statistical Society, and we continue to benefit from her careful work today.

I was delighted to learn all this, only quite recently, and to discover that these women, whom I thought I knew so well, were far more inspirational than I had realised.  Both of them unconventional, intelligent, and ahead of their time.

Occasionally it’s worth remembering to look beyond the simple biography.

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    Lady Gaga is a Madonna fan. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has a) heard her new, predictably controversial single, a catchy homage to Madge by way of a Vogue/ExpressYourself mash up or b) looked at her, at any point since her explosion onto the music scene.

    Don't go for second-best, baby...

    To be fair, Gaga isn’t the only young pop starlet to wear her Madonna inspiration on her sleeve; the grand dame of pop music, Madonna’s influence spreads far and wide. It is almost impossible to avoid comparisons with her if you are female, vaguely edgy and playing the pop music game. This can’t be good for the self-esteem of those concerned because to be brutally frank, there is but one Madonna and she is force of nature.

    I was too little to appreciate Madonna’s ‘old school’ hits the first time around. My poor mother refused point blank to let me put the Immaculate Collection on my Santa list. I do believe were her exact words on the matter were, ‘why would you want to listen to that wan?’ She may or may not have blessed herself for good measure.

    It wasn’t until university that I got my proper introduction to Madonna. Oh sure, I knew the songs – who didn’t – but beyond that, I never gave Madonna a second thought and certainly not in terms of feminism, until she popped up on a course I was taking at university about subverting popular culture.

    At first, I was dubious. To me, Madonna was as mainstream as Adidas tracksuits and cups of tea. She was just another bubblegum pop star who made millions and liked to take her clothes off. So what? But as our lecturer encouraged us to scratch the shiny often very sexy veneer of Madonna’s music, something began to emerge, something that made me spend what little money I had on the Immaculate Collection (CDs were not cheap at the time and illegal downloading was the stuff of fantasy) which I listened to on repeat for a month. In short, I fell in love with Madonna. Here are 3 reasons why:

    Sick of hearing songs about female ’empowerment’ that involve buying things, crying about lost loves and using your booty to get his attention? Then you need Express Yourself, the message of which is simply: value yourself as a human being. Expect your partner to do the same. If he can’t, you’ll be better off alone. (Don’t expect this one to feature on a rom-com sound track any time soon)

    Who says a pop song can’t be serious? Case in point: Papa Don’t Preach. Plenty of pop songs are about sex; very few are about the realities of sex gone wrong and even fewer again are about a young woman facing up to a difficult situation in a world that just does not want to know. The lyrics are as relevant now as they ever were which sadly says a lot about how far we haven’t come.

    On occasion, you might like a bit of sexy music but not obviously sexy music where the singer is shrieking about LOVING SEX, especially with WHIPS, CHAINS, TENNIS BALLS or whatever you might have lying around the house (Rihanna, I’m looking at you). Justify My Love – a song so sexually charged it will have you aching and blushing at the same time, without a tennis ball or whip in sight.

    In terms of subverting popular culture, you could type about Madonna all day long from Sex to the Blonde Ambition Tour (Marilyn but with muscles) and her pop star status aged fifty-something. Likewise, the many gems on the Immaculate Collection are worthy of repeated listening and consideration (sorry Mum!). She has released many albums since, whose merit or lack there of is certainly up for debate.

    The final Madonna moment I’ll leave you with is from the album Music, released in 2000, 10 years after the Immaculate Collection. Gaga et al would do well to remember that while performance art can be fierce fancy and wild, often what is most powerful and sometimes most shocking is using a deceptively simple pop song to hold a mirror up to our grubby world and telling it like it is. Just ask Madonna.

    Madonna/ What It Feels Like for A Girl

    What’s your favourite Madonna moment?

    Mary McGill likes to talk. Thankfully, she gets to do that most nights, hosting i102104’s talk show. She also likes to write, read, travel, listen to music, speak French (badly), laugh a lot and look on the bright side of things – most of the time.  She believes tea is the balm of life and if you make her a nice, strong cup, she’ll love you forever. You can tweet Mary here @missmarymcgill

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Faffing about on the interweb last weekend, I came across an exposé of the mental health system in New York City by one Nellie Bly, who convinced a host of medical and law enforcement officials that she was dangerously insane, got herself involuntarily committed to an aslyum, and then wrote unflinchingly on the abuses visited daily upon the most vulnerable of the state’s citizens, abuses she endured firsthand.

Bly’s report, Ten Days In A Madhouse, lead to a grand jury investigation which directly resulted in an increase of $850,000 in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. It was 1887, a staggering 33 years before American women won the right to vote. Bly was 23 at the time.

This was by no means her first nor last daring assignment. A foreign correspondent at 21, she’d had to flee Mexico after denouncing Porfirio Díaz’s government; shortly after writing Ten Days, and inspired by Jules Verne’s Around The World in Eighty Days,  she broke the record for circumnavigating the globe. But what stunned me most about the Ten Days report was not just Bly’s age or her pluck, but the ease at which she managed to convince all and sundry she was hopelessly crazy.

All it took, apparently, was a night of practising vacant wide-eyes in front of the mirror. Booking into a female boarding house under an assumed name, Bly succeeded in terrifying the women around her simply by acting slightly erratically and refusing to sleep. No tearing her hair out, no speaking in tongues, no physical manifestations of inner turmoil. Sitting up late and sighing; that was enough for the management at the boarding house to cart her in front of a judge and have her taken to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

It made me wonder … just how frail of mind were women once assumed to be? Any inconsistent behaviour at all and they were flung aside by family, friends, society at large – too much trouble to engage with. And not just by the menfolk, either. “Sane” women, with one or two merciful exceptions, do not come across very well in Ten Days; her fellow boarders need little encouragement to proclaim Bly a danger to them and in dire need of incarceration, and while the male doctors in the asylum are hopelessly incompetent, cold and dismissive, the nurses in charge of the day-to-day care of the inmates are absolute monsters. They are physically and emotionally abusive, and derive pleasure from torturing their weaker or genuinely delusional charges. We’ve certainly come a long way in terms of humanity in the last hundred and twenty years, if Ten Days is indicative of society as a whole. Women were regularly committed for such ailments as postpartum depression, for such slights as flirting with men other than their husbands (sound familiar, Ireland?), for such gaffes as not having working English (most heartbreaking is Bly’s account of immigrant women who are committed who have not even been told where they are and why) … even for frailty brought about by convalescence! It seemed even a swoon on the street could land you on The Island, and should you not have friends and family willing and able to pay your way back again, well. One of the things that almost thwarts Bly in her attempt to be committed is that the judge was reluctant to send such a “good girl” to the asylum; she spoke well, and was pretty. No such luck if you were of the teeming working classes, I’d wager.

Terrifying to think that this was acceptable policy only a couple of generations ago, isn’t it? And it’s mind-boggling that it was in this era that Nellie Bly achieved so much. Whilst born into the upper middle classes, she wasn’t exactly rolling in it – her father died when she was six, and her mother’s remarriage to an abusive lout ended in divorce – and yet Bly managed to blaze a trail with nothing more than unshakeable self-belief as her fuel. Really humbling stuff, no?

You can download Ten Days in Word format here.

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Actor and director Anjelica Huston is the star of numerous acclaimed films, from Prizzi’s Honour – for which she won an Oscar in 1985 – and The Addams Family to The Royal Tenenbaums. She spent much of her childhood in Ireland and starred in her legendary director father John’s celebrated 1987 adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. She has directed several films, including the Dublin-set Agnes Browne, in which she again showed her perfect Irish accent. Oh yes, and she was in Spinal Tap too.

What’s the first record you ever bought?
‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ – Percy Sledge, ’66
What’s your favourite smell?
Frangipani, fresh after a warm rain
Have you ever had a nickname?
‘Jelly-bags’ (my brother), ‘Jel’ (my mother)
What is your favourite room in your house?
What are your guilty pleasures?
Chocolate and naps
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’m a farmer.
Who is your closest female friend?
I’ve got a few.
Do you have any tattoos or piercings?
My ears are pierced, twice
Where would you most like to live?
In a beautiful plantation house on a remote but ravishing tropical island
Who was your first kiss and where did it happen?
Joshua Thomas, circa ’66
What’s the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?
Will you marry me?
What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?
What is your favourite word?
Who was your first love?
Joshua Thomas, circa ’65-’66
If you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?
A dancer
Is there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?
Alice in Wonderland

What happens after we die?
Things go on
What female historical figure do you admire most?
Sum yourself up in three words:
Hopeful, wary, animal-lover
And finally… What are you anti? What are you pro?
Anti: cruelty
Pro: gentleness and humour

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Geena Davis - Not Just a Pretty face

Actress Geena Davis is perhaps best remembered in the role of poor, put-upon Thelma, sidekick to Susan Sarendon’s sassy Louise, in Ridley Scott’s 1991 groundbreaking road movie, Thelma & Louise. Although still acting, Ms. Davis has increasingly turned her attention to activism for gender equality, initially in sport and laterally in the media. Interestingly her positive action in support of a more balanced reflection of society in the media sprang from fairly innocuous roots. Back in 2004 Davis was watching television with her young daughter when it struck her that there was a noticeable imbalance in the ratio of male to female characters portrayed in programmes aimed at pre-teens. Not only was there a marked numerical imbalance, it also became apparent that the roles open to female actresses fell into a narrow range of stereotypes: generally sexualised eye-candy. These were programmes directed specifically at children aged under-11, many of them – on both the big screen and the small – viewed by our children too.

Davis became convinced that this insidious form of gender bias was feeding into the reality that females are undervalued in society. “The more TV a girl watches,” Davis concluded, “the more limited she believes her opportunities will be.” This observation ultimately led to the establishment of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the undertaking of a comprehensive research project looking at gender in children’s entertainment at the Annenberg School for Communication of University of Southern California. This study directed by Dr. Stacy Smith and covering four hundred G, PG, PG-13, and R-Rated movie, concluded that for every one female character portrayed, there are almost three males and that girls are given far less screen time.

“The more TV a girl watches,” Davis concluded, “the more limited she believes her opportunities will be.”

The researchers also linked their findings to a resulting undermining of self-esteem amongst young girls and a consequent sexist bias amongst young boys. In response the institute developed a programme, called SEE JANE that works in collaboration with the entertainment industry using research, education and advocacy to dramatically reduce stereotyping and increase the number of female characters included in children’s entertainment.

The approach taken by Geena Davis in tackling gender equality at this fundamental level in the entertainment industry has been recognised and rewarded. In 2009 she received an honorary Doctorate from Bates College, a private liberal arts college located in Lewiston, Maine. Although tangible changes have been affected by the Institute, their task is far from complete. However, it is truly inspiring to see a woman turn an everyday observation into such a laudable and practical programme of action and to learn of a Hollywood legend using their fame to such commendable ends. After all as Geena so straightforwardly puts it, “Kids need to see entertainment where females are valued as much as males.”

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Actress Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia and grew up between Limerick and London.  Having trained at the Samuel Beckett Centre in Trinity College, she got her first major break in 2005, when she was cast in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast On Pluto. Since then, she has maintained a steady career in theatre, film and television – already, in 2010, she has starred in the BBC series Five Daughters and the Irish film Trafficked. From September, she will be appearing in the role of Ophelia in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet.  She recently starred in RTE’s four-part drama Love/Hate.

What was the first record you ever bought?
Nirvana, Heart-Shaped box (with the Marigold b-side where Dave Grohl sings).

What’s your favourite smell?
The smell of summer rain on its way and the smell of the person I’m in love with. Preferably a mix of the two.

Have you ever had a nickname?
Tooters, Roo… all my “weak” passwords, which I’ll now have to change.

What is your favourite room in your house?
My bedroom at around 5pm last Saturday when the evening light hit.

What are your guilty pleasures?
Real pleasures shouldn’t be guilty. I read that somewhere. Wish I could get it into my head. I’m always feeling guilty about something or other. OK, ALL of Paul Rudd’s films.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I know for a fact that people are sick of bloody actors banging on about being shy, but it is true for a lot of us. I am obsessed with the idea that the most important thing about someone is that which you don’t know. I read that somewhere too. I’m looking forward to having an idea or thought of my own.

Who is your closest female friend?
I have three and strangely enough they don’t really know one another: Pippa, Lou and Nadia.

Do you have any tattoos or piercings?
Neither. For now.

Where would you most like to live?
Kilshannig, Co. Kerry

Who was your first kiss?
When I was 6 or 7, with a lovely boy called Aaron. Think I could be totally making that up, though. I do that quite a lot with memories.

What’s the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?
Haven’t yet. Quite interested to see what’s ahead.

What’s the best present you’ve ever received?
An early edition of The Third Policeman. It was from my mother.

What is your favourite word?
Too many to mention, although I’m a natural Mrs. Malaprop so I probably wouldn’t know what it meant anyway.

Who was your first love?
I had an almighty crush on a boy with initials D.C. when I was 8. Makes me get butterflies even now. He had absolutely no interest whatsoever.

If you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?
An artist, I think. Or mad. Or less mad, probably. Who knows?

Is there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?
Yes: The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories by Tim Burton. Whom I keep mentioning in interviews in the vain hope of getting a job off him.

What happens after we die?
“The Undiscover’d Country”. Where there’s lots of sleep and beautiful dreaming.

What female historical figure do you admire most?
The courageous, good ones who never make it into the books.

Sum yourself up in three words:
Bewildered. Headstrong. Loquacious.

And finally… What are you anti? What are you pro?
This is a school essay question that I have nightmares about where I’m wearing my pyjamas – if I’m lucky! I’ll be brief: anti mean people; pro the nice ones.

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In his review of the upcoming Fox film, Ramona and Beezus, based on a children’s novel by Beverly Cleary, Roger Ebert laments the fact that Cleary’s Ramona books never inspired a television series. I found this surprising because, between 1988 and 1990, Ramona, the Canadian series starring Sarah Polley, was my favourite television programme.

I was the same age as the eight-year-old Ramona Quimby when I first discovered the series and loved spending weekend mornings watching a bright, inquisitive Canadian girl explore a world that was not unlike my own. Like me, Ramona sometimes had to cope with embarrassing haircuts, inedible dinners (“Liver!? Eww!!”) and arguments with classmates. She, too, worried about her parents separating and felt uncomfortable about being introduced to the new boyfriend of a much-beloved aunt. I was jealous of the fact that she had an older sister, Beatrice or “Beezus”, (even if Beezus did sometimes call Ramona “a pest”) and could empathise when she had mixed feelings about the impending arrival of a new baby in her family.

Ramona Quimby was as significant a figure in my childhood as My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase became during my adolescence. Both girls were complex characters, with well-developed personalities comprising elements of light and shade, and both demonstrated that even the most seemingly-mundane, middle-class life is likely to be more confusing than carefree. In a recent interview, Sarah Polley described Ramona as “a little bit of an oddball” and said that she felt that the character “spoke to [her] and made [her] feel less isolated”. I think it’s important for young girls, many of whom often feel like misunderstood oddballs themselves, to be able to watch and read about characters like Ramona, whose adventures and woes are centred around school, family and friendships; and not just boys, clothes and popularity.

Do small-screen heroines like Ramona (and Angela) exist anymore?

Aoife Kelleher

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