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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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The author Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue is the author of 10 novels, including the bestselling Slammerkin (2000). Her latest novel, Room, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was born in Dublin in 1969, and has been writing books since the age of 23. She lives in Canada with her partner and their two children.

Room was inspired by the Fritzl story and tells the story of Jack and Ma, who are trapped in the room of the title. You can read Emma’s Anti-Room questionnaire here.


Rosita Boland

I did not want to read Room. The subject matter is so disturbing. Even as I write now, I’m utterly certain there are as-yet-undiscovered children and women locked up in the way Ma is in Room. Knowing that makes me feel helpless, despairing and ferocious. It did not make me want to read about that world, especially a fictionalised one.

Yet, there it was on my desk, sent in the post. A fortnight later, I eventually opened it. Read a few pages. Gripped. Took it home and read the rest of the book that night.

For me, Room works because it draws you so fluently and convincingly into Jack’s world-within-a-world. It’s his perspective that makes telling this story possible. Lots of showing, not telling. What should be ghastly is funny. The focus of the novel lets in the air that Ma and Jack could never get: the reader can breathe. It’s as much about a beautiful portrait of the relationship of a child with its mother as it is about the circumstances of them being there.

****SPOILER ALERT****

The one part that did not convince me was the ease of Jack’s escape. I don’t believe it. How bizarre – that it’s easier for me as a reader to believe completely in their dreadful hermetic world than the fact that they escape from it in the way they do.

****SPOILER ENDS****

Catherine Brodigan

Jack, the five-year-old narrator of Room, is, like most five-year-olds, bright, chatty, imaginative and eagle-eyed. It’s this innocent and unflinching eye for detail that makes his account of life within the eleven-foot by eleven-foot room in which he and his Ma are held captive all the more gut-wrenching. For Jack, sleeping in Wardrobe is nothing out of the ordinary, and playing Scream under Room’s skylight is simply part of the weekday rota of games Ma tirelessly invents to keep him occupied. So when Ma reveals that the world outside is not just “in TV”, and asks for Jack’s help in plotting their escape from Room, Jack’s life is changed utterly, and yet he will do whatever she asks of him.

Emma Donoghue has written a brave book full of fierce and unwavering love, a book which manages to both unsettle and inspire, even weeks after reading. It’s thoroughly deserving of a place on the Booker shortlist.

Anna Carey

There was a point, half way through Room, when I would have actually fought anyone who tried to take the book out of my grip. I was walking around with the hardback in my hand, and didn’t stop reading while I made my dinner. Emma Donoghue has already proven herself to be a skilled storyteller, but Room is her boldest book yet. Telling the story in the voice of a child, especially one who has spent his entire life captive in a tiny shed (even if he doesn’t realise he’s a captive) is a huge risk, and against all the odds, Donoghue pulls it off. Jack is that rare thing, a convincing young child narrator, and the gulf between his general happiness and the reader’s awareness of his and his Ma’s horrific situation adds to the novel’s power. I was slightly surprised by the incredibly gushing blurb quotations from writers such as John Boyne and Michael Cunningham  – Room is a gripping, powerful novel, but I didn’t think it was a life changer. Maybe they live in a sole diet of very serious literary fiction and don’t realise that compulsive readability is quite common in other genres.  But it’s an unputdownable thriller and a deeply moving story of family love told in a unique and convincing voice, and that’s more than enough.

Megan McGurk

After I saw the bulletin announcing Emma Donoghue’s  plan to write Room last autumn, it was clear that I’d read the novel, which would not have been the case if it had been  authored by almost anyone else.  Donoghue’s gift for weaving stories from news snippets was established with The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits.  There was no concern over encounters of ghastly descriptions about sexual assault as with the Stieg Larsson trilogy, or other popular books that deal with victimised women and children.  Room bypasses the horror for an emphasis on the love Ma has for her son Jack and their heroic efforts to cope and survive Old Nick’s brutality.  Some days, Ma keeps to the bed in a crippling fit of despair and depression.  Jack refers to those days as ‘one of the days when Ma is Gone.’  The five year-old takes the opportunity to watch an unlimited amount of television while his mother remains overwhelmed.  This is one of many examples Donoghue crafts in order to underscore the difference in perspective between mother and son.  The real wonder is how Ma finds the courage to rise from the bed and keep them both alive.

Donoghue’s novel is a flawless achievement.  Readers can only pause over how many more women and children are being held in captivity.

Room is out now, published by Picador

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Best Coast is Bethany Cosentino’s celebration of all things Californian. This LA girl writes “songs about summer and the sun and the ocean and being a lazy creep.” Her debut album Crazy For You is out now and reviewed below. You can hear some of the tracks here:

Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno

AOIFE BARRY:

We’ve all been there – infatuated with the person of our dreams, who is most likely totally unsuitable, wouldn’t notice us if we were the only gal in the room holding a sign saying ‘I LOVE YOU DAMMIT’, and, anyway, probably has a girlfriend of their own already. Unrequited love for boys or girls to whom we are invisible is all part of the crushing inevitability of life, but never more so than when you’re a gawky teenager. Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast understands all of this – she’s a woman who’s been there, smoked that, and bought the band t-shirt, and she’s not afraid to sing about it. Crazy for You is like a trip down memory lane, a gauzy, dreamy quantum leap back to the days of awkward fumblings and bad kisses; hanging out on ‘the green’ at dusk, wrapped in a borrowed hoodie; sneaking drags off forbidden cigarettes (or not) and desperately wishing you were somewhere better, cooler.

The members of Best Coast may have grown up LA, and the shimmering surf and seaside groove of the coast may inform their sun-soaked melliflous vibe, but their songs will be understood by anyone who’s become darkly obsessive about their partner (‘Honey’), fallen in one-way love (‘Boyfriend’) or discovered they can’t live with or without their lover (‘Crazy For You’). Delicious harmonies stolen from one of Spector’s girl groups, guitar lines inspired by Nirvana, the swagger of the Dum Dum Girls and a hint of Liz Phair’s snarl all add up toCrazy For You being one of this year’s best debuts. Like a teenage crush, it’s sweet, simple and utterly delicious. Verdict: 4/5

EDEL COFFEY:

Best Coast’s debut album Crazy For You is a mix of heart-swelling vocals, 60s girl-band sentiment (‘I wish he was my boyfriend’) and tremolo’d surf guitar layered up until it sounds MBV-esque. In other words, it ticks all the right boxes for me. Underneath the swooning 60s sound and the Beach Boys harmonies, is a homage to Liz Phair and what she might have sounded like if she had stopped at first base. At times the constant yearning can be a bit much, the unrequited desire a bit abject, but it’s the nostalgia of adolescent lust that is appealing in these songs and Beth Cosentino knows it herself as she sings ‘I want to go back to the first time, the first place.’ But just as you’re starting to think a song is one-dimensional – cute but not earth-shattering – Cosentino shifts it up a gear and finishes with a pretty little shimmer, a retake on the song’s melody (as witnessed at the end of songs like When I’m With You and Boyfriend). This is the perfect album to hold hands to, to first kiss to and stare at posters on your bedroom wall to. Verdict: 4/5

LAUREN MURPHY:

So 2009 was the supposed ‘Year of the Female’? Big deal. Forget Florence, Gaga, La Roux and blinkered pigeonholing based solely on someone’s sex; it’s 2010, and all Bethany Cosentino and her bandmates care about is making woozy garage-pop that swings sweeter than the sixties and rocks harder than diamonds.

Like Dum Dum Girls without the curled lips and menacing stares, Best Coast marry dreamy vocals with charmingly scuffed production values, languid west coast harmonies and lyrics that sum up tales of love that’s unrequited (stellar opener ‘Boyfriend’), darkly obsessive (the brilliantly oppressive ‘Honey’) and sweetly enriching (‘Happy’) without being embarrassingly saccharine or insultingly obvious.

True, the trio may be the sort of band that cause red alerts on hipster radars everywhere – approved by Pitchfork, played in Urban Outfitters, endorsed by those who find irony in badly photoshopped artwork (with optional feline – that’s Snacks, by the way). Sure, their influences may be a little too transparent, the album’s tone a little too static at times. ‘Crazy for You’ is not a perfect album: it’s rough-round-the-edges, fundamentally simplistic and faintly derivative. But if it’s not one of the most instantly charming debuts you hear in 2010, I’ll eat my cat. Verdict: 4/5

NAOMI MCARDLE

Ever see those movies where normal-looking girls sit on a Pacific beach at night in a cut-off sweater, smoking skinny but potent joints and somehow managing not to fall into the campfire as she sings and her friends nod along with sleepy, smiling eyes? Best Coast’s album is a bit like that, reminding you of scenes you’ve seen before and always longed to be part of. In a way, we kind of are…if Bethany Cosetino were to cast her voice in the opposite direction, her honeyed tones would not be out of place amongst our own feel-good summer soundsurfers Popical Island.

Crazy For You is girly (‘Boyfriend’), summery (‘Our Deal’), sweet (‘Happy’) and one of the rare gems that allows for flares of sadness (‘I Want To’)  without any sense of despondent wallowing. Bethany C’s vocals are remarkably clear and feature very prominently but at less than 30 minutes, it won’t take long to learn the words. Admittedly, it’s all so fast-paced that it could pass as a bit samey if you’re not paying attention but then, who else but the lovers pay attention to the fleeting beauty of a summer romance? Verdict: 4/5

Overall verdict? 16/20

Crazy For You is out now on Wichita

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I’ve just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, and I miss the two of them. It’s a great read: all the energy of late 1960’s and early 1970’s New York; two youngsters finding each other by accident and uniting in art and hope. Both of them had an androgynous beauty; they came together and used that beauty, and their love of poetry and art, to forge a new, exciting life together. Away from her teenage pregnancy and giving up her baby for adoption; away from his strict Catholic upbringing.

The book fairly gallops through their search for fame, stopping as they go at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, often desperately poor, always surrounded by the mavericks and stars of the time: Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Susan Sontag et al.

They sought patrons and through often accidental connections they became a rock-poet (Patti) and an avant-garde photographer (Robert). Throughout it all they maintained their friendship, which was based on a mutual quest for recognition as artists, their personal style, and a funny sort of love. Patti was the more sensible of the two, steering clear of drugs mostly and holding down book shop jobs, but Robert, once he acknowledged he was gay, was an avid drug-taker and, often, prostitute.

In a way, Patti glossed over the worst bits of Robert’s personality and choices – she adored him blindly – but throughout the book they certainly had an amazing bond and they supported each other hugely, through all sorts of odd relationships and hard times. They were each other’s muse, lover and friend over years and years, a thing that surely doesn’t happen much.

The memoir is thoughtfully written, beautiful in parts, but occasionally the poeticism gets out of hand and her endless references to Bob Dylan and Rimbaud got up my nose at times. Having said that, it’s a headlong, sparky and intimate read; a real snapshot of a turning point in American history. Highly recommended to anyone who loves poetry, rock and roll and/or bohemia.

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