Sunday, 2 March 2014

The day I met Barbara Castle: Inspiring Women for International Women's Day


Barbara Castle would always have been one of my inspirational figures.  I grew up in a household where being awkward and passionate were valued qualities, if not the source of numerous arguments.  A trailblazing firebrand, what exactly isn’t to like?
 I admired just about everything about her, from her politics, to her unwillingness to suffer fools, and the way she wouldn’t be bound by convention on how women should live their lives.  (The Daily Mail would have been choking itself on a daily basis over her).  Many of the policies she drove through are still impacting on and improving women and their families’ lives – the introduction of the breathalyser, the seatbelt, equal pay, pensions reform, free family planning clinics, and child benefit – critically, and pioneeringly, paid to women.

But in my early twenties something happened that cemented her influence on my life in a way that I could never have predicted and which would never leave me.  I emerged from my degree mid-recession, and was faced with the realisation that a politics degree from a very average university was not going to bag me the nice little newspaper research job I had been anticipating.  Mid-panic I wrote to an MP I admired offering my services voluntarily (this was in the days when the Jobcentre encouraged this sort of thing).  It was a long shot, but amazingly he bit, and even more amazingly he gave me an open remit to research the history of the labour movement in his consistency.  This turned out to have the most fascinating links to the communist party, wartime peace movements, volunteers for the International Brigade, and just incredible levels of community solidarity during the Miners’ Strike.  I literally couldn’t have predicted it would be any more interesting.  I spent a wonderful summer immersed in the archives of the South Wales Miners’ Library, wading through transcripts, minutes, photographs, clippings.  The library was this big old house; there were rabbits bounding past the windows.  I felt like I was in Brideshead Revisited.  And it was here that I discovered that I loved the puzzle, the peace, the urgency and suspense of research.   It also gave me the idea for my PhD; there was not one part of the experience that I wouldn’t recommend.  By the time I’d finished writing about it all a year or so later, the MP secured a bit of money to publish it a local history booklet, and he wanted to organise a Party event to publicise it.  He asked if I had any ideas about who to invite as the honorary speaker, and before I could answer, asked how I would feel about Barbara Castle?  How I would feel??  There aren’t really any words for that kind of wonderful unpredictability.  And so proceeded the most surreal experience of my life. It still doesn’t seem real now, like it happened to someone else.

The night Barbara Castle swept into the local town hall from that glamorous London, she was presented with a sherry and a plastic chair, and looked for all the world like a film star.  She was in her 80s at the time, and her presence took your breath away.  She was the most peerlessly charismatic person I’ve ever met.  And she took time to talk to people as individuals - not working the room in that contrived way, but unhurried, interested conversations.  Everyone wanted her ear, and she gave it willingly.  She asked me if I was nervous to be talking tonight, and I replied that I was (although not so much as I was to be meeting my heroine).  She replied that her dad would take her out campaigning as a young woman, and the advice he gave her was that if people didn’t like your performance then you just got back up again and tried again.  And again, and again, until they listened.  I can’t think of a single modern politician who would have bothered to engage in a more than cursory acknowledgement with pond life like me. 

Obviously her speech was captivating, as they always were.   Afterwards she stayed and talked and talked to the packed hall that had amassed to see her.   I’ve thought about what she said to me a lot over the years, words that came and went in an instant, but it’s a message that’s stayed with me.  That some things are too important to give up on.  Sometimes you have to drop your ego and be prepared look a bit stupid to be in it for the long haul. 

I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead. And that's what keeps you alive.”
                                      Barbara Castle in The Guardian, 14 January 1998 (1910-2002)



Oh and I know this blog is supposed to be about the anonymity, but this is all SO long ago that I'm pretty sure my own mother wouldn't recognise me now.  My children didn't!



Inspiring Women Blogging Prompt

25 comments:

  1. Amazing and what a sage message too. How wonderful that you got to meet her - and much appreciated that you have taken the time to share this now x

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    1. She was a one-off and i'll never forget that day. Thanks for the blogging prompt; it's a wonderful idea and I've so enjoyed reading about people's inspiring women. x

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  2. Wow! What an incredible experience, and a fascinating post to read. I didn't follow politics at the time so I'm only aware of her for the key events, but she sounds brilliant. Thank you for sharing your experience of her.

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    1. Thanks for reading. It was one of those things I'll always remember.

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  3. What a great experience and a lovely memory. she was an amazing woman. x

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    1. It was, I think if it happened now I'd probably be too starstruck to say a word! x

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  4. Incredible experience. How lovely to have this wonderful woman as part of your memories.

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    1. That's very true, thanks for reading. x

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  5. What a great experience for you x

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    1. I'll always remember it. Thanks for reading. x

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  6. Love this post! What an amazing thing to have done, the research sounds fascinating, and she is an inspiration, as are you!

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    1. I was very lucky, it all just came together in a totally unexpected way, and made me see everything differently after that. Thank-you.x

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  7. What an amazing encounter. I'm envious! And how wonderful that she actually took the time to engage in a meaningful way with everyone.

    Aside from the Barbara Castle meeting, the rest of this post is really interesting too. It sounds as though campaigning, and bringing to light/life important messages from history and society, are an indelible part of your make-up!

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    1. She really was just unbelievable the way she took an interest in everyone, and seemed utterly unphased by status. In the picture I cropped she was giving the local MEP a few strong opinions. It was nice to see a roomful of Old Labour men sit on their opinions for once and listen!

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  8. yes what an amazing experience for you, love seeing photos from the past.

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    1. Oh me too. It's another age, isn't it, before selfies & duck faces!

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  9. What an amazing experience, great to hear how human she was, so often being a well known MP goes to their heads. I think we could do with a few more like her in Parliment today.

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    1. You're definitely right there, somehow our politicians get less inspirational every year ...

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  10. How fabulous and what a great start you had after leaving Uni, it must have been really interesting. Mich x

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    1. It was really unexpected and a wonderful experience. Thanks for commenting. x

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  11. I did not know Barbara Castle had achieved so much. Thanks for showing me. I love your talk of how being passionate and awkward were valued qualities - not stuff we see often in 'role models' presented to us in the media.

    On a similar note, we made this a couple of years ago - still relevant, I think - lots of inspiring women:
    http://phenomenalpeople.tumblr.com/

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    1. Thanks for sharing the link, great and eclectic mix of choices there!

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  12. I have read a lot about her the last few days, what a woman, not many of them around these days are there x

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    1. Too right, not nearly enough, I think the press like to stamp them out.

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  13. We need more politicians like here today.It's a shame that there isn't any role models like her in our government now.

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