I am welcomed into Ian’s Aylesford home like a friend and one cup of coffee later we are chatting about women’s rights with gusto. It is a refreshing conversation. Ian has just launched his second novel, ‘Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring’ and has become only the second male author to publish a book concerning the efforts of the women’s rights movements and Suffragettes.
This is a remarkable book for Ian Porter who was himself a ski journalist before turning to his passion of novel writing. His first novel, ‘Whitechapel’ was based at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders and with his second novel, Ian has leapt into the twentieth Century head long into the women’s rights movements.
From ski journalist and author of ‘Where to Ski’ to novelist is quite a change in career direction but Ian explained: “I did a combined honours as a mature student at the University of Birmingham in sport and history and the subject I was particularly drawn to was urban poverty in the nineteenth century under Professor Carl Chinn. I really loved it but then I became – of all things – a ski j j journalist when I left university!” Ian says it matter of fact but Ian must have been a brilliant scholar, winning the Chancellor’s Prize at Birmingham University – an accolade acknowledging a student’s academic progress, performance and contribution to the University throughout their time there.
Ian continued: “I think, like all journalists, I had the thought that ‘one of these days I’m going to write a book’. But I thought it was never going to happen. Because of my interest in the East End of London and the fact that my grandparents were born in the 1860’s I had this background interest in London – my dad spoke with a real cockney accent – I felt I understood the old days of London. Because of my interest in social poverty and the East End I also had an interest in Jack the Ripper and I got more and more frustrated about silly television programmes and books about who Jack the Ripper was…”
This is a subject Ian is passionate about and continued: “…A) who cares who a horrible serial killer was and B) Surely what’s more interesting is the affect the murders had on the poor – particularly women – living there in 1888. When, in my opinion, the worst researched book about Jack the Ripper went straight to number one in the book charts I thought ‘right, I’m going to write a book – it’s not going to be yet another Jack the Ripper book but a novel set during the murders, with the killer in it in a very small way, a social history novel that tells people about what terrible choices women had to make in those days – particularly if they had lots of children which normally sent women into the workhouse quicker than anything else other than a drink problem.”
When Ian’s first novel was published he started public speaking which went so well Ian started doing ‘Jack the Ripper’ London walks – from a serious retrospective. His mind then turned to his second book and with his new found interest in the women of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Ian suddenly thought of the Suffragettes “I realised I knew nothing about the Suffragettes other than the usual things – Emmeline Pankhurst, women chaining themselves to railings, women gaining the vote at the end of the First World War and I realised that most people probably didn’t know much about the topic either! So, I went to my local library and they didn’t have a single book on Suffragettes. I had to go to the Central Library to order in books and that said something to me”
Seeing a niche in the market and having grown interested in this part of Britain’s history, Ian set about writing what has now become ‘Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring’ but the shortage of book material and television content focusing on the Suffragettes has baffled Ian, “Television does cover bits and pieces – the centenary of Emmeline Pankhurst’ s death for example – but nothing in-depth and basically there has been nothing on Suffragettes for forty years – since ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ in 1974”
Ian has a theory about why the Suffragette movement simply isn’t given the media coverage this socio-economic, life changing development should receive “You could argue that the women were terrorists and who now in the terrible world we live in wants to do a television drama showing terrorists? Otherwise why would the media ignore it? We have seen ‘Downton Abbey’, endless television and film about the Titanic and ‘Mr. Selfridge’ – it’s a very topical era with the glamour of the time and yet there have been no dramas or even documentaries about it”
By basing the novel on factual history, Ian has taken the opportunity to right a few of the misconceptions people may have due to the way that history can get distorted: “Mrs. Pankhurst wasn’t the leader of the ‘Women’s Movement’ – she was the leader of a very small organisation…and they didn’t win the vote for women alone! A lot of people don’t realise that there were the non-militant suffragists. The Suffragettes were a tiny percentage [of women] who were the militants – the violent ones – and then you had a huge number of women all fighting for the vote who thought violence was wrong”
Ian points out that the Suffragettes were more or less defeated by the Government before the First World War, but Mrs. Pankhurst, with her great speechmaking, mobilised women to join the Women’s Movement – not necessarily the Suffragettes but one of the women’s Movement organisations that were all fighting for the vote. Ian is evidently passionate about the topic and told me: “The non-militant NUWSS had a 100,000 members in 1914 and had the war not broken out, women may have won the vote in 1915.”
Politics is a strong subject and Ian cleverly defuses the starkness of the historically based subject matter by humanising every aspect of his novel, drawing you into the story which opens with a scene aboard the doomed HMS Titanic. The two subjects seem unrelated but in 1912, the sinking of the Titanic and votes for women would have been the two political hot potatoes of their time and Ian links them together through the life of the novels lead character, Ruby, giving us a snap shot of Britain in the early 1900’s.
Including the Titanic also gave Ian’s leading characters a life changing experience: “I wanted them to go through something quite terrible. Ruby’s a-political, working class with no interest in politics at all so I wanted her to go through something terrible to have a catalyst she looks back on to realise that was the turning point of when she became a suffragette”
Ian clearly writes with a body of research to rely on and with the exception of the two main characters every person in the book is based on a real person and everything that happens in the book actually happened in real life. Ian coins his novel as ‘Faction’ rather than ‘Fiction’.
“I would like to think that people will know more about the suffragette movement and get as much information from reading my book as a non-fiction book. I quite like the idea of taking the facts, putting everything into a novel and then you can make your own minds up about whether they are terrorists, good bad or whatever! I like the debunking of myths. They were ordinary people with lives and if you just read about them in a history book it’s all a bit dry so hopefully I bring the women alive.”
“They always say you have got to get a novel off to a good start, well; there are 1500 dead by the end of the first chapter so that’s a pretty meaty start!”
To me he seemed a modest man who has simply listened to his gut instinct, leading him to use his writing talent in a way which we can all enjoy. It is good to know we can claim this wordsmith as a local treasure!
To buy Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring you can order your copy from Troubador and all bookshops, as well as having the option to order directly from
http://www.troubador.co.uk/`book_info.asp?bookid=2612. The book is priced at £8.99 plus p&p and look out for Ian’s next novels!