Wesley Freeman-Smith Reports on Walking With Women Tour Launch at Michaelhouse, January 21st 2013

Michaelhouse - Trinity Street, Cambridge
Earlier in January, women and men gathered on a dark snowy night to welcome the launch of a new chapter in Cambridge's tour trade – the Walking With Women tour. Re-imagining history through the eyes of women who've helped make the city the place it is today, the event aimed to shed light on heroins typically unsung in traditional tellings with the help of poets, artists and historians. Tired of history being the work of illustrious, dead white men? Then Walking with Women is the tour for you.
Local performance poet, shaper-of-the-eastern-region and general can-do woman Hollie McNish spent something of a long time behind the scenes, pulling all of this together – with only a shoestring budget nonetheless. Weaving together history, poetry, storytelling and art into something for posterity is no small task, and what we saw this evening is just the tip of the iceberg – the showcase, if you will, of something much broader in it's scope. So reviewing it as purely an event, a happening, alongside many of the other spoken word evenings that happen across Cambridge feels a little superficial. There were nibbles and wine, there were chairs that people sat on, and performances for their entertainment; all this is true, and was done well. But Walking With Women is so much more.
The word feminism can be something of a dirty word, depending on who's wielding it, and what's worse, female empowerment can sometimes feel a little... patronizing? What we saw this evening has nothing to do with strong, empowered, independent women, and everything to do with strong, independent people. It is the weight of history that by sheer belligerence warps the scales, craves a justification, requires a stand to be made to redress the balance. To paraphrase a friend, one of the interesting things about Cambridge is how tightly bound to tradition it is; how scared of change all these keepers of privilege appear to be. Everywhere else, a university means vibrancy; here, it means keep off the grass. It has also meant, workhouses for any women suspected of 'wrongdoing'. It meant, don't be caught walking with a member of the University. It still means, in many places, that infamous “asking for it” defense is still used without irony, when by all rights it should be laughed out of court. Anyone balking at 'political correctness gone mad' could do themselves a favour by brushing up on their history, and realising we're probably not out of the woods yet. Tonight was a celebration, an education, and a reclamation, and in all regards it has been long overdue.
Compered by Hollie, the evening was introduced well and with sprinklings of poems – some from the tour book, some from her outside repertoire; all relevant. What's done particularly well in Hollie's work is managing to socially observe without removing herself from the equation. Everything with a politcal bent comes from observing her own experiences, such as the discomfort around being asked to dress as a school girl for cheap entry to clubs, fully grown women embracing the girlish so readily. Each poem of Hollie's is laced with wit, wordplay and a down-to-earth humour that cannot help but be endearing – as far from preaching as you can get without forsaking the message. Fay Roberts, local poetry promoter as well as many other things, took the first performance slot proper, reeling out a scroll's worth of history as introduction to her historical heroine's plight – Daisy Hopkins, falsely imprisoned in one of the city's now-defunct workhouses without due evidence of her 'wrongdoing'. The delivery was modest, hoping only to be able to do justice to a woman who found none in her time. This was followed by Angela Brown, a veritable library of local knowledge and veteran storyteller, who has a day job working in the tourist industry. Despite having a break from the poetry scene, you wouldn't know it through the vigour of the performance given. Angela sang and accented her way through her contributions to the tour book, each character embellished as dramatically as you can imagine.
Recently absconded Cambridge slam champion Jessie Durrant returned to perform this evening, performing her poetry with the emphatic and passionate delivery that has made her such a success in slam circles – appealing to a younger generation who want their emotions raw and their rhymes rhythmic. Nikki Marrone, equally youthful, performs despite not having her poems in the book. And judging from this evening, that is a great shame. A new piece written especially about empowerment and ownership sits well alongside older poems, about various mental health issues – the common ground between the two subjects being stigma, and having the strength to rise against it. Another poet who has helped make the field comprehensible to humans of a non-academic background. Finally Michelle Madsen performs, a well-established performer with her roots in Cambridge but has clearly branched out, running Hammer & Tongue in London town. Her delivery and comic timing were both incredibly well done, speaking in down-to-earth ways about subjects she feels passionately about. Her woman of the evening was Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, a lady unrecognized for her contributions to astronomical knowledge – whose supervisor received the Nobel prize instead of her simply for being of the more acceptable gender.
The best way to experience the whole thing is to take a delve yourself. Have a look at the book (full of lovely art and poems); read up on some of the potted history therein; even take yourself on a tour. This kind of experience is best as a self-guided experience, fueled by whatever your natural interests are. The area is rich in history, both told and untold, and if you need a signpost you could do a lot worse than looking up the Walking With Women booklet online and taking that as your starting point. Soon to become an iPhone app too, it's fair to say this project is still growing – we can only hope that it continues to inspire men and women in years to come.
Further information about the tour is available here.
Writer: Wesley Freeman-Smith