marathon

Though I wanted to be there to support Tom, I was really rather dreading the London Marathon. Given that Buchanan Street has been my only post-stroke experience of a busy city crowd, and that being in places in which one is constantly assailed by visual / auditory stimuli is now both difficult and scary for me, the thought of negotiating the noise and general confusion of London on marathon day was, frankly, terrifying. Thankfully, I did not have to face it on my own, and the one thing I was looking forward to was spending the day with Felix. As a carbo-loaded Tom squeezed himself onto a packed train to reach the race start at Blackheath, Felix and I pootled down a deserted Whitehall, to set up camp at the finish. Neither of us had seen the memorial to the Women of World War II which had been erected there in 2005, so we stopped to take a look.


The memorial is in the form of a giant bronze coat rack, festooned with the uniforms of women engaged in many different patriotic activities. It is a very arresting piece of public sculpture, and occasioned some debate. On the one hand, we found something tremendously moving in the monumental nature of the monument. The empty uniforms suggested quiet, collective endeavour and a dignified anonymity, made all the more striking by the memorials in close proximity, which celebrated individual military achievement with predictable bombast.


Felix and Field Marshal Brooke: Masters of Strategy.

On the other hand, though, there is something just a little troubling about the women’s monument. The discarded uniforms are just that: discarded. The uniforms had been put on; the duties appropriate to such uniforms had been performed, and then, post-war, women had resumed being themselves again. These clothes were chrysalises from which drab, be-uniformed creatures would re-emerge, butterfly-like, into the hyper-femininity of the late 1940s.


Dior’s famous ‘Bar’ suit (1947)

I have since read that, when designing the monument, the sculptor, John Mills, was “interested in the concept of these women hanging up their uniforms and going back to their normal lives after the end of the war” (my emphasis). What does that say about femininity and patriotic endeavour? Would the effect have been the same if the memorial depicted men’s uniforms? Is the New Look to blame? What do you think?

From Whitehall, we proceeded to St James’ Park, where we found a small hillock which would afford good views of the marathon’s closing minutes. Then, from her tardis-like rucksack, Felix produced an entire room.

Examining this photograph you may see: teapot containing freshly brewed tea, biscuit barrel containing tasty home-baked treats, Monkl clutching congratulatory golden banana, and mysterious brown paper packages, whose contents will be revealed later. But the most important items of note are 1) the comfortable folding chairs and 2) the singular lack of other people. These two items are closely connected. As the day went on, things grew busier and busier, but, whenever Felix unfolded those chairs, she created an instant oasis of calm around which the mêlée surged insanely. You will also note the lack of other people in all the photographs in this post. That is because I spent the day happily inured from the crowd in Felix’s oasis. Anyone who has been on a trip with Felix knows that she comes notoriously well-prepared. On Sunday she really outdid herself. While poor Tom pounded the streets, suffering from the heat, and struggling to find his own space among 36,000 other runners, we spent a relaxing couple of hours drinking tea, eating snacks, and knitting in the oasis.

An Italian bloke approached and asked to take a photograph of us in our oasis. We suspected we were being pigeonholed as marathon-day curiosities, English eccentrics quaffing tea through all eventualities, but we did not care.

mmmmm. Jam!


Then the runners started to come in. From our vantage point we cheered wildly, particularly when a brown-vested bloke went by at around the three hour mark. We then made our way over to Horse Guards Parade to retrieve the heroic runner. Tom made it in at a very good time of 3:05 – 7 minutes slower than his best marathon in Dublin a couple of years ago. It is fair to say that he did not enjoy himself – having trained all Winter in Scotland, it was really too hot for him. However, he cheered up immensely as soon as we got him to the pub and presented him with the contents of Felix’s brown paper packages.

Could it be . . . no really . . . could it possibly be . . .

A PIE?!

A homebaked sourdough-crusted rabbit pie, no less, with which Tom was the envy of the post-race crowd. This was swiftly polished off, washed down with a pint, and followed by . . .

A congratulatory wagon wheel! The snack choice of heroes!

Running a marathon really is an epic thing. Huzzah for Tom! And a big huzzah to Felix, too, for indomitable pie-baking, chair-carrying, space-creating, conviviality-inducing marathon-like achievements on Sunday!

Cheers, Felix.

79 responses

  1. You and Tom were in my thoughts on Sunday. I was wondering how Tom (and all the other runners) were coping with the unusual April heat and how you were managing with the associated marathon chaos. Little did I know you had a crafty Felix tucked up your sleeve! Looked like you had a perfect day.

  2. Three cheers for Felix, clearly an unsurpassed master of strategy, for Tom’s heroic run and for your unrivalled skill in creating posts that mix insight, humour and visual delight (not to mention tea and knitting). Such a refreshing read.

  3. Huzzah indeed to both Felix and Tom. That’s a great marathon time!
    I have first-hand experience of Felix’s mega-organisation and you picked your travelling companion very wisely! I’m glad that the experience was not traumatic, like you had feared.

  4. Ooooooh, ’twas indeed rather hot, especially when one comes in around the 6 hour mark complete with sweaty hands and knitting! Well done to Tom. It’s always hard training through the winter months and then having to run 26.2 miles in the heat. That was 2 hot marathons in one week for me and it does make me wonder if I should focus on autumn marathons instead………but then again, London is special.

    Is Tom doing Liverpool in October? If he hasn’t entered already, please tell him to check out the website at http://www.runliverpoolmarathon.co.uk/ – I might get to meet you both then.

  5. Bravo Tom…and Felix, too. What a wonderful friend to have thought of so many ways to keep you comfortable and Tom fed at the end of the race!

    Interesting to see the monument to women of WWII. My mother served in the London St John’s Ambulance Service during the war, as well as holding another job as a trunk line operator (long distance phone service). She disliked wearing the required uniform slacks and forever fought her supervisor to wear a skirt even though she spent many a day/night going through bombed out buildings trying to rescue or recover broken bodies.

    The idea that women simply hung up their uniforms and returned to, as you said, “normal” lives makes me wonder if anyone considered just how difficult it must have been for women to find “normal” after the devastation of the war and the many important roles they assumed at the time. I wonder, too, how many were perhaps devastated to return to society’s expectation of a women’s place. A thought provoking monument, indeed. Just not sure how I feel about it.

  6. Who is this wonderful Felix?? She is a goddess!

    Congrats to Tom! Amazing, triumphant run!!

    I love the Oasis….

    That memorial is beautiful, but…ummm….thought provoking to say the least. I guess that means it is a succes though, yes?

  7. I agree with you completely re. the sculpture. Very well said. Congratulations to Tom for competing and completing the marathon in the heat. Congratulations to Felix for being such a crafty star. Congratulations to you for facing your fears.

  8. So glad you had such a good day Kate. Well done to Felix for her oasis-making skills
    and huge congratulations to Tom.

  9. A new reader here (via your lovely patterns on Ravelry; trying to decide on a color for Lyttelton at the moment), and I just wanted to say that your account of the little oasis was wonderful – Felix sounds like a first rate friend.

  10. Hip hip hooray for Felix and Tom! And you for surviving and enjoying the day. I aspire to be like Felix, but sadly am usually the person dashing into a corner shop for an emergency sandwich to replace the lovingly homemade one abandoned on the kitchen table.

  11. Having just visited the US WWII memorial in Washington D.C. – it’s striking to see the difference in which the women were portrayed. The US one was put up in 2003-4, and I thought did an excellent job of showing the women roles both at war and on the home front (example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mscleaver/5571186809/in/set-72157626255727937 and http://www.flickr.com/photos/mscleaver/5571808614/in/set-72157626255727937/)

    The thing I find strangest about the monument in your photos is that the garments still have the shape of women’s bodies to them. As if there were still people in the uniforms, but that they are invisible.

    • I agree that the haunting aspect of the sculpture is that there are no people there, just volume and clothing. The women are faceless and reduced to their wartime fashion. It seems demeaning – like there are no souls there, just the outer shell. Oh the other hand, there’s something appealing about how it depicts the many facets of women’s patriotic contributions, and a sense of collectivism… I’ll have to think on it more and pay it a visit the next time I’m in London.

  12. To my mind, the shapes retained by the clothes hanging there suggest there’s no going back to normal (whatever that means) after a catastrophe, and highlight the grotesqueness of the Barbie-doll ideal. Thanks for a great post!

  13. Lovely to see photos of you and Felix in your little O-o-C. She does indeed have the gift of creating a delightful picnicky feel in the most unlikely places (I have particularly fond memories of pasta cooked on a primus stove behind a giant W H Smith’s advertising hoarding next to the lorry park of Knutsford services).

  14. Agree with you on the memorial, seems a bit creepy and not very respectful.
    Glad you have such a fantastic friend, friends of Felix’s caliber are hard to find, lucky you!
    Sorry for the heat and Tom’s discomfort, still amazed at his accomplishment!

  15. I think Joanna said it all – well done all three of you.

    Re the monument, my ma was in the Land Army and having been brought up in the heart of Leith she embraced the country wholeheartedly. She met and married my dad and never went back to living in town – in fact she was the epitomy of country living fo the rest of her life, No going back to ‘normal ‘ for her.

  16. I rather like the memorial to The women of World War Two since it does encompass how much women contributed during that time. Women were (are) practical, resourceful and willing. But I find myself agreeing with both your comments and thus, conflicted a bit. However, it depicts the sentiment of the time, I think. My mum would say ” Right then, that’s over, let’s get the potatoes on!”

    Wagon wheels on the other hand are a definite treat! Great photos of Felix and all her paraphenalia :)

  17. What a wonderful post—the memorial, the marathon, the space for knitting and tea—but best of all, what a wonderful friend.

  18. Aw, shucks everybody.

    I feel I must quickly placate rumours that I am any sort of domestic goddess; one of the attractions I feel to the picnic format is that I don’t have to look at my horrific household mess whilst I am enjoying myself outdoors! I do enjoy an adventure, and the challenge to find ways of surviving the heaving mass of crowds and runners on London Marathon Day was one I truly relished!

    The Chairs are the answer, people!

    It was my absolute pleasure to be the seating and pie bearer for the day. I was very impressed with Tom’s excellent running time, and thrilled to have someone to quaff tea and press homebaked goodness onto! I had a GREAT time, and it was WONDERFUL to see you in the Metropolis.

    Also, that pint was jolly tasty! Cheers! X

  19. That monument is really interesting, although I do feel conflicted about it for the very reasons you suggest. It’s still really beautiful though.

    Yay for Tom! And yay for Felix! What a great day you had! :)

  20. PS I LOVE what you have said here about the monument. I am extremely interested in the ways that utility and labour are positioned somehow IN OPPOSITION to femininity in ladies clothing. As a full-on embracer of a utilitarian “look” – I find this split very curious. I also am interested in the fact that while the icons of masculinity are all clothed in utilitarian war uniforms which emphasise and distinguish their manliness, the ladiez are seperated from their wartime uniforms, as the uniforms somehow do not emphasise the femininity which they embody in daily life.

    Hmmm. There is more to say on this, but I’ll save it for a blog post! Thanks for writing such a lovely account of what was one of my favourite days so far this year.

  21. sounds delightful all around! glad you had a good time and didn’t miss the race. now, please see about getting recipies for the rabbit pie and wagon wheels. not sure what they are, but they sound delicious. :)

  22. What a magical oasis – friendship at its best.

    I found the statue haunting. It’s more like they hung up their skins than uniforms. The way the body forms can still be seem, the faceless heads… eerie, as if the inner women have stepped out and on. But on to Dior and housewifeness? What a disappointment.

  23. I was in London (from the U.S.) last year around this time and saw many people, running home from work, in training for the marathon. I love your photos! Congratulations to Tom!

    What a wonderful friend you have in Felix. She may claim she’s not a domestic goddess, but she can’t dispute she’s the best friend a person could have.

  24. What a remarkable woman Felix is! To create an oasis from a rucksack, as well as a full post-marathon meal, is nothing short of Mary Poppins magic. You all look like you had a marvelous time before, during, and after the event!

  25. Another great post. The monument indeed appears troubling, the clothes appearing to look like bodies as if the women have been vapourised from within them, or mirroring concentration camp clothing piles. However the notion that women ‘put on’ an effort for war suggests an underlying note of womens lack of endevour at other times, again the narrative of women as quiet do-er, whilst the male takes the outward, showier role appears strong, a monument to a past era seems to still epitomise those very traditional patriarchal roles.Although perhaps the sociologist in me is reading too much into it! Glad you had a lovely time, it looked like a blissful experience in an othewise chaotic location.Hurrah for good friends.

  26. I have rather a soft spot for that memorial. I never thought about it deeply, though, just liked the idea behind it…. Well done to Tom, and to you too for braving the Metropolis :) I do love the oasis of calm!

  27. I’m not sure if you can get access in the UK, but there is a funny show, Portlandia, in the US that spoofs some of the cultural foibles that are especially attributed to the northwest. The is a segment where the two characters go to an outdoor movie and set up an entire living room, which your oasis reminded me of – and what a fantastic way to spend a day! Though I am sure you would not have annoyed the other attendees as those characters did. If you can get it, the clip about organic chicken is also fantastic.

  28. Of monuments and art. I haven’t seen, except in your photos, the monument to the women of WWII. My first impression was that they were uniforms waiting to be put back on and not covered in dust.

    Then to hear what the sculptor wrote made it seem a bit more trite. I don’t think after a war like that; especially a war that occurred on your own territory, anything could really be returned to pre-war normal. Experiences change people and societies, internally and externally and indelibly.

    Society may have expected women to go back to their aprons but that didn’t quite happen.

  29. What an absolutely fantastic post! And, together with you, of course, what fantastic people?!
    You’ve made my day. Before reading this it had been a tad painful and stressful (no, nothing extra-ordinary, but…) and by the time you got to the women’s memorial, I was smiling. Thank you very much xx

  30. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes: “A faithful friend is a strong defence: and he that hath found such an one hath found a treasure.” :)

  31. Hurray for Tom, and hurray for Felix and you too!

    The monument is creepy to my eyes: as others have noted, the “clothes” look more like deflated bodies. As for the sculptor’s thoughts, no – the old “normal” didn’t survive. However, it may be fair to say that in Britain as in Canada and the US, women did return readily to domestic life (which could well have seemed bliss after the sorrows of the war), only to return emphatically to the broader world within a decade or two.

  32. I have been reading for a while. Haven’t commented. Today, though, I feel I must thank you for sharing your story with us. It has been, and continues to be, compelling, interesting, and life-affirming. Thank you. This post, once again, tells me that you are well and truly loved. That tells me, also, that you are well and truly loving. Huzzah to you for your courage and indomitable spirit. You simply wear a different uniform and fight a different battle.

  33. What a wonderful friend you have. Congratulations Tom, what an achievement.

    For my two cents, I like the monument. Of course the war was so much worse in Europe, but in my family living on remote ranches in the rural West, uniforms signified wealth and status, a regular cash paycheck, something very few families had. A uniform was like a golden ticket, insurance against privation. That a woman had a uniform was something everyone in the community would recognize as a mark of achievement and respect. That attitude persists to this day in the oldest generation of my family who still talk about our two women postmistresses who reigned from the early 1900s until after the war.

  34. Great day for all. Thoughtful comments on the women’s monument. Someone here did a full size Barbie doll and she had a 25″ waist and a 39″ bust. She looked ridiculous! So much for role models. Everyone returns from war with empty uniforms – no glory in any of it.

  35. Re: the monument, the first thing I thought of was loss. When I saw the empty uniforms, I thought it signified the death of women who participated in the war effort. I think this is the effect that empty men’s uniforms would have had: a monument to commemorate those fallen in battle. In a way, I suppose this monument does signify mourning (though perhaps unintentionally)– mourning the loss of the active and participatory roles that women had before being shuffled back into the home, back to the cleaning and homemaking rituals. (And the monument-as-clothes-rack is another unintentional acknowledgement of what “normal life” really was.)

    I’ve just been working with my students on the idea of monuments in Germany to commemorate or acknowledge various things. We’ve talked about the difference between the words “Denkmal” and “Mahnmal”– both of which can be used somewhat interchangeably to mean “monument” or “memorial.” The difference is in the verbs that the words come from: “Denkmal” is related to “denken” = to think, and the idea is that it makes you think about someone, remember their lives. (Like “memory” and “commemorate” or “memorial”.) “Mahnmal” is related to the verb “mahnen,” however, which is to admonish– so a “Mahnmal” mostly acknowledges terrible things that have happened and admonishes the viewer to not let it happen again.

    When we discussed various monuments in class, my students agreed that many of them could function both ways: to celebrate a person’s great deeds and to admonish the viewer to prevent further tragedy. This monument has a similarly ambiguous quality for me.

  36. After the war, my parents got married, and Mum became wife and mother, while Dad went out to work ……… but during the war, Mum had a higher rank than Dad. Well done to Tom – he certainly deserved his rewards. Perhaps Felix could start a business, producing all those wonders for clients on days out!

  37. It irks me that they chose a man to sculpt a monument to women, another case of men defining women, damnit. His comment made clear his mindset! But… that aside… I think we should refuse to let a man define the women who fought and worked in WWII. The monument is truly amazing, as if, despite the sculptor, the power and glory of those women came through in the stone.
    I know my mother never wanted me to be constrained by the roles of women of her generation, and made sure I never was. I like to believe that their war experience allowed the germination of the modern feminist movement.

  38. Congratulations to Tom on completing his marathon in the heat. I’m training for a half marathon at the moment, I ran 18k on Sunday and was in awe of all those who completed the full distance, I’m not sure I have it in me.

    Congratulations to you too for making it to London and spectating, given your own personal marathon journey it was no mean feat.

    Congratulations to Felix for supporting you both so ably, what a friend!

    I initially liked the monument, I love the different uniforms but hard on the heels of that thought came ‘but where are the women?’ Its seems odd to commemorate women but have them absent from the memorial. Those women waited so long to be recognised we should see them!

    Thank you again for your fascinating and thought provoking blog.

  39. My goodness how I enjoy your blog.
    You write so wonderfully!

    Congrats to Tom.

    What a terrific friend you have in Felix. Everyone should have a friend like Kate and Felix.
    Donna

  40. Wow, what an amazing time, especially in that heat! Was Tom running for a cause?
    And, I’m so impressed by Felix’s room-in-a-bag. I’m sure that this can’t be right, but it did seem that she was carrying a full teapot in her rucksack!

  41. As always Kate – a fabulous post. Love love love Felix’s oasis and well-packed picnic. Rabbit pie YUM!! And wagon-wheel double YUM! Thanks for sharing thoughts about the monument too…I hadn’t seen it – it is a perplexing one isn’t it? They are like ghosts…something ephemeral….

  42. When I was in college at Wellesley, the school was (and still is) the half-way point for the Boston Marathon– the great American Marathon. We had the day off and the entire college ( all women) would line up outside of the dorms and cheer the runners on. It is fondly referred to as “The Wellesley Scream Tunnel.” Every year I looked forward to it, standing on the sidelines screaming my heart out. You would see even the professional marathoners crack a smile as they hit the “Scream tunnel.” While waiting for the marathon we would play board games and eat the box lunches that the cafeteria would give us. Your pictures brought back those memories.
    Regarding the memorial– I found it haunting from your pictures– it seemed to me to signify loss. What is interesting how the narrative of war support and then going “back to the home” is not a part of my history as an American– my grandmother worked during the war and worked after the war, as she was a poor immigrant indigenous woman from Latin America. There was no return to “the home” or housewifery, or suburbia– she was a single mom who supported her three kids in a hard urban environment- so that myth of 1950s, utopian America is exactly that– a myth. My guess is that plenty of other poor and minority women in America and the UK never really hung up their “uniforms” either.

  43. I very much like that monument. I like that they are empty, hung-up uniforms. It’s a very clear, stark reminder that many/ most of these women were forced to give up the independence and public life they had during the war. It works two-fold, to remind of their service and their contribution, and also of what they lost on war’s end.

  44. What a lovely person, Felix is. I have many thoughts about the other aspect of this post (WWII women, etc)… you are making me want to start my blog up again (which has suffered a long neglect due to grad school writing)… but I am writing here to say well done to her. And well done to Tom. Great time 3:07 in hot conditions is quite something. And to you, dear Kate, who is always getting out and pushing your comfort level to be there for people you care about. You are a rockstar. When I’m in the UK next month I’m going to send some special fairy dust in your direction :)

  45. Congratulations to Tom!

    I have strong feelings that the themes of the monument were the right choice. Whether we like the outcome or not, it is what happened. In some ways, a monument that pretended that the women who served in the military were aways treated fairly and honoured equally would be disrespectful to them, when that wasn’t the case, but they served and made their contributions anyway.

  46. Fantastic! Massive congratulations to Tom and I think I love Felix a little bit for being so brilliantly bonkers with her oasis in a rucksack. So glad you had a fun, enjoyable day.

  47. Fabulous day you all had, Congratulations to Tom, and I think he may remember Felix’s special pie, and the wagonwheel, more than the pounding of the pavemnent in the London Marathon. Luv that Vera Lyn was at the Women’s war memorial.
    Great story Kate, remember Felix the cat and the wonderful ‘bag of tricks’ bit like your friend Felix. Luv the photo’s of you all, and that teapot, and bikky tin amazing!
    You all really looked very well and happy.

  48. A very thought provoking monument. I think it was inevitable that lasting change to womens’ opportunities would take time to evolve. Attitudes to small children have changed a lot. Mine were born in the mid 1970’s, just before maternity leave became a right. The idea that women could have careers was just about acceptable. Equal pay was a recent victory, but for a while,working mothers were a bit (a bit!) suspect. In my own village, we were looking for premises for a playgroup. There was much opposition,especially from older women, who thought that ‘little children should be at home with their mums’. These were the same women who had been in the workforce during the war, and returned to domesticity in the 50’s. I don’t know whether they genuinely disapproved, or perhaps they were a little envious of the new opportunities they could see coming.
    Personally, I’m just pleased that my own grandchildren have lovely purpose built nurseries,just round the corner from where they live.

  49. Congratulations to Tom on a mighty run, to Felix on preparation and execution of the magical Oasis, and to you for reclaiming places.

  50. I am very impressed. After a long year of battling with severe asthma (& a broken ankle!) I am really hoping I can run at all this summer. My goal is to do a 5K. A pint waiting for me at the end of my run might be just the motivation I need….brilliant idea!

  51. I think the memorial is a testament to what women do as a group. We put on the “uniform” of the day and do what must be done. As women I think we go where we are needed most and “soldier on” daily to keep up the world around us. I can imagine a woman during WW II whose husband was gone with children to care for and bombs falling saying “What can I do? How can I be a good example to my children? How can I support my husband? How can I be fulfilled during this difficult time? I will (insert choice of wartime occupation here) and then when the war was over they continued on doing what must be done. I think it is a powerful statement to the testament of women that we roll up our sleeves, put on the uniform and when the times change we take off the uniform and “put on” whatever we need to for the next phase of our lives.

  52. I SUPPOSE that the sculptor’s empty uniforms were meant to be thought-provoking, but I can’t help thinking that if that same sculptor had decided to be thought provoking about a group of men, he would have given at least one of them a FACE.

  53. Hi Kate!
    I just love your blog, which I regularly visit – love the knitting, love, the pictures, love the Scottish landscape, love the inspirational breath…
    Do you mind if I use your picture of the memorial on my blog?
    clairegirodie.blogspot.com/
    My very best,
    Claire

  54. Firstly, well done Tom! Huzzah!. Secondly, huzzah for Felix, you both look so cosy and comfortable.
    The monument: hmmm, to my mind, there is a rather condescending pat-on-the-head, well-done-off-you-go play-now aspect to that monument, whether intentional or not. Would it have be so difficult to have women in action, women doing – which is after all what is being celebrated, rather than women defined by what they wear?

    Finally, elegant as I think the New Look is, and I bet some women were glad to get back to it after years in overalls, I can never see it without thinking of Chanel’s comment to Dior:” I adore you, but you dress women like armchairs.”
    Thanks for a great post.

  55. What a wonderful day! Big congrats to Tom, a marathon is a truly epic achievement. My favourite photo is the one of you eating the jam-covered scone :) Just how I feel when I eat scones!

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