Some time last year, I received a letter from the British Library. I knew their envelopes well and wondered which of our Oxygen Books titles I'd forgotten to send them (publishers have to send copies of everything they bring out to all six UK deposit libraries).
Instead, it was a letter that sent me hurtling into both a personal and collective past.
I was being asked, as a one-time contributor to the feminist magazine Spare Rib, to give permission for my work to be digitised as part of a project to make all 239 issues of that historically significant magazine available as a digital archive. And yesterday - 29 May 2015 - I opened the Guardian to find the whole of page 7 given over to the news that all 21 years' issues - from 1972 to 1993 - are, indeed, available as an on-line resource.
The Guardian reproduces 10 of the 239 covers and their tone and spirit immediately conjured up that time, in the early 80s, when, 'emerging' writer that I was, I found the courage to send a short story to Spare Rib.
The much older me cringes slightly on re-reading it - it was called 'Pink Period' - but I suppose it's an honest snap-shot of me at the time ... and the times in me.
My writing has changed a lot over the years - years in which I have been a partner, wife, mother and granny and loved every bit of all of it - but I've remained a declared feminist throughout and retain an odd affection for 'how we were' in those ardent, energetic, campaigning, humorous Spare Ribdays.
I remember being ludicrously excited to have a story in a 'proper' magazine - not just, as previously, in those "little magazines" where the typing was sometimes a bit crooked (it was pre-word-processor days) and each copy was stapled by hand. Having a story in Spare Rib spurred me to write more short stories, even while trying my pen at various (unpublished, I hasten to say) novels.
And the writing of short stories has remained a habit, whatever else I've been working on at the time. So it's probably thanks to the Spare Rib editors that I have a collection of short stories coming out - Talking it Over with Genghis Khan - at the beginning of October this year. No, it won't include 'Pink Period' (I really have moved on a bit since then!) - though strangely enough many of the stories' titles feature colour.
It took someone else to point out to me that the spirit of those Spare Rib days had found its way into my second published novel, Miranda Road - set mainly in the 1970s and 80s. The novel is written in the alternating voices of mother and daughter who, among other things, embody the feminist and so called 'post-feminist' perspectives. Again, it took someone else to suggest that I was partly writing about the two sides of myself - the ardent believer in gender equality and the happily cake-baking mother.
A kind of schizophrenia? No. Thanks to the tireless work of other women I've had a choice of being either, neither, or both. On the penultimate page of Miranda Road I give the following words to Eloisa:
I think my mother would have liked me to have had a big career - a more
demanding one, anyway (as if motherhood isn't!). Have I disappointed
her feminist hopes? I don't know. ... the important thing to me is that
I've had a choice. She gave me that. Choosing is freedom, no matter
what it is you choose.'
The only sad thing about remembering the Spare Rib years is that, despite all the optimism and the many very real advances for women, there is still a long way to go. Beneath the Guardian's feature on the digitising of the Spare Rib archive is a short article pointing out how 'austerity' is once more widening gender inequality. Women, as usual, can look forward to being the main losers under the current austerity regime - as pointed out by the organisation 'A Fair Deal for Women' (an umbrella group of eleven women's rights charities). Come on girls! Don't stand for it! How about mustering a bit of that old Spare Rib spirit, eh?
Talking It Over With Genghis Khan, a collection of short stories by Heather Reyes is published by Oxygen Books on 7 October 2015. Heather's short stories have appeared in a number of magazines, including Fiction International and Ambit. Her National Christmas, a novel set in London's National Gallery, is published on 29 October 2015.