26 Shining Light: Neil Baker – I, Minnie Lansbury

Dear Minnie,

I hope it’s ok to call you Minnie, rather than Mrs Lansbury. I’ve been asked to write a few words in response to a play about you at the Bloomsbury Festival. I’ve not seen it yet; it opens on October 16. (Imagine, that’s 100 years to the day that thousands of working-class Londoners marched to Victoria Park in your honour!) I’ve read the script though. The author, Bren Gosling, was kind enough to share it. I’ve got to tell you, it’s brilliant. He’s done an amazing job, giving you a voice at last – and my word, you deserve it!

I must admit, when I first heard your name I had no idea who you were. There’s a lot written about your husband and his famous father. Nothing much about you. Then one extraordinary photo. Do you remember that day? You’re standing in a garden between the two of them – Edgar on your right, George on your left. They look a little fusty. But you – you’re staring into the lens, eyes sparkling, like you’re ready to leap out of that black and white world and back into life. And I wish you would, Minnie. We need your spirit again.

Most of what I learned about you is from Janine Booth. She’s written a wonderful book about your short life. Those years campaigning during the Great War: making sure soldiers weren’t conned out of their pensions, helping the poor to fight for their rights, getting the vote for all men and women – not just the posh ladies. And then those few short years on Poplar Council. You tackled tuberculosis, set up nurseries for the children, built better homes. You got so much done.

And when the powers that be tried to stop your reforms, you stood your ground, held onto your principles, and spent six weeks in Holloway as a result. Thirty of you went to jail. All survived the horrendous conditions, except one – you, poor Minnie.

Bren’s play is about your time in Holloway. Even then, your thoughts were about everyone but yourself. How was Edgar? Where was Nellie? I wonder Minnie, what if you’d not caught the Spanish flu? What if you’d lived? Labour’s first female prime minister? Well, why not? Thirty-two years were not enough.

Minnie, what would you make of our world today? We’re cursed with a global pandemic of our own. As I write, another messy war is coming to its miserable end. This time it’s Afghanistan. Again, it’s the poor, the disadvantaged, the women and the girls, who end up suffering the most.

Do you remember when they carted you off to prison, the crowds that lined the streets? What did you say to them? A reporter caught one line: “We will go on to the finish, whatever happens.” One hundred years and the end of your fight seems as far away as ever. What can we do? Just keep going.

Minnie, I never knew you, but I miss you.

Thanks for everything,

Neil

p.s. I wrote a haiku for you:

In the darkness of
that place, those times, for her people
shone this bright star

Book tickets for I, Minnie Lansbury on Saturday 16 October at RADA Studios

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