This is a transcription of The Forty Elephants Girl Gang and Two New Books — 05 May 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a dinner party where the main course is dysfunctional family.
David: A memoir from a beloved American poet.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: Anton Chekhov wrote, ‘People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the while their happiness is taking form, or their lives are falling apart.’ That’s the epigraph of the novel Dinner Party by Sarah Gilmartin.
Melissa: The book opens with a dinner party on Halloween night in 2018. Kate has made beef Wellington and baked Alaska for her mother and siblings to mark the 16th anniversary of her sister’s death.
Melissa: Here’s a bit that sets up the dinner: Between the chopping and the mincing and the rolling and the baking, the hours passed quickly. Her last job was to pipe meringue over the ice cream and slot the dessert into the freezer. When she’d finished the spikes, she stood back, to admire her creation. She was proud of it… All at once, the evening stretched in front of her, full of possibility… ‘Everything is OK,’ she said out loud to no one.’ Sadly, that meal ends with the baked Alaska going into the trash, uneaten.
Melissa: The story follows Kate and her dysfunctional family from the 1990s until the present day, moving between Dublin and Carlow, Ireland, Trinity College, and the family’s farmhouse. It addresses grief, eating disorders, broken dreams, and failing marriage. And the dark heart of the story is the mother. The siblings calls her Mammy. She’s a master manipulator who knows just how to push the emotional buttons she installed in her children. One review said, ‘Her cruelty is compelling; we can’t look away; we are appalled; we want more.’
Melissa: And yet, it’s compelling. The Guardian said that this book is as interested in what keeps the family together as what tears it apart. It sounds pretty freakin’ dark, but the combination of food and family is irresistible to me. This is Dinner Party by Sarah Gilmartin.
David: In December, we read you some poems for the start of the New Year. One of those poems was written by Maggie Smith, a writer who lives just outside of Columbus, Ohio. And significantly, not Dame Maggie Smith, the woman who plays cranky but somehow loveable women on the BBC.
David: I read a poem about hoping to love the world like a mother when the baby splits your lip. In that episode, I mentioned that Smith had a book coming out. It is now out. It’s called You Could Make This Place Beautiful.
David: This book is about how Maggie Smith discovers and recovers from her husband’s affair. And it is told how I would want a poet to tell a story like that. Everything feels raw. The words are punchy and insightful and impactful. The chapters are short — some a half-page long. The book is about 320 pages long. But there are 208 chapters. I picked this book up to evaluate it twice and was instantly in.
David: She has this way of writing about this relationship that both feels like an emotionally wise person looking at their feelings as they happen, and someone who is shocked and angry and probably crying right now.
David: This is only a ride for some. But if you’re interested in how a poet walks through her divorce, boy, I found this compelling. It’s You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
David: Frequently when I’m researching a place I find a lot more than I can use. Unsurprisingly, this happened with London. Today, I want to tell you about three fascinating women I found in London.
David: The first is Dr. Lorraine Gamman. She’s a professor of design. Her specialty is designing things to prevent crime. And until I read her title, I had never thought about that idea — that you could design products and systems to prevent crime. But of course, somebody does that. Dr. Gamman is the director of the Design Against Crime Research Center, which she founded in 1999. So you might go to them if you wanted to, say, reduce gang violence in your neighborhood. Or shoplifting in your store.
David: Dr. Gamman got her Ph.D. from Middlesex University back in 1999. When she was working on that, she met the second woman I want to tell you about. She met Shirley Pitts. They spent a lot of time together, talking about crime. Because Shirley was an expert. Shirley Pitts was a notorious shoplifter. She had a team of ‘hoisters’ operating all over Europe. At different times in her criminal career, Pitts was involved in fraud, bank robbery, the escort business, and jewelry theft. Pitts was a scoundrel, a chiseler, an unremorseful reprobate. But Dr. Gamman really liked her.
David: Pitts was also wise and funny and loving and glamorous. She had a code. Pitt’s love language was gifts — go figure. And she would shower the people in her life with love and presents. Her son became an architect. He would later write of her: ‘She was the woman who was always in your corner, who never let you down and who was always absolutely genuine. If you hurt, she would hurt twice as bad, and if it concerned her children and it came to a fist fight, she would throw the first punch. Despite the so-called life of crime, I believe that morally there was no one who could touch my mother. Inside, she was as decent as anyone could be.’
David: The underground loved her. When she died in 1992, she was given an elaborate funeral in South London. Some of the biggest criminals in Britain attended. The national media covered it. Pitts learned her trade from the third woman I want to tell you about. Pitts learned shoplifting from Alice Elizabeth Black. Black was the head of a gang called The Forty Elephants.
David: The Forty Elephants was a gang of shoplifters — women shoplifters believed to have formed in the late 1700s. They existed until the 1950s. That’s 150 years of mayhem, generations of shoplifters. Alice Black was the toughest of them. She was 5’ 8” or 172 cm — she wore diamond rings on the fingers of both hands. She could throw a punch. In addition to having rounds of shoplifting that would terrorize the local retailers, one of the things that The Forty Elephants liked to do was party. They would ‘put on the posh,’ as they say. I imagine that was like seeing a bunch of roller girls wearing the clothes they had stolen earlier that day.
David: If you’re interested in learning more about these three women, Dr. Gamman wrote a book. It’s called Gone Shopping: The Story of Shirley Pitts, Queen of Thieves. We’ll point to it in show notes.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more links to all of this plus more about the books we discussed.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
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