V. My Experiences During the Fan Research


Perhaps surprisingly, my experiences during my research into women fans of girls' school stories were more varied than were my experiences within the academy or medical system. In contrast to my experiences elsewhere, I was immediately granted the status of a researcher and an insider within the fan community, regardless of the fact that I was disabled (and was also widely recognised as being queer). The fact that my experiences were more positive was due, not so much to the fan research being situated outside the academy and medical system, as to the subjects of my research, who were fans of girls' school stories, particularly Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series. There were several reasons for this.
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First, as women themselves, the fans did not equate my being a woman with being "Other"; instead of being a barrier, my gender was a link between us. Equally, as women they were able to recognise me as a professional, which gave them greater confidence in me. Then, women have more experience of disability, since both the majority of disabled people and those who assist them are women, and thus have less fear and more awareness than men.
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In terms of this specific group of women, illness plays a central role in the Chalet School series. People with impairments are treated with care and respect, and are included within the community where possible by recognising and accommodating their needs. In particular, back pain afflicts two characters as a result of accidents: one character brings it upon herself but is redeemed by it; the other is injured as a result of another who is also redeemed as a result.. Certainly Brent-Dyer's characters become more passive and more feminine and their characters deepen through illness, and this is a cliché. But it is a superior cliché to the more common one, which is that illness equals ugliness and evil and has a negative effect on character. In addition, the same characters are often central to the plots and, in many cases, favourites. All deserve the highest possible standards of medical care, whether or not they can be cured and regardless of their personality. This background must have had a profound effect on the way in which I and disabled fans were perceived by the fan network.
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Aside from the attitude of the fans, access to appropriate equipment also played a crucial role in my being able to carry out the research successfully despite the effects of my impairment. I wished to record my research using video and to present it as a film; that this proved possible, resulting in the film The Chalet School Revisited, was partly due to recent technological developments. Lightweight, miniaturised recording equipment is now available, while mechanical editing systems have been augmented by non-linear computer-based systems. However, none of this equipment was possessed by the University, and the equipment which was available there was completely inaccessible to me. No help with obtaining suitable equipment was forthcoming (although I did receive a small sum from a research fund to pay for tape stock), but shortly before the filming commenced, I was fortunate enough to be able to obtain a loan to purchase a miniature video camera - a Hi8 "palmcorder" - which was then the lightest available in the world.
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My film diary records that:

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Although, when taken with the batteries, microphone, tripod etc, the equipment was too heavy for me to lift, I was able to use the camera itself without any significant problems. However, while the tripod was also very light, I was unable to lift it without help, so shot a great deal more "hand-held" footage than I would have chosen. As a result I deliberately enhanced the film's 1960s, "Super-8" feel, rather than trying to mimic the look of a 1990s made-for-television documentary.
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By the time that the filming began, I had been corresponding with the organisers of the Elinor M. Brent-Dyer centenary celebrations for more than a year, and had met them briefly a few months beforehand. I had always made it clear to them in correspondence that I was disabled, and would therefore have special needs if I was to attend their planned residential events. These included a hard bed, a comfortable chair, and food which was egg- and dairy-free (as a result of food intolerances). Most importantly, I would need assistance with carrying my luggage and video equipment, since I was unable to provide this for myself. After my experiences within the academy, I was concerned that meeting these needs would not be possible, and so that I would not be able to carry out the research as planned. Fortunately the attitude of the organisers - and of the majority of the fans whom I came into contact with - was that they would help me as much as possible and do everything which they could to enable me to complete my research successfully.
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Perhaps not surprisingly, though, my first field trip revealed some problems which I had not anticipated as a novice crip. The celebrations were beginning in South Shields in the North East of England on the centenary itself. I was unable to drive so far and could not afford to pay for someone to accompany me, so I decided to travel by train. My partner helped me on to the train in London, together with my bag containing my overnight luggage and my video equipment, and I had made prior arrangements with British Rail to provide a porter to meet me at Newcastle and to transfer me to the connecting train for South Shields. This I assumed would go smoothly, and I also assumed that it would then be easy to find a taxi to take me to my bed and breakfast hotel. Notifying the transport authorities, I thought, would ensure that I had no problems. I was soon to discover my mistake.
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When I arrived at Newcastle, while I could see the porter waiting on the platform for me, he did not seem to realise that I was unable to get my bag out of the train without his help. I could not attract his attention, but eventually managed to get a passenger to help me out of the train shortly before it departed for Edinburgh. The porter then informed me that he could not take me as far as the underground platform where the South Shields train departed, since the train was operated by a different company to the one which employed him. My film diary continues:

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Luckily I found it easier to obtain a taxi the next morning, which took me to the street where a commemorative plaque would be unveiled by the local mayor on the site of Brent-Dyer's former school. With the help of a fan who had stayed in the same hotel, I was able to set up my equipment and start filming, with no problems other than those caused by using unfamiliar equipment. However, I did find it difficult to avoid being knocked into (my back is very fragile). I also found it difficult to transfer my luggage and equipment on to the Town Hall, where a civic reception was being held for the fans. Luckily, a male friend of one of the organisers agreed to help me and I was able to carry on filming as planned. I did, though, have to abandon plans to film at other local sites associated with Brent-Dyer, since I was unable to find or afford a taxi driver to take me round and I was also very tired. Fortunately Brent-Dyer's biographer, Helen McClelland, helped to carry my luggage and equipment to the final venue of the day, the local library which was hosting a Chalet School exhibition. Then, abandoning the underground system, we took a taxi to Newcastle where she helped me on to the train, and I was met by my partner at the other end.
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This set the scene for the rest of the project: my main problems were always lack of official assistance, lack of money and subsequent fatigue, and I also found it difficult to cope physically with the crowds of fans. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that throughout the project I suffered from the after-effects of the sclerosant injection which I had been given in error a few weeks before the celebrations began, meaning that the effects of my impairment were at their greatest. This turned the entire project into a physical endurance test, which is reflected in the excerpts from my film diary. I did receive a lot of help with carrying equipment and so on - from three women in particular, Rosemary Auchmuty, Joanne Hedge and Joy Wotton, as well as more generally - but this inevitably broke down at times. And I was very wary of asking fans to help me when they might already have their own impairments (which in fact Rosemary and Joy did) but find it difficult to refuse me, or might damage their own backs by lifting my luggage and equipment.
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Equally, the fans had their own luggage to carry and their own agendas; the fact that they were willing to assist me did not mean that I should have had to ask them. My agenda was different, and what I really needed was a personal assistant. If I had received a grant, I would have been able to apply for additional funding to pay for this. As it was, I could have found volunteers to help me, but without a grant I could not afford their expenses (fares, hotel bills and so on). No help was forthcoming from the University; there was no mechanism even to apply for any. My partner did give me a great deal of help, but this was not particularly fair on him and there was a limit to how much time off he could afford to take.
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Luckily I was able to travel by car to the next event, a residential weekend in Hereford, sharing the costs with Rosemary Auchmuty who did all of the driving and assisted me with my equipment. Between returning from South Shields and arriving at Hereford, I had written to the women going to Hereford to tell them about the video and to ask if they would telephone me if they were willing to be interviewed; I had discussed the fact that I was disabled with some of those who had responded. My diary records:

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The Hereford weekend was particularly hard going physically. Events began on Friday evening and continued until Sunday afternoon without a break except to sleep; and the venues were overcrowded, since the event had originally been planned for forty fans but had swollen to 160 in the same venue. (My diary notes: "Lesson - don't work with 160 people!") In addition, I found it difficult to get enough to eat: the crowds on the Friday night prevented me from getting to the dairy- and egg-free food which had been kept for me; and on Saturday I missed lunch altogether due to the demands of the filming schedule. However, it was clear that other disabled women were participating in and enjoying the weekend, and that I would have had far fewer difficulties if I had been there as a fan rather than a researcher. My diary records:

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In terms of the difficulties which I faced, my diary also notes that "Really good assistant would have helped although Rosemary and Joanne were indispensable", but due to the help which I did receive, particularly from Rosemary and Joanne, I was able to cope and complete the filming and research successfully. Rosemary's help also enabled me to travel with the fans to Austria the following month and complete the trip and filming successfully, despite the fact that I found it extremely difficult to keep up with the fans. My diary records the following experiences of disability during the trip, as well as how this affected my thinking about the research.
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Less than a week after returning from Austria, I travelled to Edinburgh to film an exhibition which the fans had organised at the Museum of Childhood and a local fan meeting. On this occasion my partner was able to accompany me, acting as my assistant to enable me to complete the filming and research successfully. I was also fortunate enough to have friends who provided me with accommodation and took a great deal of trouble to ensure that I was comfortable.
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Later, in September 1994, I travelled to Guernsey, where thirty-five fans were visiting the sites of Brent-Dyer's "La Rochelle" series. This was more difficult than earlier trips, since I could not afford to pay for my partner to accompany me and neither Rosemary nor Joanne were joining the party. I was also taken aback to discover that there are no lifts in Guernsey hotels. However, a number of fans offered assistance with my luggage and equipment, and one changed rooms with me to enable me to stay on the ground floor. Mo Everett, who organised the weekend, also took a great deal of trouble to meet my needs, ensuring that egg- and dairy-free food was available and that transport arrangements were made to prevent me from having to walk further than I could manage. She also invited me to rest in her own home before the Saturday night festivities. As a result I was able to complete the filming and research successfully, and was well enough to attend the final event, a memorial service for Brent-Dyer which took place in Surrey the day after we returned from Guernsey (my partner drove me there and helped me with the equipment).
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When I reached the editing stage, I was fortunate enough to be able to extend my credit enough to buy time on a digital editing system, Avid, which is based on an Apple Macintosh computer and which I highly recommend (full details of the editing process are given elsewhere). This allowed me to control the entire process using a keyboard and mouse, whereas the traditional mechanical process - as used in the editing suite provided by the University - involves a great deal of physical effort and would have caused me significant problems. However, access to the system still caused me some difficulties. Since I had to make a block booking when I hired the system, and since hiring the system was very expensive, I had to work every day for three weeks (in addition to the editing, I also had to carry out my weekend professional research contracts which were my main source of income). This was physically very tiring and caused my impairment to become greater as the process continued, and inevitably had some negative effects on the final outcome of the film. Later I was given free access to an "online" Avid system by the manufacturers, but this necessarily had to be at a time to suit the company and coincided with a period of illness. Not only was I unable to finish the edit as a result, but I was also ill for some weeks afterwards.
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Following the end of filming, I found it difficult to continue the links with the fans, because the need to carry out paid work alongside my research left me increasingly fatigued and in pain as time went on. For example, in 1995 my impairment prevented me from attending almost half of the fan meetings within London or commuting distance; and in the July I had to return early from the fan trip to the Swiss Chalet School sites because the kinds of problems described in the excerpts from my Austrian diary were overwhelming when combined with the summer heat and high altitude. (Following my return I began to use a stick much more heavily and my general health remained very poor, eventually resulting in my moving temporarily to Cornwall.) The fans, though, responded to these difficulties by offering me increased help - from providing me with a comfortable chair at meetings held in their homes to carrying food and water for me in the Swiss mountains - and this enabled me to participate to a much greater extent than I could otherwise have done.
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There were, however, additional problems to those described above. The stress of going into debt in order to carry out the research was very draining, and increased as the research continued. (I remained, aware, though, of how fortunate I had been to obtain access to the necessary equipment at all, which was due entirely to my professional background and would not have been possible for the majority of disabled people.) Then, unsurprisingly, fans did not always remember that I was disabled, and in addition, I did find it difficult to have to explain that I was disabled, to "come out", as soon as I met anyone new. And while the attitudes of fans were more positive than within the academy, disabilism was still evident and marked. I initially received a hostile or disbelieving reaction from some fans after coming out, and often heard comments about how dreadful it must be to be a burden on someone else. And I was particularly upset in December 1994, after the end of the conference, "Studying Girls' Popular Fiction", when the women with whom I had travelled to Austria chose to eat at a restaurant which was inaccessible to me because of the menu.
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However, it is undoubtedly true that the fan clubs attracted women who were in sympathy with much of the ethos of the Chalet School series. Many had been members of the original Chalet Club, to whom Brent-Dyer had written in the newsletter of May 1960 that: "I should like our Club to have a hand in helping those who are suffering . . . because they have to carry the burden of physical disability all their lives." The fact that the books provided the reason for their coming together also meant that this ethos was uppermost in their minds at the time when I encountered them. This must have contributed heavily to my overall experience of the research being positive, if challenging. The occasional differences between the fans' behaviour and their avowed philosophy were only to be expected, particularly as they were mostly unaware of the concept of disability rights, and it was personally encouraging to note that awareness and discussion of disability issues among fans progressed during the research period, along with awareness and discussion of sexuality - which could, of course, been an equally valid research identity.
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Next: VI. Afterthoughts
Return to: My Experiences as a Disabled Researcher Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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