It’s ‘Meet the Characters’ time again and this week I’ve invited Jon Hartless over to interview Poppy, the protagonist from his steampunk motor racing story, Full Throttle. Poppy, is hated by the media, but Jon tells me that she has been misquoted and her views distorted by the interviewer. Let’s find out a bit more about the book.
In an autocratic society that refuses to let her move forward, can Poppy stay ahead of the pack?
As expensive steam-powered automobiles speed across the land, Poppy Orpington is trapped and going nowhere – until her father reveals his secret project, a petrol-fuelled car ready for the race track. But will they even be allowed to compete?
Racing is the preserve of the wealthy elite and few will welcome a working class family onto their hallowed ground. Can Poppy overcome social prejudice and conformity, or will her one and only chance of a better life be crushed before it can even begin?
Full Throttle; book one of a Steampunk motor racing adventure set in a world of division, intolerance and inequality that modern readers may find disturbingly familiar…
It sounds fascinating, Jon. Now let’s get on with the interview.
Sorry to hear the press are refusing to admit their ancestors treated Poppy appallingly. I have attached a scanned image of one fairly typical article from late 1904; the piece is founded on a series of incorrect and snobbish suppositions, Poppy herself is denigrated throughout, and most the facts are mangled beyond comprehension – the writer even claims Poppy was from Birmingham rather than the Black Country!
I’ll send the full rebuttal next week via the post; I’m afraid my text limit is all but up for this message. Take care, I’ll try and telecast you before I leave for France at the end of the month.
The Infamy of Poppy Orpington!
By Maurice Justin Tobin, Social Correspondent, Repute Magazine, Issue 8, Autumn Edition, 1904.
I have been conducting interviews now for well over ten years. I have spoken to the aristocracy, great men of adventure and business, government ministers, industrialists, women of taste and charm, and I have also descended to the depths of the lower orders to talk to murderers and thieves, pickpockets and unionised agitators. Yet never have I felt such disquiet as when my editor told me to interview the notorious and disturbing Poppy Orpington.
Society has never truly recovered from the horror of seeing a woman participate in such a dangerous, unfeminine activity as motor car racing, and since Poppy Orpington inflicted herself on the public consciousness one year ago, her face has barely been absent from the pages of the press as she demands attention from the long suffering public.
Yet, for one who bombards us with her presence on the race tracks of England, she proves elusive when it comes to doing a simple interview, so that the public may judge her for what she really is. That I had to track her down at her new business and confront her on the threshold speaks volumes about this attention-seeker and her high-handed manner.
Poppy Orpington’s freakish size is truly unnerving in the flesh; her height must be well over six feet, and her shoulders as broad as a common navvy. Of course, the disquiet is increased by her prosthetic; the steel and brass arm she has fitted to herself is an external reminder of her inner deformity, a reminder emphasised by the leg brace she needs to wear to support her unnatural masculine body.
She is certainly no lady. That much was clear when I tried to politely introduce myself as she was entering her new business where – if you can believe such a monstrous thing – she is setting up a factory to manufacturer petrol racing cars. I had barely told her my name and profession when she rudely pushed me aside and entered her factory door. I followed, mindful of my editor’s instructions to obtain an interview – so that the public can see the real woman – and I asked her, politely, how she justified her appalling life.
He reply was unprintable. Suffice to say, I have not heard such language even down in the docks, where the lowest of the working classes fester in squalor. Shocked as I was, I tried again to reason with the deluded wretch, and I asked her how she could continue racing when so many people were against her.
“Who is against me?” she demanded in her vulgar and uneducated Birmingham accent.
“The people,” I told her.
“Which people, exactly?” she demanded. “How many have you asked?”
“Lots of people are,” I insisted, for this is the simple truth, yet still the stubborn, argumentative female continued to deny the facts!
“I had the vast majority of the crowd at Baggeridge cheering me as I crossed the line first,” she blustered, though how she could hear what the crowds were saying over the noise of that infernal engine is more than I can fathom! Yet her delusion continued as she insisted that the crowds at other racetracks also cheered her on. I need not waste time on such claims here.
“And what of this factory?” I demanded, gesturing in horror at the sight of so many lower class men working under the direction of a woman. One wonders if they are they under the thumbs of their wives also! “Nobody wants petrol cars. That is a fact!”
“Then why do I several orders for my cars?” demanded the unrepentant and dishonest women.
“And what of the noise and smell of these cars?” I pointed out, knowing there was no answer to my questions.
“What of them?” she asked, clearly unable to find any answer! And after that, she ordered two of her surly ruffians to put down their tools and to escort me from the premises. I made my excuses and left.
If only I could share with our horrified readers all that we in the media know about this degenerate woman! But we mustpractice the noblest form of self-censorship to protect our fairer female readers who would be shocked and disturbed to learn what we know of Poppy Orpington’s activities! Alas, that such fair readers are not ready to know what we know! For that reason we cannot take any chances in simply telling the full truth, for we know our responsibilities!
But we are not resentful, nor do we feel the need to tell all we know. We are above such pettiness. Besides, Poppy Orpington does have a substantial, deluded fan base of working class rabble and riffraff, and we dare not inflame their prejudices with our knowledge! We are above such things.
But fear not. The day of reckoning is coming for Poppy Orpington and all like her who mock our ways and belittle our values with their outrageous behaviour. She will surely find the race track is but the high road to disgrace and infamy, and from that destination, there is no return!
Intrigued? Here’s a bit from the book
By James Birkin, Editor.
Today, Poppy Orpington is hardly remembered at all. Some do know that she was a famous racing driver, though only a minority of these are aware that her first car was called Thunderbus, not Thunderbolt, a mistake arising from her later company of that name. Others wrongly dismiss her as the first of the modern celebrities, working the media for fame and money, while a few will gleefully recall libellous newspaper reports of harlotry in a Parisian bawdy house whenever her name is mentioned.
Most, however, are familiar only with her stained reputation from the Great War – a reputation, I maintain, that is thoroughly undeserved. However, I must not get ahead of myself. I shall explore everything in the right order and put Poppy in the context of her era. Her exoneration, should you wish to grant it, must be given at the right time and with a full understanding of Poppy’s character.
This, then, is the beginning of the testimony, taken from diaries, letters and personal contemporaneous interviews. Some may complain that my shaping of this material into a narrative rather than an academic account will diminish the authenticity of the work; I contest that Poppy’s biography is so dramatic in tone, and so rich in style, that it pulled itself naturally into this shape.
Nonetheless, a few disclaimers should be noted. Memory is fragile, and it is unsurprising to see the manner in which events can be transposed, altered and generally misunderstood. Please be assured that I have researched all areas as closely as possible and that everything in this book actually took place, though not necessarily in the order given.
Also, the spoken language at that time was rather more formal than today, especially amongst the upper classes and the well-educated, and this has driven me to lightly edit certain conversations between Poppy, Simeon, Helena and their contemporaries. Please be assured that I have endeavoured to keep the pith of each exchange, sacrificing the semi-archaic speech patterns only for the sake of lucidity.
The reader may ask just why I have devoted so much time to the Orpington archive of diaries, letters and more. Does it really matter what happened to an almost forgotten woman over a century ago? In my opinion, and simply put; yes. Poppy’s life has many parallels today, while her eventual fate in the early years of the twentieth century could – tragically – easily happen again. I will accordingly interpose a series of editor’s notes on those aspects of Poppy’s life that I feel are relevant to us. I shall endeavour to keep these interjections to a minimum, however, as they serve to illuminate rather than to distract.
Join me, then, as we travel back to when motor sport was still open to amateurs – albeit only wealthy amateurs – who could race their own cars side-by-side with the professionals of the day. Back when the sport still boasted heroic individuality rather than corporate wrangling over fuel consumption and weight limits. Back when cars were designed by hand and built by imagination, and were as much for the public road as the racetrack, unlike today’s machine-designed racing vehicles that have no function outside the sport and no individuality within it.
So, let us return to an age which is now regarded as a lost era of romance and rugged individualism, but which was also characterised by gross inequality, a rigid social order, casual violence toward women and unthinking submission toward authority. And let us never forget that the past is golden only when viewed from afar.
Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novel, Full Throttle, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, appeared with Accent Press in August 2017.
Find out more about Jon here:
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