A week (or there abouts) in Shrewsbury and beyond

Things have happened since I last wrote; The Flat has gone, it is no more, the walls ripped down, the fittings pulled out. I’ve packed away my stuff, useless stuff into a room behind one of the locked doors and await it’s reinvention. I’ve moved into the spare room of my best mate and producers house (that’s what they are there for?), carrying keepsakes of china dogs and cat cushions as reminders of my own place. My own space.

I’ve started on turning it into a show, performed the first 20 minutes at the rather marvellous Pulse Festival in Ipswich.  Spent a week on my own at The Rep in Birmingham talking to myself and building paper screens, enjoying that sense of making again. The fear and the excitement, the worry in it’s pointlessness, the determination for it to mean something to someone outside of me. The research in old histories and other people’s stories. Making Power Points. Lovely Power Points and re-discovering Billy Joel and Tina Turner. The relief in something new. Slowly, quietly, gently putting Miss Gibbs to rest for a while. See The Forensics of A Flat

There’s more to these stories, there always is, but I’m writing today about another project, a new one that is in it’s infancy and different to The Flat.

Just to warn you, this going to be a long one. A long post. Meandering as I do, after the long pause of writing. I’ll try to teach myself the brevity and the frequency of small and often posts. But not today. They’ll be talk of death, and grief and questions, so maybe get yourself a cup of tea. Or maybe just stop reading now, I’ll sign post in bold for those who might like to skim.

What it is, who it is, what it’s for

Some time late last year Sian Kerry from Arts Alive got in contact to suggest working to create a small performance to mark the centenary of the start WW1 next year. There are many plans in different places nationally and internationally of ways to mark WW1 with projects being  discussed across public forums. The Imperial War museums website www.1914.org is a great place to find podcasts, links and resources.

The initial proposal was to work with Shropshire Archives using the letters, postcards and resources they have from WW1 to create a 20 or so minute performance that can be toured throughout different venues as part of the wider events that are taking place throughout Shropshire and other rural touring networks. (Rural touring is what I have been doing with Miss Gibbs, a variety of village halls, old schools libraries and arts centres to take performance to local communities www.ruraltouring.org). With the support of the Arts Council, last week was my first week beginning tentative research to look at the documents at Shropshire and generating those initial ideas.

Through Sian and the prospect of a bigger HLF bid within Shropshire, I have also been to visit and talk with the owner Stokesay Court just outside of Craven Arms. Stokesay was  a hospital for WW1 patients and the current owner is in the process of archiving the many letters that were written from recovered patients back to Mrs Rotton (the owner at the time).

Looking in The Archives…

I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for-I’d spent the past few weeks brushing up on poorly remembered school learning about WW1, looking at resources and reminding myself of the difficulties in reading first hand accounts (not just handwriting but the unintentional emotive contents of the sometimes seemingly everyday letters). I had sketched ideas in my head of wanting to find out more about people that stayed at home, women, other men, essential workers as well as the impact on community, particularly rural areas. I was looking to read letters to give me a real sense of that time, social structures, the individual stories that tell of the emotional impact behind the statistics and numbers that we are so aware of in their enormity.

At every single turn of the page or search in a catalogue there are these stories-marked out in ink or typed up in military precision. A letter to a mother from a close friend who has just watched her son die. Trying to offer a sense of pride and finality ,a personal warning, a personal telling, before the official telegram drops to her door mat. This young man’s grief in his telling, and his loss, apologies as his words tail off into scrawl. Pictures of war graves and stories of dedicated researchers in our time now trying to find out names, build new headstones and lay poppies at the feet of deserters shot at dawn. An act, 100 years later, to understand the fear, pain and attempt at self preservation in a man running from a war he doesn’t want to be in. Afraid he’ll be killed in. Appalled at the conditions he lives in. A message to a dead man to say, there’s no shame in this, I can’t promise I wouldn’t have done the same and you deserve to be remembered. And we’re still trying to understand now, with 100 years more knowledge of humanity, and human psyche, why it carries on.

And these stories seem shockingly, knowingly familiar, in our collective memory. The one that has been written by films and TV programs, museum visits and books. The powerful final image from that Blackadder episode that sits in conscious of several generations, some too young to know of either of the World War’s at first hand, as the residing, final picture. The one that stops hearts. Where you try to imagine the people you know now, the young men, women and families that you could start to count off your fingers, in terms of percentages. Try to imagine the people that you’d lose. Your school year photo. Those boys you met on holiday. The people you grew up with.

And we have the luxury of talking, and acknowledgement, but grief was rife and common then, that all you could do was carry on going, for everyone else.

A letters book. 

One of the archivists at Shropshire suggests a letters book written by a group of four women between 1917-1920. The idea essentially is similar to a facebook group, one person writes to all of the people, sends it on to the next person, who writes and continues to send the bunch of letters on. They also copy letters out in a fairly dedicated manner in a book, which is also sent around. From small villages in Shropshire and Suffolk to London and Birmingham, these four women live in different places and different lives. These letters tell of the everyday background of living in a country at war, of these women working on farms or as nurses. How hot the summer of 1918 was, or where they could go skating the previous winter. The war is a background, sometimes never mentioned, sometimes as sideways glance through out these exchanges. This wasn’t written for public consumption, never knowing what their everyday words could tell of life and how it would be read. Alongside them I follow through the everyday, and the work, shocking moments of poignancy and grief sharply focusing reality, which then fade back into the everyday, until I see the end of the war the first ‘peace time christmas’ through their writing. This world wide celebration told in individual moments. I can read that feeling of elation, and relief.  Like a weary time traveller I know that this peace time is short lived. I know what’s coming next, like we all do as it’s happened. The flu, the fall out of the peace treaty, another war. But I leave them at that moment in jubilation over the end of ‘this terrible war’.

Small obsession begins to grow with these women, that moment, that feeling in the pit of my stomach, an anxiety to know how their lives continue outside of their letters. That familiar feeling that lead to Miss Gibbs (she is always there, I guess one way or another).

A little detour and river swim. 

There is other material that I look through, documents and ‘newsletters to the front’ written and illustrated through a local Baptist Church, these are purchased for a penny and sent to the soldiers by their families, to give them hope, and news and relief from the sometime boredom. The soldiers write back and have their poems, pictures and stories published. There are appeals to write to the injured in hospitals who served their country well and have no family that write. All of these items start to piece together in fractured ways a sense of feeling, an idea of living in that time.

There is a certain concentration that comes from looking in archives, a fear that you’ll miss something, a difficulty in translation of handwriting, a profound modern problem when you realise that not everything can be found out by googling. My head becomes dusty with words of the dead, and the slanting handwriting moves in and out of focus like a magic eye. All these people. All these stories.

Just a little note to say that I’m not putting images up of these documents due to copyright and ownership details. These archives are not things that I have found in a shop or a sale, but items that more often than not have been donated to the archives by families or friends, personal items. So at the moment I am being deliberately vague in some details. Fascinating, moving and illuminating as they are, these are not my stories.  

Sian has said she’ll take me for a river swim and cook me dinner. It’s raining, it’s cold but knowing that to stick my head in icy rivers will rinse out all the dust. (As always there is a sub story in swimming for me. An intial delight in a local 33 meter pool in Shrewsbury, that isn’t lane swimming when I go, children and widths, diving and flumes. I focus on practicing tumble turns and kicking. Still it’s good to get my head wet).

Over rock and pebble, Sian, me and her daughter go down near Bury (I think, I could be wrong). It’s cold, with white water through rocks, but I take deep breaths in a deep enough pool and smile through green rushing water. People on the bridge above stop a moment and look at us with idle eyes. The rain starts and coldness filters into my bones.

When I originally started the postcard project  10 years or so ago, I was looking for a reason to travel, to get to know this country better. Visit places I’d never think of to go. Part of that is still happening. I go to Sian’s house where she run’s Arts Alive and see a different kind of life to the one I carve out for myself.  I know I’d miss the city, but somehow I always end up in the country in some way,but it’s a place to go for peace, a kind of place I might go, when I’ve grown up.

Back on the train to Shrewbury, the train conductor (a shock of white hair makes old of his face) begins chatting to me in wide eyed accounts. Gently asking me what I’m doing. There are times when I am city centred that I do not want to talk, when I am trying to get somewhere, or trying to do something. It happens to me less in Birmingham than it happened in London, and in London the best thing to do is avoid eye contact, or act stranger than the person that is trying to capture your attention.

The white haired conductor chats to me in seemingly innocent banter. The underlying sense as a woman (or with the suspicions of a city dweller) as to what this might be for. I have river fresh hair and tired eyes, and tells me he’s a sailor. He loves to sail his boats. I ask him what he’s doing in Shropshire, a land locked county. But he dives as well, in Shrewsbury, in that pool, he’s a diving master. Could teach me how to dive, could introduce me to the Shrewsbury Dive Group. Or take me out on a boat. Or cook me dinner. A nice lasagne. ‘Homemade garlic bread?’ I enquire. I ask him how he came to be here. He asks me how long I’ve got. Until the train stops at Shrewsbury. A casual inference to ‘perhaps your boyfriend sails?’

He does. I smile, he does. With a nod he goes to announce the station, promising me he’ll take me on a 30ft yacht. I don’t push the promise.

The 4th (Territorial) Battalion The Kings Shropshire Light Inventory

I go to meet Peter, a man who runs the Regimental Museum in Shrewsbury Castle. There are huge amounts of resources there, military records, medals, personal photos, regimental history. I want to talk to him about PALs sign up (where men from the same friendship group could all sign up and fight together), but Peter points me towards the The 4th (Territorial) Battalion of the KSLI, who had a very different war experience to begin with than trench warfare that we hear about.

Originally a TA unit, that signed up to exercises in peace time, war came about in 1914, and the 4th Battalion were posted to the Middle East, via Calcutta to Rangoon, Hong Kong, Singapore. Farm labours and clerks being posted to places that they didn’t even know existed. This time in sun for three years came to an abrupt end in early 1918, when upon arriving back in Southampton, ready to see their families, they were posted directly to France without leave. There follows a story of bravery and battle that hints a David and Goliath flavoured fight. One that ends in the decoration of the living and the burying of the dead. I won’t tell you that story now. But the story of this Battalion is unusual in it’s beginnings and an altogether different experience of The War than I have heard before.

Back in Shropshire Archives is the diary of Lieut. Colonel Garrett head of (I think) the 4th Battalion.  His journal starts in the period as The Battalion set sail, excited, confused, tropical heat and high tides. When the boat stops somewhere along the Nile Delta, the men call out “now for The Severn Vally”  “Change here for Shrewsbury” looking, laughing homeward in their hot air.

This journal comes with an inlay from a publisher dated in the late 1970’s who have read the diary with interest, but find it rather ‘too specialised’ to publish. It had been donated to the regiment by the Widow of a Major, this other man’s diary, the Colonel’s diary being found amongst his effects. I had been told the tale of this Battalion by Peter earlier that day, and here it is in first hand accounts and military records, the story of these men. The diary ends when the Colonel finds out that his men are being posted to France on trains that leave at 3pm,  when their ship landed at Midday. The final pages of the diary have been ripped out. There’s a film in there, or something, something bigger than what I can do on my own. I want to take the diary home, and read his words in the small hours, preferably  by candlelight. But his words are precious, this thing is precious, to be given back and locked away. Instead I take pictures on an ipad so I can read them, later through a screen.

Trip to Pentabus 

I’m going to visit Elizabeth at Pentabus, a contemporary theatre company based in Ludlow making new work about ‘the rural world for local and national audiences’. It’s a chance to talk to someone about the stuff I’ve been researching, what connections can be made. where it could go etc…When I start talking I realised that I have spent a long time on my own looking reading stuff, things and ideas formulating in my head that I can’t quite get a firm grip on just yet. (Look away those not interested in theatre/artistic musings this is the self indulgent bit..I mean it all sort of is, I’m writing a blog.)

Elizabeth asks me questions about where I am in this piece, asks me to interrogate who this is for, the places it will be. Questions that need asking, and leads me to think more deeply about my own practice and the turns that it has taken, signposted by Miss Gibbs, through different projects from Tatton to this piece. There is difficulty in answering where I am in this project, as Elizabeth points out, it’s not a mystery, it’s not a search, an uncovering of the research process. These letters and these diary entries have a language and honesty that doesn’t need re-writing. They are simple what they say, the stories they tell, in words of the people that wrote them.

But I can’t pretend that I am reading them fresh, without pre-conception, all of this comes with the knowledge of the future, the bell tolling in my ear, smell of blood on the wind as I peer into the past, riffle through people’s personal effects. Their thoughts. Superior because I happened born some years down the line, and benefit from technology and hindsight.  Whisper to their written words your hope is false, we didn’t learnt. It happens again. And again.  But who am I to try to tell them that?

We (Elizabeth and me) talk about the sense of group ownership of WW1, how this is very different to Miss Gibbs who I introduce and invite an audience to remember. (There are bigger questions about performance, my practice, how sometimes I don’t want to be myself in performance, I don’t want to call it auto biographical. Which it is. And I do. Sometimes it’s about telling everyday stories, mundane,  getting people to listen. And think about their own stories..anyway a little of subject)

There are generally two reactions when I talk about doing a WW1 project-a dulling of the eyes, a sense of obviousness about the material, those stories written in classrooms, and in books and TV. Or a sense of ownership and interest, returning once again to a collective memory and grief in regards to WW1. I was talking to one of the archivists, who was wondering why stories from WW1 effect her so profoundly.

Perhaps it’s the poets, who’s words for the first time in a post industrial age painted real fears in the stupidity of unnecessary acts of loss. Or that there is footage. Film footage for the first time. Or the technology, the tanks creeping as metal beasts, shells, gas, Zeppelins. Or that we can almost, but not quite touch it. We have papers, and excerpts but now no living memories.

So all of this to think about as I journey home. From the point of view of my own practice, having that conversation underlined how important it is for me to have those artistic conversations as part of the process of research and making. I begin often by working and writing on my own, how introverted and inclusive this can be. It makes me think about these conversations, roles of dramaturge and directors.

A Solo Pub Crawl 

A little diversion in subject and in tone. After getting off the train, I dine once more in Wetherspoons (Arty, no?Cheap? Yes.) And then take myself off to try for a tipple in the local ales. I always think that you can get a good sense of town by their pubs. The proper pubs, not bars. Also it’s always interesting to see what happens when you have a pint on your own in a country town. The first pub from the outside promises low beams, and olde worlde, and local ales, in the inside its Karaoke and Doom Bar (a common ale). I sit outside in the beer garden in light rain, while a man with a moustache sings along to the karaoke being sung indoors unembarrassed to ‘Two out of Three Ain’t Bad’ by Meatloaf.It’s just me and him in garden.

The next two pubs provide me bemused barmen, shouting women who question my identity and beer under 4%.

I spot a pub on the corner and think I’ll have a half. As I get to the bar, a man perched on a bar stall shouts ‘Service’ on behalf me. I order half a Darwin’s Origin. ‘Not really worth it for a half was it, love?’ Outside a loud canadian talks about his children to a man that looks like a lack lustre Jesus.

‘You don’t usually see women drinking lager in here’

‘It’s not lager, it’s ale’

‘Don’t sit there and drink on your own, love come and drink with us’

I meet The Shrewsbury Diving group.

‘Oh hang on, I met a conductor who said…’

‘Old white hair…’

‘Yeah, he said he could get me in with you..’

‘Not all there, that man. He’s a sailor. Likes his boats’

‘ Oh yes, he does like his boats’ I agree.

I find out why in a landlocked county, you’d start diving. Women, divorce, something to do are various answers. I am fascinated by water obsessives so far from the sea. There’s a couple there that met through diving. I am asked if I’ve come to see how the country bumpkins live, I tell them a little about my research, and there is interest, a couple of them used to be in the TA. I get bought another pint (‘good girl’) and drift towards the end of the night which all starts to become politically tinged. I go back to my B&B.

Stokesay Court 

Feeling perhaps a little on the fuzzy side, I pack my bags and head to Craven Arms, the nearest place to Stokesay Court. When I get there I briefly decide to visit a museum before getting a taxi (me being a city girl, I don’t foresee a problem in getting a taxi). I go to The Land of Lost Content, a museum, a collection, of anything and everything you can remember from your childhood and before. Uniforms, school reports, type writers, games, beach wear, TV’s, stacks of TV’s. It is run by a woman call Stella, who hasn’t stopped collecting for 30, 40 years. The curation is hand written on neon pieces of card, it is personal and moving. No bit of space is left without something in it.

I ask Stella if she knows any taxi numbers, she calls, one, two. They are one car companies, out at the airport, at a funeral. She might have to get me one from Shrewsbury-where I’ve come from. But first she pops next door as the women next door lives in one of the wings of Stokesay.  The woman from the shop next door (Estate Agent) makes me a tea, phones the owner of Stokesay and arranges for the groundsman to pick me up.

I spend an afternoon, having lunch with the owner, meeting a lovely lady from Attingham (also a hosital during WW1, I think) who is helping to archive the letters. I spend an afternoon in letters. Being read too by the owner, her picking of these stories, letters in surprise. What emerges from these letters that stretch from 1914-1920 is the sense of time passing, of hope and bitter resilience, and more so the character of the woman they are written to. Mrs Rotton, the owner of Stokesay at the time, how personal and grateful they are to her, how she must have written to almost every man that passed through Stokesay, sent them photographs. They joke with her, and are not afraid to tell her the truth in their fears and conscious.  There are letters from wives asking for their husbands to be moved beds to Stokesay, he is ‘not injured, but in need of rest’. I read between the lines in shock and legacy of what has been experienced. Letters from mothers thanking Mrs Rotton for looking after their boy.  This is woman who has empathy and time to listen to these soldiers, across classes and ranks, a sense of understanding that their stories needed to be heard. Listened too, for their own sake as much as the future’s.

Each of the sources of material that I have looked into has it’s own project, there is a sense of trying to encompass the enormity of WW1 by the stories that are here. How does it focus in and out? But for now, I’ll leave you at the end of this rather long post with a line from one of the letters at Stokesay, sent in February 1916, little but half way in, when two christmas’s have passed.

I pray that the day is not far off when Peace is restored, when awful carnage shall cease and men realise that God has better plans for them than killing each other.


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One Response to A week (or there abouts) in Shrewsbury and beyond

  1. Lynda Reid says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I’m not sure either why the Great War resonates so deeply with people today. Of course here in Australia we also have all the Anzac mythology. Perhaps it’s because the last of the Diggers have died… Anyway I enjoyed reading your blogs. Will you ever tour out here? Is there a book of Miss Gibbs (it sounds very intriguing)?

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