Dearest Girls: Helen’s Story- a meeting on a farm in Shropshire

I’m writing about a meeting, a connection that happened on Sunday because of and as a result of the work that I have doing for My Dearest Girls: The Letters Book  a project I began last year in collaboration with Arts Alive and Shropshire Archives in response to the WW1 centenary. What follows is details and the making of a piece that led to that meeting on Sunday. It opens up larger questions on the nature of the work I make, responsibility of artists, ownership and why we look to the past, but these are not for today, another time perhaps-I just wanted to tell you this, what happened on Sunday.

WW1 Centenary  

We are, at present, awash with history programmes, memorials, events, stories surrounding the marking of that; the world at war for the first time. All of this is attempting to comprehend, understand, document and place ourselves in these events -remember the dead, the actions that led to death, the social, political and financial changes caused by warfare both locally and worldwide. The direct impact of this ‘event’ (again locally, internationally-it sometimes feels incongruous for this war to be labelled in the singular)  and what we have or haven’t learnt as a result. The consequences, the similarities that we are still dealing with. It is equally exhausting as it is important to commemorate, learn and attempt to understand this time in history. It is part of how we are here as we are now. But then, that is, a matter of consequences.

The Work I make (in brief)

The work I make, in general, considers small stories, the everyday as a pathway into considering a larger picture, a universal impact. My work often looks backwards in an attempt to understand how life was lived, 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago; forays into the stories of real people’s lives without sensationalism or high drama. Although there is an argument that I am making theatre from these facts,  I tend to shy away from invention of drama when dealing with real lives, there is power in how the everyday is told and the way in which words can be used. I delight in the discovery of facts, details of the everyday; work, school, conversation. The stories that have always been there.

The Brief

My brief was to create a performance around WW1-using letters and archival items (see previous blog post) I was interested in the people that stayed behind, the women, the men who worked the land, conscientious objectors. I was offered a Letters Book written between 1917-1920 to read in Shropshire Archives to give me a sense of background, the home front. Then I began to read these 6 women’s letters to each other and fell in love. The Letters Book is a sort of face book group of the 1900’s; round robin letters sent between 6 women who schooled together, each letter addressed to all, sent bundle by bundle, each woman adding her reply to the last and sending them on in a full round until one of the women copies them out into a notebook- what is known as A Letters Book. The book contains the 49 letters sent between 6 women, across 3 years, 23,000 words.  (More information of initial research  can be seen here– this blog post was written  before I realised  that The Letters Book was the project, completely. The page for The Letters Book performances is here. )

Each and every single one of those letters is beautiful, detailed and shot through with each  of the girls foibles, humour, enquiry and vitality. A wealth of material, which in a sense, need not be touched, or dramatised-it is their stories in their own words. Handwritten in two different hands, The Letters Book had never been transcribed (This is not unusual-resources and time are limited in archives while the wealth of information that is stored there is not). I spent last summer reading, transcribing, re-reading, transcribing again and again the letters. Squinting over the letters on paper in the hushed rooms of the archives and then squinting over photographs of the letters on my ipad in a garden in Ludlow. I got to know the girls, 19 when the book begins, 21 by the time it ends, these women- They are (in order the letters are sent round) Helen, May, Stella, Hester, Dorothy and Nella.

I , however, still had to complete the task that had been set; in a sense of the original brief (written by myself and my producer) for funding applications, partners and delivery of work,  the brief I had written before I had fully understood what The Letters Book contained.

To make a short piece, easily tourable, that could be placed within festival or event contexts

I changed the goal posts (slightly): I would still create a short piece focussing on one of the girls, using only her letters but I would also create a longer piece, more theatrical in form that would attempt to do justice to the stories of these six women. (This piece is in the process of being thought about, researched and made, a big project, a move on in my practice in conjunction with the responsibility of these women’s lives. I’m going to have a director, and maybe some music.)

Why Helen’s Story

For the short piece I chose to tell Helen’s story, the woman whom I felt closest too, for a reason that I could never quite articulate. My loyalties swayed and changed with the girls as I read and discovered actions and events in real time (their time), shocked or infuriated by their responses to each other in a variety of situations, but Helen always felt like the guiding hand. Her words have a literary quality, an honesty, and an underlining sense of the politics and frustrations of the time. She is a woman that understood her placing in class and gender but strived to learn more in the opportunity’s that war threw her way. Helen was the woman who wrote a letter of such searing honesty and emotion that I could hear her write the words. Helen, who I spent time with, laughed with her sisters, cared for her brother and her fiance, knowing that what I was looking for, answers to questions about her family, had, in fact, long since happened but I had read them in real time, last summer as if she were telling it to me.

So I made My Dearest Girls: Helen’s Story; low tech, low key story telling piece, focussing on Helen’s words, her life and her experience from 1917 to 1920. Reluctantly for the sake of performance, brevity and clarity I edited her words, her responses to the other women (which in itself takes up some explanation) to offer this; a snapshot of youth on the background of war working on a farm, 3 years of life, one woman’s formative years put into 30 minutes. I sometimes fill in the gaps with my own words acknowledging my presence and suppositions about this woman from where I’m standing nearly 100 years later. (There is a longer story to the making of this, including a writing residency at Pentabus, work in progress showing’s, editing, generous people giving up time and feedback, and me burning my back while rehearsing on the roof of my flat-much to the amusement of my landlord).

A meeting at Fordhall Farm

I opened My Dearest Girls: Helen’s Story at Fordhall Farm (the country’s first co-op farm) Fair on Sunday 5th of July in a tent decorated with bunting over looking the rolling hills of Shropshire, the top of a Yurt just about viewable from my storytelling spot (The Yurt’s are available to rent for 3 days or a week at very reasonable prices).  I was just to the right of Dan’s Cannons  (pump worked tennis ball cannons that you jump on to expel) and next to the alternative therapies tent (taster of an Indian head massage £5). There were giant wasps flying around the tent, and small children off on bear hunts just beyond our canvas walls, the first telling at 11pm was to a singular audience member,  Phillipa, and a friend of mine Jo (my driver and support) which created conversation, exchange, stories and emotion. The next performance was at 1pm with people having booked in, a family who had seen The Forensics of A Flat (a quite different show) a few weeks before in Audlem village hall, with the addition of Granma and Granpa for this outing. Genevieve from BBC Shropshire was there, she’s been interested in my project of The Letters Book since watching my work in progress showing of the material at Pentabus last year. After interviewing me and recording my reading Helen’s Letters she ran an article about Helen as part of the BBC as War. Genevieve had introduced me via facebook to relative’s of Helen’s, so she had been supporting me in this project through her connections in Shropshire. (I am also telling Helen’s Story later this month at Festival At The Edge a storytelling festival Genevieve runs).

With an almost full tent, I spoke Helen’s words in the letters she had written to her friends, filling in gaps with my own words here and there; as we followed Helen from 1917 to 1920, there were sounds of the fair from beyond and a round of Happy Birthday from outside. Silence in the tent as we took a glimpse back in time.

After the performance, a small crowd formed as a woman introduced herself as Sue Hayward, the grandaughter in law of Helen. I hugged her as if I knew her already. She had bought with her pictures of Helen, her sisters and her brother Jack. Words stuck in my throat as I looked at the picture of the woman I had spent time with in my head, a choking on the image of Jack, her brother in his uniform. I had to look away on seeing his face for the first time. My hair, which I had done with thought that morning in a slightly different style to echo that time was held up just like Helen’s (the narcissist in artist finding those connections). Helen’s eyes bright in sepia portrait’s, and all the words that I read between the lines of her letters, her determination and her humour was there.  Here it was in the reality, the responsibility of these people’s lives, that I had stood and told. Will continue to tell. I hope I did her well, your family’s story.

I listened to Sue, who when first marrying her husband (Helen’s Grandson), had lived with Helen in her later years, Brockton house where she copied out these letters all those years before. Sue, who I asked would it be possible to meet Helen’s daughter, Sue’s Mother in law? This, the reality of delving into someone else’s history, to meet a person who has all the gaps beyond and between the Helen I met in the letters and Helen as she grew older. It felt at once a privilege, a connection and a responsibility as stories were exchanged and continued of this family, Sue telling me about the charity work she does in memory of her husband Jon Hayward, at Jon Hayward Trust , bursaries for music lesson’s for children in Shropshire.  Helen’s children, grand children and great grandchildren that were all to come in this woman’s life when I first met her in the letters to her friends when she was 19. What now? A new friend and connection with this family, I hope, conversations begun about an evening for the charity including music and poems from Helen’s relatives and a reading of her letters. And perhaps more connections after that with the other five women’s stories and continuing stories in the pages of that book: May, Stella, Hester, Dorothy, and Nella.

© Francesca Millican-Slater
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One Response to Dearest Girls: Helen’s Story- a meeting on a farm in Shropshire

  1. Holly Kirby says:

    Hi Francesca,
    It was lovely to meet you at Attingham a while back and to hear Helen’s story- it was amazing! Unfortunately I lost your card until I discovered it hiding in my jacket pocket this evening! I’ve just been reading your website and blog posts and they are brilliant. It was fascinating to hear how you came across Helen’s story and your journey to discover more about her life. I wondered whether I could include a link to your website in one of the blog posts that I am writing for Attingham Park?
    I wondered whether you had found time to have a look at the blog that I have been writing based on Teresa Hulton’s life during WW1? It is called Attingham WW1 Stories and the address is:
    http://attinghamww1stories.wordpress.com/2014/06/
    If you like it you could always mention it on your website.

    Best wishes,

    Holly

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