Meetings with Writers

I spent a very inspiring day at the Gosport Gallery meeting local writers for one to one discussions about their work.  I was really impressed by the quality and ambition of their writing.  Here’s an example –

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Zillebeke – Rain Lashes

(Inspired by: Lithograph, ‘Rain Lake 1918’, by Paul Nash)

by Dorothy Collard

In this stark, stump-splattered hell

where broken boughs, as if in prayer,

rent and beseech the lethal air,

rain lashes.

 

Staggering over slatted tracks

that slide above new-cratered mud,

men, silent, withdrawn,

slither like snails to uncharted gloom.

 

Rain slants through black night’s light,

beats tattoos on tin helmets,

funnels heaven’s tears to curtained blindness,

whips wet cold to every bone.

 

Clothes, left or whole, give no protection.

Precious possessions now spades, not weapons.

Blessed skills –

a shuffle forward, an eye’s view, the next breath …

 

No moon, no stars but scything rain

illuminates the blasted scene.

Cordite stenched with mud and blood

blights living lungs and brains.

 

Trailing in weary timelessness

soldiers stumble on, wondering ‘How?’

Not knowing where or why,

only the stinking, painful, fearful, ‘Now.’

 

Reflections on War

On Remembrance Day, I was talking to visitors to the Artists Rifles Exhibition at Gosport Gallery about their reaction to the exhibition and the First World War. A small group of us observed the two minutes silence together. It was very moving to be surrounded by paintings and drawings created by those who fought in the trenches. What people had to say brought home to me how much WWI still matters to the descendants of those who suffered both on the front and at home. Here are some examples –

What has really struck me has been the futility and the enormity of loss during World War One. We’ve been so focused on the Second World War that it’s only really with this year that WWI has been made properly known. It’s wonderful to see how it was recorded through art and poetry.

We’ve just come from a church listening to children read poetry about the war. I think it’s so important that even though it was a hundred years ago that children understand the enormity of what happened. How even now so many families have stories of relations that were lost. They say that war is remembered for three generations but I think it can be more, it should be more.

What we’ve been trying to trace is a kind of map of where our ancestors joined up and why. Because sometimes they joined regiments quite far from where they actually lived. Maybe it was to do with wanting to be with pals or some kind of job connection but it’s fascinating to follow the routes they took to war.

The wonderful thing now is the computer. We were sat at home on a Saturday afternoon and we put a name in. Twenty minutes later we had a photograph of his gravestone, where he died fighting in Belgium. You could even see the plaque left by his wife when she went to visit the grave.

We go on the Cenotaph march every year. No matter what the weather. Because the war didn’t stop for rain or snow or anything, they still had to fight so we still have to remember. It’s like a sort of family event where you catch up with people you only see once a year. When the silence ends and the band starts, it’s really so powerful. This year more than ever because of the focus, the depth of feeling around World War One.

I think it keeps the older people alive, finding out about the previous generations. You have to talk to them because they remember the little details, small stories that will be forever lost, precious snippets like the fact he used to go for walks on a Sunday with my great grandfather. He fought in World War One and died years later of his wounds, physical and psychological.

My grandfather was a balloonist, a spotter in Northern France. They went up and spotted where the shells fell, quite high observation. I imagine it was quite dangerous as they could have been blown out of the sky. He signed up as a private and became an acting corporal. He was a teacher who survived the war and went on to be headmaster of Leytonstone Grammar School. It shows how educated men were prepared to sign up as ordinary soldiers, not necessarily go through the military college. I think he saw it as just something I must do, he didn’t think shall I be somebody in this war, he just did his duty.

What I get from looking at this exhibition is an insight into how little they knew what to expect. There’s a sense of profound bewilderment, like they knew they were expected to do it but they didn’t quite know what they were expected to do. They had such implicit trust in the chain of command. But when you look at this painting of all the officers at the station you wonder how much they really knew. Certainly a lot of the boys just did it because they had this terrific sense of patriotism. I remember seeing a children’s book called Me and My Empire, to be British was to be identified with the Empire. It was a very different time. And you get the sense of loss and bewilderment. It’s very important to have exhibitions like this so you can get under the skin of it.

Writing Inspired by the Painting ‘Over the Top’ (John Nash)

What has really struck me about the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with on this residency is the depth of personal feeling and family connections that they have with World War One. I think these beautiful pieces of writing by one of my workshop participants perfectly illustrates this –

Writing Inspired by the Painting ‘Over the Top’ (John Nash)

 by Lizzie Chittleboro (November 2014)

IWM ART 3908 John Nash study for oer the top crop

Dear Grandpa

I never knew you, but you have always been missing in my life. Since I have begun to discover my creativity, my search for you has intensified. How I wish I had been able to spend time in your studio at your side, watching you as you painted your stained glass window designs.

So to find you amongst the stark uniformed figures in the snow was wonderful. Despite your body being rigid with cold and fear you were unmistakable, the bone structure of your face, the set of your shoulders, the shape of your hands. Although I have never met you, as soon as I saw you I knew that you were part of my family.

There was so much I wanted to ask you, so much that I wanted to tell you. I wanted you to step out of the snow, to step out of the picture and take me in your arms and hold me. I wanted to feel the rough serge of your uniform, the stubble of your unshaven face on my cheek and drink in the smell of your unwashed flesh.

I wanted to tell you about how you have been missed and all the years of sadness since your death. I wanted to tell you that even though we have never met you that you have lived on in your Grandchildren and Great- grandchildren.

For many years your pictures lay abandoned in a drawer, your stained glass windows unvisited by your family. At last your paintings have been framed and are hanging on the wall. We have begun to visit the churches where your stained glass windows are displayed and through them we are getting to know you. I have noticed how many of your designs were for memorial windows; as if you were compelled to ensure that those who had fallen would never be forgotten.

I have come to understand how misunderstood you were, how wrongly you were labelled as the black sheep of the family. That you could never talk about the horrors that you saw, never forget or accept that they died and you survived. Forever haunted by their cries of terror and their crimson blood against the pure white snow.

At last your important place in our family constellation is being restored.

With my love always

Lizzie your Grandchild

Over the Top (John Nash)

The silence of bated breath

Waiting for the command

Fear suspended in icicles

Pure white cold cracking the icy air

In the distant woods a lone buck roars

 

The air is filled with the stench of fear

of dirt

of horror

of shit

of blood

 

Death and dying hang heavily in the air

Against a back drop of pure white snow

I see the last remnants of human life seeping out

These vestiges leaving their indelible mark

as the red, brown and yellow stain the pure white snow

 

The bitter taste of bile

The taste of fear of death and of dying

The bitter taste of regret, of things unsaid, unspoken

The taste of fear, the taste of fear, the taste of fear

The taste of death and of dying

The taste of pure white snow melting on my parched tongue

 

I feel the rough serge of your uniform against my cheek

I feel the strength of your wiry, sinuous body holding me tight

The beat of your heart in time with mine

Your blood flowing through your veins

My blood flowing through mine

Your cells encased with flesh

My cells inherited from you

 

We are joined

Over the years

We are joined by our heart beat

joined by our blood

joined by the shape of our hands

 

For a long, long time you held me and I held you

There was no need for words

With our hearts, our blood and cells entwined

Breathing as one

I did not need to hear your voice

I could feel it in my flesh, my bones, my blood and my cells

 

When at last you spoke

Clearing your throat

Your voice gruff, hesitant

“Lizzie” was all you said

I knew with those six sparse letters, what you were saying

It was all you needed to say to span those missing years

Local Talent

I’ve been working with Solent Writers Circle on writing inspired by the Artists’ Rifles Exhibition at Gosport Gallery. They are an extremely talented and committed writers group that meet up once a month and run regular competitions. Their oldest member has been attending for nearly thirty years! I was struck by how friendly and warm their welcome to me was as well as the quality of the writing they produced. Here’s an example –

WW1 Wraith

by Morag Kelly

Soldier of the HLI

Face of drawn angles and sunken cheeks

Eyes staring glassily

Fleck of spittle on dry lips opening in a scream

Brown, ripped, wet, muddy tunic

With shabby leather straps.

 

Died of wounds at home

 

Entreating hands, posed and gliding at me

Just asking for what?

Feather wet touch strokes along my arm,

A gust of foggy, sulphurous breath

Around my neck

 

Such a sonorous, rich, so very Scottish voice wails

“Ah’m wearying for you all..”

Connecting With Ancestors

On Saturday, I ran a creative writing workshop at the Gosport Gallery. Participants chose their favourite piece from the exhibition to use as a time travel machine to travel back and meet their ancestors. The results were surprising and deeply moving as people wrote about their own heart felt family connections to World War One. I was really inspired by much of what was said and the outstanding quality of the writing produced.

This photograph was sent to me by Rosa Johnson, one of the workshop participants, of Alfred (Jack) Piper on the day of his marriage one day before being sent to the front. He did not return.

Rosa Johnson

 

Here’s a poem I wrote myself inspired by the workshop participants.

For George
by Aoife Mannix

Soldier number seven thousand

found in a summer house.

A small tin box with the Queen’s chocolate

never eaten, a packet of woodbines,

and though they never knew

he died fighting on the Somme,

they discovered they had called

the latest baby after him. A name now

red tinged with family history. A visit

to a graveside, a pilgrimage of lions,

all that courage and waste.

 

The sheer ignorance of elephants

rampaging in rooms of secrets.

What afterwards was so hard

to put into words. Yet now

one hundred years on,

we hold that bloody uniform

to the light and remember

who they really were,

those boys engraved in stone.

Why We Should Remember

The following story was written by a Year 10 student at Brune Park Community School during a creative writing workshop I ran there. I think it’s a deeply impressive piece of writing not only for the vividness of detail but also for how much the writer identifies the importance of passing on tales of remembrance from World War One. 

A Ghost Story

by Caitlyn Chetwood

“It was one of my late shifts working as a guard in the gallery. Only the artwork was lit, it was nothing I wasn’t used to, just an average night. The gallery had closed at six and would open again at nine in the morning. My friend Allen had worked six till eight yet had left early as his wife had gone into labour with their first son. Therefore I was needed to work eight till five.

I was looking at a painting of a field. It was beautiful, full of small red flowers, possibly roses or tulips, each individually drawn and painted. It was initialled ‘V.C’ , to whom these initials belong I do not know but there is still a familiar feeling about them.

Suddenly, the lights flickered off. I looked down at my watch and it said eleven o’clock. It was amazing, while I was looking at that painting, three hours had passed. I notice that one painting is still lit. It is a drawing of men in the trenches from world war one.

I hear the dragging of shoes behind me and turn. In the shadow, I see a figure of a young man, no older than fifteen. He has a disfigured and shredded face, barely looking human. His teeth and jaw bone showing through his right cheek, teeth were missing, some were yellow and some were black. The few wisps of hair that were viewable seemed mousy brown, dirty and flat. His eyes lost of a soul, no light, no hope as if he sees no good in this world anymore.

Staring into his eyes, I see his final scene. He was climbing over the top and began running as fast and as far towards the enemy as he could get. Yet there is only so far a young boy of his age could go without needing to catch his breath.

He stopped … yet in those few seconds he forgot where he was, he forgot to keep low and out of sight. Rounds were fired, catching and ripping at his stomach. One ripped away his cheek on the right side. His fatal blow was a shot to the heart… he froze, fell to his knees, realizing this was his final scene. Just before his sight died there was a small wave of white, cheers from one side and silence from the other, yet no shots were fired from that point on. The memory fades and I see the ghost once more.

I realize he is still wearing his uniform of damp brown, not damp with water but damp with blood causing it to stick to his body. The hole in his clothing and chest, the trench coat to large for someone so young, his boots are torn and falling apart. He holds in his right hand the number 8, his first weapon handed to his by his officer, the weapon he fought and died with.

He approaches closer. I notice he’s quiet. The only noise is one of his boots dragging, the same noise I heard the first time the ghost appeared. The poor young boy is slouched with nothing but sadness in his movement, slow and carelessly walking, blood still flowing out of his chest.

He grabs my wrist, not violently but softly, almost like a plea for the peace he never lived in. It makes you feel cold and lose all happiness, almost making you feel how he felt and feels, lost and alone. He tightened his grip around my wrist slightly, tears in his eyes yet not crying, making me feel like he was begging for my help. I stood there crying out “Im sorry but I can’t change anything, im sorry your dead and that you lost your time.” His grip loosened and eventually dropped.

He yet again came closer. His breath was even colder than his touch. It smelt of blood and metal as well as the mouldy bread with maggots in that he ate before his death. His breath was damp with the tears he had cried in that battle and was shallow from the effort he put in his last run on the earth and soil he fought and lived on.

He spoke… his voice was no more than a whisper saying “just make sure the past does not repeat itself or you will lose all that’s dear to you, family, friends…” He paused and looked in his left hand. Enclosed was a necklace with only one charm, a gold heart. Inside was a picture of a young girl, “… and loved ones” tears strolled from his eyes “I loved her and because of that war … I lost her!”

The clock struck eleven thirty. He only spoke once more and he said “Do not let the past repeat itself.” To which I said “I will do all I can to prevent it”. With that he left, fading before my eyes. The lights came back on.

The night continued as normal from then on and I swore to myself I’d stick by my word. I would do my best to prevent the past from repeating itself ever again.

So, my dear boy, this was the story of the young soldier and sadly, George, the tale is true and your father will say the same, because as his father I have passed it down so future generations of our family will give the warning the young boy gave to me and I do my best to stop what may start again.” So the grandfather finished telling the tale of the young boy to his grandson George. The young boy said to the grandfather “Granddad did you ever find out who V.C stood for?”

The granddad replied saying “Yes, I did. It stood for Victoria Cresent who I went to go see. She was one hundred and three years old. I spoke to her about the drawing. It turns out she had painted it for her lover who went to war and never came back. The flowers were actually poppies. She asked why I was so interested and I told her and you’ll never guess what?”

George replied “what??”

“That lady’s love was the same boy I met that night and her knowing he’s never let go of that necklace left her at peace. It was as if she lived only long enough to hear of him once more, so she passed away happy and dreaming of him.”

The grandfather would never get to tell that story again yet in many ways he would as George passed it on to his son and that son passed it on to his and so life went on forever with the tale of the young boy being told.

 

Haunting Writing from Brune Park Community School

I’ve been working with Year 10 students at Brune Park Community School in Gosport. Today we wrote ghost stories and poems inspired by the Artists’ Rifles Exhibition. I was deeply impressed and inspired by the quality of the writing produced by the students. Not only did they have incredibly vivid imaginations, they approached the subject of World War I with great sensitivity and understanding. Their work showed a depth of insight into the sufferings of those killed in the war that was very moving. They also wrote with an originality and flair that was really exciting to listen to. Some of their ghosts were so disturbing that I may not sleep very well tonight!

Here’s an example of their work.

The General’s Ghost

by Nicola Vince

His eyes lay icy blue, sunken back into their sockets, surrounded by his muddy brow. Blood that had frozen in time stood dry upon his face, blood that had previously dripped from the wounds that remain open. His face still set in its final lost expression, split by the mouth that still parted slightly from the last stolen breath.

Drowned in his own guilt as he watched his men be shot down over his shoulder, feeling every blow as his friends took their last breath. Watching his friends charge over the top on his command, only to tumble limply back down. The grime of what he had done stuck upon his hands. He held his gun and pressed the cold metal to his temple, letting off a blow that shattered his very soul. He fell to the ground and his body finally relaxed.

His crisp uniform still stands tidy, topped with five once gleaming medals that do not glisten anymore but instead are smeared with dirt, hiding his achievements that matter no more. Blood soaks his hat that rests slightly tilted on his head and his boots splattered with mud with the laces pulled tightly.

Echoing down each hall, the tough march thuds from his heavy wear boots but comes to a halt by a reliving of his falling friends. Feet picked up in every step, never a scuff to be heard, as he had been taught in his younger years.

Freezing in front of me with a lost expression on his face, he snatched my wrist with his leathery hands. Still moist from the guilt he once felt, his weakness hid behind what seemed a snake’s hold.

The intense smell of cigarettes hit my face and rolled past my cheeks as though it was stained upon his lips. The strong smell of medicine hung around him although failing to hide the smell of the guns’ smoke indented in his uniform.

Before he spoke, he cleared his throat from the long years of smoking. Speaking in a husky tone, his once authoritative voice had faded, replaced by what seemed not a man but a confused boy’s lost cry for help.

Dear Roslyn and Benjamin,

I am afraid that I will not be returning. Although I believe my absence will not be noticed. I know now that when I was home, I locked myself away from others, consumed by my work and my demons. I have always had an icy personality, cold and bitter to others around me. But when I met you, Roslyn, there is no possible way I could put into words how much I loved you. I suppose the only way I could come close is to say that you warmed me. I know it’s a preposterous thing to say but that is exactly what you did. You broke down my high wall that I surrounded myself with to push others out and you melted the cold blanket that lay upon my heart and for that I am forever indebted to you. Although I fear my actions are too late.

Benjamin, to you I believe I owe the deepest apology. I wish I could be a father that deserved to have a son like you. I hope when you are older you understand my cold ways were not intended to inflict pain on you and I will forever pay for my cruelty in my own mind, it will drive me crazy. The best thing I can wish upon you is to not grow into a man like me. You are the man of the house now and remember what I taught you about your laces, you must make the loop otherwise it will not work. You will be forever in my mind but engraved in my heart.

I must go; the guilt of what I have done is unforgivable. Oh Roslyn, if only you would have seen them. They fell down from the rapid gunfire like rag dolls hitting the floor one by one, each fall tearing my heart slightly more. I thought we had taken the machine guns out, I was sure of it. Even though so many of my soldiers told me they didn’t feel it was safe to go over the top, I did not care. I was once again cold hearted and oh how I will pay the price for my actions.

Goodbye my love and my boy.

I can confirm that I have indeed been defeated by my demons.

Forever yours,

William