We will remember them

Projects, War Widows Stories

We stand on the doorstep of 61 Whitehall, a grand stone doorstep for a grand old government doorway. The words Royal Ministry on a brass plate by the black door. A bright, cold November morning in London and we are here for the War Widows’ ceremony commemorating the contributions of men and women made in military conflict, including their own lost loved ones. A cup of coffee and some fleeting conversations while everybody gathers, then we are out in the cold sunshine again.

The widows line up in a column, several people wide. A cohort of people that spans generations and places. A few of the older women are bent over, white-haired, tiny but determined. Later, someone tells us about the younger women who have more recently been made widows, they are carefully positioned in the middle of the rows to be supported and protected by the others. It’s a long line of people, a physical testament to the losses of all those conflicts, from World War Two onward. There is something huge about this group — because they represent so many missing. And because their burden has been so heavy, for so long.

crowd

A Scottish marching band arrives: the Southern Highland Pipe Band, their music swirls down the stone avenues, the bagpipes and the giant heartbeat of the bass drums. They accompany the column of widows who walk slowly up Whitehall. We are at the back of the column, standing a little apart to show respect. As we all walk, the crowd which is thousands strong watch quietly. Many people take photos, a few wave flags carrying the poppy symbol. One woman claps as we pass. People are quiet and attentive, often the faces are full of emotion.

We pass the centotaph, carved with three words The Glorious Dead. The column doubles back to face the Cenotaph, the empty tomb. A strong wind blows and late leaves tumble from the trees. Suddenly the faces of the women look stark and wild, I see tears on some faces.

The priest says prayers, there is a hymn, with subdued singing, snatched off by the wind. And then the old words, half-remembered from such ceremonies, from old films, “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

war widows association

“We will remember them!” The reply from hundreds of voices, some of them shaking with strength of feeling. There is a silence, for thought and then the single bugle call of Reveille, sorrowful as blues and yet undismayed. And then the amazement of the bagpipes, the great drone like a song from elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that people make such an earthly cry. Lois and I look at each other, unable to say anything.

We walk back, dazed by the power of this memorial, surrounded by a thunder of drums. As we walk I have the strangest sensation that we are marching through the past, connected to all those other marching feet following the drum. But at what cost comes glory?

After, we return to 61 Whitehall, with this group who we’re just starting to know, we climb three flights of spiralling stairs, upward to the vast military library. It’s a room containing thousands of books, some centuries old, and all of them trying to piece together what happens in a war. Strategy, tactics, empire, terrorism, torture, espionage hardware, software. And the question of justice — I see a copy of the Iraq War report, several volumes of it. But the people we are here with have the quietest military history of all, quieter than the spies, or the secret ops: the story of War Widows has simply not been told.

We will remember them.

library

Philip Davenport writing about our work as part of the project War Widows’ Stories. arhur+martha are making an embroidered quilt and a collections of poems with war widows. 

With special thanks to the War Widows’ Association who so kindly welcomed us to the event. 

Our ladies of the War

Projects, War Widows Stories

The Union Jack Club in Central London is a quiet pivot at the centre of British history. It is the club where people connected to the armed services traditionally come to stay when they’re in the capital. These doors have admitted corporals and Queens, generals and ghurkas. When you enter, you see wooden panels carved with the names of the heroes and (rarely) heroines of a hundred-plus years of wars. Colonial wars, anti-fascist wars, Cold War, the War on Terror, civil strife in Ireland, strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan. There are paintings of men on horseback, men in helicopters, jets, tanks, camouflage and bright red cavalry tunics. The library has deep green leather seats, and around you are the books that tell of these wars, titles like The Fall of Berlin, Rat’s Tales, Raiding the Reich, or No Time to Wave Goodbye.

breakfast

But we are not here to talk about battlefields, we are here to talk about their consequences.

Lois and I are staying at this iconic club to meet the group of women who run The War Widows’ Association, women whose remarkable lives bring a different perspective to those same battlefields.

Among the medals and the honour calls, they’ve also displayed great bravery in the face of conflict — but their stories are unheard, do not exist in the museums, are not recounted in the histories. And we are very privileged to be invited to take part in the first-ever gathering of their stories. Being arthur+martha, our contribution to this wider War Widows Stories will be a collaborative quilt and poems, that complement the oral history recordings and wider research currently being made by Dr Nadine Muller.

But today is a day for hellos, getting to know faces and gather ideas to fuel this longer conversation. The occasion right now is an evening meal for the regional managers of The War Widows’ Association: the big, bustling group is full of energy, jokiness, and a vibrant camaraderie as we sit down for tea. The cliche of widowhood is somber and soft-spoken, however this evening was spent talking loudly, eating heartily, laughing loud.

And yet, as we talked, other resonances came into the conversation— flashes of sadness, anger, my own memories of growing up around soldiers, and my mother who is also a widow. And suddenly this space, that seems so certain in its carved memorials and its place in history, is full of questions. And we wonder how to speak about it…

Philip Davenport, Oct 2018

 

Lois Blackburn introducing the art making to the War Widows’ Association. Photo courtesy WWS.

arthur+martha give thanks to our supporters for this project Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, Liverpool John Moores University, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Imperial War Museums, the National Memorial Arboretum and the Heritage Lottery Fund.  

armour, Projects

We are proud to announce will be the first showing of art and poetry from the project Armour at The Festival of Change, which takes place at the Museums Association (MA) Annual Conference and Exhibition in Manchester.  16th and 17th November.

Armour, my tongue

Poem and artwork Gavin Farquharson, stitching Lois Blackburn

This body of armour that
is the weight and size
of my heart…
(Eliot Hallisey)
Poems, embroideries and other texts made in self-defence
Armour is a project that uses words and stitches to explore the ways we protect ourselves. It is a collaboration with veterans of armed conflict and with people who have lived experience of homelessness. We asked people to describe their personal “armour”, physical and mental. Artworks were inspired by gambesons, the quilted jackets worn under suits of armour, were made out of rust dyed fabric and embroidered with poems, and other writings.
never again

Poem Danny Collins, embroidery Peggy Prestley

Many people we met were veterans who have also experienced homelessness. We asked people to describe their personal “armour”, physical and mental. And to imagine what might happen if was taken off. That spark of imagining is what gave life to these poems. Out of much heart-searching, during the art and poetry workshops, came many pieces of writing. Some were embroidered, or inscribed on suits of armour made of cloth.
Although we all need protection, sometimes protection becomes the problem. Armour can be extremely heavy, it limits sight, sound, touch – and emotions. In the poem Sir Galahad by Tennyson, the crucial moment comes when the famous warrior realises if he is to let in love, he must remove his armour. But to do so is fearful as well as freeing.
Defences fail and life falls into a dark disarray
Observe yourself when the mind is viciously dismantled…
(Anon)
Imagining the absence of armour was a difficult sometimes frightening exercise. For some, it took tremendous courage to write about it. For others, it brought relief. And for others again, many questions.
“I wonder where it will lead me, this writing…?” (Gavin Farquharson)
“Poetry, I’ve never got it before. This is the first time I’ve even written a poem. Never before. I’ve enjoyed it, it’s been special.” (Elliot Hallisey)
How can people who’ve experienced physical and psychological violence live peacefully with their memories? In our workshops we discussed how we protect our deeper selves and how we heal.
This project was devised to allow emotional/artistic exploration of difficult areas of personal history. The poems come out of the experience of conflict – but our hope is that they might help people to find some peace.
…friends friends linked linked together hand
hands safe safe.
(Peter S)
knowledge sunburst

Embroidery Lois Blackburn, inspired by anon artwork

Fear

armour
safe in

Peggy Prestley’s embroidery for Armour, work in progress

Armour Project

Regime

 
Rage that’s used in order to control
relations, intimate partners
to achieve a golden dream a chiselled cold
fear that stings fear
where one isn’t aware
it looks like metal but it’s not.
 
Gavin
Phil writes:
The Booth Centre: there was also anxiety in the air this morning, it hit like a shock wave as I came through the door. Someone was trying high level intimidation, with raised fists, loud shouted outbursts, staring competitions. He was dressed in black, he paced the room, moving erratically and occasionally launching into another confrontation, while the staff tried to defuse his anger. Because people in the Centre are very attuned to threat, their radar was on  alert. They looked over each other’s shoulders while talking, there was an unsettled feel, objects kept being knocked off tables, people bumped into one another. It was as if an earthquake had dropped in for a cuppa.
As is the often the way there, I spoke to some people I have known for years and some I’d only met this morning. Every conversation was fragile, lightly touched by the presence of fear, yelling its head off in the corner. The first person I talked with was fighting back panic, he said. The next was joking with me, but kept checking the threat potential. The last had been awake four days straight, out on the streets. He’d not been eating, because of grief. He looked shrunken, like a an inhabitant of an institution, with over-large, over-bright eyes.
ryan giggs

Footballer Ryan Giggs on visit to the Booth Centre, Manchester. 

But walking alongside fear, and just as powerful, was the feeling of being thoroughly, immediately alive, and the intensity of each shared moment. A day at The Booth Centre is like this, you can squeeze several hours-worth of living into an instant. There’s a surreal-ness to the fast-forward rush of it all. It came as absolutely no surprise that the footballer Ryan Giggs suddenly turned up with a camera crew to meet folk, sign autographs, and add a further manic element. Suddenly beaming smiles and a celebrity frisson punctuated the atmosphere.
In the afternoon, making an oasis of stitching and poems, we read The idea of order at Key West by Wallace Stevens, a poem about reducing chaos. Its subtitle might be how to insure yourself against the effect of the world by finding safety in art. Or in other words, how to write your way out of fear. The writing was made sharper by the recollection of our morning demon, a malevolent drug dealer stalking his own mad shadows.
When I was fighting didn’t think that was dangerous
When a knuckle duster knocked out my tooth
Didn’t think that was dangerous 
And when I was driving 130mph, 
Didn’t think that was dangerous.
When I hold a knife, that’s the closest I come.
That’s closest:
“If I’m not careful with this
In my hand
It is dangerous.”
 
K
 
fish and chips I like to order
I don’t like the word chaos
it brings disorder
danger comes in all sorts
car, bus, tram
suicidal thoughts.
Peter Twigg
following mine

Peter Twigg’s embroidery- work in progress