The tears are close to our eyes

War Widows Stories

We’d like to thank the War Widows’ Association in Northern Ireland for inviting us into their precious twice-yearly meeting and making time for us when they were meeting with old friends, planning events, and sharing news. To be present  in one of the meetings is a privilege. It’s a group of friends, but it’s also a group of people grieving. The tears are close to everyone’s eyes. And then there’s a layer of politics. And of history too, the resonance of war.

Alberta

Over sandwiches and a cup of tea we talked about the weather, about memories of childhood — and then suddenly we were discussing a man being killed and his child running away from the scene of the killing covered in blood and shattered glass. How do you say all this, how do you deal with all this? At the end as we were getting ready to leave, Alberta our host answered the question, “Hugs.”

And yes, love is one answer among the many we heard. One of the widows said, “Here people hug me. But when I get back home I’m on my own with my life again and I go on a downer.”

A lot of the groups we work with include people from all walks of life, they’re brought together by a circumstance, for instance people who’ve experienced homelessness, or dementia, or widowhood. They’re suddenly talking to each other, in ways that unlock great emotion, sometimes it’s compassion, sometimes it’s anger, sometimes joy.

Today we passed from table to table, introducing some art and poem ideas and simply talking. Although there is no “simply” here. To be a widow is not simple, it is as complex as every individual in the room, with their many triumphs and tragedies. And of course, a shadow presence is the word “Troubles”. The conflict that still echoes through this place, and through many of the people here. How to even begin to put such a knot of loyalties and grievances to rest?

 

Ann

The project that we’re collectively making is a quilt. Many of the squares that make up the quilt carry the names of the widows and their husbands, and dates of birth and death. Other squares are pockets, which are embroidered with a few words, giving a part of a story, or a line from a song. Within these pockets is memorabilia, things that quietly commemorate, poems, letters, scraps of cloth. They are both present and hidden.

Making art or poems together allows deeply layered conversations to happen, sometimes finding expression for what’s only partly known. It’s what needs to happen first. Today was not a day for making, it was preparing the ground. When people left the room, many of them took squares with them to work on at home.

 

Heaven is my home(ann)

What will come back, how will those extraordinary moments we shared be re-made in word and stitch? Anne and Margaret talking about faith and love — “Heaven is my home.” Or Violet, with her eyes sparking, as she sang a line of a song that her husband used to sing to her, “Send me the pillow that you dream on
So darling I can dream on it too…”

 

Thanks to Alberta and Mary for inviting us to Belfast. Thanks to everyone who attended the War Widows’ Association meeting for making us feels so welcome and sharing your time, your creativity.  

 

A book of ours

A Book of Ours, Projects

The first day of a new project brings many questions to the table. And this one was no different. We are making an illuminated manuscript with people at the Booth Centre, following on from our project The Homeless Library, which was the first history of British homelessness. It gave first hand accounts of peoples life journeys, often pivoting around homelessness, illustrated with poems and artworks and inscribed into handmade books.

 

 

This new project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials  all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed, clumped together simply as homeless when they are so much more.

First job of the day was to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends. We worked at the booth centre for 10 years on and off, and some faces were very familiar. Laurence, with a twinkle, said, Everything gets put to one side for arthur+martha. Joan gave us both a hug. Danny ditto. As we sat down to work, Id the feeling that there was nowhere else to be sitting in the world that bettered this.

 

 

In todays workshop, we made a timeline of significant day and people wrote short 24-word descriptions of their chosen days. (There are, after all, 24 hours in a day.) We also did a little experimenting with calligraphy pens, with colours, with paper and with page layouts. Some powerful work was made, beautiful miniature narratives and playful page compositions. 

 

 

But some of the most important work was to ask questions. We are using mediaeval manuscripts as the basis for our book. These are the Books of Hours that celebrated the Christian calendar. So how do we adapt this template for our purposes? For instance, the medieval calendars were often written in black, red, blue and gold, with a particular meaning assigned to each colour. But what meanings did our group associate with these colours? Is red a colour of love, or a symbol of blood? Is black grief, or power, or…? And gold  is it the colour of money, or something less earthbound?

 

 

 

And as we talked, the shape of this book of ours slowly began to emerge…

With thanks to everyone at The Booth Centre for their warm welcome, the support of Lottery players and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A question of survival

Projects, quilts, War Widows Stories

There are many lessons for me to learn during every arthur+martha project. Our involvement with War Widows’ Stories, comes with a steep and sometimes painful learning curve.

Like how many wars there have been involving the United Kingdom since World War Two, many names I’m familiar with; The Troubles, Falklands War, the Gulf War, Bosnian, Afghanistan, Iraq… but many others I was unaware the British fought in- The Malayan Emergency, Greek Civil War,  the Korean War- I’ve now met 2 war widows’ whose husbands died as a result of the Korean war, they call it the forgotten war. Both their quilt contributions have the word Korea embroidered- a lesson in stitch. And each of these wars results in war widows, and children without parents, on both sides of the conflict, brought into focus by the women I meet;

‘Your world is turned upside down, but you have a baby kicking inside you, so you’ve got to get on with it- life goes on.

In April my mum was widowed, in May I was a widow, in June my son was born.’ Kath

Sylvia signature

This is a project that carries weight and responsibility. Yesterday I met Kath, who had campaigned for years to have her husbands name publicly on show somewhere in his home town, a name plaque to mark giving up his life for his country. It took years, finally with the support of The British Legion she achieved it, his name is honoured in his local church. Other women I have spoken to have told me their desire to have their husbands names publicly displayed. It’s been the inspiration to have their names stitched onto the quilt, alongside the war widows themselves. It’s a small contribution, carefully, slowly stitched.

 

Typically our projects are run with repeated visits to people, in group settings. This allows for participants to slowly build their confidence and their skills. For War Widows’ Stories, we have a number of group workshops, but also wanted to bring in the voices of other women- ones who couldn’t travel to the workshops. So far I’ve done four home visits up and down the country,  and enjoyed everyone of them. One to one sessions allow a quick, intense, meaningful, getting to know someone, revealing a flavour of their story. During the visits so far we haven’t started stitching as I hoped we would, instead I often find I am stitching participants designs on their behalf. For some they haven’t the physical ability, some it’s confidence of their skills- this is the drawback of a one-off visit, skills and confidence development. But their words, handwriting and drawings say so much.

And finally for today, the constant repeated theme of the project- survival, the getting on with it. Kath, like so many stories I’ve heard was left widowed desperately short of money,  she went to a board of men to ask for a bit more money for the 6 week baby- they told her ‘You’re young enough to get married again, and go back to work’…

‘A question of survival. Four buses to work, four buses home. It was all buses and work. Self survival, going to work, coming home, bed and work and Robert my son.’  Kath

question of survival

One of Kath’s squares for the War Widows’ Quilt

Written by Lois Blackburn

The War Widows’ Quilt is being made as part of the War Widows’ Stories project.  The project is supported by 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.  

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. 

A lost family

Projects, War Widows Stories

Last Friday I was lucky enough to attend The War Widows’ Stories ‘in-conversation’ event at The National War Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. Hosted by Dr Nadine Muller, with expert guests Irene Shiels and Sue Stout who shared their personal, frank, moving, at times funny, always informative, accounts of being a war widow.

Giving us the long-view was Professor Andrew Hopper who sharing his fascinating research on widows of the English Civil War.

Nadine explained: No two stories are the same, there is not one stereotype of a war widow- but there are powerful connections, emotions, thoughts and experiences…

I hope the following give a flavour of the afternoons conversation- the real rewards come from being there- if you are able I urge you to come along to the next (and final) in-conversation event on 2nd November at the Imperial War Museum North. 

 

I was a member of the RAF for 17 years, but when my husband died I realised I was an associate member…and then they took the membership away. I had lost my family, not just my husband, but my whole way of life.  Irene

 

With poppies now on sale for the forthcoming Remembrance Sunday, we spoke of the how we remember…

It’s not November the 11th, it’s everyday.  Irene

You can either live your life, or slip down under it. Mary

 

They spoke of the power and support of the War Widows’ Association…

Never underestimate the power of the collective. Those people that you never wanted to meet become friends and family.  Don’t underestimate how much speaking to people who have the same experience has, how valuable that is. Sue

United we stand. That is what has brought improvements, not just financial- it’s what we can do if we all work together.  Irene

You can find out more about this important, fascinating project at War Widows’ Stories. 

War Widows quilt in progress

War widows quilt, work in progress- pieced patchwork, inspired by Crimea Quilts.