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
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
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.