Mum, the glue that held us together
My mum was one hell of a woman. She slipped away peacefully last Sunday morning, a nurse stroking her hair. She hung on until she had seen last of her nine children the evening before. The sun poured into the room as the kindly doctor told us she had died an hour before. We had started to believe that mum, the ultimate matriarch, was invincible. Battle after battle, she came back with a renewed determination to carry on. Stoicism really was her second name. Despite what life threw at her, she would come right back. She had a thirst for life. Her family loved and adored her, and she returned their love in bucket loads.
As a parent she was a tigress, uncompromising, unflinching, always on our side, never ever backing down. God help you if you wronged her. She was the glue that held us together, the focus of all of us, the centre of any family do. But, oh my God, she was funny. She would often have us in hysterics. When one of my brothers bumped into her in town one day, he said, ‘hi Mum’. She looked at him for a moment, before saying: ‘I know your face from somewhere!’ Often, on the phone, she would go through all of our names before settling on the right one.
She came over here on the boat from southern Ireland with her husband, as a young bride in the 1950s. How pretty she was. It’s hard to see him as handsome. We all remember a terrible and cruel drunk, forcing us to search for food in the shed. When he left we were left homeless and well-meaning social workers wanted to split us all up. ‘Over my dead body’, or words to that effect, was the reaction of Mum. We had a series of unthinkable homes before resting in a council house in the country. Never was a family more deserving of a home and a new start. We were oblivious as she fought hard and pushed herself to the limit, to get the rent paid in order to get us a decent home. Mum was bright, but not too proud to do the cleaning, bar work, you name it, to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.
But we had such fun. It was like ‘My family and other animals’ at times. There are no ‘quiet’ types in this family, and the noise could often be deafening as we fought to be heard. On our first ever holiday back ‘home’ to Dungarven, Co Waterford, Mum, bless her, let us do the packing. Among the numerous suitcases, was one for shoes and another for toys. In Ireland we were taken down a long driveway, lined with copper beech trees. As we rounded a bend, a double fronted Georgian house came into view. This was, The Beeches’, Mum’s childhood home. By the time of our visit, it had fallen into a state of shabby grandeur, but, to our young eyes, it was impressive with its sweeping staircases, crystal door knobs, huge gardens. For the first time, we appreciated Mum’s life before marriage, before us,
The contrast was stark, but still she never complained. That’s probably because the thing she was proudest of was her children. Bringing up nine on her own didn’t give her many career opportunities (though she did achieve a City & Guilds in Catering in her 40s). Many is the time we would all hear her say: ‘I may not have done much with my life, but the thing I’ve done best is bring you all up.’ She was fiercely proud of that, and fiercely proud of us. I don’t think we fully appreciated what an achievement that was.
So, now she is gone and there is a huge, empty, lonely gap. What will we do without her.
Nina O’Mahony 15/10/32 – 12/11/2017
D has recently discovered she is 95, a full three years older than she and her family thought she was. It is thanks to the diligent research of a grand daughter that this revelation has come about. D is a tiny four foot nothing, but a tough cookie: ‘I say it like it is and I don’t care what anyone thinks’. And she does. Spotting me arrive one morning, she says to no one in particular: ‘she bored the socks of me last week’. Nonetheless, I sit next to her later in the morning and she talks, and talks and talks, and it seems she couldn’t ‘bore the socks of anyone’.
For nearly three quarters of a century, alongside her husband, she worked the land, growing fruit, vegetables, rearing livestock, rearing children, losing children. During the war she met American soldiers, and home-sick German POWs worked their land and read bed time tales to their sons and daughters.
Time and again, D comes back to ‘the land’, where she toiled day in, day out, and a place she still yearns for. The promise of a sing-a-long on the piano, to songs of yesteryear, see her support her head in her hand, her face bored.
Why am I talking about D? In Herefordshire there is talk and chatter around the development of a county-wide ‘cultural strategy’. And this, apparently, is going to be central to the ‘Great Places Scheme’ in the county. One of its thrusts is thus: ‘More Herefordshire residents will have experienced arts, culture and heritage’. So, it’s all about inclusion, right?
Let me give a shout out for this lovely project, Cartographic Loveletters, that is delivering arts, culture and heritage, to the residents of this care home, quietly, in the background, but it is happening.
Steve and Angela visit from Herefordshire Library Service, Herefordshire Histories project with a box full of photographs. A small gathering or residents, including D, sit as the pics are passed around: the threshing machine, hop picking, horse ploughing, floods, and more. D’s head lifts from her hand as she scans the black and white images. Sitting up, talking to her 96-year-old contemporary to her right, she offers her memories, impressions and, to our delight, actual names to faces in the photographs.
She reminds me more than once that I am just a softie and a townie, who wouldn’t know a day’s hard work if it stared me in the face. D might be right, but she says it with a begrudging smile on her face. Now that’s what I call a cultural strategy.
I present a transcript to an 88-year-old, her story, word-for-word. She is a cross: ‘I don’t speak like that’, she says, before stressing: ‘I didn’t say that’. With a near-blunt pencil, she crosses out chunks of a carefully meandering story, stopping here and there, gathering speed and momentum. She mutters as she scrawls across the white sheets, ‘this can go, and this!’
When she is finished, a few thin paragraphs linger. Where before it was full, fleshy, alive, she reduces it – her life – to bare bones. She seems barely satisfied.
‘Who’s interested?’ ‘Who’s going to read it?’
We have tea and fruit cake. ‘While I can stand, I will still make my fruit cake’. So it is, every Monday morning, she leans on the counter with one hand, while mixing with the other.
At the table we sit quietly, her morsel of a slice, stands in sharp contrast to the generous slice for the guest who gets ‘her words wrong’. Behind us is her bed. It is hardly noticed. Upstairs could be another world away. She has migrated to the lower floors and this is where she will now stay.
On the wall is a black and white photograph. A tall man and a woman gaze at the camera, smiling, happy. ‘My wedding day.’ The dress is unusual: it’s short, crocheted, and she doesn’t wear a veil. Leaning forward she whispers, ‘my second wedding.’ She looks around the empty kitchen, checking, and lowers her voice even more: ‘my first husband killed himself. Never knew why.’
She is still looking at the photo when she breaks the silence. ‘I’ve still got that dress.’ I am sent on a mission to another far off space upstairs with clear instructions: I am to collect photo albums and a cardboard box in the ‘middle wardrobe on the top left’.
Tea cups and plates are removed. A dead moth sits on top of the albums. Inside, chapters of her life are revealed, page after page: sitting on her father’s knee, the school photo, working on the farm, holidays. One image fades into another, eliciting more stories, more colour, description.
And now the box. ‘I haven’t looked at this in a while. I suppose the moths haven’t got to it?’ She stands, brushing away any offer of help. ‘I’ve got to do this myself’. The lid comes off easily, and for a moment she is still, looking at the tissue bundle. She reaches forward, takes out the bundle and starts to unwrap. THE crocheted dress is revealed. It is pink. ‘I couldn’t wear white again, could I?’ It is surprisingly heavy. She holds it against her body, swaying. ‘I wore it often after the wedding. Wish I could put it on now’.
It’s time for more tea and I am ushered upstairs to once more pack her memories away in a place she wants them to stay – for now.
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
c. Leonard Cohen
She was a dancer in her youth. She waves her hands above her head to prove it. For a moment she is a young women again. In the dance hall, the big band play and couples move aside as they take to the floor, sure footed, rhythmic, bodies pressed against each other, in love, oblivious.
Where is he? It distresses her to remember – she can’t remember. She is sure she loves him, she is sure he isn’t coming home. She longs for him, his love and his comfort. Putting a hand to her cheek she sways, feeling his touch, once more cheek-to-cheek, dancing to the end of love.
The weeks go by, and the laughs are replaced by silence. She sits wordless, longing for a husband she can’t remember.
Where is comfort when her dancing partner is far away.
Dancing shoes that once skipped in perfect formation, are replaced with slippers. As she slips away, her dancing steps become louder.
The seat is empty now, but the impression remains.
Dancing to the end of love.
August 11, 2011
I love my husband so much. Do you know where he is? Can you find him for me? Please help me.
You see those birds there, through the windows? I love watching them I do. There’s the pigeon. Oh, it’s gone again.
I’m looking for Bert, my husband. Have you seen him. Oh, he was a handsome man. Tall. Lovely. He was in the Guards. Everyone liked him. He made me laugh. Such a good sense of humour.
He should be here somewhere.
He wanted to move to Australia after the war. I couldn’t leave my mother, she would have killed me. He was a lovely man. When he died so many people turned out for the funeral. I didn’t know he knew so many people. Where did they come from?
I wish he was still here. Have you met him? You might know him. I loved him dearly, he was my Bert. We never argued. But I didn’t want to marry again. I never wanted anyone else. He was all I wanted.
Have you seen my wedding dress? I keep it in a box on top of the wardrobe. Go and fetch it and have a look if you like, I don’t mind. I used to get it out now and then to have a look. I suppose it’s still there. I don’t expect anyone would be interested in it now.
I was so lucky with Bert. We were a team. I loved him and he loved me. I miss him so much. Did you know him? He was around here before, but no one can tell me where he is. I’m looking for my father too. Transition.
My father was a coffin maker, we lived in Docklow then, and he had his shed where he did all his wood work next to the house. He was good with wood he was.
Do you know Hamnish? It’s not far from here. If you ever go there, have a look at the Church doors. He made those. Lovely they are. I wonder if they’re still there.
I married at Hamnish church.
My mother didn’t come to my wedding. She didn’t want me to leave her.
We always knitted together, my sisters and me and mum. The needles and the wool and we would knit. My mother wanted a dish cloth, something to wash the dishes with, and I knitted her one. She taught us to knit. She knitted a lot, jumpers, vests and things like that. She knitted a lot of jumpers for my father. My father was good at knitting too.
But Aunt Lilly came to my wedding. She lived on a farm at Bolstone Court and I used to visit her during the school holidays. I think I had a perm for the wedding.
Bert wore his best suit. All my brothers turned up for it. It was only family. Bert had two sisters but only one could come because the other was looking after her baby. After the reception, we went straight to Bolstone Court and Aunt Lilly washed new sheets for us. ‘Better to get into,’ she said.
I met him at a dance. I was only 14. We used to cycle for miles to go to dances in those days. They were in village halls and places, someone on the piano, like that.
I was a good dancer, everyone said so. I danced with an American soldier once, during the war. He threw me over his shoulder, woop! My parents weren’t best happy when I missed the last train home.
But they still used to invite American soldiers home for Sunday lunches, to give them a little taste of England. They smelled nice and had good teeth. They used to bring us tins of peaches. I’ve got a letter from one of them somewhere.
One of my friends, Betty, married an American soldier, Chuck, during the war. They moved to the US but she didn’t like it so they moved back here. He used to spend a lot of time with us. I didn’t think much of her.
I like dancing. I used to go to dances with Bert. The old dances, waltz, foxtrot, you know.
That first dance when we first met, Bert saw me and said: ‘I’ll have her’, can you believe it? laughing. I’m short, and one of the first things he said was, ‘oh, here comes Tiny’. He called me that until the day he died.
It could have been a bit difficult I suppose because my husband’s brother also liked me. But I preferred Bert. He was a good husband.
It was love at first sight. We were married for many years.
I worry I get things wrong. I forget things.
Mum lost dad when I was four years old, so she had cows and calves, cow for the house and some sheep and some pigs, to kill in the winter or in the autumn and to eat in the winter, salt them downstairs in the cellar.
You see this? A necklace of wooden beads she wears around her neck. He made this for me. We used to go for walks on Dinmore Hill and collect nuts and seeds. He made this. He’ll tell you himself when you see him. I’m hoping he’ll come in this afternoon.
We had a winter wedding, Boxing Day, December 26th1942. Weddings weren’t big and fancy like they are now. Our reception was just a few sandwiches at my parent’s home in Docklow.
They had a large room there for us all. You’ve seen my wedding photo, have you? I’ve got it somewhere.
Look there – can you see? He’s lost his arm in that photo. Was shot off by a sniper on the German/Belgium border somewhere, during the war. Never held him back though. His other brother was a Desert Rat.
I was a lot taller then, I’ve shrunk. He was tall though, and good looking. What do you think of my wedding dress? I didn’t even choose it, laughing.
My father found it in a shop in Hereford and bought it for me. I didn’t even try it on. It looked alright I suppose. My sister was my bridesmaid. She died very young. I still miss her.
Where’s Bert? I love him so much.
I don’t know if he is dead or not. I can’t find my father. I danced with black American soldiers during the war. ‘I’ve lost part of my brain’, tapping her forehead. I don’t know where my husband is. Where’s my daughter.
There’s the pigeon. He’s back. Can you see him? There he is.
June 19, 2017
I never know, when I invite people along to the Forbury to give a talk or perform, how it will work out. There is a keen interest in local history there, so perhaps there might be some enthusiasm for the Rotherwas Munitions Project? You never know what it will turn up.
I’m familiar with the place. The Rotherwas Munitions filling shed is a huge, cavernous place, empty apart from a scattering of abandoned bottles and cans. Ivy pushes through where the glass is no more and nearly every wall space is decorated with grafitti. Above, the metal roof structure, first erected in 1915, looks down, sitting strong, unwavering. Vivid outlines of shell cases can be still be seen, etched into the concrete floor, a tangible connection to the history of this place. As the wind whistles through, it’s easy to imagine the laughing voices of the ‘canary girls’, who once worked here in the first and second world wars.
This was a busy place during both wars, with some 12,000 men and women working here, the Royal Ordnance Factory. It was an important job – and a very well paid one too, attracting women from all corners of the UK and Ireland. Here they produced munitions for use on land, sea and the air. But it was a dangerous job, with some dire health consequences. The chemicals the munition workers handled soon turned their hair and skin a lurid yellow, hence the moniker, ‘canary girls’. Recalled Nancy Evans, in an interview with BBC Radio: “We were like a canary. We were yellow, it penetrated your skin. Your hair turned blonde and on the top of the crown was the proper colour of your hair.”
In recent years there have been efforts to obtain a definitive list of all personnel who were employed at the factory, to honour their efforts by means of a display within a Heritage Centre currently being considered for development on part of the original site at Rotherwas.
Thanks to the work of local groups, like Herefordshire Lore, first hand accounts of the ‘canary girls’ of WWI and WWII are stored at the Hereford Archive and Record Centre. Only now is their critical role being fully recognised and a Memorial has been erected on the original site at Rotherwas to commemorate these men and women. But many names are missing and researchers are still looking for any names yet to be added. I didn’t think we would find one at the Forbury.
But I was wrong. It was to my utter surprise, when tiny, birdlike C, uttered ever so casually, that she had worked there during the war – with her mother! C, never seen without her red lipstick, is 96: she tells me she can hardly believe it herself. “That’s right, I was on the North side, the clearer site, but still had to wear those big boots, and I worked with cordite. I didn’t like it though. I worked with a lot of Irish girls, I liked them. But I left to work with the Red Cross, with my mother then too.”
It happened all so long ago, it’s of almost no consequence to C. Nonetheless, her name will be added to the long list of munition workers. Pictures from WWI.
June 4, 2017
They came, they ‘saw’, they listened.
Thank you to the wonderful trio of talented writers and story tellers from the RNCB, who visited the Forbury recently. Delivering THEIR work in a community setting, other than their campus is, I think it is fair to say, rare. Rather than be the inspiration of other’s stories, this time they were the story tellers. Either blind since birth, or with a deteriorating eye condition, they put aside their fears, and dived in – and what a rich vein of stories they uncovered.
There was some anxiety before arriving: ‘how should I behave’, ‘what do I say’, ‘I don’t know old people’. Nonetheless, it didn’t seem to hold them back or quell any enthusiasm. Last week they returned with their interpretations, performing to an enthusiastic audience, who were behind them all the way. I admired their bravery, standing up and telling their stories. Tender, touching, funny, they have inspired me.
May 19, 2017
Weddings, marriages, dresses, they all loom large with the many people I have interviewed over the years. Maybe it’s a generational thing, a time when couples married for life, and that was it. Only once have I come across a woman who had regrets. She was 77 when we met and her husband of fifty years had died just six months before. I began to sympathise, but she quickly held her hand up saying: ‘No, I wish the b*****d had died years ago!’ I’m still not sure whether to laugh or cry.
I am a hopeless romantic, and time and again I am reminded of long, strong and loving marriages within this project anyway. I really do look on in wide-eyed wonder. What does it feel like to feel secure and loved with a partner for so long? My parents divorced when I was seven, and mine lasted just 15 years. I didn’t wear a wedding dress, the rings were from Argos (returned the following day with full refund: if that’s not a portent then I don’t really know what is). But when C shows me her wedding photo of Boxing Day 1940, her looking so beautiful, I wonder if I made a mistake. Her husband stands beside her, tall, handsome, and missing one arm. He was shot months before in a cornfield on one of the battlefields of Belgium.
I bring in four wedding dresses: they are tiny. These brides must have lost a ton of weight. Only one of the care assistants manages to squeeze into one quite comfortably, and he looks great. M, ever glamorous, is prompted to share her wedding photos. From her handbag, she takes out a sheaf of black and white pics, rimmed in white. They are from her first marriage. She is unmistakable, dimples still present, winged glasses, and knee length dress.
D has no truck with my romance. Tiny and birdlike, and no-nonsense, she doesn’t give to smiling much, but when she does, it feels like a reward. She’s in her mid nineties now, but as a young women she ‘worked the land’ in countryside around Lincoln. I think she misses that landscape. She shakes her head at the frothy wedding dresses and elaborate veils. ‘I wore a skirt and a jumper. Didn’t need anything else.’
H married in tiny Hamnish, outside Leominster. After, the reception was held at her mother’s house, ‘sandwiches and tea and cake’. I had visited Hamnish earlier in the week to visit the church. Sadly it was locked and I was unable to see the wooden inner doors, carved by C’s father nearly a hundred years ago. Such connections within this home are beginning to surprise me.
‘Photographic’ memories May 3 2017
It’s heavy and clunky, but, in its time, took a fairly-decent photo. The trouble is, I never really mastered the mysteries of our Zenit SLR camera. How it ever came into our possession has been long forgotten, nonetheless, it has stayed with us, surviving several house moves and some inexpert handling. When I met R I decided it was time to take it out of storage
R was a news photographer in an earlier life. I am curious when I hear this. I worked on daily and weekly papers for years, and have met many ‘togs’ in that time. They were a curious, itinerant group, never tied to their desk, always out on the road. Is it possible our paths crossed at some point? It’s very likely when R describes his ‘patch’. It was the same area I covered.
He sits most days, quite happily, in the large and light lounge. He has his lunches in here too. How many coming though those doors know that this quiet gentleman was once a member of the Royal Photographic Society? He tells me he was quite good and really liked a challenge.
“Taking basic photos is easy,” he says, “but taking one that is an eye-catcher, from the point of view of art, that’s not so easy.”
I pass the heavy Zenit camera to him. R takes it, and puts it straight up to his eye. It’s a move that is so instinctive.
‘It’s Russian. They used to be very popular here once. It’s not a top-class model, but it’s a reasonable one. Feel the weight of it? Whoever designed this knew what they were doing. It’s a hefty job. You’re going to have some respect for it. Took jolly good pics.”
He’s right, they did.
Last summer, my daughter and I were sorting through boxes of photos. We came across a clutch from a camping trip to the Brecon Beacons 15 years ago. I knew it was a Zenit shot, it has a quality I recognize. My daughter came across a favourite of mine: both children are sat on camping stools looking straight down the lens. I’ve always loved the directness of their gaze. As we look at it and reminisce, we spot something in the photo: it’s sat bolt upright just behind them. Why haven’t we ever noticed it before? The hare’s black ear tips reach their shoulders, it dominates the picture, but is somehow elusive too.
Memory, recollection, these can also be elusive, but can be tempted out sometimes. R plays with the camera, twiddling with the controls that always eluded me and shows me how to use the lens. Knowledge acquired from many years on the job, has left an impressio
“These are sometimes a bit clumsy,” he tells me, “but took good pics. My own impression is that it is well designed. Designed for a purpose. You hold this in your hands and you know you have a good camera.”
He’s right about the weight. The Zenit was a very common Russian SLR and has something of the eastern bloc functionality about it.
National and regional papers have culled many photographers in recent years. In hindsight, R was probably working as a news photographer in its heyday. And it kept him very busy. So much so, he described his late wife as a ‘dark room widow’.
He said: “I took photos that I knew would be popular news items. News desk would keep me primed for what was about to happen. When I used to get back at night, I used to do all my own processing. I developed all my negatives. I might have worn something over my clothes when I was doing it in the dark room.
“I was very busy, no doubt about it. When I came home I went straight into the dark room, otherwise I wouldn’t get it done. Everyone knew me, I was well-known. Used to bump into people in town who knew me. Used to keep in touch with them all.”
Actress Betty Davies got it on the button when she said: ‘Growing old isn’t for sissies’.
Peer-to-peer learning was in action at the Forbury recently when local historian, Arthur Davis, dropped in to share his local knowledge. Sprightly though he is, Arthur is no spring chicken at 91. He has boundless energy, however, and he entertained us all with his tales – and pictures – of old Leominster.
Today, Arthur lives in the same pretty black and white cottage near Kimbolton that he bought with his late wife, Sheila. While this has been his home for the last 41 years, he comes with a strong Leominster lineage that reaches back to three generations of proud tradesmen: father was fishmonger, poulterer and fruiterer, other brothers of his father were respectively, a plumber, butcher, painter and decorator and a tailor, all running their own businesses in the town, and a sister, Dorothy, a former town beauty Queen. But Arthur and his older brother, Percy, were a little different and went into the thriving printing trade serving indentured apprenticeships.
Arthur said: “My father pressed me to ‘go get a trade’, so I joined the Leominster News as an apprentice printer.”
“A Thursday night was when the Leominster News would be ready, hot off the presses. There would be crowds waiting at the back door of the printing works eager to get their hands on the paper.”
All that remains of those newspaper glory days can be seen in the Leominster Tourist Office in Corn Square. Next time you pass the entrance look closely: it still says: Leominster News in the glass on one of the doors.
Arthur was aged 15-years-old when he first set foot into the noisy print room of the Leominster News for the start of his 6-year apprenticeship. He had little idea he would eventually retire from the print trade 55 years later. It was older brother, Percy, who had also been an apprentice at the Leominster News that gave him the desire to go into printing.
He said: “For my first year I was given a broom and encouraged to get to know my way around the print room, looking over people shoulders chatting and learning what they were doing. It was the best way to learn in those days.
“On other occasions, I would run errands for the older men, sometimes running up to the bakery to grab Chelsea buns from Pewtress’ on Broad Street and hiding them away from the boss under my jersey when I returned.”
Other times he bought snuff for the men at Brewster’s tobacconist shop in Drapers Lane. Snuff was an antidote to wave off the desire to smoke cigarettes which was banned throughout all parts of the printing office.
“Crowds would converge on the Corn Square office when the paper was published on Thursday afternoons at around 6pm. Leominster News was the priority paper, and the main source of news for local people was their paper. The business also had a large stationers shop in Draper’s Lane.
“It was always greeted with great interest. If there had been a big event in the town, like Mayor Making or a fascinating court case, the crowd would be even bigger, enough to fill Corn Square, all of them waiting for the paper to emerge. Bundles would be passed out to various newsagents, who would be waiting to sell from the steps at the alleyway of the works entrance by the side of Wetherspoons, at that time it was the main post office.”
In the years leading up to the war, most of Leominster was without electricity, with the streets lit by gaslight. As an apprentice, Arthur would take turns to stoke the huge coke boiler that served as the works central heating system.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ran a story recently that resonated with many of my journalist and secretarial friends. The piece suggested that shorthand could soon be relegated to the history books. Why? Because the journalism training council (NCTJ) said it would no longer be compulsory for all its students.
As I listened to the programme, I thought of my failure in mastering the craft. But then I quickly think of E. I am not sure how long E has been living in Herefordshire, but her strong Black Country accent is a reminder of another life, into which I have only the briefest of glimpses. She’s the cheeriest of women, but the smile slips from her usually friendly face, when I start talking about accents. “I don’t like mine, never have,” she insists. I gently press on and show her the curious Black Country Translation Service I have found. Nope, she’s having none of it. I follow her gaze to the garden and the birds. “They’re lovely, aren’t they?”
Later, I join E again and she tells me stories of her husband. As I listen, I am taken on a journey of epic proportions. E is probably unaware her words fire my imagination: from such ordinary lives, come great drama. I hear of husband, Bert: “A lovely man. Everyone liked him. A good sense of humour. When he died so many people turned out for the funeral. I wish he was still here. I loved him dearly, but I didn’t want to marry again. Never wanted anyone else.” E continues with a story high drama, featuring a ship wreck and eventual rescue from certain death and a watery grave.
Then E surprises me. She went to college to do typing and shorthand, tools that kept her in steady office employment. I ask her to show me some shorthand, and she does, without a moment’s hesitation.
It was like uncovering treasure, a relic from another life.
10 April 2017
There are few signs left in Leominster of the WWII invasion, by thousands of Americans soldiers. But they have left a deep impression: ‘They smelled nice, had good teeth and always gave us chocolate and gum!’ They had decamped to this north Herefordshire town while awaiting D.Day. Amongst the units based in Leominster were the 5th Ranger Division and 90th Infantry Division, both of which played a major part in the D-Day landings. Other units such as the 7th Armoured Division and the 736th Field Artillery Battalion were to spend time in Leominster while awaiting relocation to the Continent.
They were billeted mostly in Barons Cross, a couple of miles outside the town, but they also commandeered many buildings in the town, including the Forbury, home of my project, ‘Cartographic Love Letters’. Among the service men taking up residence in this tall redbrick, Georgian-like building, was the author of this letter, Joseph F Mocker, of Taunton, Massachusetts.
He wrote regularly to George Bishop and his family, and this is the only letter that survives. I’m grateful to his daughter, Yvonne Conod, for sharing it with me.
It’s curious that Joseph went on to open a nursing home in Massachusetts, and his former billet, the Forbury, would also take on a new identity in later years, as a residential home.
I have a good friend, who is a journalist on the Providence Journal, Rhode Island, just 30 miles from Taunton, Mass. We’ve talked about the letter and guess what? She is going to see if she can track down Joseph’s relatives. Keep posted.
April 2 2017
I’m beginning to see connections in this project.
I was reminded of this chatting to K. She veers between worry and anxiety, then impishness. With a smile, she slaps me gently on the bottom or prods me with her walking stick, urging me to go on. She’s a delight. She is physically well and walks with just the aid of a walking stick. Not just any old walking stick. It was once, K tells me, part of a parasol, and I can see now. It’s striking and delicately carved and one can see where the parasol apparatus has been removed. Her husband made it from fallen wood in Dinmore Hill.
K, like all the women here, is beautifully dressed, always with a necklace and nails painted. I love the staff for bothering with these important touches. One of her necklaces is made from seeds and I asked her about it.
‘My husband made it. He collected the seeds while we were walking from Dinmore Hill.”
There is still a trace of a Welsh accent, from a childhood in Ebbw Vale. 35 years before the Aberfan disaster on October 21st, 1966, K describes slack slipping, menacingly, down the mountain up the valley in Ebbw Vale.
The groaning steel works dominated the landscape then. Most occupations inside the steel works were considered reserved trades, and so could opt out of the compulsory call-up for World War II military service. Women stepped in to keep the production line moving. The plant drew attention from Nazi Luftwaffe bombers on more than one occasion, however the deep valley proved difficult to bomb and the plant survived.
Did K work at the works during WWII? We don’t know. But she did dance with an American soldier and she delights in telling me, several times over.
K said: ‘This American soldier, at a dance, was teaching her a new step. And he threw me over his shoulder, like this.’
Maybe K was in Leominster during the War. The town was heaving with American forces, arriving in their thousands, awaiting D-day. Amongst the units based in Leominster were the 5th Ranger Division and 90th Infantry Division, both of which played a major part in the D-Day landings. Other units such as the 7th Armoured Division and the 736th Field Artillery Battalion were to spend time in Leominster while awaiting relocation to the Continent.
A huge number were based just outside Leominster, at Barons Cross, while many others were billeted across the town, including, we have discovered, the Forbury.
These glamourous soldiers, offering ‘gum, chocolate and smelling nice’, entranced the town. Maybe it was one of these K danced with in Leominster.
We might never know, but I like to imagine the connection. Perfect symmetry.
Our man in Brazil March 28 2017
In the 1920 Republican Census, there were 9,637 Englishmen in Brazil. Among them, E, born in Sao Paulo in 1924 to his ex pat parents. He’s 93 now, more bent and stooped than he was in his younger days, but, with some encouragement, he will speak Portuguese, the language of his youth. He’s teaching me too.
I’m fascinated when this most English of gentleman tells me he has dual nationality – British and Brazilian. Reasons why his parents were in South America in the 1920s has been lost in the mists of time. His memory of his early days there are brief and hazy, yet some imprint remains.
He was sent back to England for his schooling when he was eight. From then on his parents made the journey from Brazil to visit him, or E would return to his Sao Paolo home. Talk of tennis on his trips home see his eyes widen: ‘I loved tennis. We played it all the time.’
It’s not just Portuguese he speaks. He claims not to have flourished in Latin at school but in his time, E spoke Italian, Spanish, and French (so adeptly he was once mistaken for a native). In my few weeks at the Forbury, he has taught me (a very definite non-linguist) Ola, obrigada and ate logo. I now greet him in Porguese and the flicker of recognition in his eyes makes my day.
Occasionally, E, like other residents at the Forbury, will utter sentences of such profundity, that they both delight and floor me: ‘I’m seeking it. I’m not sure where it is.’
We go through to the lounge and I tell him about my recent skiing trip and he tells me he learnt to ski in Canada during WWII. How come?
‘I was training to be a pilot on Lancaster bombers. I had a crew of seven, a navigator, and very young boys as gunners. I remember the ‘ack ack’ from below as they shot at us.
“I was very lucky to survive. Some of our aircraft didn’t make it back, they were shot down. I always thought if I was shot down I would survive.’
And he has.
Story collector March 23 2017
At its heart, ‘Cartographic Love Letters’ will collaborate creatively with 38 residents, who have memory loss and mental health illnesses – and with their families and staff – to create a ‘cartographic loveletter’ that, at a glance, tells the myriad stories and tales that are waiting to be told but are in danger of being lost, and celebrate them. Experiences, loves, losses, routes, journeys, will act as inspiration in artwork, poems, blogs, stories. In essence, I want to unlock the potential of the residents at the Forbury and create a ‘cartographical’ record of their life.
If, even it is just a snapshot of time, I can increase a sense of well-being and reduce isolation, then the residency will be worth it for me. And it will be a huge bonus if the project inspires other to stop, listen, and notice.
A resident writer is expected to contribute in some way to the life of the host organisation. This can typically include offering one-to-one tutorials (to help aspiring writers with their own work), giving talks, workshops or readings. These may come if there is enough interest. For now, I’m writing a blog, that will act as my diary. Like a retreat, I’m hoping the residency will give me more time and space to concentrate on my writing, away from everyday distractions.
Residents and staff at the Forbury remain central to ‘Cartographic Love Letters’, honouring their lives, taking notice, sharing. As the weeks have gone by, my notebook has started to teem with observations, conversations, recordings. Where to start?..
How about E, 93, deep, cultured voice, beautiful manners, and soft blue eyes. A former Lancaster Bomber pilot, skier, tennis player and choir singer among his many talents.
Or P, whose eyes light up when I bring in a photo of her Aunt’s home in beautiful countryside. She spent all her holidays there as a child. The black and white timbered building has long since been gentrified, and no trace of the Hereford herd or farming life her bachelor brother cared for. I wonder if the present incumbents know about P, sat here chatting with me, describing her girlhood days so evocatively.
Then there is R, with a trace of her Irish accent hanging on. Her hair now grey and thin, she describes the long red tresses she had as a child. For a moment, I catch sight of this feisty youngster tearing away on the beaches of north west Ireland.
So many stories to tell…
Expect to see writer Marsha O’Mahony around the Forbury for the next year. She has been awarded funding from Arts Council England to be a writer-in-residence for the next 12 months, while she works on her project, ‘Cartographic Love Letters’.
She may already be familiar to some residents and staff, who will recognise her from her time here in 2015 intervewing residents as part of artist Jeanette McCulloch’s work and exhibition, ‘Travellilng by Moonlight’. It was this experience – where interview transcripts were used as inspiration for her art work in an exhibition at the Courtyard – that left a lasting impression and a desire to return.
Marsha said: ‘My time at the Forbury in 2015 was for just 3 short months. The whole experience, meeting the residents and the staff, stayed with me. I am so happy the Arts Council award has given me the opportunity to return. I am looking forward to returning and spending a year there getting to know people and hopefully they will get to know me too.’ (Photo left: Marsha pictured with her proud mum of nine children, Nina O’Mahony, and her sister Tracie).
Marsha will be using her skills as a creative writer and journalist workign with residents, hearing their stories and linking them back to their communities. People have stories to tell and histories to reveal, linking together like maps, letters of love to one another. Residents, actively or passively, will be included. These ‘cartographical love letters’ will be performed by an actress to the Forbury’s residents/families and staff.
Marsha said: ‘As writer-in-residence I want to creatively collaborate with residents who have memory loss and their families and staff to create a cartographic love letter that will tell their stories that are in danger of being forgotten. I will create ‘maps’ that will represent individual stories, plotting experiences, loves, losses etc using the transcripts in the artwork as poems, blogs and new stories for performance read to the residents by an actress. These stories will link together like maps, letters of love to one another.
‘As a writer I have worked in a number of community settings – sheltered housing, care homes, day centres, mental health groups – using reminiscence and oral history interviewing skills and creative writing exercises to strengthen a sense of well-being and to make inter-generational connections. I feel I only just touched the surface. In the past & in other projects my transcripts have gone on to form a script staged by a youth theatre, with the interviewees as audience.’
Marsha has led a creative writing class for Herefordshire Mind and with About Face Theatre Company several of her plays have been staged, toured and workshopped. One of her children’s play was performed at the Tip Tap Festival at Birmingham Mac. She has been a digital story maker in isolated rural communities for, amongst others, the Rural Media Company and the BBC digital story telling project and film maker with Catcher Media. She is also an experienced journalist working on daily, weekly and national papers and for BBC Radio Wales. These experiences have honed my interviewing and research skills, ability to react and adapt, and a love of telling other people’s stories.
If any families or carers would like to get in touch, Marsha would be delighted to hear from you. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org