I’m Kate Osborne, Learning & Skills Officer at RAMM, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. I am surrounded by young people from the Amber Foundation and we are about to start our second creative writing workshop inspired by First World War images from RAMM’s collection. There are sketches from the battle front by an artist called Muirhead Bone and a huge painting of First World War soldiers gathering at Victoria Station which we believe is by Walter Bayes. Both of them were war artists and their works will be on display over the summer at RAMM.
Louise from Stories Connect and Sally from Riptide Journal (Dirt Pie Press) are leading the workshops and the writing is flowing. Ash, Leah, Rosie, Phineas and Kev have really got into it and Louise and Sally have added in poetry and letters written during the war as well.
There’s been lots of thinking and some writing since last time and thoughts are coming out about how friendships must have been made and personal bravery took place, that might make a surprising difference to the death, mud and devastation all around.
Someone’s written as if in the mind of a man who was there, they’ve stepped into the painting. Someone else has taken the painter’s point of view and is picking out the sounds – the rustle of canvas, steam, whistles, smoke – it’s all about atmosphere and the texture of the Victoria Station painting.
There’s also writing about deep sadness – last goodbyes, feeling unprotected, being left behind, alone… The huge numbers of men have struck home – thousands of them, streaming in, streaming tears, fears – hoping it’s not the final goodbye. Leaving many words unsaid.
Looking at letters sent to and from the war front, the group take various approaches to what they might say to the person writing them – they are letters about hope and also realisation that death might be very near because they are about to go ‘over the top’. Some of the writers survived the war, others did not. Some were saying they were cheerful, others said not. One refers to a soldier who committed suicide because of the stress he was under.
Combined with the art works, it’s such powerful stuff – some of us feel quite emotional and moved and that’s because we’re really making a connection. One of the letters from the war front belongs to Louise, and she’s touched by how sensitively the group have approached it.
We take a break and draw breath.
Although the battle front sketches are largely about devastated landscape – and it’s a word that comes up often in the workshop – we focus on the theme of recovery. The whole world centred around war for 4-5 years and then it stopped. Grass and birds and poppies returned to the fields.You can never go back there. But we can reach it a little through art works, letters, poems, medals and ‘souvenirs’, photographs etc.
The group talk about the circle of nature and land waiting to be reborn – and also thinking about where home is, when your home has been a battlefield or tent for months or years.
We discuss why people wrote in the middle of war. Discussions range around having time on your hands, making a lasting memorial, saying ‘I don’t want to be here’ without actually saying it out loud, escapism – because you don’t have to write or draw about the war.
So what about writing about returning home – would you wish to remember or to forget? Would you dread it or look forward to it? Writing comes thick and fast now – writings about mixed emotions, leaving friends behind – leaving banter and comradeship behind. Will others understand what I’ve gone through or will only those who were there get it? The quietness in contrast to the noise of battle, the sound of guns long gone, pride in having contributed, guilt at having survived? Emptiness inside. Returning to an old life that isn’t there any more? Memories which won’t go away even when your eyes close. Someone writes ‘ a lifetime of stretched moments’, the wonder of fresh air, feeling alive again, being in someone’s arms again…
At the end, we’ve all written as much as we can and are pretty tired but it’s a good feeling – it feels like we’ve been on quite a journey together.
Come and see our final writings on Saturday October 25 from 11.30 until 5 and also on Sunday 26. They’ll be on display in our Garden Meeting Room and the art works will be in RAMM’s art gallery. Plus we’ll put them on our website.
We’re really pleased with what’s been written – and hope you’ll enjoy them too.
Ash, Leah, Rosie, Phineas, Kev, Kate, Louise and Sally