Even the truth feels softer. Walls closing in on you, night and day becoming one, waking and sleeping. Muffled voices, a scent you try to name before it drifts into the next room, a blurring under your fingertips. No more right way round. The truth is you’ve never been happier.
I’m just back from the Somme after a trip organised by my writer friend, Vanessa Gebbie, who is fast becoming an expert in the area (pictured below with a rather rowdy looking new recruit to her team)…
Also in the company were Tania, Angela, Zoe and Caroline. And we were very ably led by military expert, Jeremy Banning. Here we are reading David Jones in Mametz Wood in the rain. A description in fact of a horrendous period of fighting in that particular wood, and I’m sure in the rain too. It’s only a thin strip of trees where we were, but so dark that it was a shock to come out into what dim light there was left in the day.
Definitely the other people in this group were an important part of my experience. It was much more heartbreaking and emotionally draining than I could have thought possible, so I’m not sure how I would have coped if my companions weren’t on the same track.
So why, this morning when I was looking through my photographs did I find so very few of people? Those above are nearly all I have of the ‘group’.
And then it struck me. Of course I had taken photo after photo of people.
The ones who actually mattered most on this particular trip.
Part of Jeremy Banning’s skill as a guide was that he didn’t just give us numbers – although these were pretty horrifying. This field may look tranquil now, but in fact tens of thousands of bodies of Australian soldiers still lie under the surface.
And this is death valley. Formerly known as happy valley. You probably don’t need to ask why the change of name.
Although the cemeteries look uniform from a distance, look closer and there are huge differences – different regiments, different ranks and in some, different nationalities. All placed next to each other as they might have fallen.
Apart from ones like these rows of Canadian soldiers in the Quebec Cemetery…
… and the Devonshire Cemetery, where the men were buried in the trench the regiment had held, and they ‘hold it still’.
A little bit chilling to find this one there…
And then this name too on the Thiepval Monument, amongst the 72,000 men who were killed but whose bodies were never recovered. It’s an extraordinary sight, not least the way you suddenly realise that the pattern you are looking at on the stone is actually name after name after name…
I doubt either Salway is a relative, but in many ways it doesn’t matter. Here are some of the other stories we found…
What a quote there from Private Borthwick of Millwall FC: “This is worse than a whole season of cup ties.”
… and then there is this one with a line from the letter Lieutenant E S H Lane’s family received to inform them of his death. A reminder of how important those letters must have been, especially for a family grieving so far away in Canada ….
… and names like this one which conjured up a person straight away for me…
… some will be remembered for being unknown…
… and others for being known before the war…
… or indeed for what they did during the war. This is the gravestone of Captain W P Nevill who brought four footballs with him and kicked them for his men to chase after as they went ‘over the top’ on 1st July 1916. He offered a reward to the first platoon to score a “goal” in enemy trenches, but didn’t survive to see the success of his initiative …
One of the things the perfectly straight lines of graves does is to give a jolt when the pattern is broken…
And of course not forgetting the German cemetery which it was important to have visited too…
So how wrong could I be to think I’d taken no photos of people. I’ve got so many stories going round and round in my head now. Including that of my own grandfather, Private Peplow, who fought from when he was 19 up until the age of 22. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I’d asked more about the war while I could. It’s strange to wonder what generations to come will wish they’d asked us about. Facebook? Twitter? Hmmm… sometimes it’s good to be reminded how lucky we are, and just how much that ‘luck’ cost others.
Well, it was my birthday last week and despite hints – *HINTS!!! More like shouts* – no-one got me this…
It is the copy of the novel, Orlando presented by Virginia Woolf to her sister and inscribed to ‘Vanessa, from her slave and sister”… If you are still interested you can buy it here.
And I wrote about a recent visit to Monks House, the Woolf’s country home in Sussex, on my sister and slave blog, Writer in the Garden. I was delighted when the post was picked up by this amazingly informative website on all things Woolf – Blogging Woolf. Well worth a look, and a follow.
If you’re itching to go ‘back to school’ this year then here are details of some creative writing classes I’m delighted to be teaching in Tonbridge and organised by the University of Kent:
General Creative Writing:
The course is offered twice – students can book one block of four classes or both:
Wednesday evening, 6.30-8.30
October 2nd, 9th, 16th and 23rd
Monday morning, 10-12
November 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th
And then there is…
Kickstart Your Journal Writing
Wednesday evening, 6.30-8.30
November 6th, 13th, 20th, 27th.
YOU CAN FIND MORE DETAILS AND BOOK DIRECTLY AT THE UNIVERSITY WEBSITE HERE.
I will also be continuing to run my rather more informal Tuesday writing practice classes at my home in Tunbridge Wells from 24th September. There’s a waiting list for the morning class, but still a few places left for the evening, 6.30-8.30. Do contact me if you would like more information or to be put on the mailing list.
LET’S PUT SOME WORDS ON THE PAGE TOGETHER!
Well, I’m not getting any younger. And I don’t seem to be getting any less silly either! So here is a birthday 50-word story, for me. And also for my fellow Virgoans and writers – Philip Ardagh, the lovely Cornflower, and Hilary Jenkins. May we all have a happy day alphabeticising our spice racks and eating our respective cakes, and may you all have a happy day too!
Fire engines hooted as Karen stopped reading, feeling the heat even in Edinburgh. In Yorkshire, Hilary’s painting brush danced, red and yellow strokes like flames in the beard Philip suddenly felt crackling. Ahh, it was tea time. They sighed, waiting for Sarah to blow out her forest of birthday candles.
There’s a great project I caught via Facebook today – 60 Cambridge students were asked why they needed femimism. The results – shocking, sweet, moving, thought provoking – are here
And it got me thinking – as it should – why I needed feminism.
Your turn now…
I’m very happy to be starting two writing groups on Tuesdays in central Tunbridge Wells from 24th September, one in the mornings and and another in the evening. They won’t be workshops, or offer individual criticism of your work. Instead, we will concentrate on writing and your own writing practice, working to set prompts and readings all aimed at getting the words flowing. This will be very much an individual process, so the group will be suitable for beginners and more experienced writers alike. Although I will be looking at specific areas, eg character and plot, the idea is that the sessions are both creative and enjoyable – the only restriction being that group members come prepared to write and experiment. There will be the opportunity to read back work, but only if you want to.
The main thing is to GET YOU WRITING … whether for the first time, or when you swore you never would again, or when you’re terrified of the page, or when you write brilliantly already but just need a little push, whether you want to for work or for pleasure, or just want to see what the fuss is about!
If you feel this sounds like something that may be of interest to you, there are still some places available as I write. Do contact me at sarahsalway @ gmail.com for more information, or if you have any questions.
Alternatively, I will be running some writing classes through the University of Kent at Tonbridge on Wednesdays in October – more information here.