War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

The Long Goodbye:a conversation across a century

Today, at the University of Exeter, UK, eXegesis, the collective I am a member of, is unveiling The Long Goodbye: a conversation across a century (TLG), our Great War commemorative project. eXegesis is made up of Dr. Jaime Robles, Mike Rose-Steel, and myself, SMSteele. This is our 6th installation, collaboration.

Six months in the making, and funded by the Exeter Annual Award, eXegesis held workshops, and “main-streeters”, inviting the public to write letters, poetry, or sketches, on postcards, back to 1914. These postcards have been designed by the poet/artist Dr. Jaime Robles, with images kindly lent to us by the British Red Cross, the Royal Institute of the Blind, the British Society of Friends (Quakers), Cambridgeshire Council, the University of St. Mark and St. Mary (Plymouth), Mr. Peter Faulkner, Mrs. Lizzie Sherwood, and the Artists’ Rifles, as well as images from the Canadian National Archives, and the British Library.

The goal of the project was to approach the Great War narrative from a different point of view. Recognizing that much of our Great War remembrance focusses on grief, loss, despair, directed by communal cues such as images of poppies, trenches, the stereotypical Tommy, etc., we decided to look at the lives of all who lived through the times, rather than the deaths and suffering. We wished to recognize that though there was unprecedented suffering and loss, the Great War was also a time of enfranchisement for many, and a time of tremendous growth in some fields. By pulling together and participating collectively, and stepping out of one’s daily life, our team historian, Dr. Richard Batten believes a ‘participatory democracy’ began. Certainly here in Britain.

For many, the war offered opportunity, escape, mobility, and yes, though highly unfashionable to say, adventure. We met a woman at one of our “mainstreeters” whose Grandmother had left her 5 year old in the care of her mother, and who went off to be a bus conductor in London. She had, her granddaughter told us, “a Good War”. Another granddaughter of another woman, lent us images from her grandmother’s 1918 anatomy sketchbook. This young girl had trained for the Army Massage Corps, and had worked in the hospitals performing what would become to be known as physiotherapy.

To this end, we urged people to consider all the millions behind the lines, on the home front, from nations all around the world, of all sorts of occupations, and of both genders. We urged our writers to consider other creatures than war horses (though we have had some very charming responses to the horses that helped their owners gather sphagnum moss on Dartmoor for Red Cross bandages). These creatures include the camels from the camel ambulance corps in Mesopotamia, the messenger pigeons, the cats, the mules. The pigeons seem to have appealed to our youngest writers in particular. We urged our writers to use their imaginations and consider what, for example, they might have been doing 100 years ago. This past week 300 international teenagers studying English here at the university, wrote to teenagers of 100 years ago.

I had the great privilege of meeting many of the 300 teenagers and briefing them on the project. They were from Russian, German, Saudi, France, Italy, China, Ukraine, Poland, Austria, etc. I entered their classes and talked about the project and they seemed a bit disinterested, that is, until I asked them their ages and where they came from. Suddenly when I started spelling out where they might have been 100 years ago – the Front, running the family farm, working in a factory, working in a hospital, sewing for soldiers, knitting, labourers, farm workers etc. – their eyes grew wide. I told them that 100 years ago, with so many men away, and women too, that these teenagers would have had massive responsibility for keeping things going on the home front. I told them too that even at 14 or 15, they might be at the Front, and that by 18, they would be old men. The marvellous thing about working with the international teenagers was that I could look across the room at them and see a Russian kid sitting next to a German kid sitting next to a Spanish kid sitting next to a French kid sitting next to a Chinese kid etc., and I could say to them, “It’s quite possible that 100 years ago, you would have faced each other across No Man’s Land. Can you imagine what those of 100 years ago would think when they knew we could all be so peaceable together?”

Our team of workshop providers has done a stunning job with outreach on this project. We have had elders writing, poignantly to their own fathers, and we have young children writing to their great-great grandfathers. We have had prisoners in HMP Dartmoor and HMP Dartmoor write to their family members, or to soldiers, or to animals, sometimes illustrating their cards, and we have had a Baroness, a Knight, and a Brigadier General, and a Lord Mayor all write cards. We have had a private girls school, The Maynard, participate, and state schools. We have had children with learning challenges write, and we have had PhDs write. We have had recovering addicts write, and we have had nurses write. We have had entire families write. And we have had people writing in many, many languages and from many countries: Somalia, Greece, France, Austria, Hungary, Italian, Spanish, Canadian, Pakistan, India, Saudi, Palestine, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England, US, Russian, Ukraine, China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Bhutan, and many more.

The cards are being installed today in an outdoor gallery, a sunken garden near Reed Hall on the campus of the University of Exeter. They are being archived digitally and will be available in perpetuity for others to read. Also, we have engaged the digital artist Richard Alexander Carter to create his own Long Goodbye, his work will be on display tonight at the launch.

The Long Goodbye is our conversation across a century. But is our way of engaging not only with our past, but with our present and future. Remembering, not just the bad, but also, the profoundly human.

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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled The Long Goodbye:a conversation across a century. It was posted here on August 03, 2014.


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