I’d been watching and admiring Blade Education for a few years before Beth invited me to get involved in the Southend Festival of Remembrance project. What I like about Blade is that they’re a solution-orientated group: they see a problem and they try to solve it intelligently. With the SFR project, they’ve been exploring the act of remembrance and making history fun, relevant and accessible.
Beth knew that I was researching and writing about the Great War for my debut novel ‘The War Nurses’ so she invited me to the fantastic ceramic poppy display in Southend. It was a brilliant day, hundreds of kids walked from local schools to admire their handiwork and to remember the fallen in this beautiful communal setting just by the Cenotaph is Southend. (These celebrations were mentioned in Parliament.)
I also joined Blade in their sessions at Bournemouth Park Green Junior School. I dressed as a war nurse – this caused a lot of hilarity as the children tried to guess what I was: Maid? Slave? Servant? etc, etc. I talked to them a little about the inspiration for my book: War-nurses Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm who lived and worked on the Western Front for three and a half years: Ordinary young women who, when it came to it, did extraordinary things.We also wanted to show the children that ‘writers’ are normal people just like them (albeit wearing polyester nurse outfits whose Velcro keeps falling off)
Together we read Flanders Fields, and Here Dead We Lie and the children did a recital, again the emphasis was on enjoyment and relevance. I enjoyed seeing how much the children got from it. Several of them commented on how they loved it when visitors came to the school and that they particularly enjoyed outside learning.
We started the West Leigh project this March, an after-school history club, with 30 or so Year 3 and 4 students. The children were encouraged to talk to and about their ancestors and we heard some heart-warming stories of air raid wardens, boats at Dunkirk and near-misses. We talked about local people from the early 20th century including the brave fighter pilot from Southend, the Italian family, the grieving sister. The students were engaged and enthusiastic.
We’ve also been making a film about the First World War. The films are black and white and in the style of silent movies of the age. The children/actors took to it with gusto, especially enjoying the props – the fake moustaches and bonnets – and very melodramatic they have been too.
So far, we’ve filmed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Christmas truce, the Zeppelin attack on Southend, we still have the changing roles of women and the armistice to go. These will be interspersed with letters to the front read by children.
Writing is a solitary and often dispiriting task, so working with Blade Education has been a great opportunity for me to get out there and to participate in helping educate and inform young people about their history. Being with the young people is also constant reminder of what I am writing for – and that has been invaluable.
The War Nurses is available here: www.amazon.co.uk/War-Nurses