I’m a freelance writer and arts facilitator, which in practice means I run creative writing workshops, devise and run community engagement arts projects, and collaborate with artists, musicians and others (recently a firm of undertakers) – so to expect the unexpected is both part of the job description and one of the principal pleasures of the work. So when Ruth Butler, Heritage Education Officer at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, asked me if I could deliver the final element of a Heritage Lottery Fund project to get young people to respond creatively to oral history interviews and photos of Wiltshire veterans of the WWII Arctic Convoys, I immediately said yes. That there was a delivery deadline just a couple of months ahead, and that a group of young participants had yet to be found, simply ramped up the thing I thrive on – a challenge.
Emails to the leaders of local drama groups, Sea Cadets and Scouts produced a hearteningly enthusiastic response from Chris Jones, Scout Leader at the 10th Chippenham Air Scout Troop. Ruth and I went along to one of their meetings to talk to the boys, Ruth armed with enticing archive materials from the History Centre including magazines, photos and medals. Four Air Scouts and, subsequently, a Sea Scout, signed up for three, three-hour sessions at the History Centre. Additionally, four Year 10 and 11 students at St Laurence School in Bradford on Avon, who Ruth and I had worked with in 2016 on another writing project, also agreed to take part during tutor time in school. I was fairly confident that these latter students would respond openly and creatively to the oral histories, and this proved to be the case – some of their stunning poems can be seen on the Arctic Convoys project page of the History Centre’s website.
But how do you persuade a group of lively young Scouts (mostly aged 11 and 12), who have never done, nor had the slightest inclination to do, any creative writing, to write poems and stories? Fortuitously, two of the boys’ great grandfathers had served on the Arctic Convoys, and they wanted to find out what life was like on board the ships; the Sea Scout was hugely knowledgeable about the convoy vessels; one boy was particularly interested in film and plot, and the other, the joker in the pack, had masses of unusual and entertaining ideas – so everyone had something unique to encourage and channel into the project. And it was that sense of interactivity I was aiming for – what we could offer them in terms of heritage and creative writing encouragement, and what they could, in effect, offer back to us – working on the principle that you don’t do a project to a group, you do it with them.
In the first session, we talked about the Arctic Convoys, which set sail from the UK, North America and Iceland between August 1941 and May 1945, transporting vital commodities and supplies needed by our Russian allies. The oral histories interviewer had asked lots of ‘five senses’ questions to prompt the veterans’ memories, and two of the recordings in particular were rich in sensuous detail, so we discussed the senses as a group and how these can bring a piece of writing alive, and bore that in mind as we watched the oral histories. These were particularly evocative as students at Sheldon School in Chippenham had turned them into short films incorporating ‘then and now’ photos of the veterans both during the war and during the interviews.
The aim was to get the boys to respond by writing poems, but they clearly felt poetry was something that other people did, not them, and that it had to rhyme. Reassuring them that they could do it too, and that modern poetry often doesn’t rhyme, the boys picked out five senses elements from the interview transcriptions, then wrote simple, five-line poems about what life on board sounded like, tasted like etc. Some of the boys extended their descriptions, and they all produced an engaging piece of work, which they read out.
Everyone was pleased by what they had achieved, including the Scout leaders who had accompanied the boys – and we now had a roomful of poets. We also explored the idea of ‘found poetry’, the boys each choosing six phrases at random from another particularly vivid interview and re-arranging them to create a poem.
In that first session, the Scouts and leaders also had the opportunity to explore the archives at the History Centre, and see some of the oldest documents held there, while in the second, they were encouraged to get hands-on with a selection of original, wartime copies of The Illustrated War News magazines. It helped bring history alive for the boys to touch, open and read the magazines and look for references to the Arctic Convoys – as they might have done if they had been boys 75 years ago. Creative writing wise in that session, we started to think about what makes a hero, and the Scouts devised a profile of their own imaginary hero. We listened to another of the oral histories, real-life hero Admiral O’Brian – he had sadly died since doing the interview, but we read an account of his life and discussed the dilemma he had faced during the so-called PQ 17 operation, in which the convoy had been ordered to scatter, with catastrophic consequences.
Real life is not narrative-shaped, so in the third session, the boys discovered how they needed to rearrange reality to create a story. They began by writing ‘My Hero’ poems, then did a fine job drawing together elements from archive material, the interviews, their imaginations and the preparatory work they’d done, to produce excellent stories and drawings in storyboard format.
They performed all their poems and stories to an audience of family members, Scout representatives and Irene Sinclair, Chairman of the Chippenham Branch of the Royal British Legion. The boys with relatives on the convoys had produced additional and detailed work at home, which they also performed – one was a moving, imaginary letter home from one of the sailors on board the convoys, the other an account of his own great grandfather’s refusal of a medal for ‘doing his duty’. A selection of the boys’ work will appear on the Arctic Convoys section of the History Centre’s website shortly.
The educational element of the project extended to the Scout leaders themselves. One took copies of my workshop plans and exercises so he could do something similar with the boys ‘on a rainy day’ – a very satisfying sowing of seeds – and all of them admitted they had seen a different side to the boys in a focussed, creative environment, and were impressed by what they had achieved and how well they’d worked together.
My vision of creative writing is as a tool for empowerment of the individual. In this case, that was to tell each of these boys that their ideas and their writing really worked – that they were writers and had done what writers do: taken source material – in this case heritage-based – mixed that with their own life experience and imagination, and produced something that no one else in the whole world could have written but them. The pulling together of the project, and the delivery of it, is the work. But that simple affirmation to the boys – and the light switch flicking on in their eyes in response – that’s the magic of it.
Dawn Gorman, freelance writer and arts facilitator
Note: This Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre project received a £10,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to collect the memories and images of 35 surviving Arctic Convoy veterans in Wiltshire and Swindon, to tell the story of these 78 daring expeditions. The stories and associated records are available for public use at the History Centre in Chippenham, funded by Wiltshire Council and Swindon Borough Council.