Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Stone, stories and people: Sue Purkiss

I recently went to an exhibition at the museum in Wells in Somerset, near where I live. None of you are likely to be passing by Wells in the near future, so you probably won't get to see the exhibition for yourselves. It's only a little place - the smallest city in England, in fact, if you don't count the City of London. As the City of Wells Invasion Committee said in their War Book, which made plans against a possible German invasion: Wells is of no importance itself to the enemy. It is not a port, neither is it a great road or rail junction, nor does it contain any major industry which the enemy would want to capture or destroy...




So, of no importance strategically. But of course there are other kinds of importance. Wells has an exquisite golden cathedral, made of stone from nearby Doulting. The west front is decorated with row upon row of statues: inside is the second oldest working clock in the world, glorious stained glass windows, an astonishing scissor arch and my particular favourite, the Chapter House, in which stone has been carved with the utmost grace and delicacy to create a room which seems designed to capture light and sound and peace. There's another, humbler treasure leading down from the Chapter House: a flight of stone steps sculpted by centuries of footsteps.


The museum, made of the same stone, is to the left of the cathedral across the green. Just outside it yet another piece of Doulting stone has recently appeared. It's not beautifully carved: it's rough-hewn, with a plaque set into it which explains that it commemorates Harry Patch. Harry became famous a few years ago. He was the last fighting Tommy: the last man alive who had fought in the First World War. He died in 2009 when he was 111.


Like many veterans, he never wanted to speak of his experiences. He was only finally persuaded to at the age of 100, when he was asked to share his memories in a TV documentary; he realised that he was one of only a handful left who was actually there: there was not much time left to bear witness, and he finally decided to talk. 


And he broke his silence to great effect. For example: 


"When the war ended, I don't know if I was more relieved that we'd won or that I didn't have to go back . Passchendaele was a disastrous battle - thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, i went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Herr Kuentz, Germany's only surviving veteran of the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We've had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it's a license to go out and murder. Why should the British Government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"


He was honoured in many ways. In France, he was made an officer of the Legion D'Honneur. In Belgium, he became a Knight of the Order of Leopold. In England, Andrew Motion composed a poem in his honour which was set to music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davis. He collaborated in the writing of his autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy, and gave the proceeds to the RNLI to fund a new lifeboat. He even inspired a song by Radiohead.


The exhibition was in his honour. So there were display boards telling his story - but there were also displays about the wartime experiences of  lots of other local people - ordinary people, but all with stories to tell: like Heather, who at the age of six had a crush on a handsome young German prisoner of war, who made her a tiny bracelet out of coloured wire which she still has today. heather is a member of the writing class I teach, and she and others wrote down their stories for inclusion in the exhibition. There's an extract there too from the story I'm writing at the moment, about a prisoner of war - another ordinary young man to whom extraordinary things happened, about which, like Harry Patch, he never wanted to talk.


Just because a town's of no strategic importance, that doesn't mean to say it's not special. And just because a person thinks they're ordinary, it doesn't mean to say that they don't have a very special story to tell.








13 comments:

H.M. Castor said...

How true, & how important to remember. What a moving post. Thank you, Sue.

michelle lovric said...

I am deeply moved by what you have written and by what Harry Patch said. And Wells Cathedral is an absolute jewel. How lucky you are to live nearby. I've only visited once but I'll not forget it.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Michelle and Harriet - and yes, the cathedral certainly is a jewel. It's extraordinary that all that weight of stone should give the impression of such lightness and grace - unlike Durham, say, which is impressive in a very different way - massive, powerful, solid.

adele said...

What a wonderful post! I too have been to Wells and treasure the memory. I did a school visit to the Cathedral school and it remains one of the best school visits of my entire life. Fabulous.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for this beautiful gem of a post. Very moving!

I'd love to see some of the excerpts you mention from your writing class, and yours! Is there a link? Or is it too private?

Sue Purkiss said...

Caroline - unfortunately, I don't have the pieces from The Write Class available to put on line - though it's an idea I'll look into. Have put a link to my extract on my website, www.suepurkiss.com. Should have put a link in the post - not sure if I can once it's up...?

Leslie Wilson said...

Having taught a memoir-writing class, I know that feeling of respect and astonishment at the stories that ordinary people carry within themselves - well said, Sue. And great to hear Harry speaking out against war! I so want to go to Wells some time.

Jane Stemp said...

Sue, the memorial is top of my list for the next time I am in Wells! Thank you for a great post.

Nikki-ann said...

Do you know how long the exhibition is on for? My nan was lucky enough to have known Harry for many years. In the later years of his life they communicated via letters & cards.

Sue Purkiss said...

It's on till the 3rd June, Nikki-ann. Hope you and your nan get to see it!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Great post Sue. I'll have to visit Wells again now just to see this monument. Harry Patch's interview is iconic.

Sue Purkiss said...

Give me a call if you do, Miriam! A really nice cafe has just opened in the grounds of the Bishop's Palace, as well!

Jean Bull said...

Thanks Sue. I read the book about Harry Patch. It was good to write down his memories at last for future generations. My father was in the First World War too, and never talked about it.
I visited Wells two months ago, but only had time for the Bishop's Palace gardens. I hope to go back soon and see some more. I think there was a book by Elizabeth Gouge called The City of Bells which was set there. I must read it.