Tuesday 16 July 2013

Heather's Bracelet: by Sue Purkiss

I have been teaching creative writing classes in my town, Cheddar, for a few years now. Heather was in the first class I taught, and she's been with me ever since. She's one of the busiest people I know; she's 75, but she still works in a small supermarket and in her spare time she looks after people - early on, I asked people what their hobbies were, and she said, 'I collect old ladies!'
Heather at work in The Write Class

She loves writing and she'll turn her hand to anything - stories, poetry, and memoir about her family, particularly her mother, another exceptionally hard-working lady. One week, I'd asked the class to write about an interesting object. Heather brought in a tiny bracelet, woven in scarlet, white and sapphire blue patterns, and she told us this story.

During the war, when she was a little girl, her family were living in a cottage on the levels near Mudgely. The Somerset Levels are drained by a network of ditches, or rhynes, which have to be regularly cleared of mud and weeds. One day, a truck drew up near Heather's home, carrying a group of Italian prisoners of war from the prison camp at Penleigh near Wells. The truck was driven by a young Luftwaffe officer whose plane had been shot down. The Italians jumped out and began to clear out the ditches. As an officer, the German didn't have to work, so he passed the time by making bracelets out of bits of old cocoa tins and lengths of coloured plastic string. Little Heather was fascinated by the handsome young soldier: she couldn't speak German and he couldn't speak English, but even so, the two of them struck up a friendship, and he made little Heather her own, special bracelet. The family was poor and these were stringent times; a present was a rare and wonderful thing and she cherished this one - and still does, after seventy years.

Some time after Heather told us this story, another member of the group told us she was helping to curate an exhibition in Wells museum. It was in celebration of the 'last fighting Tommy', Harry Patch, who had latterly lived in Wells, and they wanted to collect reminiscences from local people - I bogged about it here. She asked us if we would mount a display of pieces we had written to do with life in either of the wars, and we did, with Heather's piece about the bracelet in pride of place.

One of the visitors to the exhibition was Siobhan Goodwin, who is the leader of Wells Bookworms, a children's book group. As it happened, the group had just been reading a book by Michael Morpurgo called Little Manfred, about POWs working on a farm in England. She was thrilled when she read Heather's story, and wondered if it would be possible for the writer to come and talk to the Bookworms. She got in touch with me, and I put her in touch with Heather.

Heather was delighted to go and meet the children, and thus began a project which has led to the Bookworms writing a book which is to be launched in September, called Heather's Bracelet. It tells other stories too - like that of the meeting between Guiseppe and Sybil, a farmer's daughter, who fell in love and eventually married. Many of the Italian POWs stayed on after the war - the statue on the left, of Romulus and Remus, was made by Italian POW Gaetano Celesta, to thank local people for their kindness to him and his fellow prisoners. As the Bookworms talked to friends and relatives, they gradually uncovered all kinds of links between the POWs and their own families - some of which had been quite forgotten before the children began asking questions. The book has a lovely cover designed by a relative of Heather's, and it is to be translated into Italian too: it's entirely written and edited by the children, under Siobhan's guidance. The launch is to be held in the museum, and a copy will be sent to local primary schools. I think Siobhan and the children have done a fantastic job - and that little bracelet was the starting point.

So what does this tell us? Perhaps that history is a living thing, and that stories are at its heart?

(If anyone is interested in coming to writing classes in Cheddar, please get in touch through my website, www.suepurkiss.com)


H.M. Castor said...

Sue, this is wonderful from start to finish. Hats off to Heather for all she does - writing-wise and otherwise - and to all the children involved in this fascinating project. And hats off to you for your writing classes!

Joan Lennon said...


Penny Dolan said...

Tried to post earlier. Sue, but blogger was being finicky. Really great to hear two such fascinating "writing" stories. Hooray for Heather, and for all your class at Cheddar ( and you) and applause for Siobhan Goodwin and her Wells Bookworms project.

Celia Rees said...

What a wonderful story. Just goes to show, you don't have to be Michael Morpurgo to have something to say about the war or connect with young writers. I love the idea of Heather working with the children to discover and tell stories based on the memories of people who were children, like them, during the war. You did great work facilitating this, Sue. You should be proud. Creative writing is not just about, well, writing, is it? It's about telling stories as well, and encouraging people to find their own stories in their own past. It's also about bringing people together and giving them permission to explore their lives through writing. What a great writing class you must run. I bet they keep coming back!

Sue Purkiss said...

That's exactly it, Celia - you put it really well - so well I must go and write it down!

Katherine Langrish said...

This is a really marvellous story - thanks to both of you!

Ann Turnbull said...

Wonderful post, Sue. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Just searching through stuff about pow because i live directly on top of penleigh camp and this is crazy intresting !