It was when I was in my early teens that I first picked up the hardback volumes of Mr Punch that lined our bookcase at home. These books were identified by subject matter – Mr Punch in London, Mr Punch on the Links, Mr Punch in Wartime etc, each filled with humorous stories, cartoons, and poems, and published in the period 1900-1930.
I could write a book on the joy which these literary gems have brought me over the years, but, cutting to the quick, it was Mr Punch in Wartime which really fascinated me – and, in particular, the many war poems of Cicely Fox Smith (hereafter CFS), who had the double distinction of being a lady – and hence a non-combatant – and a real expert on the world of seafaring, ships, and coastal communities. How come she knew so much about the man’s world of war and the sea?
She never went to the Western Front, but she interviewed those who had been there, either when on leave, or in hospital in England recovering from wounds. She turned their experiences into the most wonderful rhyming ‘stories in verse’, both humorous and harrowing. My interest was piqued.
Whilst happy to run seminars and other events when in business, running theatrical events was not something I’d ever considered doing. But, as the WW1 centenary period commenced in 2014, I had the twinkling of an idea, that it might be a great chance to bring CFS’s long-forgotten war poetry to a wider audience – and where better to do it, than at the National Centre for the Written Word – known as The Word – in South Shields. With my friends Julie Gill and Jonathan Rew, on 22 April 2017, we presented Cicely Fox Smith – a War Poet who Never Went to War – to a very receptive audience. I had also written musical settings to some of the poems for variety.
Heartened and informed by this experience, we talked about how to expand this into a full concert featuring stories, poems and songs from differing sources, all related to World War 1 – so, Songs and Stories of the Great War (1914-1918) was born, and, 11 months after the South Shields gig, was performed one snowy night in March 2018 in St James’ and St Basil’s Church, in Fenham, Newcastle upon Tyne. A full 2 hours’ worth, with an interval – and, in spite of losing a percentage of our audience to the adverse weather, we raised enough to fund a new bench for the church’s Memorial Garden (now in place and both comforting and comfortable).
We featured the Fenham Ensemble choir together with singers from Dame Allan’s School, as well as some solo speaking and singing performances, and the services of Kathy Palmer with her Northumbrian pipes – always guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye.
From the reactions to what we had put together and pulled off so successfully, it was quite clear that this was not just entertaining and innovative, but had ‘legs’ – and, as the centenary of the signing of the Armistice at the end of the Great War, was only 9 months away, if only we could perform it on November 11…but where?
Read on in Part 2….
Julie Gill, Rob Barnes, and Jonathan Rew outside the Word, in South Shields