A reflection by Kathryn Beaumont on her involvement in Phenomenal People
When Fuel asked me to write about a woman that inspired me, I knew I couldn’t limit myself to just the one. But was there a way to bring many women together in one idea?
Who inspired me?
1. 1) fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. 2) create (a feeling, especially a positive one) in a person 3) animate someone with (a feeling). 4) give rise to
2. 5) breathe in (air); inhale
Who filled me with ability to do or feel something? Who created feelings in me, animated me, gave rise to me? Who gave me breath? Perhaps I took the question a little literally:
‘But everyone will write about their Mam,’ I thought.
This has been a good year for me: a year for putting down roots artistically and emotionally too. As a backdrop to a run of work with, and produced by, North East companies, I made the decision to stay. Sure, my stuff is still in storage, but there’s a flat on the horizon, and it’s in Gateshead – where my Mam comes from. Home has always been more of an idea than a place, growing up as an expat you get used to not feeling at home when you are at home. I made a friend in Theodor Adorno at university, but have increasingly felt a need to know feelingly where I come from.
In studying transactional analysis and script theory I was taken with the idea that motifs repeat down family trees: that families can pass on ‘scripts’. You see it played out time and again on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are – professional actors who happen to be amateur yachting enthusiasts find out they come from a line of seaman, etc. I started to wonder whether the women who went before me passed anything on.
Lucky for me, me Mam has an encyclopedic memory, and gave me a lot of detail that Ancestry.co.uk couldn’t. That already had me thinking about who passes down the stories, men’s names move forward, but it seemed to be the women who passed the legends down from one generation to the next. Thing about looking up your female ancestors is they disappear behind men’s names, either their husbands’ or their Dads’ so tracing mothers requires a little more digging. That’s where the title Wor Lass became obvious, women are labelled in relation to someone else, if not a husband then a father. It’s also a Geordie term of endearment and one that can be applied across the board to sisters and daughters as well as Mams and wives.
I was primed to be told wor lot were barn stormers and ball breakers, shaking placards on the barricades and marching for their rights. What I found, was that my line accepted their marching orders and got in line with everyone else. The first story Mam told me was about my great-grandmother’s sisters, who used to go to town during wartime rationing ‘to queue’. A queue meant there was something worth queuing for, so you joined the line first and asked questions later. This became a metaphor for me throughout the development of the piece, as I started to spot more and more lines that my lineage lived on.
As a sub plot to the development of this piece I was also working as a Local Engagement Specialist for Fuel’s sister project New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. Talks with ARC made it very clear that the communities they wanted to reach out to are the old mining villages in County Durham, communities who wouldn’t necessarily think of travelling to the theatre for an evening’s entertainment. There was only one thing for it: I was going to have to gatecrash some village halls and find out what the craic is.
I wish I could remember how to knit. Thankfully I can talk, which is the other major activity at craft afternoons. The craft and chat session in Trimdon has been going for 30 years; the women who attend take it in turns to introduce new crafts to the group, but there’s always the option of bringing whatever bit of knitting, crocheting, bobbin lace or tatting you happen to be working on, and cracking on over a cuppa. There they were again, more lines, of yarn and wool and thread weaving and looping as the lasses talked. I took notes.
So I did what anybody with an approaching deadline and limited time would do: I drew a tenuous literary connection between me and my ancestry. Their lines and mine. They worked on washing lines and factory lines and here’s me wanging on over a blank page. Every new thing I found out about my family seemed to demark a greater distance. They left school, got married, had children: that was success. I’m doing my third degree, happily independent, and would quite like a french bulldog. The lines they drew about what was allowed or desirable look like sentences to me, life sentences that is, of drudgery and acceptance – but only because there wasn’t any choice, the inevitability got my back up.
When I sat down to write Wor Lass the first two lines rhymed:
I’ve been invited here to tell all you’se
About a woman who inspired me muse (!)
That’s all right I told myself, there’s a strong rhythm to draw people in, a cheeky allusion to the openings of epic ballads, and a knowing bathos about writing heroic couplets in Geordie. Canny craic. But then the second pair of lines had to rhyme too, and now I’m writing poetry. Oh bliddy hell. Thing is it fits (my scansion might not always), but what’s more inevitable than rhyme? What is less likely as the subject of a string of heroic couplets than a series of Gateshead lasses who worked in factories and other (grander) people’s houses? Somehow it let me feel more connected to these women who, whether it seems likely or not, inevitably lead down to me. And what’s more, Wor Lass, who has to borrow names from Da’s and Husbands, is suddenly sharing an heroic playing field with Odysseus, maybe. Indulge me. No more tapestry and tatting for ye pet, you’re the epic main event noo. And if it’s good enough for Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Good Women’… Reet, what else rhymes with ‘family tree’…?
Oh, and you’ll never guess what: I start recording my first radio drama this week, playing a factory worker in a munitions factory on Tyneside. This one’s for ye Wor Lass.
I’ve been invited here to tell all youse
About a woman who inspired me muse (!)
I sat and thought about who got us here?
Who’s stood behind me yammerin’ in me ear
To keep on keeping on and keep ya heed?
Thing is most of those lasses are well deed.
And that got me to thinking about lines
The ones we stand in from the start of time
The kin now buried deep, from yonks ago
Who shaped what we are, but they’ll nevaa know.
And so I started digging for me roots
Past factory clocks and clarty miners’ boots
In censuses the women disappear
You need to knaa whose lass they were, each year
I mean you need their Da or husband’s name
If Mam’s and wives you’re looking to reclaim.
Sometimes they nudge you back by saying ‘née’
Naysaying being labelled in this way.
There’s nee mistaking lineage for the lads
Ancestry gans: ‘here’s me, and there’s wor lass.’
Wor lass! That’s it! I’ll sing her famously
She’s one and many simultaneously
She’s mams and wives and sisters, maids and gannys
She’s mine and yours, she’s wors, and she’s dead canny.
I’ll sing the bords doon from my family tree
Find names for who made me phenomenally
Replace ‘Wor Lass’ with Kathy, Florrie, Lizzie
Wor Mary, Meggy, Rosie, Winnie, Kitty.
And youse could find ya own if you’re not busy
For now I’ll lend ya my lot in this ditty.
“Reet Mam!” I hollered “who comes afore Nanna?
Were we on’t pickets? Did we march from Jarra?”
“Whey nar” Mam said (and her name is Patricia)
“They just cracked on, nee feminist militia.”
“Did they not want to change the status quo?”
“You divvent wish for owt if you divvent know –
They just cracked on, the lads went doon the pit
The lasses left school and got on with it.
They towed the line, there wasn’t any choice
Nee buggar telt them that they had a voice.
During the war wor Lizzie’s sisters, two
Would gan doon Gateshead high street just to queue-”
“To queue?” “Aye, well with rationing still on
You saw a line and joined it-“ “now haddon”
“I’m telling ya! Wor Katie and wor Bella
What are we waiting for?” “Whey what’ they tell her?”
“Whatever bit of meat or veg was on
You got in line before it was all gone.
(They had a press packed chocka with molasses
Come World War Three they’d still be sweet them lasses)”
“And what about wor Lizzie?” “Your great gran?
He ran the Askew Arms, but she was banned.”
“He didn’t let her serve behind the bar?”
“No, she refused, felt it a step too far –
“The bar’s nee place for lasses”, so she said
She worked in Sinclairs packing tabs instead.”
Nee place for lasses; what we waiting for?
I follow lines cued by who went before.
Me Nanna, Kathy, was a cracking singer
Worked in Osrams: had asbestos fingers
From testing light bulbs, picking oot the duds;
Would pass yah bait straight oot the oven, nee gloves
“How Nanna man! That’s red hot! Where’s a cloth?”
“Yee’d be nee use on line, yee, ya tae soft.”
Her Mam, wor Florrie, filled her washing lines
With giving birth at hyem a full six times
But only two bairns made it oot the cot
She planted four graves with Forget-me-nots
Nee National Health to help those poor bairns in
And naen for us if the bastard Tories win.
Not one for soft touch, Flo kept up her guard:
“Away with ya slavour”; grief makes you hard.
In factories and at hyem they worked on lines
My lineage file along the winding Tyne
Next, great great grandma, Flo’s Mam, Mary Ann
Had ten bairns, although not to the same man
Widowed at twenty six and mam of two
She left Derry for Felling, to start anew
And lost nee time in courtin’ a new Da
For Rosie and Maggie who didn’t knaa
That Florrie was already on her way
Arriving six months past the wedding day!
Eeeeh scandal! Worse, hypocrisy to boot
She threw wor Lizzie and wor Meggy oot
For getting preggers afore they’d been wed
Coincidentally both by men called Ned.
Meanwhile wor Rosie grafted doon Armstrongs
Making cartridge cases, but afore long
The war was over and her contract too
Was put on short time, or to me and you
A zero hours deal. Sound familiar?
S’Almost as if progress is not linear.
When Wall Street crashed wor Rosie headed South
Laid off and paid off, living hand to mouth
She found a family in that London who
Were looking for a maid, and said she’d do.
Living in service did not gan to plan
The cook was always pissed, she missed her Mam
So Rosie caught a train to come back hyem
“Cockneys” she’d say, “you canna understand them.”
Three of her sisters had since gotten wed
Wor Lizzie and Meggy had married the Neds
Wor Florrie had led the charge down the aisle
Winnie, Kitty, Norah still in single file.
Poor Rosie, an old maid in more ways than one
Still mourned the lad she lost in World War I.
When Kitty started courting, Rosie ‘changed’
They said the menopause made her deranged
Maybe she finally grieved all her losses
Father, sister, lover buried under crosses.
She crowded Kitty’s twosome: suitor flew
“I would be married if it weren’t for you”
The line was drawn between these half sisters
Neither were missus to anymore misters.
Not hitched at thirty and you’re on the shelf –
I’m glad to be free of that sentence myself.
The Beaumonts lead on to Isabella
Living in service ‘til she meets her fella
Miners die young, so did this poor codger
Bella eventually married the lodger.
Her bairn, wor Ella, stops me in my tracks
A mishap at home, she ran oot the back
Starched apron, flat iron, an ember let fly
Her daughter, wor Ethel, watched her Mam die.
And then in another cruel twist of fate
She orphaned her son, who was sent away.
Grasping at straws noo, one more Mary Ann
1831: far as I can gan.
These lines I follow are getting hazy
Wor names are misspelt, scribes getting lazy
Beaumont is Bowman; but with no arrow
To give me a route down straight or narrow
Lines that would link up more roots of my tree
That lead from these lasses reet doon to me
The lines that join birth date with when you’re dead
That quick dash between in which whole lives are led.
Wor lass joined the queue, and worked on the line
Made weapons and warriors along the Tyne
She loved and she lost and she buried in droves
Her husbands and bairns in neat little rows.
Wor lass towed the line, wor lass knew no choice
Nobody had told her that she had a voice.
She sings to me now, sends a call down the line
I’m freelance, and free-wheeling on my own time
No forgone conclusion on whether to wed
I stayed at school and make theatre instead.
Wor lass stands behind me, wor lass is good craic
She’s driving me forward e’en as I look back.
Here is my line; cued by who went before:
Haway wor lass what are you waiting for?