Wor Lass

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?

To inspire:
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.

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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.

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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.

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.”

Awh.

“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?

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Phenomenal People, ARC, Stockton-on-Tees

by Valerie Fairclough

Those that know me know that I rarely get excited about anything. This makes me reluctant to actually go out at times. I am one of those people who think, “Really, do I have to?”
It was with this same reluctance that I finally dragged myself to the Arc in Stockton some hour and a half after the Phenomenal people show kicked off. Makes me wonder how many others are like me.
I landed at the box office and duly paid my two pounds and made my way into the area set aside like a little garden. I announced my arrival by loudly saying: “Is it this way?” The nice gentleman at the door shushed me and guided me in.
The booklet I found on a table entitled “Phenomenal people” gives the impression that it is about people who are phenomenal, however when I looked on the back of the cover it becomes gender specific: “Think of a woman who inspires you.” What if it was a man that inspired me? Get ’em in under false pretences and slug ’em with feminism, that’s what I say. I am not a feminist, however like religion I pick and choose what suits me. I don’t care for flowers being bought for me, not because it offends me but because they belong on a grave or left where they grow. Chocolates, however… Don’t get me wrong: the ladies who were there were brilliant and I did have that communal, belonging feeling. For the record, I have admired Beatrix Potter ever since my run-in with a Pippi Longstocking-lookalike ignorant feminist, but that’s another story.
The room was laid to lawn – not your Astroturf rubbish, it was the real McCoy. Bushes in pots and a lovely little water feature in the middle full of pennies. Garden benches, tables and chairs were dotted around. I felt like I was walking on to the set of In the Night Garden. With all the lights above, the place was very warm. I was told the air conditioning was on; one look at the potted bushes said different.
I parked my backside on a little grassy mound and listened to a woman reading about her female line lost behind the names of men. I came in half way through her monologue. The lady in question was Kathryn Beaumont and she repeated her monologue later in the day to which I fully listened and appreciated. Kathryn admired the stoicism of her female line and told the story as if she was reading an extract from a Cathrine Cookson novel.
A supposed letter to a daughter was read out, it was written by Anna Reading. At some point I zoned out, then a sentence brought me back again: “When you are a feminist.” I think the letter was about making a better world: not sure if it was a better world for women or everyone, either way do you have to be a feminist to make a better world? There are plenty of men out there as well who want the world to be a better and more equal place for all, not just women.
Next up was the lovely Akiya Henry, who did a silhouette show of the woman she most admired, Joyce Dymock, her foster mother. No spoken words, just silhouettes and written words and dates all played out to music; she did her foster mother proud, even if I did have to go and ask her who the kid was in the wheelchair as she was clearly able to walk. It was her sister.
Lucy Stevens did a roll call of all those involved in the making of the show through singing an operatic song, least I think it was a roll call. I loved her voice.
Jenny Sealey spoke of her admiration for fellow deaf friend and actor Caroline Parker. This woman never allowed her lack of hearing to impede her life and what she wanted to do. She told funny stories of the things she and both of them got up too. Jenny had everyone stood up dancing and signing to a song, she signed by virtue of lip reading, when she lost where she was in the record she picked it up by looking at everyone singing. Jenny Sealey is a phenomenal woman as well as her friend.
I must give a mention to Roger, I’m all about equality I am. Roger was the lovely man who worked with Akiya in the silhouette show.
I have to say I left the show disappointed, not because it was rubbish, but because I was rubbish. I should have attended earlier. I had just gotten into it when it was over. I never learn.
Would I recommend the Phenomenal People show? Hell yes. The atmosphere was so relaxing and calming, the bird song just topped it off. I could have sat for hours.
I have since spoken to friends at work who seem keen to have gone, I have promised the next time something comes along I will give them the option.
Well done one and all, it was a marvellous show.

[Editor note: I met Valerie at a writing workshop in Doncaster Darlington (oops! thanks for pointing that out Val), and wrote about the encounter here. I’m so thrilled she accepted my invitation to write for this blog, and hope she continues. Maddy]

Good nights out

At the heart of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is a question: how do we ensure that it’s not a selfish endeavour, something that only helps Fuel tour better, failing to impact on theatre more widely? The company and I want to experiment through the three-year programme, and learn – but also share our thinking and discoveries with others. This blog represents one attempt at documenting activities: it’s haphazard, sure, but at least offers some kind of case study that might be useful in the future. (Two clear lessons from the blog are: it’s hard to maintain a coherent narrative around work that happens sporadically; and it’s really hard to persuade people to write about theatre, even on a blog that attempts to be informal and conversational like this one.)

I love writing, but I can’t rely on reaching people online, or via twitter, and through my work with Dialogue I’ve become interested in what can be achieved through small-scale discussion and face-to-face conversation. That’s why I approached Battersea Arts Centre to start working with them on their equivalent to NTiYN, the Collaborative Touring Network. How better to share Fuel’s practice than by talking out loud to other people about it? CTN and NTiYN overlap in Margate, but otherwise reach slightly different places, presenting exciting opportunities to create links between towns and across regions.

Already, working with CTN has been the catalyst for a new phase in NtiYN’s development and my role in it: it’s encouraged me to start talking to Pam Hardiman, Programme Manager at the Theatre Royal Margate, and Jessica Jordan-Wrench of Tom Thumb, about setting up a local theatre-going group, a community of people who meet regularly to have a drink and a chat and see a show together. We’ll see Fuel work, and CTN work, but also other touring work from Paines Plough, the house network and Tara Arts. Pam, Jess and I hope to advertise the group in the local paper, in shop windows and on cafe noticeboards, so the invitation reaches people who aren’t already going to the theatre. Maybe they just don’t know what’s on offer, or maybe they do but feel they don’t have anyone to go with, or maybe the tickets are prohibitively expensive. As a group, we’ll negotiate a concessionary rate, which will allow us to see stuff we might not normally watch, and have a pint or a glass of wine before and after. Chances are we won’t like everything we see – but we’ll still have a good night out, because we’ll be meeting each other.

Even though the Margate theatre group doesn’t exist yet, I’m already taking the idea to other towns and regions thanks to joining up with CTN. And it proved very useful in a fraught but valuable discussion I had on Saturday in Darlington, at a workshop/discussion on theatre criticism. It was arranged by Jabberwocky Market, a brilliant festival that started only a year ago with the support of BAC. I was there to host a theatre club following the evening performance of Ballad of the Burning Star, the kind of activity I’ve been doing with Fuel; the writing workshop was something extra I asked to do, because I’m interested in supporting local critical communities.

The workshop didn’t go to plan: several people signed up, then didn’t attend, so it ended up being improvised with four people who were cajoled into coming on the spur of the moment. (Improbable Theatre Company have a maxim: whoever comes are the right people. It often proves a useful thing to remember.) We began by talking about where criticism is at, how it’s done in newspapers, and what it might mean for a more diverse group of people to blog about theatre. One woman, who works as an editor and spends day after day rewriting poor prose, was suspicious: can a blogger’s taste be trusted? And if there’s no one to edit their work, what guarantee is there that it’s readable? Another woman, a theatre-maker called Hannah Bruce, was anxious about the readership question: if she started blogging, who would she be writing for? Other theatre-makers? People who might come and see her work? Stewart Pringle, who was in Darlington to review Jabberwocky Market for Exeunt, talked about his experience starting out, of wanting to write reviews in the “proper” way, and how much he appreciated the freedom and inventiveness of blogs. I talked about the role audiences can play as advocates – and how much theatre needs them, if it’s not going to lose all its funding and die.

And then there was fierce, articulate, brilliant Val. She listened to me and Stewart, getting more and more riled, then announced that we were arty-farty types using too many long words, exactly the kind of people who make theatre seem elitist, putting off normal people like the ones she works with in an office, who might like theatre, if only they took a chance on seeing it. It was difficult, and unsettling, not because she was criticising or taking issue with what I was saying – not everyone is going to agree with me – but because I had thought we were saying the same thing.

Val is volunteering as an audience ambassador for Darlington, and wants more people to go to the theatre because it’s live – unlike a film, it’s a bit different every time you see it – and because it’s exciting. But she feels like she’s hitting against a brick wall of her local community’s lack of interest, their assumption that theatre isn’t for them. She doesn’t think blogs, or criticism are the answer: she’d seen a touring production of Regeneration, and loved it; it’s had four- and five-star reviews from several major newspapers, and still she can’t persuade her office co-workers to come. As far as she’s concerned, people like me, with our passion for weird theatre in intimate spaces, are part of the problem: we make theatre sound like hard work.

It felt as though we were at loggerheads, but Val and I had a wonderful moment of coming together when I told her about the plan for the theatre group in Margate. Her entire demeanour changed: this was something she could make happen. She started having her own ideas for what the group could do: she could approach the theatre to ask about the possibility of them meeting the actors afterwards, or getting a tour of the stage. Its community aspect appealed to her, too, the idea that the commitment would be to the group, not to the theatre. Essentially, what she’d be inviting people to wouldn’t be a play, but a Good Night Out.

Her outburst – specifically the epithet arty-farty – made Stewart and I think much more carefully about our language for the rest of the conversation: I certainly didn’t use the word “advocate” again. Val made me realise that there are still gaps between what I’m aiming to do and what I’m actually doing (at a basic level, when was the last time I told the parents in the playground of my children’s school, “Oh, go see this show at our local theatre, I’ve seen it and it’s amazing”?); there are still gaps between what I think I’m saying and the words I’m actually using. Later that evening, a small group stayed behind at the end of Ballad of the Burning Star to have a book-group-style discussion on it; as ever, when you get people talking about what they think of a show, rather than just asking questions of the people who made it, the responses to it were fascinating: one man felt it was left-wing and anti-Israel, another man felt it wasn’t a political but an emotional piece, and we talked quite a lot about its power dynamics between men and women, victims and aggressors, and different nationalities. Val sat through the whole discussion, arms folded, not saying a word. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, but hope that, in sharing some of what I’m doing with NTiYN with her, she feels inspired to take action on the ideas she likes – and just ignores the rest.