Research and Development Day 1

Today I started working with director and theatre maker Nicholas Barton-Wines at Colchester Arts Centre to develop the masses of research that has gone into Satellites so far, and to refine it into some kind of coherent piece of storytelling.

As always with R&D, more questions arose than answers. We asked questions like:

  • How do we choose what history to focus on, personally, politically and within families? Do we prefer history that makes us the hero of our own story?

  • What history do we choose to leave behind, and can we ever pick it up where we left off?

  • Is part of the nature of growing up being given access to certain stories about who you are?

  • Why do certain early memories embed themselves in our brains in place of others?

  • Who or what defines your culture and your identity?

  • How do we share our history, both in families and as a culture?

  • What are the markers, the touchstones, that form the centre of our worlds?

  • Who and what do we leave behind when we go?

We also drew a Venn diagram of an astronaut and a duck. But that’s a story for another day.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses to these questions- comment below or get in touch and start a conversation!

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The Empty Chair

We never talked about our history. I knew fragments, from my grandparents’ generation, but nothing beyond that. I know my father and his siblings grew up on a farm near Amsterdam, where they grew potatoes and sugar beet. I know that farm was sold in the 1980s, so they could build the motorway to Schiphol airport. I know my grandfather, who invented the most bizarre mechanic contraptions for irrigation on that farm, died before I was born, of leukaemia, and that he was missed. Aside from that, there was not much discussion. It was a mystery to me- a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

In uncle Tom’s autobiography, he said, were stories that were important for me, because they would help me understand my place in the world. It was not until after he died that I started to read it, and my own hidden history unspooled before me.

It started familiarly enough. He wrote of the flat miles of boggy farmland where he grew up in north Holland, in a place called Baarn, near Hilversum. I have never been there but I know what it will be like- iron grey skies, emerald grass, grazing cows, criss-cross canals with little bridges and low-roofed houses with big windows. 

He wrote of singing old folk songs, of riding his horse, of stargazing, and of being forced to attend the Sunday services at the Calvinist red brick church- most likely with a square steeple, that his father (my great-great-grandfather) revered, because it ‘points our way to heaven’.

He wrote of his older brother Cornelis, who he idolised, who had bright blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes, and rode his motorbike at breakneck speed along the canalside; Cornelis who would die emaciated, feverish and broken, in a camp in Germany- we think- just a few days before the end of World War Two.

Someone had mentioned him before, at a family meal several years previously. It was the night before my aunt’s wedding, and the conversation moved to the people who could not be sat around my Oma’s table that night. We talked about Opa of course, and each of us was given a button from his military uniform to wear on our person at the ceremony. Someone spoke of “Cor”, who “died in the camp”, and moved swiftly on. There was an empty chair at the table, and it’s emptiness was bright and shining.