Keep Your Chin Up
Quaker Meeting House, v40
12:30 (ends 17 August, not Sundays)
⭐⭐⭐ (3 stars)
This is an intensely emotional and deeply thought-provoking presentation by Polly Pattison of letters her mother Ethel wrote to her father Ken during the Second World War. Polly’s parents were married just three months before Ken was sent to the West Country for training before being sent off to Africa, not to return until 1944.
Ethel was one of a number of siblings, the youngest of whom, Fred, had joined the navy when he was only 14, so added to her worry for her husband was concern for her brother, from neither of whom she heard very regularly or frequently. During a nine-month absence of letters from Ken, Pauline [Polly] was born: she grew into a very lively child, which seemed at times to have been the final straw for her mother.
Ethel’s letters to Ken are full of her worries, her feelings, her reactions [sometimes very feisty] to the problems she has to deal with – they pour out on the page and bring a very human being to life as we listen to that same Polly reading her mother’s accounts of her daughter’s at times [to her] impossible behaviour. To us she might sound simply like a normal wee girl, lively and full of fun — a letter to Ken from Ethel’s sister, Doris, talks of a delightful child whom everyone loves – it’s the strain of coping with the hardships and difficulties of war that cause Ethel at times to react so negatively to her daughter’s behaviour.
The city of Hull suffered terribly from German bombing – virtually all of the city was badly damaged. The near-incessant raids would have meant Ethel lived in a constant state of anxiety, never knowing when she might have to wake her daughter in the night to take her round to her mother’s air raid shelter. For a while she was evacuated to Pudsey and her letters complain bitterly about the lack of electricity and the outside tap: she really missed the nice modern house in which she and Ken had started married life, and was very happy to get back to Hull and live near her mother [and use her Anderson shelter during air raids].
Ethel also seems to have felt it most unfair that her younger sister Ida was able both to earn a good wage and go out dancing and having a good time, while she was stuck at home struggling with her daughter. The one time she was able to get out to a dance hall she had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, as she told Ken: but she was ‘a good girl’ and didn’t let her partner walk her home. She wasn’t so sure that Ken was being as ‘good’ while abroad, if her constant reminders and admonitions are anything to go by!
Many letters ended with her urging Ken to “keep his chin up”, and telling her how much she loved and missed him – there seems to have been a dearth of reciprocal sentiment in his infrequent or long-delayed replies. The overall impression from the letters is of a very unhappy woman doing the best she can, but often overwhelmed by the challenges of her life and unable to find anything in which to take consolation, except the hope that she and Ken would be reunited – though even there she feared their not getting on, or his not being able to relate to Polly.
In many ways it was a depressing litany of complaints – but then there would be the lighter moments, the things in which she could take joy – brother Fred’s unexpected return home on leave in time for Doris’s wedding, the new ‘costume’ she finally managed to get, even if it did take 18 or her 20 clothing coupons, and of course, the evening dancing at the Scala!
The most interesting part of the show for me came at the end, when Polly came to talk to us and answer questions, filling in some of the gaps in Ken and Ethel’s story and explaining how she came to find the letters [very recently] and how they gave her an insight into the lives of her
parents, to whom she never seemed able to relate while they were alive. It’s the first time she’s ever done any sort of performance, and reading the letters to us seems for her to be some kind of catharsis: she certainly lives every moment of her mother’s emotions, switching from sadness to joy in an instant, and making Ethel come alive for us.
This show is heartfelt and heartbreaking, a deeply moving reminder of the ordinary everyday courage displayed by women all over the world in times of conflict: I thank Polly for her courage in sharing her mother’s life with us.