Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Stitching a Green and Pleasant Land

This map of Britain was embroidered seventy years ago by Joan, a young woman who would one day become my mother. Her war really began when she and a friend, with the Nazi threat increasing daily, and impelled by a mixture of bravado, patriotism and the desire for some excitement in their lives, enlisted in the Women's Royal Air Force. Eventually, half way through the war and with her appetite for excitement completely sated, Joan found herself engaged in work of such importance that home leave was not an option. Instead, she spent her brief leisure hours stitching a map of the British Isles. In simplistic terms she amused herself by working a pre-printed design; but it could also be argued that she, and others, escaped from grim wartime reality by crafting an idealised image of a place which, when anchored by silk thread, could become a once-and-future land coloured by nostalgia and hope.

Measuring twenty-four by eighteen inches the map is large enough for its triple coastline to encircle more than sixty little symbols of British-ness. Regional identities are celebrated as part of a whole United Kingdom by icons such as the rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock, the English cyclist and fox, the kilted Scottish shepherd and Highland cow, the 'traditionally' dressed Welsh lady and Caernarvon Castle, and the pig and linen of Northern Ireland. This Britain is a busy and primarily bucolic place; a Cornish fisherman lands a huge lobster, a West Country farmer sows his ploughed fields, in the Eastern Lowlands another digs among potatoes and cabbages, hay is stacked in regional styles, apple trees and conifers promise a harvest of fruit and wood, cheerful little boats sail among leaping fish in the North Sea, while a whale even wallows happily in the Bristol Channel. Factory chimneys smoking in the North and the Midlands, and the coal seams and slag heaps of Tyneside and Wales  make minimal reference to  the presence of industry in an otherwise agrarian idyll.


But the barrage balloon floating over St Paul's Cathedral, the intrusion of a corner of France in threateningly close proximity to the white cliffs of Dover, and the flotilla of  ships steaming towards the Continent are all indicators of the historical context in which the map was sewn. Perhaps most significantly, the top right corner of the picture is filled by an heraldic shield, topped by a crown and supported by the lion and the unicorn, above which fly the flags of the Navy, Army and Air Force. When I look at this section I think of my grandmother, a policeman's  wife whose three offspring each served in one of the armed forces, allowing her to glow with vicarious pride at having 'done her 'bit'.
Joan Witt

Joan's map is no exquisite work of art. Embroidered mainly in simple chain stitch and satin stitch it is not even comparable in craftsmanship with the samplers worked by earlier generations of little girls. However, it is a historical testament to wartime myth-making; an evocation of a Golden Age Britain to be loved and fought for. Now, on an emotive level it has the visceral appeal of all folk art, but for me it offers a tangible link to my mother and a glimpse into the life she lived before we met.     
Dr Sue Elsley



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