To live in hearts of those we love is not to die
Whilst researching and developing the work for Neither Use Nor Ornament exhibition I have, over the past few months, been going through letters and other documents that relate to William Joseph Jackson (Bill), my Mum’s brother and had he lived my only Uncle.
Bill is one of the 5 people who my latest work ‘Time is a Healer’ is a response to. The impact of his death in 1944 still resonates through my family and also, I recently discovered through another family too.
I am not sure when I first became aware of Bill but my first experience of how much of an impact his death had on my Mum was when I was 18 and my Mum had a break down. Over a period of several years my Mum received therapy and it became clear that events that she experienced and witnessed during the Second World War had a lasting and profound affect on her.
Bill was born in Margate on 10th October 1918 to Edith and Joseph Jackson (my grandparents). Christened William, after my Nanna’s brother who was killed in action during WW1, Bill was apparently a fun loving man, spontaneous, loved a party, played the piano and accordian, was a talented artist and maker and a very lovely man. My Mum adored him, her older brother by 11 years. He became a bookbinder and worked for a time at Bobby & Co’s Thanet Press print works, another connection to another project. Bill met, at work, Gladys Beeson and they married in 1940. Apparently Gladys never liked her name and so on marrying Bill became known as Jackie (as in Jackie short for Jackson).
Despite his Mum’s (my Nanna) best efforts to persuade him to be a conscientious objector, Bill enlisted in the Royal Field Artillary, at the start of the war as a Signaller and was posted to Norfolk and then Lockerbie, Scotland before being sent abroad.
In 1944 my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer and sadly died in September. Bill was given compassionate leave in October which was to be the last time he came home.
Extracts from Bill’s last letter to his Mum and sister 24/11/44
By the time you receive this letter I expect I shall once again be back with my old unit. I am longing to receive some mail from you at home, but until I get back to the unit, I don’t expect to be that lucky. Plenty of mail on the way to me I expect but has not caught me up yet. Keep wondering how that ‘Gal of mine’ is. Haven’t heard a word yet. She was terribly upset when I left I know, – to say nothing of what I felt!!! So hope she has settled down once again. Won’t be long now before it’s all over and finished. Won’t it be grand when all this unhappiness seems like a bad dream?
Well Mum and Eileen, there isn’t a great deal to write about for the moment. Do not worry about me will you. I am in the best of health. I won’t say I’m happy but at least I’m fairly contented. Look after yourself at home. Will be seeing you soon in peace.
Bill was killed in Ell, Netherlands when he stood on a mine in an unmarked minefield on Monday 27th November 1944. He was killed instantly and it would seem, was buried on the spot. As an isolated grave, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission decided to exhume his body in or around June 1945 and reburied it at Swartbroek Churchyard, Netherlands where the grave could then be taken care of.
Click on the image to hear a sound recording of my Mum speaking about this period in her life.
Some years after Bill’s death, Jackie remarried and had a daughter Carol. My Nanna and my Mum lost touch with her and were never to meet again. Late last year, and with my Mum’s permission, I decided to try and trace Jackie (not knowing if she would still be alive) and her family. Good old Facebook!! I knew that Jackie had married a man called Graham Dearden and that they had a business in Cliftonville so a posting on a page called Cliftonville Nostalgia seemed a good starting point. Within an hour I received a response from Jackie’s daughter.
On meeting Carol in Dec 2018 I discovered that sadly Jackie had passed away earlier that year, but on going through her possessions the family had discovered a package, wrapped in brown paper and containing numerous letters, documents and items from her life with Bill. Although the family had no idea of the existence of this package, Bill had in fact been a part of their lives too. Every Nov 11th they remembered him and Jackie had spoken about Bill many times throughout her life, never forgetting him and their brief life together. The impact of his death has resonated through Jackie’s family.
The items in this package I can’t share, they are not mine to share but transcribing some of the letters has been difficult. Unlike Clarice’s diary, which I am sure she wrote with the intention of others reading it, these letters are personal, filled with love and little ‘in jokes’ and I feel I am intruding on their life. However, I also feel it is important to read them; to understand more about Bill and Jackie and the impact war and his subsequent death had on both these families.
The other collection of items has been kept by my Mum. The last few letters sent to her and my Nanna before Bill was killed. They speak of his sadness at the loss of their Dad and his dislike of the war and all it stood for. My Mum has lived her life struggling with anxiety and depression that goes back to the year she lost both her Dad and Brother. It has been so important for my Mum to be able to speak about Bill and share her side of his story and using the letters and other items has been a vital element in helping to bring out memories long since buried.
As an artist who responds to archives and heritage, using this type of very personal archive comes with all sorts of responsibilities but the one thing I am certain of is the importance of keeping these stories alive, not necessarily through the re-telling of them word for word, but through a more creative means that doesn’t seek to tell people what to feel or think but allows them the space to bring their own thoughts and their own understanding.
The work for the Neither Use Nor Ornament exhibition has gone far beyond one piece of work, it has opened to door to further thoughts and ideas and research trips being planned to trace Bill’s steps, in much the same way I traced Clarice’s through her diary. This project has also led to new friendships (which actually has felt like finding family)- with Carol and her family.
The installation Time is a Healer is I am sure just the beginning of my work about Bill.