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    The eye is not the only gateway to the mind. National Theatre’s Touch Tour and audio described performance of War Horse. By Catherine Goodier.

    We watch as Joey initially shies away from Albert when he first arrives at the Narracott farm, and it is enchanting to see how the young boy gradually gains the trust of the frightened foal. Sitting just three rows from the stage a small smile plays across Ted Ellerton’s face as he listens to the audio described performance of War Horse. Ted, who has known horses all his life, can clearly picture the reticent foal and the boy who quietly gains its trust. Soon Joey and Albert are playfully cavorting as Albert blows into Joey’s nose and Joey moves forward, raising his head to blow at Albert, before he swiftly scampers back a few paces. We watch as their friendship evolves until Joey as a foal leaves the stage and a magnificent mature Joey enters. We are entranced as he gallops across the Devon countryside with Albert on his back as they have become inseparable.

    It is the audio described matinee performance of War Horse at the New London Theatre on Saturday 22nd November 2014. I am there with three members of Blind Veterans UK in my role as editor of the charity’s Review magazine. It is a magazine that has been published since the charity was founded in 1915 as St Dunstan’s for those soldiers, sailors and airmen who were blinded by gas, shot or shell during the First World War. In total 3,200 men who lost their sight from the First World War came to us and today we support over 3,500 veterans.

    As I sit through the performance with Ted Ellerton, a World War Two veteran who landed on D-Day+2 who has age related sight loss, and Chris Nowell and Paul Jacobs GM who were both blinded in Afghanistan there are so many similarities between the powerful story that is being played out on stage and the lives of the members of our charity over the last 100 years. Like Albert Narracott many of the first members of our charity were blinded by mustard gas or as they served in the Cavalry or the Royal Horse Artillery working with the horses on the bloody battlefields of the First World War.

    One of the early First World War men to come to our charity was Edward Bates, a Gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery, who had been a soldier since 1911. He was wounded on 22nd October 1914 at Wytschaete, Flanders. He lost his left eye completely and the sight in the other. He entered our Regent’s Park training centre on 21st April 1915. He was in our rowing team and became a masseur, working initially at the 3rd London General hospital, Wandsworth, where some of the war-blinded men would have gone as it was the overflow from the 2nd London General Hospital. He married Ethel, a typist from the RNIB at St Marylebone Church on 8th June 1916.

    But there are other, more recent, similarities. Chris Nowell served in the King’s Royal Hussars from 2001 in the UK, Northern Ireland and Iraq and Afghanistan where he was wounded in 2008 by a mortar, losing most of his sight. The King’s Royal Hussars are a Cavalry Regiment that is now part of the Royal Armoured Corps and although Chris went to war in a tank rather than on a horse he was schooled in the same ceremonial riding duties as the First World War men. Through Blind Veterans UK Chris has retrained as a photographer using the limited vision he has in one eye and he took the photographs that are woven through this article.

    Ted, Chris and Paul said that they could each picture the events on stage as they listened to the audio descriptions. All three said that the pre-performance Touch Tour when they walked around the stage and met the puppeteers and actors and touched the props helped. It is something that they are keen to do again and highly recommend to other vision impaired and blind people, as the eye is not the only gateway to the mind.

    During the Touch Tour we spoke with Jason Langley who plays Captain Nicholls an Officer in an unnamed Regiment that would probably have been the Devonshire Cavalry as we were keen to hear of the research and training he did for his role. He told us “At the National Theatre everything is done to the best that it possibly can be so cast members did lots of research. Someone came in and give us a talk on agriculture at the beginning of the century as that plays a huge part in the play and they also spoke to us about Devon life at the time.

    “We visited the Horse Guards, which gave us a great insight as we spent time with them and a Regimental Sergeant Major came in and drilled us. That was a bit of a shock for 40 actors as we’re not the most disciplined or the most soldierly people in the world, so he had to whip us in to shape. He comes in once a year during the rehearsal process and he drilled us and showed us how to salute properly and how to behave as a soldier would. As I play the highest ranked officer in the play it’s good for me to know how to address the men, and how the men should address me and what the courtesies and formalities would have been. My cousin was in the Army and when she came to the play I was keen to get it right for her!”

    Returning to the play, Captain Nicholls first meets Joey in Devon when war has been declared and Joey is sold to the army by Ted Narracott. Albert unsuccessfully tried to get Joey back but he was assured by Captain Nicholls that he would look after him for the few short months before they return home —after the war has ended. Captain Nicholls is an artist and above the stage there is a gigantic horizontal strip of white sky that is about 30 metres long. It represents a strip of paper that was ripped from his drawing pad and throughout the performance scenes drawn in charcoal are projected on to it. We see the Narracott farm and the surrounding Devon landscape that Albert and Joey ride across, and as the men sail to France the sea behind them and once in France the battle scenes. These are all described during the show.

    In the July 1964 Review our second Chairman Lord Fraser, who was blinded on The Somme by a snipers bullet on 23rd July 1916, recalled those days when he wrote:

    “By the time you read these words we shall be approaching August 4th, 1964, the 50th anniversary of the day when the Kaiser’s War, or the Great War, broke out, and the face of Britain and of the world began to change.

    “Each of us will have his own recollection and I set down mine, not because it was important, but because it might evoke memories. I was just under 18 years of age and was staying with my uncle in Buckinghamshire, who was a famous breeder of racehorses. For those who know anything about racehorses I might mention that he bred Dark Ronald and Son In Law, two of the great sires whose blood still courses in the veins of the stayers of today.

    “We had no radio and when, therefore, we went to bed at midnight on August 3rd, we ordinary people did not know that we should wake to find our country was at war; how different now when the BBC would have stayed awake to tell us.

    “At dawn some gravel was thrown at my window and I put my head out to see a local police inspector who said: “War has been declared. Will you wake Mr Donald Fraser and tell him please.” I did that and within an hour my uncle and I and his stud groom were touring the immediate countryside stopping at each village and buying horses from the farmers for the cavalry, the yeomanry and the gunners. The police had already warned the farmers to bring out their horses for compulsory purchase, and my uncle opened his sealed black box in which was a Government cheque book. By breakfast we had bought 50 horses paying for them on the spot, branding their hooves with a broad arrow and sending them off to the remount depots.

    “A glimpse of a different war where there was no radio and where men went to war with horses.’”

    And it is a very different war that is played out on the stage by sublimely talented actors and puppeteers. We are not spared as we watch, or through the medium of audio descriptions, picture, how men and horses were no match for the might of the tanks, machine guns and mustard gas. The horror of war unfolds on stage and the slaughter of men and animals on a scale never before witnessed. But there are also happy times in War Horse that make us laugh. I loved the Narracott goose. And of course there is a joyful ending.

    It is in France that we meet Topthorn, an Army horse who has been shipped to the war. He is a pure thoroughbred who is taller and more finely built than Joey with a gleaming black coat. He belongs to Captain Stewart who is sadly killed in a Cavalry charge, as is Captain Nicholls who is thrown from Joey by the impact and carried across the stage in slow motion with his arms and legs splayed in the form of a star. Joey and Topthorn have become best friends and when they are captured by the German Army it is Topthorn who comforts Joey. They are looked after by Friedrich Müller, a gentle man who does not want to be at war, and with him they pull the ambulances. But the horses are still afraid and in one scene we watch as Topthorn gently places his head onto Joey’s mane to calm and reassure his dear frightened friend. With the slightest of movements he moves his head to caress Joey and it is a display of friendship and love that is both touching and heartbreaking in equal measure. Again the audio description is clear as Ted, Paul and Chris pictured this.

    Just an hour earlier we had sat with Andy Brunskill, the Resident Director of War Horse, Miles Yekhemi, James Alexander-Taylor and Caroline Bowman, who each bring Topthorn to life, as they are his head, heart and hind. As I watch Topthorn I no longer see them as they make me forget that he is a cage made from aluminium, wood, cane and net. These three supremely skilled puppeteers turn him into a living, breathing strong black thoroughbred. He makes the rich deep sound of a horse, his sinews ripple as he moves, his chest rises as he rests and his ears move at the slightest sound. I am captivated.

    Before the matinee performance I asked Andy Brunskill what it is like to work on Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, especially in the centenary year of the First World War, and if it was difficult to bring fresh ideas to such a well known story.

    “It is an honour to work on War Horse, especially in the centenary year of the First World War. It’s an absolutely incredible show and one that encourages re-examination. So for the actors and puppeteers who join the show we tell them there are basic flag posts that we have to hit in terms of story and staging, but we’re up for reinvestigating it, reanalysing it and mining for different meanings. And that’s interesting and stimulating for the directors, the puppetry directors and the actors.

    “There’s always something different in each performance. There are Joey and Topthorn with three teams of puppeteers per horse so they rotate, because they couldn’t do eight shows a week regularly as they’d end up breaking. As a lot of the guys who come to puppetry are actors, or have acted, they bring their own actorly instincts, which mean that each person who interacts with Joey or Topthorn knows what each team is like. And they say ‘he doesn’t like it when I touch his face’ or ‘he’s much more reticent in this scene.‘ If you are ever backstage before or after a show they’re all talking about ‘that didn’t work’ or ‘maybe we can try that next time.’ Or they’re grabbing another head puppeteer or another heart puppeteer and asking them to watch as they try something new with these hugely complex puppets.”

    Miles Yekhemi, who is Topthorn’s head, gave an insight into what goes through his mind on stage when he said: “When we are in sync together it’s easy to just think ‘OK we’re Topthorn we’re the horse.’ But to be like that it’s a constant negotiation on stage, which is why you never really get the same two shows ever because it also depends on how we are that day as a team.

    “To have you guys here today in the centenary year with all the history you bring is incredible. I’ve found that sometimes I might become complacent and think only of Topthorn, but then I think ‘actually you’re telling a much bigger story. You are just one piece. A very, very small piece of telling this huge story.’ And it’s a privilege to do your small bit in that big story. I don’t ever go out expecting them [the audience] to go ‘Oh the puppets they’re wonderful’ and for that to be all that they came for. We know that they came for the story, they came for what the story represents. One hundred years on, it’s a story that needs to be told, and what’s incredible and an honour is to see people still flooding into the theatre.”

    James: “As there are three teams per horse you have two different teams on stage every night in the horses so the dynamics between the horses will be different every night. I think, for me anyway, that’s the most exciting thing, as it can in a way be unpredictable about how the show will go. You obviously have to get from A to B on stage, but how you get there is different every time and part of being as one as a team is essential in order to make that puppet tell the story. So simple things like breathing together and having the same thought process throughout a scene are essential as you all have your emotional and technical role that you have to nail for each other. These guys are dependent on me, but more importantly I’m dependent on these two [Miles and Caroline] so I can give them what they need from me.”

    Caroline: “You have to learn to trust. Our rehearsal process is two months, which is extraordinarily long and a lot of that is just spent subconsciously learning who the other people are without talking. So every time you get in the horse you feel how the other two people move, how they stop, how they think. We’ve been in War Horse since January [2014] and it might sound absurd but we’re still learning. A massive thing is learning to trust. I’d never worked with Miles or James before and it’s a huge deal trusting people, especially when you’re running round the stage with someone on top of you.”

    James: “If you think about it there’s myself in the heart, Caroline in the hind and Miles on the head who’s outside the horse, which means that he doesn’t have the point of view of the puppet as we do. We’re in a sense fused together by an aluminium frame and you can either go forward or backwards or sideways — you can’t go diagonally and feel comfortable together. So when you’re sprinting around inside a 10 stone puppet if you’re not trusting each other it can be really, really dangerous. And there have been times that it’s been a bit hairy! And Miles has these two people fused together sprinting forward and he’s running backwards. So you need that trust and you need the two months of rehearsal to really get together and make it show ready.”

    To finish Miles, James and Caroline showed us how they become Topthorn when Andy asked: ‘Shall we do one?’ We didn’t know what to expect and are overjoyed as they leant in towards one another on the sofa and made the sound of a horse. They were utterly convincing and it was a taster of what was to come.

    Blind Veterans UK at War Horse.

    Seated front row Paul Jacobs GM who came to Blind Veterans UK after he was blinded in Afghanistan on 20 August 2009 while Serving with 2nd Battalion The Rifles when he attempted to retrieve a mortally wounded colleague. Paul was caught in an IED explosion which has left him totally blind. In recognition of his bravery he was awarded the George Medal by The Queen. He is pictured with Ted Ellerton and behind them are James Alexander Taylor Topthorn heart, Miles Yekhemi Topthorn head and Caroline Bowman Topthorn hind with Andy Brunskill Resident Director.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Returning to the play when Albert receives Captain Nicholls sketch book with news of his death he joins the Army to go in search of his beloved Joey, tearing one of the charcoal drawings from the book. In France Albert makes a new bestfriend in David Taylor, played by Tony McGeever.

    Albert is soon immersed in the grim reality of war. After another day of bitter fighting and bloodshed, as he walks through a field of ghosts, its soil crimson with the blood of the lifeless soldiers who lie looking up to God; crows descend onto the body of a dead horse. A split second later we see that it is still alive as its skeletal chest raises in the breast of the mortally wounded and ghostly, yet once beautiful beast that has known great suffering and terror. Seeing that it is still alive is too much for Albert to bear and with precision he forces his sword into the wounded horse, swiftly releasing it.

    After the show Ted Ellerton said that as he listened to the audio descriptions he understood just how Albert would have felt. Ted, who is 89, told us of one of the most potent memories in his long life. It was 80 years earlier when he stayed in a stable throughout the night with his Uncle Ted as they delivered a foal. It was the only time that his uncle spoke to him of his time during the First World War when he worked with horses on the gun carriages.

    Ted Ellerton said: “As a young boy I recall riding on a cob with my Uncle Ted to the stables where he worked at J Arthur Rank’s flour mill in the city of Kingston upon Hull. As one of the mares was in labour we spent the night in the stables as he nursed her. He spoke of the time he was in charge of a gun carriage in action and they came under heavy shellfire in deep mud. He said how he tried to get the crippled horse out of its harness in order to keep the gun team moving forward. He would relive those terrible times as he comforted the horses in the stable. He spoke of another time in Ypres when his gun team was blown up. He was knocked unconscious and when he awoke he found that he was lying in a field of dead bodies. As some of the horses were still alive he had to slit their throats to end their suffering. It was something that haunted him for the rest of his life.

    “He lay in the field and hid from the Germans for weeks. Initially he was too weak to even stand and he lived on the turnips that were planted in it. He said that it was a strange feeling to be alive amongst the bodies of the men and the horses. He eventually returned to his Battalion and he was put back to work on the gun carriages. After that night he never spoke to me again of the horrors that he saw. “

    To finish on a light hearted note, we had spoken with Jimmy Grimes, the Assistant Puppetry Director, during the Touch Tour as we stood beside Joey who towered above us and Nicholas Hart who is his head, Gareth Aled his heart and Will Palmer his hind brought him to life. Jimmy told us: “The biggest job for the puppeteers is to make sure that the horse feels alive throughout the show. They have to look like they have real muscle through controlled movement. To achieve this the puppeteers have to be really selective and use really small movements. If each of the puppeteers does a couple of those really small movements it builds up to a picture of a real living horse. They have to be really calm as the horses, apart from when they’re in war scenes, are actually quite still. You start with that and gradually you progress and the puppeteers are galloping as Joey and Topthorn. I came to War Horse just over two years ago and part of the work for me and the puppeteers was to learn as much as we could about horses. We read a lot of books about horse behaviour and horse psychology and the way that horses see the world and we met with people who work with horses in different capacities and went to stables. A funny story is that one of our puppet directors is absolutely terrified of horses. Everyday he’ll come here and work with the Joey and Topthorn puppets and he’ll go to the stable visits, but he’s always a bit nervous to go up and to actually make contact with the horses!”

    We leave the theatre after Albert has been reunited with Joey and they return to their family in Devon. It has been a great day and I have been asked by Ted, Chris and Paul to thank everyone involved in the production, both on and off stage. Our thanks also go to the audio describers Andrew Holland and Roz Chalmers. Reuben Lane and Susan Gregory who demonstrated the audio equipment. Eamonn Byrne, War Horse Company Manager and Ros Hayes, Head of Access at the National Theatre. Thank you. Of course not forgetting Michael Morpurgo for his genius.

    Blind Veterans UK provides free support to ex Armed Forces and National Service personnel with sight loss. Find out how to refer someone.

    Poems by Paul Jacobs

    To celebrate National Poetry Day we are sharing poetry from one of our very talented blind ex-Service men Paul Jacobs.

    Paul Jacobs GM, served with the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, and was blinded on Afghanistan’s frontline on 20th August 2009. He was awarded the prestigious George Medal for bravery as he continued to protect his colleagues after he was wounded.

    His medal citation read: “His sheer personal courage and startling determination, unswerving courage, selflessness, devotion to duty and dedication to his comrades was faultless.”

    This moving poem doesn’t have a name but was by Paul Jacobs GM on 20 August 2014 on the 5th anniversary of the day he was blinded.

    I have only two weeks before I fly over the seas

    And over the mountains to take up the fight with my country’s enemies

    But these two weeks I will remember

    Because this will be the last time I see my country with my sight

    I know my time is getting shorter by the day

    So do I tell my mother that I love her

     

    Another day in Helmand with my uniform on

    The sun beating on my face

    Rifle in hand I step on a mine

    There’s a flash and a bang

    And now it’s all over for the lone soldier

     

    Wounded I may be

    These marks of war you can see

    But the biggest scar is where the heart is

    The worst kind of scar is mentally not being me

    If you would like to hear more of Paul’s beautiful poetry click here.

    There are over 68,000 vision impaired veterans who could be eligible for support, but are not currently receiving it. Request our free, lifelong support for a blind veteran by calling 0800 389 7979 or visiting www.noonealone.org.uk

    Andy Fallons’ photographic project for Blind Veterans UK

    Andy Fallon, a commercial portrait photographer and Art Director based in London, has been working on a photographic and audio collaboration at our Brighton Centre.

    With over 15 years of photography experience he has worked for The Sunday Times, The guardian and the Telegraph but he says he is “motivated to explore a style of portrait that enables a blind or partial sighted individual to share the experience of a portrait session.”

    He has decided to work on this unique project to produce colour light paintings  as many of our blind or partially sighted veterans have been photographed before but they are not able to see the final images. Andy says “my aim was to find a way that the veterans could visualise the final image through the techniques used to capture the light.”

    Many of the veterans are partially sighted but there are also some individuals that are completely blind, so before anything was set up, Andy spoke to them that he could understand their experience of light. He found that those who are completely blind have no sense of light and dark, to address this he used daylight heat lamps that provide a sensation of warmth as light is guided around the face so that the veterans could feel the light.

    The light he has chosen to use is also soft enough as not to produce discomfort to those with partial sight. They leave trace patterns on the photographic image so the viewer can also understand the veterans experience of the heat and light.

    Each portrait is taken in complete darkness with only the heat lamps illuminating the subject to expose the photograph.

    Andy plans to display the images with an audio accompaniment where each veteran will talk about their military service, losing their sight and the experience they have had with light portraits.

    When asked what he would like the project would achieve, Andy said “I hope that the project will draw attention to the positive work of Blind Veterans UK and the incredible work it does to enable a fuller life for the veterans. The intention is to include a complete age range of the veterans to show the ongoing work the charity is involved with.”

    Andy has said that it is important to him that the portraits produced are a positive reflection of Blind Veterans UK so he stayed away from producing any gritty black and white images.

    If you would like to find out more about how we help blind veterans please visit our website, if you would like to keep up-to-date with Andy’s work please visit his website.

    Artwave exhibition. By Jonathan Jones

    We hosted an Artwave exhibition at our Brighton centre’s chapel for three weekends as part of the 2014 Artwave Festival. The event was a huge success and we caught up with Jonathan Jones who visited to hear his thoughts.

     
    “Frank has worn away the table at which he spends every morning working on his rocking horses.”
    This is the phrase that will last with me from my visit to the Blind Veterans UK Arts and Crafts exhibition. Every member of staff I spoke to on the day were captivated with Frank Tinsley and his rocking horses. Volunteers, full-time and part-time staff were enamored with the skill and workmanship that went into creating his amazing pieces.

     

    Artwave
    The exhibition at the Blind Veterans UK centre chapel was heart-warming, as well as showing a range of abilities that make Blind Veterans UK such a worthwhile charity.

     

    Frank Tinsley, a 93 year old war veteran, had a number of rocking horses on display which captured the imagination of everyone at the exhibition. Speaking to Kirsty Franks, a volunteer, she said “I like the pink one the most because it has been completed to such a high standard. It’s amazing to think that he’s completely blind but can make such perfect rocking horses.”

     

    There were a number of toys and games that were fantastic throughout the event including a bright and glittery beetle variation of a game I simply know as ‘The Beetle Game’. It was my favourite and it stood proudly outside the entrance to the exhibition.

     

    A cute version of the traditional game noughts and crosses, made into hearts and flowers caught my eye as it would have made the perfect gift for my (much younger) little sister, had it not already been bought. My girlfriend wanted to buy the fish mosaic, but that too had been snapped up.

     

    Artwave
    The exhibition also taught me a number of games that I had never played before, including a variation on chess made of stones that took me a long time to figure out!

     

    The exhibition didn’t just showcase the work of the veterans, but also gave the public an insight into the difficulties that the veterans face in everyday life. There was a section set up in the corner of the room allowing people to put on glasses that helped to visualize how difficult the veterans find it to work on the toys and games. The glasses varied from complete blindness, to black spots in the centre of the eye that made them frustrating to look through and the whole experience helped to put the difficulties of impaired vision into perspective.

     

    In the end however, the most pleasing aspect of the exhibition in my opinion was the large board of pictures that sat at the end of the room showing snapshots of everyday life at the Blind Veterans UK Ovingdean centre.

     

    The exhibition was a wonderful way to present the works of the veterans involved. Congratulations to all the people who made the exhibition such a success, especially:

     

    Frank Tinsley, Wallace Burnet-Smith, John Taylor, John Nunney, Marjorie Mower, John Gasston, Doug Stepney, Patrick Feeney, Norman Perry, Reg Godwin, Keith Mann, Diana Faulkingham, Arthur Watson, William Wolf, Bob Thirtle, Jean Williams, Eddie O’Brien, Jill Brice, Maurice Bowley, John McCullen, Brian Taylor, Pete Hammond, Bernard Parker, Jim Tribe, Marise Faulkingham, Ted Heaseman and all the staff and veterans at Blind Veterans UK that contributed.

     

    If you would like to find out about similar events coming up in the future, please visit our events calendar.

    Peace by Constance Sweeting.

    As a child I would visit the local war memorial to the men who were killed during the First World War, the memorial that had my great grandfather’s name on it, as he was killed at the age of 40.

    As a young woman I didn’t think about him, or my distant family. I moved out of the area in my late 20s and built a life and what passed for a career in the Cotswolds.

    As I grew older I started to think of my great grandfather – Albert George. A young soldier in the only photograph my grandfather had. I only knew about the family from my mother. My grandfather died when I was 10 and I remember him as a quiet man but as a young girl I was far too scared to speak to him. I don’t know why as looking back he was a kind man, not the imposing person I imagined. I remember when two local boys were giving me a Chinese burn in the front garden my grandfather came over and asked why they were picking on me as they were much older and I was a girl. He told them to go away and they did. He would sit in the garden on the stump of a tree that had been cut down, cross his legs and smoke a cigarette. Finding peace. In the summer he’d wear a panama hat and his shirt sleeves would be rolled up. He’d been a scaffolder his entire life and now it strikes me as a strange profession for him as I can see that he was a kind gentle man who was more of an artist than a labourer.

    I know this is about my great grandfather, but I can’t speak about one without mentioning my grandfather, also Albert George.

    My mother once told me that my grandfather’s overwhelming memory of his mother was of sitting at the piano as she played. He said she was a Lady. All of a sudden I wanted to see the house he grew up in, which was just 15 minutes from the where I’d grown up. I knew it was a small terraced workers cottage that today sells to city types.

    I drove from the Cotswolds, parked at the top of the road and walked to the cottage. There was a For Sale sign on the stone wall and on impulse I called the Estate Agent and set up a viewing for 10 minutes time. I stood outside until he arrived, a good looking guy in a flash motor.

    As I stepped through the doorway the air changed. It had been cold and wet outside, but inside it was sunny and the dust was floating on the rays from the sun in the hallway in front of me. There was a smell of baking. Two small boys aged about 10 and eight ran down the stairs and right past me.

    Just as I was about to turn to leave, a beautiful petite women in a long skirt and blouse walked past me laughing as she mock scolded the boys and told them not to run as they might knock their father over as he came through the door. I turned, and there standing in the doorway, was my great grandfather. He was a young man. The woman ran to him and they embraced. Time froze as their bodies touched and I could see that he was breathing in her scent, the smell of her skin, her auburn hair and her freshly laundered clothes. This was a man who had been in France at the Front. A man who hadn’t slept in a clean bed for months, perhaps years, who had lived with the stench of death and fear.

    Here was my great grandfather, Albert George, home, and safe, in the embrace of his beautiful wife Kate.

    Their embrace was broken as two young bundles of mischief launched themselves at their father. My grandfather Albert and his brother Les, two carefree young boys. Men I’d only ever seen as old and worn down by life, now happy, carefree and laughing. I’d never heard my grandfather laugh.

    I followed them into a small living room where there was a piano, a dining table and chairs and two comfortable chairs. Kate led Albert to one of the chairs and he sat down, but not as I have ever seen anyone sit down. He melted into the chair. The bones in his body seemed to dissolve as he fed himself into the comfort of the chair and the clean stillness of the room.

    I’d stepped back 100 years to witness a family that would be gone within a year. My great Grandfather was killed in 1915 and less than a year later Kate was dead. My grandfather and Les went to live with a relative and their lives changed forever. My heart was breaking as I watched this happy family in front of me. And they were happy. They touched – I didn’t think people did then. Albert couldn’t take his eyes off Kate and the boys. He hugged them, again in an age when I didn’t think people hugged. He held them close as though he was trying to suck their very essence into him. To carry it back with him to France where he could think of them and remember the peace, something to remove his mind from the reality of mud, and filth, the constant fear and the smell and sound of death all around.

    Kate bought him a cup of tea and a small plate of food, her hand rested gently on his, before she sat at the piano. Les, the younger brother, climbed onto his father’s knee and sat there as my grandfather sat on the floor by the piano and looked at his mother. She played a classical piece that I recognised. Then she played two songs that the boys sang along to. I looked at Albert and tears were running down his face. Kate was looking at my grandfather and Les was sitting on his father’s knee looking ahead and singing to the skies as Albert sat quite still as his tears fell silently.

    My heart broke. It hurt as it never had. Here was a beautiful family but this was the last time they would ever see one another as Albert was killed in France.

    The song was coming to an end and Albert wiped the tears away as Kate turned around.

    “I can’t believe you’re here at last. The boys and I have so much planned for the four of us. Tonight we’ll have a lovely dinner and then tomorrow we’ll walk to Crystal Palace to see the dinosaurs. There’s a concert in the Parish Hall that we could go to. Otherwise we can have our own concert here, just the four of us.”

    My grandfather said: “Les and I have learnt two new songs for you. We’ve been practising for weeks now.”

    “I’d prefer if we have our very own concert. Just us four. Just like we always do.” Said my great grandfather.

    Kate walked over and took Albert’s hand. I watched them look at one another and I understood that time does stand still. I prayed to God to let me do something. Please God don’t take this man’s life. Please spare him to grow old with Kate and watch his sons grow up. I walked towards Kate to touch her. As I placed my hand on her arm everything disappeared and I was once again stepping through the doorway.

    I walked into the living room and saw a Bang & Olufson hi-fi and large flat screen TV on the wall above the place where the piano had once stood. Where were they? Where were my beautiful family?

    Darren, the good looking estate agent, was beside me. I couldn’t hear what he said. I turned to him “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.” “No ghosts. Is the kitchen through here? The garden’s south facing isn’t it?” I asked questions in a hurry to mask my heartbreak. “Is it ok if I take a look upstairs?”

    Ten minutes later I’d left the house and Darren had driven off. I sat in my car desperate to cry, big sobs that come from somewhere deep in your stomach and rock you to your very core, sobs of the heartbroken. I’d have to wait. I drove to a florist and bought some freesias. I’d seen freesias in the living room and Kate had bent to smell them. They’ve always been my favourite flower. I went to the Memorial and put them in front of my great grandfather’s name. I said a prayer – rest in peace Albert, Kate, Albert and Les. I love you all and may you all be together now. Laughing and singing, together again.

    ______________________________________________

    Once again we would like to thank David Nobbs for judging this year’s short story competition. We are grateful to this prolific genius who has kept us entertained for many years as he spends his time writing about people who never existed and create things for them to do that never happened, and that he has the joy of their company all day!

    In this picture: David Nobbs

    In this picture: David Nobbs

    David’s career as a comedy writer began in 1963 when he was a contributor to the iconic live Saturday evening satire show, That Was The Week That Was. You will of course all know him for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and perhaps you watched the recent rerun of A Bit of a Do on the Drama channel.

    We will bring you a review of David’s latest novel The Second Life of Sally Mottram. It is now available in paperback at £8.99. Published by Harper Collins it is available in all bookshops and online. It’s recommended reading so get down to your local bookshop and buy a copy.

    Sheffield Photography week. By Keith Harness

    At the end of July the Sheffield centre was fully booked with people coming from all over to take part in photography week. We caught up with blind veteran Keith Harness to find out how the week went and to see some of the pictures taken!

     

    “A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?”
    Ernst Haas.

     

    The Sheffield summer photography week took place from the 28th July to the 1st August and saw blind veterans of varying photographic levels from beginner to professional come together – some for the first time – each expressing and sharing their passion in photography.

     

    Everyone arrived on Monday, enthusiastic and keen to begin the week’s activities. Following lunch we started the week with a group discussion, led by Kate Taylor a Rehabilitation Officer for the Visually Impaired (ROVI) who talked to the group about a number of visual aids currently available that members could use when taking part in their photography activities.

     

    Throughout the week the group were given a range of opportunities to improve their photography including an IT based discussion led by David Tatlowan IT instructor at the Sheffield centre. He taught various methods of transferring images between a camera and computer, labelling and storing these files, different methods of sharing image files and how to upload onto social media sites. Many attendee’s found this really useful and chose to have a one to one session afterwards with David to look into each of these areas in more detail and assess help they may need in the future.

    Computer training

     

    The first field trip of the week to Sheffield city centre. We explored the Winter gardens with its array of tropical plants, small galleries, with an abundance of sculptures and paintings on display, cafes and shops. These offered a wide range of images the group could capture. We also discovered the Peace Gardens with its small summer fair to the bus/ train stations, taking in along the route a number of architecturally interesting buildings on the way including the city hall, with its clock tower and vast open staircase. Offering the group not only the opportunity to capture images of Sheffield’s architecture but also the chance to take part in street photography capturing images of people relaxing in cafes, or going about their everyday lives.

     

    SBotanical Gardens

     

    For the next photo op, we went onto the train station capturing images of the wall of steel – a tribute to Sheffield’s steel industry of past with the metal representing the steel and the water following over the surface the cooling systems. Offering the group the chance to capture different effects, with water moving over the sculptures surface and the many reflections found within its surface of the neighbouring buildings and passers-by.

     

    The group, back at the Centre, took on posing for portraiture and the various ways you can ask a person to stand/sit when capturing their portrait, the various lighting techniques, tethered shooting, using a camera’s built in self-timer. Then we began capturing images of each other using a studio set up indoors. We also had a brilliant model for the group and everyone produced some great images.

     

    We had a brief set by the Sheffield Centre Manager, Terry called “Life in the Sheffield centre”, and the group shot both the architectural details, staff going about their everyday duties and members socializing in the evening.

     

    By Thursday morning everyone showed huge improvements and a high level of development so we explored a new subject – capturing close up images of varying floral displays and a number of still life items against different back grounds. All before setting out on the second field trip of the week to the Botanical Gardens with its vibrant flower beds, Victorian greenhouse and vast open grassed areas the group were able to on to capture images not only of the many tropical plants but also the vast trees which line the various walkways throughout the park.

     

    floral

     

    The highlight of the week had to be the display of wild birds, by ‘Hawks of Steele’ which included a number of different owls and hawks. It started with each bird being introduced to the group and then we were able to hold the different birds of prey whilst having the photo taken, before the display turned to the birds of prey flying away and back to the glove. During which those members were able to capture a wide range of images of with the birds sat on their perch, on the glove and in flight. Each presenting a different challenge to the group!

     

    Birds of Pray

     

    Friday saw the week draw to a close, but started with members viewing each other’s images or having an audio description, discussing these and choosing their favourite images from the week.

     

    All of the participants of the week were keen to continue at home what they’d learnt throughout the week. It was also a fantastic for the veterans to meet new friends and many who attended are going to keep in contact to keep learning and sharing tips from each other.

     

    Our thanks go to Esther Freeman (Member Activities Manager) for organising this event, to all of the staff members and volunteers who helped the group throughout the week.

     

    If you would like to find out about other events happening at our centres, please visit the events calendar on our website.

    Getting Crafty! Wood Week at our Llandudno centre

    Our centre in Llandudno recently dedicated a whole week to teaching visually impaired ex-Service men and women the craft of woodwork!  We were taking part in the Gwanwyn festival, which takes place in Wales each year and celebrates creativity in older age.

    The Gwanwyn festival is run by Age Cymru and is supported by the Welsh Government and the Arts Council of Wales. It is the festivals 8th year and throughout the month, 9,000 people will attend over 400 events.

    We took the festival as a wonderful opportunity to get everybody together and share interest in wood and craftsmanship. Throughout the week veterans had a chance to work with a love spoon craftsman called Llew Tudur, a Chainsaw Carver/Sculptor called Ian Murray from the North Wales Carvers Association and with the Waterfield family at the Woodskills Centre.

    wood week 1

    Pictured above: Ian Murray, Chainsaw Carver/Sculptor.  He made an owl from a trunk found in the grounds.

    Everyone who took part had a fantastic time, enjoying one another’s company, meeting local craftsmen and women and having a go at making all sorts from their own Love Spoons, a small wooden whale, wooden boxes and rocking horses. They enjoyed getting stuck in carving, sanding, cutting and finishing.  They enjoyed the process and the results were superb.

    Blind veteran Bill Mooney said about his time at Wood Week:

    “This week we made new friendships and cemented old ones. I am going home with more knowledge than I came with, because you can always meet someone you can learn from. The week brought out the creative side of everybody; it built confidence and independence and everyone was keen to finish their projects.

    My favourite bit was spending time with the chainsaw carver Ian Murray. He was a friendly down to earth man and explained every bit and let us feel the work as he made it. However, all of the demonstrators were first class and unique. Everybody contributed to the atmosphere, it did not matter how experienced they were. There was something for everyone and the right amount of varied activities. I’m pleased I was part of it.”

    wood week 2

    Pictured above Blind veteran Jo Elsender, he had this to say said about the Wood Week:

    “This week has inspired me so much; my head is still spinning with all the ideas of what I can do. I was apprehensive at first because I didn’t think I could do it. When we met the love spoon man Llew, I was terrified in case I could not do it, but with a little help I learnt quickly. I enjoyed the whole week; every day was a new challenge. The relaxed, supportive atmosphere meant that we could enjoy one another’s company and take an interest in what the rest of the team was doing.”

    If you would like to find out more about what we do to support visually impaired ex-Service men and women click here.

    Former member of the Women’s Royal Army Corps Paints pictures for Blind Veterans UK’s Poppy Wing

    Veronica Simpson, a blind veteran and former member of the Woman’s Royal Army Corps, has been asked by our Llandudno centre if she would like to paint a series of pictures to be exhibited. The centre asked is she could paint the pictures so that they could be used as markers to support the centres veterans and help them to find the Poppy Wing.

    Former member of the Women's Royal Army Corps Paints pictures for Blind Veterans UK’s Poppy Wing.

    Nadia Wazera, an arts and crafts instructor at our Llandudno centre described Veronica as “an inspirational lady with lots of great ideas, learning to paint has offered her an opportunity to make her ideas come alive.

    “Her confidence has had a real boost from knowing she can produce work to a superb finish.

    Former member of the Women's Royal Army Corps Paints pictures for Blind Veterans UK’s Poppy Wing.

    Each of Blind Veterans UK’s centres runs arts and crafts workshops to give veterans an outlet for their creativity. Whether it’s a skill someone thinks they may have lost or something they’ve never tried before, we help our members develop their creativity.

     Former member of the Women's Royal Army Corps Paints pictures for Blind Veterans UK’s Poppy Wing.

    After her week at the Llandudno centre and arts and crafts classes, Veronica said “I was honoured to be asked to paint pictures for the Poppy Wing. Considering I have never painted before (only a lounge), I was thrilled with how they have turned out. I can’t wait to get home and paint some more. I’ve had a real confidence boost this week.”

    We launched the No One Alone campaign to reach out to more people like Veronica. It is estimated that there are 68,000 plus blind veterans who could be eligible for our help but are unaware of it. If you know someone who served in the Armed Forces or National Service who now suffers with sight loss (including age-related sight loss) request our free support by calling 0800 389 7979.

    93 year old blind veteran rediscovers painting after 22 years of sight loss

    After a staggering 22 years of sight loss ex-Service veteran Eric Radford, from Nottingham, has rediscovered his favourite pastime, painting, with the help of Blind Veterans UK.

    Eric, who is now 93 years old, divulged “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to paint again. I never even gave it a thought but Blind Veterans UK has helped me to give it a go.

    “Last year, before I joined Blind Veterans UK, when I was 92 I thought a couple more years and I’m done for. Now I am enjoying my art and want to carry on.”

    We can see this passion through this gallery of pictures.

    Eric Radford Dog

    Eric joined the RAF in 1941 and started out in Squadron 157 as an armourer. Later he moved to a special unit and was stationed in Canada, the Americas and the West Indies.

    Eric says “I was very lucky. The RAF showed me the world. I had never been on a boat or a plane. In those days you didn’t have anything other than possibly a bicycle. The RAF made it possible for me to see more of the world.

    “One of the most memorable things that happened during my service was when a 25 pound bomb dropped on my shoulder but it was nothing out of the ordinary, really.”

    Eric Radford at Home

    Blind Veterans UK provides support, rehabilitation, training and recreation to blind veterans, regardless of when they served or how they lost their sight.

    We have three fantastic care, rehabilitation and training centres in Brighton, Sheffield and Llandudno.

    Eric Radford - art in progress

    Eric says: “Blind Veterans UK helped me enormously; at my home a volunteer helps me with my post and groceries and at the Llandudno centre too. I’m able to do some gardening but most of all painting again.”

    Eric began to lose his vision in 1982 and was diagnosed with Age Related Macular Degeneration (ARMD). His family and friends were very supportive, helping him whenever he needed.

    How Eric discovered Blind Veterans UK

    Eric only recently joined Blind Veterans UK after a fellow blind veteran urged him to join. He says “I had heard of Blind Veterans UK, formerly St. Dunstan’s, but I thought it was for totally blind service people. I never thought of joining or that they would be able to help me. Another fellow, who had been to one of the centres, told me what Blind Veterans UK does and told me to join. I’m so glad I did. They have done so much for me. I’ve been to Llandudno centre three times now and I’m very excited to go again this May.”

    We recently launched our No One Alone campaign which aims to reach out to an estimated 68,000 blind ex-Service personnel who could be benefiting from our support. Many do not know about the charity or they do not know that they are eligible for its services.

    Eric recently featured his art on the BBC. You can see his video here.

    BBC Eric Radford

    If you know someone that could benefit from our support, visit Blind Veterans UK’s No One Alone campaign:  www.noonealone.org.uk or telephone:  0800 389 7979.

    A taste of interactive Swedish art for our blind veterans

    This week our blind veterans visited the Swedish artist Jacob Dahlgren’s new work ‘On Balance’ at the Fabrica gallery in Brighton. These interactive pieces welcome visitors to experience the art by walking through and on top of them.

    The extensive floor work has 713 polished bathroom scales in candy-pop colours, ranging from turquoise and lime to cerise and black.

    The exhibition itself was built to “acknowledge the sensual pleasure of the material world, and take delight in the moments of physical and social interaction.”

    With help of Blind Veterans UK our veterans have been able to regain their independence, following their sight loss and take delight in these new and experimental artistic experiences.  Today, we support blind veterans by providing free, lifelong practical and emotional support to those servicemen and women and their families. We support all blind veterans regardless of when they served or how they lost their sight, reaching far beyond those blinded in conflict.

    If you would like to visit the exhibition, it is on until May 26th. It is part of the Brighton Festival 2014.

    You can view more of our arts and crafts activity on our blog.

    Interactive Gallery