As we approach the middle of week 12 since lockdown started for Covid-19, I find I’m still checking the data being offered up every day of the numbers who are newly counted as having a positive Covid test, those in ITU and the many still losing their lives every day. For the first few weeks of lockdown, I felt shocked and numbed by what was happening, as were so many others around the world. Focusing on anything proved difficult, with that helplessness that the most important and helpful contribution I could make to the effort was to stay at home. I had decided earlier in the year that I should finish the final piece from Significant Figures: remembrance through making for their bi-annual exhibition (see below). The last remaining piece being Roll of Service. The Roll of Service for King Edward’s School holds over fourteen hundred names. Of those who took part in active service, approximately one fifth lost their lives, either in action, or as a result of their service. Stitched on a very long length of white tape, (representing the white tape used as a means for marking out and directing, for finding your way to safety on the battlefield), this piece of stitching is a register. In the past, I have been a primary teacher, taking a register twice a day for my class. An upward red stroke marks each individual as present in the morning. A downward red stroke for present in the afternoon. A black circle marks an absence. The Roll of Service register marks are similar. All are present in the morning, for those that did not survive, there is a black ring, a mark of absence. Every ten individuals are marked with a ‘dog tag’. At the beginning of lockdown I had been stitching Roll of Service on and off for several years, picking up the stitching and doing some before having to set it aside for another time. It was something that I needed to finish, and I now had a deadline of an exhibition (which would have been October 2020). It took me a couple of weeks to pick up my needle again. There was such a parallel between the daily briefings full of figures and the telegrams and newspaper reports of a century ago. I thought a lot about my Grandmother, Elsie, the losses she must have known of, or even witnessed as a student at Birmingham University, offering her help in the military hospital housed in The Great Hall. I never thought to ask her about the Spanish Flu of 1918.
As the days of lockdown stretched before us, the Roll of Service became a routine, a time for mindfulness and reflection. The stitching was a period of quiet. I admit it was usually accompanied by the daily briefings in the background, seeking signs that the UK had ‘reached the peak’. Most days I averaged about an hour to an hour and a half of stitching, or two pages from the ‘blue book’ as I have heard it affectionately called by those who told me of it’s existence – the book containing all the names and details of those listed in The Roll of Service. Weeks passed and I reached 1000, then stitched towards 1400 and the final few. Having finished it I unrolled the full length, started in 2016. I had not seen it since then. What surprised me was how my stitching had changed over time, with the register marks becoming more spaced out and almost relaxed. There wasn’t a point where it had changed, just evolved over time. With a past history of being a perfectionist, this begs the question of how I feel about this? Well I’ve started to be more accepting of my work having it’s own voice. The slightly different black circles are not all the same and there is a variation in the stitching. I suppose it’s like handwriting, it has it’s own character. Now it is finished and I miss it. It became my comforter at a difficult time, we shared a sense of loss. So for this reason I have stitched a small nod to the losses of my generation, as well as my Grandmother’s. Just a small record of the days I shared with the white tape.