Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review: 'Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways' at the London Canal Museum, 26th April 2017

It's 1943. You're a young woman eager to assist the war effort but bored of desk-based drudgery. You spot an advertisement from the Department for War Transport asking for women "of robust constitution" to work on the canals, hauling tonnes of cargo - steel, food, Spitfire parts, coal, munitions- around the country. Sounds like an adventure, right?

Judging by the fondness with which the women who answered the call recall the experience, it was. But it was also tremendously hard (and often filthy) work: a world of dirty water, poor sanitation, oil, soot and gross green canal slime. On top of that, they had to deal with territorial boat people who'd spent their lives on the canals and were deeply suspicious of these untrained young women arriving on their patch. Their badges had IW (Inland Waterways) emblazoned on them, initials that have given rise to another name - Idle Women.

But judging by the stories that we hear at the London Canal Museum, they were anything but idle. They come courtesy of a double-bill performance by Heather Wastie and Kate Saffin, under the auspices of Alarum Theatre. Both women are steeped in waterway life; Heather having spent many years with her family aboard an ex-working boat and subsequently campaigning to save canals from extinction; Kate having lived on a narrowboat and been telling stories about the waterways for 18 years. A chance meeting on Twitter made them realise that their two short pieces about the Idle Women would make an excellent double-bill. 

Which leads us neatly to the London Canal Museum. Despite having spent an awful lot of time on the canal tow path (I've run from Limehouse to Rickmansworth via Bull Bridge and up the Lea Valley) I've only been on a narrowboat once and know very little about what life on the water entails. This made the evening a rapid education in waterway terminology. Evocative terms are bandied about - stemmed up, windlass, snubber, breast-up, and butty - with a glossary on the back of the programme a huge help.

But, fortunately, not knowing much about canals puts me in precisely the same position as the women who signed up to the war effort. Kate Saffin's Isobel's War kicks off the night, an evocative overview of one woman's experiences on the water. Told through the framing device of a daughter discovering her mother's wartime diary, it's a recollection crammed with historical detail and interesting personalities. The backbone is Isobel's growing confidence in her abilities, which quickly expands from the individual out to the rest of the wartime women workers.

Heather Wastie's piece, Idle Women and Judies is more abstract, a collection of poems fused together from phrases from archive recordings, interviews, books, and news media. These pieces vividly, bring to life the sounds, smells, and texture of waterway life. We sense a collective can-do personality from women, who're eager to prove their competence and enjoying proving their mettle in a masculine industry. There's also a charming singalong at the end, with a seriously catchy chorus.

Both women are exceptional storytellers, their performances brimming over with personality and linguistic virtuosity. But the performance is the mortar that's holding the bricks of an extremely interesting history lesson together. Walking into the Canal Museum I was completely clueless about the Idle Women. Two hours later I felt as if I'd absorbed a hell of a lot of information, painting a picture of the domestic wartime victory achieved on the backs of unglamorous hard work and refusal to conform to traditional gender roles.

Kate and Heather are currently touring the waterways of England on their narrowboat Tench (details of their upcoming stops here). It's well worth stopping by, and if you're particularly interested in the domestic front of World War II or women's history it's a no-brainer.

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