Exploring a WWI family mystery

On a gorgeous day this week, I returned to the imposing Thiepval memorial which commemorates the 73,000 British and South African soldiers killed in the Somme during World War I who have no known grave. I wanted to pay my respects to William Penketh, and the other young people who died in the carnage of the Somme battlefield, to mark the centenary of the Armistice in my own way. It’s always poignant to find the inscription on the memorial to Private William Penketh, who joined the “Liverpool Pals” to serve with the King’s Liverpool Regiment at a time of patriotic fervour, and who was killed at the age of 18 on July 30th 1916.

   It’s terribly moving to visit the small, well-tended cemeteries of the Somme. My favourite is Lonsdale cemetery, from where you can see the Thiepval monument across a field of flowering rapeseed. The rows of white Portland stone mark the resting place of so many British soldiers killed in the carnage of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916. It’s hard to hold back tears from the cumulative effect of seeing that date replicated on the headstones of soldiers as young as 18, 19 and 20.  The British army on the Somme sustained a staggering 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 deaths, on that date.

   So what about William Penketh? Was he a great uncle? Alas no! He was from the Seaforth branch of the Penkeths, whereas my branch comes from St Helens in Merseyside, all of 14 miles away. According to his service records, he was posted to the front on November 7th 1915, but that’s all we know. My research since returning from the Somme this week has pulled up two other Penkeths, William and Ernest, who were also killed in World War I. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that they both hailed from the same Thatto Heath area of St Helens where my great grandfather Francis Edward Penketh lived with his family. But after checking with with an uncle who has looked into our family history, we drew a blank again.

On my mother’s side of the family, we have a wartime hero, whose name is inscribed on the Tower Hill memorial which commemorates the merchant seamen who lost their lives at sea. Captain William Henry Bullock went down with his ship, the SS Canadian, after it was hit by a German torpedo outside Liverpool on April 4th 1917. He made sure that everyone on board was evacuated, but then made the tragic mistake of going back to his cabin for the ship’s papers.

And yet it’s not the heroic and bemedalled Captain Bullock who’s in my thoughts on this Armistice weekend. It’s 18 year old William Penketh, the relative I never had.

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My life on the Edinburgh Fringe

This month at the Edinburgh Fringe, I subjected myself to a novel form of torture: I watched the same play 22 times.

It was my own play, Sugar Baby, a one-woman show performed by the mesmerising young actress Holly-Rose Clegg. After months of preparation with Holly and director Katie Haigh Mayet in Paris, I brought the show to the vault of a church in central Edinburgh, converted to a 40-seat studio theatre at the Paradise Green venue.

Looking back on our first experience on the Fringe, which ended today, it would be an understatement to say it’s been a rollercoaster of emotion. Watching the hugely talented Holly perform the first few shows in front of an audience, I was gripped by an irrational terror which was akin to a fear of flying. I was aware of my total lack of control with her in the role of pilot – if she decided to crash land the plane, there was nothing I could do about it.

We’ve had the full Fringe experience, from an audience of two for our world premiere (and both of them were my friends), to 34 at the end of the first week. Over the first three weeks before the box office began to trail off in the final week, the theatre was half full on average. That’s way better than we’d been led to expect. I heard it said that the average Fringe audience is 6. But the venue had told us, as newcomers to the world’s biggest arts festival, to budget on a third full.

I knew before we arrived in Edinburgh that I was going to lose money – everybody does unless you’re here with one of the shows that arrive already garlanded with stars. The expenses included accommodation for the three of us, in a grim Edinburgh suburb that makes Trainspotting look glamorous, our travel, and paying the venue for the month. Even with a crowdfunding campaign behind us I was looking at a financial black hole. I realised I was not alone when casual conversations with other participants quickly moved to the question: how much have you lost?

It comes down to how you get noticed amongst the 3,300 plays vying for punters’ attention – even our own venue was running a total 65 plays. I heeded advice and hired a PR agent who secured us press attention and (positive) reviews in a couple of major outlets. But the first thing you discover on arrival in Edinburgh is that “flyer” is a verb and that word of mouth is king. For me, our daily flyering – often in the pouring rain – was one of the most daunting, but also the most exhilarating, of our Fringe experiences.

For every person who brushed you aside, or explained that they were already completely booked up, others would engage. The Royal Mile was a mob scene of flyerers and tourists. Every day I would join the crowds flyering at the Half Price Hut, where sometimes there were more Fringe participants than potential spectators. Then there were the free tickets handed out near our venue as the witching hour of our performance grew nearer. My phone told me I was clocking up an average 15,000 steps per day.

So why did I do it? I felt that the subject of my play, the role of the food companies in the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes, had plenty comic mileage and deserved a wider debate. That leads of course to the next question, would I do it again? I’ve said to friends who made the journey to support us in our adventure, Never again. The most distinctive memory for me is the clatter of hundreds of empty bottles being collected around the clock by the Edinburgh binmen, invariably outside our theatre when Holly reached the most poignant part of the play. But the Fringe is like a drug – as I pack my trainers and anorak I realise that you can leave Edinburgh, but Edinburgh doesn’t leave you.

What’s the date of the next Brighton Fringe?