I’d never heard of the Dazzle Ships, until one appeared in Leith Docks. I went to see it often and decided it would make an interesting subject for a play. It’s part of my writing process. I have to visit objects and places to feel truly connected. Through my research I discovered that the famous marine and railway poster artist, Norman Wilkinson, had come up with the idea of painting bright designs on the sides of ships to confuse German submarines. All very interesting and well documented, but what I needed was a local connection. And I found one.
Evelyn Harriet Mackenzie was one of the team of women artists who worked as part of his Dazzle design team. And the local connection? She lived in North Berwick and had studied art in Edinburgh. Well, it was a start. I commenced work on the play. Its working title was A Brush With Dazzle Paint. My first audience was the group of playwrights who attend Liz Hare’s excellent WEA Playwrights’ Workshop and after reading it aloud, everyone felt I was onto something. As I continued to develop the play, I realised I wanted the local girl Eva to become more and more central to the story, but I knew very little about her. I decided to take a big leap and contact her family. I felt very nervous about this and didn’t even expect a reply. What happened next was incredible!
The family told me that Eva had been an ambulance driver in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry during World War 1 before becoming part of the Dazzle team. “Wow,” I thought, “I didn’t know women had done that!” Then it got even better. Eva’s grand-daughter, Sarah Phillips, told me she had loads of letters written by Eva during World War 1 and that she would send copies of them to me. A large parcel arrived and when I opened it, there were the letters and Eva’s actual First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Cap, with her name label stitched inside.
As I said earlier, as a writer I have to make connections with objects and locations. Having this cap in front of me as I wrote was exactly what I needed. This together with the letters made Eva very real to me. I’ve also been to the various local addresses mentioned in her letters. This all may seem strange to a non-writer, but for me, I find it gives the writing that little bit extra.
I hope the audience will enjoy this play as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you any more factual details. But I will tell you this: it has a fairytale ending, and amazingly enough, it’s a true ending. Sometimes a young girl’s dreams really do come true!
Dazzle is part of Citadel Arts Group’s Leith Festival double bill, Stories of the Sea, along with Whit Aboot The Wimmen? by Jim Brown.
Showing @ Leith Dockers’ Club on Tue 13 Jun (7:30pm), Wed 14 Jun (2:30pm) & Thu 15 Jun (7:30pm)
Tickets available via [email protected] or 01875 340717