Torchlit reading at the Foundling Museum

As part of the 26 Pairs of Eyes project, I’ll be reading tonight at the Foundling Museum in London by torchlight.

It’s part of the Bloomsbury Festival, so entry to the museum and reading is free.

It’ll be extremely atmospheric and probably quite a moving evening, culminating in Jacob Sam-La Rose and Toni Stuart’s stunning performance piece.

26 Pairs of Eyes paired writers with an object from the museum to write about and bring to life, helping visitors see it and the museum afresh. Writers include Andrew Motion.

My object was the fantastic staircase

brings some of the stories of The Foundling Museum’s collection to life. With so many intriguing objects in the museum, some things can be overlooked, so our challenge was to give people reason to take another look – to give them a way in.

26 writers were each paired with an object and asked to write a ‘sestude’ – a poem exactly 62 words long in response to that object.

Mine was a painting from the early 19th century, Christ Presenting A Little Child, by Benjamin West. You can read my sestude, Watcher in the Wings on the 26 Pairs of Eyes website, along with the accompanying project blog.

You can find all 26 sestudes on display next to their objects at The Foundling Museum from 4 June – 25 October 2015.

26 Pairs of Eyes in Performance

I joined several of the other writers at The Foundling Museum on 4 July 2015 for a special performance of all the pieces.

A special torch-lit performance will take place in the Museum on Sunday 25 October 2015 as part of the Bloomsbury Festival.

Spirit of the Staircase

Foundling Hospital Staircase from the Boys’ Wing of the Foundling Hospital © The Foundling Museum

The story behind the story

It was wonderful to travel down to the Foundling Museum in early February to meet my object. On the train I read ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald: a searing account of grief, shock, the loss of a parent and a childhood landscape. My journey wound through misty, frosty Breckland forests opening out to suburban centres. It felt fitting to arrive at an historical building focussing on difficult familial circumstances.

The Foundling Museum struck me as outwardly calm, grand, institutional, and reassuring in its solidity. Its values were evident in the space and structure of the place. But the tiny details of tokens left by the mothers to identify their children looked fragile, haunted, desperate. Crimpled scraps of clothing, frayed and faded ribbons, bottle tops and ceramic buttons.

Women were central to this place in that they gave their children up to it, in a difficult balance of loss, gift and abandonment. But set up by men, it was their impressive portraits that dominated the walls. I wanted to connect to the women, and the children. I came to think of it as the museum of absent mothers.

When I discovered I was paired with the staircase I was delighted but a bit wary. Delighted because it’s such a beautiful, tough object. Wary because staircases are horribly metaphorical. They connect and separate; evoke hidden structures in society; are solid and authoritarian, but somewhere children play and hide, perhaps listening to the closed world of adult discussion below. I didn’t want my writing to hover above the artefact, but bring it to life.

I realised that like most people I’d traipsed up and down looking at the portraits ornamenting the stairwell; I’d not really taken any notice of the actual stairs. I ran my hand along the worn, ridged surface, as the children must have done. I took a pencil rubbing of the grain to connect with its warm rivulets of oak.

A thought that kept coming back was the way wood vibrates with sound. I recalled an article suggesting walls structurally remember sounds that reverberate through them. This staircase would have captured so many years of yells, calls, whispers, as well as the daily pounding of feet, soft treads, scuttles and scuffles.

I asked the museum for more details – where did the oak originate from, who carved it, who installed it, who moved it to its new place? Surprisingly little was known. So the staircase was in its own way a foundling – parentless, raised in the institution, standing on its own two feet. I wanted to give it a voice and personal history. Something of a child’s resilience entered the staircase.

I mulled on it for a while, and the first stanza formed while driving. I played with the middle stanzas, aiming to bring out the daily detail of the staircase and its imagined life. The title came quickly, and for me plays two roles. It signals the staircase has its own voice. And it’s an anglicised version of the French saying ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’: when you remember too late something you should have said.

The last line was the last to come, after a couple of weeks’ tinkering. When it landed, it seemed to draw all the elements together, while still allowing room for further thoughts to take flight at the end of the piece.

Heidi Williamson

Spirit of the staircase

My father was a carpenter, my mother an oak who had to break to leave me here.

Raised for service, I warmed to the children’s prints against my grain.

They hid behind my balustrades, rode my banister like a steed, scuffed this lustre in my tread.

Can you hear them in my highest branches?

Calling out everything our mothers might have said.