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Water Flows, Petals Scatter, Memories Revive

22 July 2017

Memories Flow Through Me Like a Boat Flows Down the River

Dance Celebration of the History of the Belgian Refugees of the First World War

Cambridge Gardens, East Twickenham, 22nd July

Review by Suzanne Frost

“Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it!”  Dear Mark Twain, how we wish we could …

But here we are, huddled together under a small tent with a very lovely cupcake man saving us from the lashing rain.  Business has been bad for him on this most miserable day for an English Summer Fair but, as the heavens show no sign of clearing any time soon, we all start feeling guilty for using his tent and one by one give in to the cupcake temptation.  (A big shout out to Ruby and Lola’s Cakery for sweetening the wait!)  Of course we all hoped the poor dancers wouldn’t have to perform on a wet ground, but when it is still chucking it down half an hour later, the performers admirably decide to brave the weather and go on with the show since we all came here to see it.  Memories flow through me a like a boat flows down the river is a scene-specific dance performance created by choreographer Jennifer Irons with a group that included dancers from Rambert School of Ballet and the University of Roehampton.

Commissioned to celebrate the history of 6,000 Belgian refugees of World War I, who created a vibrant community in Twickenham known as la village Belge sur la Tamise (the Belgian village on the Thames), where they built a munition factory, the Pelabon Works, that used to be on the very grounds we are now standing on in our cupcake tent.  Forced to flee their own country after the Germans invaded in 1914, the fall of the Belgian resistance is what actually drew Britain into the Great War, as the treaty of London committed Britain to guarantee Belgium’s independence.  The East Twickenham Centennial Group is championing the local history of the Belgian refugees with a new public memorial in Warren Gardens and this dance performance that forms part of the 2017 East Twickenham Summer Fair.

Twickenham Tweets @ Twickerati_The 1WW Twickenham & Richmond Belgian Refugee Memorial 1

Memorial:  Photography by Twickenham Tweets

With a bit of goodwill from the weather gods, the pouring rain decreases to a mild drizzle and, as the dancers start handing out sunflowers and apples in their period costume to some jolly funfair music, you could almost imagine it was a warm summer day.  All refugee stories – and this is something we would all do well to remember – start with a goodbye: to home, to habits, friends, family, an entire livelihood left behind.  A family, Belgian by their black red and yellow armlets, holds on tight, almost knotting themselves together, wrapping their arms around each other and waving, waving endless goodbyes.  We then meet an English family setting up for a picnic on the grass.  The Belgian newcomers imitate their customs, setting up their own picnic basket and blanket under the watchful and wary eyes of the English.  But once the initial hostility is overcome, common ground is found in the shared experience of being a family, being human.  A kind of mutual respect seems to form between the two men and soon we see both families working hard side by side in the factory, effortlessly translated into dance by repetitive robotic hand movements standing in one line.  They are interrupted by the sound of a deep siren – which I interpreted as an airstrike.  The Belgian family then makes its way towards the water front, followed by the English family scattering flower petals on their path.  An air of grief and goodbyes hangs over the procession slowly walking along the quay.  The Belgians put on life jackets and get into a small wooden boat that rows them down the river and out of sight.  “They went home without leaving a trace”, it says on a small leaflet I was given early on, together with an apple and a flower.  The boat leaves no trace on the water but in this dance performance, the Belgian family left a trace in the hearts of the people staying behind.

Walking back home I am thinking about the current refugee crisis and our collective fear at how these people might impact on our communities.  It is important to be reminded that all Europeans were refugees at some point in their history and had to rely on the goodwill and humanity of their new country.  Also, no refugees are coming because they enjoy our food and the English weather.  They come because they have no alternative.  The story of the Belgian refugees of Twickenham shows that the mixing of cultures can vibrantly, valuably influence a community and our common humanity can overcome boundaries.  Statistics show that almost 70% of refugees return home once they get the chance.  Do we want them to leave without a trace?  Or will we be the ones waving goodbyes with a heavy heart.

Suzanne Frost

July 2017

Editor’s Note:  The title of the dance piece is taken from the inscription on the memorial to the Belgian refugees, which was composed by the then nine years old Issy Holton, whose wording, “Memories flow through me like a boat flows down the river”, was chosen from ideas submitted by pupils of Orleans Primary School, the school where the majority of the Belgian children went a century and more ago.  See:  Friendship and Cooperation in Europe: Belgian Village on the Thames

 

 

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