Grant Watson<So, I’m building up this archive of conversations about biography, textiles, and politics, some of which will be presented publicly, and some of which might not be. It’s a bit unusual for me to interview a family member, but I thought it’d be interesting to do it anyway, because you recently mentioned that you have been writing about textiles.
Clare Watson<Okay, yes. So, you want me to start with talking about the textiles and my writing?
GW< Yes, unless you have something else you would like to begin with.
CW< Not necessarily, I’m open! I was recently doing a free writing exercise where you just write and don’t correct yourself—you think of something that comes to mind immediately and start writing and just see what happens. And for that I use various prompts. In this case, I was writing about one person from my childhood, a women called Ilse Ketzl who was a Eurythmist in the Steiner School. I remembered that she had given me this dress and jacket, which I still have, amazingly! So, I started describing it and I then I thought that’s interesting, maybe I’ll write about the textiles in my life and go into as much detail as I can remember. Some are clothes, but not all.
The interesting thing about this textile that Ilse gave me is that she said her father had owned a parachute factory in Germany. So, it was parachute silk from the factory that she had a dress made from. It was dyed a pale green and it had been embroidered with tiny little flowers all over. The silk was then made into a dress and a little jacket that went with it. Even at that time, I found it fascinating, but I wasn’t able to talk to her very much about it. You know. . . her father and the silk from the parachute factory. . . the whole idea that she had had a dress specially made from it. Also, this would have been taking place just before or around the time the National Socialists came into power, because she had been in Germany as a young woman. I think she was of voting age before emigrating, because I remember that she told us she had asked a man who she thought highly of who to vote for. And he said: “Anybody except for Hitler!”
She had another dress. There was the green one and then there was a cream silk one with pink embroidered flowers; I also still have that one somewhere. So, when I looked very carefully at the dress and I started describing it and writing it down, I noticed that the embroidery was done with a machine stitch. Was that a twenties or thirties machine embroidery? And I got really intrigued by the technology. I did some research online and found somebody called Helena Ilse Ketzl, who was recorded as a “foreign alien” during the war, and I remembered that some teachers from our school, the older ones, had been interned on the Isle of Man. The record had her birth date and where she was born, which was a place in Germany called Plauen, not far from the Czech border. And I found out that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century Plauen was a center of machine embroidery in Germany. They made a specific type of embroidery called “chemical lace,” but that is not what this is. And I found out that there was a silk mill in a town called Celle, in north-western Germany, and then in the 1930s this mill opened subsidiaries in four different places, and one of them was in Plauen. And later their operations shifted to wartime production and their only product was parachute silk, so it seems very likely that that person I found on the internet was Ilse from Plauen.
GW< And did you wear the dress and jacket?
CW< Yes, I did. Not the cream one, though. That was too small for me, even at sixteen. Ilse was really tiny. So I took that one apart and I used it to wrap my violin in it.
GW< And why was she giving you these clothes?
CW< I did cleaning for her.
GW< How old were you?
CW< I don’t know, sixteen or seventeen. And I was also cleaning for two other teachers from the school, Margaret Meyerkort and Diana Harris, and Margaret gave me a beautiful blanket. I don’t know why. She must have kept it all that time since the early thirties. It must have meant something to her, but then she just didn’t want it anymore and maybe she saw that I liked fabrics, who knows?
GW< What was your relationship with those elderly German, Anthroposophical women? Thinking back on it, our exposure to Waldorf education and the community of Anthroposophists around it—with its good and its problematic sides—was fairly unusual.
CW< Well, I didn’t find any of them that easy to have conversations with or to be in their presence.
Ilse was very specific about how she wanted things done. So, I always felt anxious about getting it right when I was cleaning her house. And then with Margaret, well, she was very dramatic and opinionated, and things also had to be a certain way. But I think she quite liked me, and I did get a blanket from her that I loved so much, and I wrote a piece about it. I haven’t got it anymore because it went to holes, and I had to chuck it out. But just the other day, I was going through my photos, and I saw a picture of it and I remembered it pretty damn well. It was a beautiful, fine red wool, quite thin, and it had tiny bits of green and white embroidery all over it, with a white and red border all the way round and red fringing. It might have been Indian.
In terms of our education, we went to Wynstones School in Gloucestershire, one of the first Waldorf schools in the UK, I believe. And there was this group of German emigres who were connected to it. The approach had a spiritual background and a very particular way of introducing subjects to children at very specific ages related to the development of the child. So, for instance, children learn to write a bit later than usual, around the age of six, and all the letters are made in color, which is interesting with my background to color. It is kind of artistic—each letter may have a meaning as well as the sound. The education was really nurturing. A lot of it was stories and you could really just express yourself and learn a broad amount of subjects. There were oppressive aspects of it too, of course. But overall I really think that for me, it was a great thing. It also gave me my first exposure to theater—we were always reading all these different texts, always doing plays. In the upper school, that was when I got my first part, my favorite part playing Rosalind in As You Like It. It opened up my world.
GW< I remember you performing that. A taste of Shakespeare.
CW< Yes, I loved Shakespeare while there.
GW< And what about climbing and running around? There was quite a lot of that, wasn’t there?
CW< Yeah, it was lovely. There was a lot of freedom in that respect. Do you remember the cedar tree? It must have been about seventy-five-feet tall and I learned to climb it when I was just seven or eight.
GW< We all climbed it! We could have died. I’m surprised no one was seriously injured doing that.
CW< I know, but in those days things were much freer! Children were allowed to do things, which is great because it’s good to be allowed to do things and kind of test yourself, don’t you think? We’re all so scared these days. You just wouldn’t let that happen.
GW< It is interesting because I used to do gardening for Margaret, and she also gave me old precious things. I still have a book of black and white photographs of India, called Indische Kulturkreis. It was published in 1925, and there is an inscription inside that reads “Margaret, Weihnachten 1944,” when presumably it was given to her as a Christmas gift. It includes images of temples, statues of gods, snake charmers, and so forth. It’s something we might have had in our bauhaus exhibition in a section on the orientalist gaze. It’s interesting going back to this older generation of German Anthroposophists from the neighborhood who we did cleaning and gardening for. Do you remember there being a class dynamic?
CW< Well, I think it was just a thing that some of the more elderly people gave teenagers the chance to earn money by having them do cleaning. That’s how I saw it. I didn’t recognize any sort of class dynamic. I mean, I was aware that Diana particularly came from somewhere else, you know, that she was quite amazing. And that she went to Oxford University at a time when there were not so many women able to do that, and that she was an intellectual.
GW< Besides the things given to you by these women all those years ago, are there other textiles that you have been writing about?
CW< I started by writing about some earrings, which are not textiles of course. I started with how I was in a car accident, and I thought I was going to die. And then I described how during the accident time slowed down, the extraordinary experience of time just almost slowing to nothing as we saw this lorry coming towards us, and then the van we were in swerving, but really, really slowly. And as it swerved, all this rubbish, this paper detritus on the dashboard moved. . . it slowly moved as time was slowing. And then out of the paper rubbish, my earrings shone out. I’d lost them; I hadn’t seen them for months. And although I was screaming and I thought I was going to die in that moment, I thought, “oh look, my earrings.” It was such an interesting sort of experience. And then from writing that piece, as a sort of metaphor, I had this idea of all these things hiding in your mind. There’s all these compartments, and if you shift things about, you might suddenly see something.
GW< At that time, you were working as an actor, right?
CW< Yes. I only worked for two theater companies, but I did several tours. I did King Lear twice in 1987. And I did The Tempest in 1991, which was my last tour and when the crash happened. Both of those plays I’d worked on for months and months and months. So, it kind of really, really gets into your bones, which is interesting, because I took out King Lear yesterday and I was going through it. I thought, “god, it’s still there.” We did two productions of King Lear, with different casts. One that went to Berlin and around Europe and then one that went to the Edinburgh Fringe, and then to Norfolk and Cambridge and Suffolk. Berlin was the beginning more or less of our tour of Lear and the preparation of my life journey in that I thought this is also the beginning of my life as an actor. Which it was. And this is how my life is going to be. By the time we got to the second production we had a clearer idea of what we wanted to work on, which was the harshness of the play.
GW< Why was that?
CW< Well, I think it’s partly being quite young. Very young. And I was not so long out of drama school, and I was really interested in Artaud and the theater of cruelty. The theater of cruelty doesn’t mean being cruel, it means holding up the truth, however you see it. And King Lear is pretty awful. Pretty dreadful things happen. There is this torture scene in King Lear when Gloucester has his eyes pulled out. And I was just trying to remember how we did it; it was quite clever what we did. I remember that Sarah was Gloucester and Richard was Lear and I was various other characters, but at this particular point, I was also part of the torture scene.
GW< What character did you play during that tour of The Tempest?
CW< I was Ariel, Miranda, and Trinculo. I mean, Ariel was kind of the character that was more me, especially when I was younger, always moving about. And then there’s Miranda, she’s an interesting character to play because she’s kind of like this pure soul, but it’s difficult to start a Miranda when you have to come on stage screaming. And Trinculo was a man so that was more of a challenge. A man and a clown but not the funniest clown. I could never quite get Trinculo. And I designed a specific costume so that I could quickly change from Miranda to Ariel in kind of one movement. I played Ariel as sort of a bird. I made a mask that had a beak, so it was suggestive of a bird. I had this skirt and I turned it around and made it into a cloak, and I’d move about, so it was kind of like wings. And the set was a rock with a trapdoor in it that I’d go in and out of. There were all of these magic tricks that we did, quite good actually. There was so much physicality, and I was the one that was doing all of that, whipping around, and then I would be somebody else and I was practically never off the stage for the whole hour we were doing the show. We did that twice a day—even three shows some days—and then we would be going in and out of the schools and doing all the props and then traveling on to somewhere else. So, tiredness and all kinds of difficulties going on, but just the traveling was difficult. And I was having a relationship that was all kind of falling to pieces. Emotionally I was in a real state. But I was also doing a show that was very physically demanding and I wasn’t totally aware of that. I was getting more and more tired, and I suppose you kind of let your boundaries become thinner and thinner.
GW< And how did the accident happen?
CW< We were performing in a school, it might’ve been in London, and we set up, and we were a bit early, and I went off down the road to buy something. I remember I was coming back to the school, and I was thinking, “oh God, I’m so tired. I don’t know if I can do it today.” But then obviously I did. You do. And that was the first time it really came into my head: “I don’t think I can do it.” Then we went on to somewhere in the North Midlands, and we didn’t have very long left to go. I remember thinking at the beginning of the week, which is when we had the car accident, “I don’t know if I can get to the end of this week.” I didn’t have to get to the end of the week, interestingly, because we had the car accident, but I didn’t know that then, of course.
On that day everything was packed, and we got into the van, and we were going off to wherever we were staying, which was probably a B&B. In the van we were talking about maybe having tea and cake, because sometimes you do this intense show and then you’re quite hungry. I felt so constrained during the tour that I had stopped using the seatbelt, although I think even then it was the law. But that day I got into the car, and I wasn’t really thinking, I took the seatbelt and just clicked it in, and I’d be dead now if I hadn’t.
We were going into a rural area because it had a fairly smallish road and I can just sort of remember hedges and probably fields and we were just chatting and Hugh was driving quite fast. And then there was this red car that either stopped or it really slowed down in front of us, and then suddenly I thought, “oh god, we’re going to go into it.” And Hugh’s reaction was very quick. Before we plowed into it, he just swerved. But as he swerved, coming right at us was a bloody dustbin lorry. It was coming straight at us and that’s the moment when we all knew we were going to die. I mean, it was just so close, the swing and the swerve. God knows what Hugh did then, he must have swerved again and I remember also being conscious of how the screaming just kind of came up, all three of us at the same time, screaming as the van sort of went round. And that’s when time really slowed down and when the paper magic happened and then the earrings. And then me going out of the fear in that moment, and I had all the time in the world to think about my experience and you know what I was thinking about were the earrings.
And then suddenly it all came back and there was all this sound. I can’t even say what the sound was. Hugh was still screaming, and I suppose it was crashing of cars and vans and people and then the van went straight into a telegraph pole, which fell on top of us. And then I can’t totally remember what happened. I got out, I know, either I got out or somebody opened the door because there were people around and they must have run for an ambulance. It was a major life event, really.
GW< The crash?
CW< Oh God. Yes. I really thought I was going to die. All three of us thought it. I mean, we knew, we didn’t think it, we knew we were going to die. So that’s quite a big thing. And then I couldn’t go on. I had decided that I was going to be an actor or an actress in those days as it was, and then this came to an end and that was just a huge turnaround and really hard, I think, painful. There were ten years of depression and anxiety after that. All because of The Tempest. It’s funny, the actual Tempest play starts with a shipwreck. Miranda sees the shipwreck and she thinks that they’ve all died, but they haven’t, and when we were having a car accident, we thought we were going to die. But we didn’t.
GW> And after writing about the accident, do you remember how you came up with the piece of writing that you were awarded a prize for?
CW> Yes, I had been remembering that world of going to jumble sales and then vintage shops. And in the story that I wrote, The Character of Color, which won the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival annual writing competition, I revisited dressing in all of those 1950s clothes and gloves, and the patterns, because a lot of the clothes that I bought in those days were from the ’50s. I was interested in clothes, but it’s not just the clothes. It’s the patterns, all those wonderful fifties fabrics. I still have bits of those fifties fabrics, which are just exquisite prints.
GW< Those ’50s clothes were still around in the secondhand shops in the 1980s.
CW< Yes, in our teens. And there was one particular dress that I had, actually maybe it was from a bit later, and it was my favorite green, grass green maybe you’d call it. It’s bright, but not hitting-your-eyes bright. And it has very fine black lines going through it, and squares of slightly off white, but you know what they did in the fifties with those prints? They would have some lines on the side flashing around it a bit. So, it wasn’t just a solid square. I’ve still got the fabric and it’s just to die for. And it was like a bodice and a skirt, because in the fifties you either had a bodice with a tight skirt or you’d have a swishy skirt. And it had buttons, and a quarter-length sleeve, with a turn up button on the cuff. It was just wonderful.
GW> It’s interesting the technique that you have developed, writing about textiles as a way to explore your biography and think about mental health. How did that get worked out in the short story?
CW> So that was more thinking about color and thinking about depression and how, when you’re depressed there is no color. In the story, this person who is full of color sits opposite this other person who is depressed. And then my love of going into vintage shops, particularly when I was younger, not that I’ve lost that, but how I used to go and I used to look at all these beautiful things. I used to always think: “Why am I not a person who wears all these things perfectly?” I couldn’t quite do it, I wasn’t quite managing it. So, I created this character who totally did it, who didn’t care about anything to do with fashion. And she had this vintage shop of her own, and I could see the whole thing in my mind and the fact that it was a bit dark and how the mice got into the gloves. Because I remembered those compartments that you used to get in vintage shops where they kept the gloves. And then how she, as this character, would wear the clothes all of the time in special color combinations, not just when she was in the shop. And how the person who was depressed noticed all those details, and how the fact of this person being as she was suddenly made her think. Because I was trying to think: how do you get out of a depression? When you are suicidal, how do you change that? And for her, it was through this young woman coming in just looking amazing and unusual and ordering her six pieces of cake, which is also odd, and talking to her and saying, “let’s meet next Wednesday.” And so the person who was depressed said “yes” and then felt that she had to keep the date. The colorful character didn’t judge her—there was the idea that you shouldn’t judge people by their mental health, that you shouldn’t judge people at all, really—and in that way this beautiful, friendly, vivacious, interesting person saved the life of this other person. And she did it because she could see what was happening to that woman, she recognized it when she went into the cafe. And I wanted it to be hopeful. To show that you can come out from this terrible place, that something can change.
GW< Where do you place yourself in that story?
CW< So, I am not in that story, but my love of vintage clothes and vintage clothes shops, and my love of color are, because color has been a major issue in my life. If I have a thought or a feeling it translates itself into color, and letters and numbers all have colors, because I’m synesthetic. Words, letters, numbers, days of the week, months, they all have colors, which have never changed. I can’t change them. They just are those colors. Everything has a color. My thoughts, my feelings, they all have colors, you know, that’s how I relate—it has a lot to do with color! I identified it in 1999 or 2000, when I heard people talking about it; I didn’t know it was a condition before that. Then, there was a time when I had a depression, and everything went grey. So, I suppose I was relating to depression as colorless. The title of the story is also The Character of Color, which works both ways—it’s about the personality but also about the characters that colors have, which can be a part of synesthesia.