An Interview with WRENS Playwright Anne McGravie
Posted on Friday, August 17, 2012 at 2:51 PM
What was your life like before the war?
I had been to school of course. I did little odd jobs - in Britain at that time, young people couldn’t go out and find a full time job. I was in school intending to go to University, but I left after my father died because I couldn’t concentrate on my studies. I did actually go back to university when I came here in in 1947. I suppose I stayed with my mother mostly because she was in mourning when my father died of cancer in 1943. He had been given nine months when it was discovered, but went on to live three years. She didn’t tell him though, because he was a very positive and optimistic man and she thought that telling him might change him in the last few months of his life. The interesting thing about it was that back then, the surgeon didn’t talk to patients but rather to the family of the patient’s, and they then chose whether or not to tell their loved one, so he had told my mother but not my father that my father was actually dying and had nine months to live. My mother and I were the only ones who knew in my family of three brothers and a sister. Two of my brothers were in the navy and the other was at school, so just my sister and I were home with my mother, so I spent a lot of time with her.
What did you think about the Wrens before you joined?
It was very glamorous, as you can imagine, for a young girl to see a woman in uniform. We lived restricted lives, in a sense. It wasn’t like we didn’t have fun and have friends and all that, but it was different than the Wrens – we had curfews and accepted rules. To see these women in uniform…they were like birds of the air. It was very attractive! Not to every girl. Some girls were just scared to death and wouldn’t leave their families, but to me it was very exciting.
How did you join?
I was passing a recruitment office one day and I went in. There was an officer who wasn’t doing much and delighted to see me and said, “Oh, we’d love to have you!” They liked to have girls who had brothers or fathers in the navy because the navy has always had an attitude toward tradition –they like the idea of the loyalty of families. So we talked, and she said, “You will love it!” and told me little stories about where the girls were and how they lived and the jobs they were doing. I went home and my first thought was, “That’s something I would never be able to do." And then I started to think, “I’m 17 and half,” knowing that at 18 you were conscripted, which meant, for women, that you would go to work at factories making ammunitions – a very common job for young women during the war. So that was my argument – in six months I’m going to be conscripted, and you could only volunteer for the Wrens before that happened. Once you were conscription age, the Wrens wouldn’t touch you. My mother was very reluctant, but she didn’t like the idea of factory work. Eventually she was sort of convinced.
How would you describe your first experiences in the Wrens?
My first training was in London, which was quite a stretch for me. I went down from Edinburgh to London on the train. There were about 15-20 of us. We were at an old cancer hospital that had been taken over during the war. I had three weeks of very ridiculous training, because it was meant to put discipline into girls who might not have known a lot about service. One of the things we had to do was scrub the floor. You got down with your pail and a scrub brush and there was someone right there in front of you washing the same place – the idea was just to learn to wash and work well. But still, I enjoyed it all – it was so different. It was so fun to be on our own, which was unusual for young women at that time.
Were you ever afraid, being part of the war?
By the time I came to the Orkneys, the war bombings had pretty much moved away from that area. Where we were, there may have been a couple bombings. Actually, I was in a bombing before I went into the Wrens, in Glasgow, which was terrifying. More of our fear may have been that we were warned about things –the way that they placed responsibility on you. We were taught that if something happens, you would be responsible for your safety, if you didn’t listen. Particularly out at night, they didn’t want us out alone. Because we still had troops there. Every military officer worries about safety-- and the girls especially. There was a message board with various things, and there was a big official poster that said, “Wrens should always be in twos,” or, “Wrens shouldn’t be out after dark” – they wouldn’t be too specific, but there was always a feeling that if you defied, you were responsible, and if something happened, you wouldn’t get a lot of sympathy. Another fear was the weather – very strong winds. Sunday evenings I would go to church service. One night I came back alone, only about 8 o’clock. There was a bridge you had to cross with the sea on either side, and on high tide the water would actually come over the bridge. So if you caught a high wind – I was caught in one, and being turned around, I had no control. Apparently someone had seen me and reported it to my station and they sent out for me. My fear was that I was going to be propelled off the bridge backward. If you don’t have much weight like me, you have to be careful, so that kind of thing really scared me.
Did you get along with the Navy men?
The navy was very mixed about us. There were Wrens in World War One, but they weren’t as many of them, and I think they were probably quieter. But one of the things that Wrens in World War One did was wash British war planes, which was a very important job. The fellas would call us Jenny or Jenny Wren– to give us a hard time. They would say, “Jenny, I need this” – you know, that kind of thing. Some girls didn’t put up with it and wouldn’t respond until they were addressed properly. I was very fortunate to work with a very casual guy who took everything with a grain of salt. When I got upset about something, he would say “It’ll be over tomorrow, you’ll forget it."
What would have happened if someone was pregnant out of wedlock?
It was a very serious crime. Not just a military crime, but a very serious civil crime. It wasn’t only becoming pregnant out of wedlock, if you got an abortion– you, the abortionist, and anyone who helped you would be put on trial, which was very scary. Then of course, word would spread. There was so much gossip. If a parcel came or someone got engaged, everyone knew. So in that kind of environment, imagine how fast that news would get out. What was it like combining women of all different origins and classes in one group? Very odd. There were a lot of differences. Sometimes you couldn’t understand a girl in your own cabin. But it was always the other person who had the accent, not you. You went in feeling almost like the “chosen” one. You felt special. And then you’d have a girl look at you and say, “Where is Scotland?” or “What?! You don’t know Edinburgh?”. It was a rude awakening! I felt like a foreigner.
What was life like after the war?
Life was very dull. Coming home was a letdown. All my old friends… everyone had a different experience in the war, and suddenly friends belonged in a place. Here you had all these women in uniform- which was a phenomenon at the time- doing work that they felt was important, but there wasn’t really a place for that work in normal life. Being in the Wrens was one of the happiest times of my life. I learned responsibility, how to figure things out for myself. During the war, people had this ideal image that everything would be perfect. But that didn’t happen. Before the war, Britain, as an Empire, had everything. And then the war took that away. Britain was broke until the 60s.
How true to life is the play?
You know what they say about theatre – that it’s true to life but not really. It’s that old story of the professor who tells his student to sit at a coffee shop and listen to a real conversation for dialogue – filled with, “Oh yeah? Really? Yeah?” Dialogue is not how we talk, but how we seem to talk. Most of it is memory based. A lot of it came out exactly as it was.
What do you hope audiences will get out of the play?
In my writing, I like characters. Character is very important. You can’t have a good story without good characters. That’s how I write, as a rule. When I started writing this, I just wanted to write a piece about living as a Wren, and I did, but people would ask me, “But what is the story?” It finally got to me that, yes, I needed to hang it on something. To get something down that everyone knows. Also, I’ve always been interested in community, because I think it is very important. I grew up in a family – a good family, good parents, and a good start. Yes, we had our problems, but I loved it. It gives you a sense of self. Community becomes your family when you have to leave your family. We get to a point where we can’t afford to live alone, but we do. Why aren’t more women living together? If you look at nuns, that is a working community. Women are able to live in a community. Well, men are too, but I think women are more drawn to it. I think eventually older women will come together, because men die before women as a rule. So if women can come together in some kind of family – with their own room or own place or whatever – I don’t think it would be without conflict, but I think it would work. I have strong feelings about that. I wanted to write about the time I was there.
So what do I hope the audience gets out of it? I want them to get involved with the characters and see them as real people, people from a particular generation that isn’t very well understood. It’s always thought that war is related only to the men – women are at home and not really as involved. But of course they are! They have just as many jobs at home or elsewhere, regardless of whether they have children. I feel like women in war had been shortchanged. Every woman, even if they stayed at home, was extremely affected by the war- whether people realize it or not. I want audiences to get into the characters and be informed of what happened. Women of that time are sort of shortchanged in people’s minds, so I thought, why not write about the women at war too, doing their job!