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Ulster log: Wartime workshops have it all sewn up

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 15/08/2015

A woman hard at work stitching up an old garment on her Singer
A woman hard at work stitching up an old garment on her Singer
Spielberg favourite: Ayelet Zurer will play Naomi in Ben-Hur

Are there any old-fashioned Singer sewing machines still stitching away? I only ask because the War Memorial museum in Belfast's Talbot Street is launching a series of "Make Do and Mend" workshops to recapture the spirit of the wartime Blitz, the Blackout and rationing.

In wartime 1943, Singers were starting to have a vital role on the homefront in the action to free the world from tyranny.

Copies of a "Make Do and Mend" government pamphlet, in which these sewing machines figured prominently and which provided tips on how to repair old clothes and make food go further in those Second World War times of hardship, have been resurrected and will be available as part of this exhibition by Craft Northern Ireland and the War Memorial.

And I couldn't be telling readers about the workshops on a more appropriate day - this is VJ Day, the 70th anniversary of the day Japan surrendered and the war was really over, after VE Day signalled the return of peace in Europe.

The monthly workshops will take place in Talbot Street this autumn and winter, and during 2016 on these Saturdays: October 3, November 7, December 5, January 23, February 13, March 12, May 7 and June 11.

That 34-page booklet from 1943 includes the picture of a woman hard at work stitching up some old garment on her Singer in a year when new frocks were like hen's teeth.

Housewives everywhere knuckled down to the task of helping to win the war by making do, and sewing machines were a vital part of the action. The dedicated women even learned how to make Remembrance Day poppies.

The museum's education officer, Jenny Haslett, would be delighted if someone turned up with a vintage sewing machine in full working order.

During the war the Government had to reduce the production of civilian clothes to prioritise the making of ammunition, parachutes and uniforms. Clothing rationing was announced on June 1, 1941.

Says Alan Kane, chief executive of Craft NI: "The workshops will remind the present generation of what their grandparents got up to in order to help them get through those bad times."

From the Israeli Army to Ben-Hur

Tel Aviv-born actress Ayelet Zurer, who served her time in the Israeli Army, has just been signed up to play the role of Naomi in the remake of the epic Ben-Hur which is currently being produced by Londonderry-born Roma Downey.

Ayelet is one of Steven Spielberg’s favourites. She was in his Oscar-nominated film Munich and has since  worked with Tom Hanks, William Hurt and most memorably with Dennis Quaid in Vantage Point.

The remake of Ben-Hur, which hits our screen next February, should be of particular interest to Ulster viewers because it was in the original Ben-Hur (1959) that Stephen Boyd of Glengormley played Messala, opposite Charlton Heston. Boyd went on to become a major star.

When Rod penned a song about the Troubles

The news that Pocket Books are to reissue the paperback poetry book, Seasons In The Sun, by Rod McKuen, 30 years after it was first a bestseller reminds me the poet and songwriter, who died earlier this year at 81, once wrote a ballad about Northern Ireland called The Things Men Do, during the height of the Troubles.

And the man, who was my favourite composer of sensitive verses ­(no matter about the snooty critics who didn’t rate him), sang the piece especially for me one night in the Ulster Hall in Belfast. “Every street’s a battle street and every door’s a jail” is how one line goes as Rod describes “the terror that rumbles in the land”.

He and I became good but long-distant friends and his passing in Beverley Hills after a struggle with depression left a void.

His lyrics were heart-warming even though he was dismissed as the boss of the banal and the king of the cliché.

McKuen projected honesty and truth in albums like Sold Out, which he recorded in Carnegie Hall. He was also nominated for an Oscar for Jean, the theme of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Belfast Telegraph

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