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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Thursday Post: Dazzle Ships

During the First World War, the Admiralty in Britain tried a remarkable experiment with a form of camouflage that made ships more, not less, visible. These ‘dazzle ships’ were decorated with extraordinary patterns and colours, no two the same, in order to confuse the enemy, making it difficult to estimate a target’s range and speed.

Co-commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival and 14-18 NOW, a new project remembers and celebrates the dazzle ships. When I was contacted by the Edinburgh Art Festival about working on Scotland’s Dazzle Ship project, I didn’t know that during WW1 the British Navy had dazzle camouflaged over 3,000 of their warships with unique designs developed in the Royal Academy’s ‘Department of Dazzle’.

Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2014, artist Ciara Phillips has designed Scotland’s contribution to a UK-wide Dazzle Ship project. Phillips painted the ship herself with a team of women, replicating women’s role in the design and painting of the original ships. Her contribution Every Woman explores the role of women as telegraph operators during the war with the words ‘Every Woman A Signal Tower’ embedded in Morse code on the ship’s surface. You can see the ship at the Prince of Wales dock in Leith, a short walk from Ocean Terminal.

Invited to respond to the project, I worked with both community groups and established writers. In June, we held a workshop at the Grassmarket Community Project, in which we considered how seamen might have felt aboard a Dazzle Ship. During that workshop, one participant, Derek, imagined

…the stripes help
line the sea to the sky.
I tie up my life vest,
blue the colour of water,
wait for the planes to come.
They’ll miss our ship, her
hull pointing away
like a finger and smoke
from her chimney
like home, saying it’s not
the place for this.

During the Festival, we’re holding further workshops with for Shakti Women’s Aid and Young Saheliya.

I commissioned a group of 20 women to write poems responding to the ship. These poems will be published by the Edinburgh Art Festival in SIGNAL, a pamphlet that explores Every Woman. A reading is planned for late August.

Some of the poems in SIGNAL consider the role of women as designers .‘She plays at finding forms / a lightening flash / a false eyelash / a splash' (Anne Hay).  Other poets responded by focussing on the changes sparked by women going out to work. ‘After a lifetime fitted / out for tendering / keeping the lighthouse lit…she has become / a frazzled dazzle of illusion' (Jean Taylor).

Other poems consider the effect of dazzle ships on men; a Captain ‘sees every woman back home loosen her stays….send out clear voice: / I am here. I am there’ (Rita Bradd).

The poems stretch beyond the historical context that inspired them. A few poems in SIGNAL address the way women dazzle to dodge ‘the lurking periscope / the all-seeing eye’ (Jane Bonnyman). Or as Aiko Grieg puts it in the poem that gave the project its name:

Who can gauge our range or pace? Every Woman,
a signal tower, an illusion, a ship bearing dead ahead.

Marjorie Lotfi Gill

The Dazzle Ship is located a short signposted walk from Ocean Terminal or The Shore. It is best viewed from Ocean Drive and Prince of Wales Dock. There is no access on board. A small display on the history of Dazzle is located at the end of the Prince of Wales Dock.

A reading featuring many of the poets in SIGNAL takes place on Monday 22 August at the Edinburgh Book Shop. More details here.

Category: war poems