Explore the BBC
Radio 4
Radio 4 Tickets
Radio 4 Help

About the BBC

Contact Us


BBC Radio 4 - 92 to 94 FM and 198 Long WaveListen to Digital Radio, Digital TV and OnlineListen on Digital Radio, Digital TV and Online

Go to the Listen Again page
Sunday 10 November 2002, 11.45 am
Composing allowed Norman Winchester to explore some very difficult memories that he had from his experience of fighting in the Second World War.

Memory Like shells Bursting is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Remembrance Sunday, 10 November 2002, 11.45am.

'Memory Like Shells Bursting' interweaves two stories.  Firstly, it shows how Norman Winchester who has no formal musical training wrote a piece of music for string quartet and voice with the assistance of the professional composer, Karen Wimhurst.

Norman Winchester at the Imperial War Museum

 Secondly, the documentary reveals how the process of composing was used to explore some very difficult memories that Norman Winchester had from his experience of fighting in the Second World War.

Norman Winchester in the armoury of the Imperial War Museum

Today we remember the dead. And not only the dead. But those who fought and lived through war, survived it, and are haunted by its memories.  Norman Winchester was a machine gunner with the Second Cameronians at Dunkirk and later in Italy. He's 88 now and very frail. This programme is about his war, and an extraordinary muscial venture later in life, in his 80s, when he wrote 'Memory Like Shells' about his experiences of it.  The words are his own.  So is the music.  But he was helped with the music by Karen Wimhurst, a professional composer.  .

With Martin Bell during a recording for the programme

INSIGHT - Helen Weinstein, the producer, talks about her idea for making a programme about sound and memory.
My interest as a historian and documentary-maker is in the way people tell stories, particularly their life stories, and how the process of memory means that there will always be gaps, whether they be intentional or unintentional.  I believe it is important to pay attention to different methods and strategies of probing memories.

I was keen to find a project where you could explore the gaps in someone's memory, and examine the process of collecting their testimony.   And because I wanted to work on a documentary which could explicitly explore the connections between sounds and memories,  I decided to work with the composer, Karen Wimhurst.    We looked to find a way to collaborate on a history documentary which used musical expression as its main resource to develop a life history.

One sunny afternoon, sitting on a London pavement queuing for concert tickets, we discussed potential projects, and found our subject.  Karen told me about Norman Winchester.  He was in his eighties, living in a Westminster Council nursing-home in London, and had recently participated in a music composition group led by Karen, and had worked with her on a piece of music representing the movement of the sea.   

But in a group situation it is hard to bring on an individual in great depth, and when Karen asked Norman if he would like to co-compose another piece, he was very eager and made it clear that he wanted to write a piece of music about his war experiences.  Despite his bad stroke which means that talking is very difficult, this old soldier made it obvious that there was an urgency to his need, but that he had never been able to talk about it.  My role was to record the project and to assist as an historian, and to help him find the buried memories that were troubling him.

At the start of the documentary project Norman had a head-full of troubling memories.  When I first met him he was animated when talking about the war, but he also cried a lot, sometimes sobbing for long periods.  He used his hands sweeping from around the front of his forehead to the back of his head, to demonstrate how he had pushed all the thoughts about the horror of war into a suppressed area of his brain.  He had tried so hard to forget everything.   And for most of his adult life he had succeeded.  But after a series of strokes, difficult images were in his head all the time.  And he often had disturbing nightmares.  At the start we had no idea whether it would be possible to unlock Norman's memories.

In one of our conversations, the phrase came out, "Memory Like Shells Bursting", didn't it? And there was a time when you were having nightmares wasn't there? Memory was quite important wasn't it? Because you talked about the truth.  And wanting to tell the truth.  But then how memory distances you from the truth.  Well, it distances you from the feeling, the depth of feeling involved.  Which comes back in snatches in dreams.  And there's a kind of blessing in that, and then there's also frustration.  

With the composer Karen Wimhurst

THE PROCESS OF COMPOSING THE MUSIC & MAKING THE DOCUMENTARY My colleagues at the BBC were on the whole supportive of my new project, which I was doing as a volunteer at the nursing home, but I think they did all wonder what was going to happen.  For starters, trying to write a piece of music with someone who had never formally done so, seemed to be taking quite a leap of faith. And further, how would we manage to make a radio programme where the main protaganist could not enunciate clearly and would be difficult to understand?

Recording Karen Wimhurst and Norman Winchester working together was a remarkable experience. The first day that Karen went in to work on the piece she was a bit apprehensive about where they would start, but she didnt let it show.  She knew that the piece was about the war, and that Norman had told her he wanted it to sound war-like with gunfire and bagpipers.   What she didn't know, was the Norman had been preparing for their first session carefully.  So that rather than a general talk about what kind of piece they might compose together, when Karen asked Norman about how they should start writing the composition, he just came straight out and said "It goes like this" and in a faltering rasping manner, whistled out the main tune.  Thereafter, every tune and rhythm was painstakingly sung and whistled out loud for Karen to write down.  Next Karen taught Norman musical skills to help him develop the germ of the musical idea into a developed 15 minute piece for string quartet and voice.

Over several months of us all meeting up for a couple of hours on Wednesday afternoons, the sections of music were scored, harmonized and developed.  What also really helped was funding from Age Concern and the English National Opera community charity, the Bayliss Programme, which paid for the Bloomfield String Quartet to come in to the nursing home.  The Quartet rehearsed and improvised Norman's melodies further showing him how he could develop his musical vocabulary and ideas.

With the actor Marc Bolton in the forefront and to the right, Karen wimhurst in the foreground, and in the background The Alexander String Quartet, who performed the world premiere of 'Memory Like Shells' at the Elizabeth concert Hall in 1998.

Not only was Karen writing the music with Norman, but she was also exploring his war memories.  His musical phrases and rhythms represented intense feelings that he wanted to express.  There was one for anger, one for fear, and one for what he called his 'restless mind'.   This conversation became part of the composition.  Karen and Norman returned to his words, and we worked together on transforming his memories in to a piece of poetry to be performed alongside the string quartet music.

Also, Karen got in the habit of repeating Norman's words so that I had them down clearly on tape, and it helped me if Karen mirrored Norman's words so that he could confirm that we had understood him correctly.  This made it easier for me to review the tapes when making the documentary.  And we decided to use an actor in the documentary so that Norman's feelings about the war would be heard in detail.  

"All of it together makes a story, a kind of life you've led.
Give them a story without any lies.
Nothing shines through with quite the force of the plain truth.
I know it seems hard at times, memory like shells, bursting.

You might see a few tears but... length of time lends a kind of a dream
with the horror that you felt missing out of the picture
Memory like shells, bursting."

On Remembrance Day 2002 an excellent collaboration occurs, with the performance of 'Memory Like Shells' by the actor Marc Bolton and the internationally acclaimed Allegri String Quartet.  The concert will be introduced by the former MP and BBC war correspondent, Martin Bell.  It is at 11.30am and is free in the Cinema Auditorium.   There will also be a showing of film footage from 1943 & 1944 showing scenes from Norman's war.  Helen Weinstein, Karen Wimhurst, & Norman Winchester will be present, and will answer questions from the public about this project.

Norman Winchester is from Morpeth, Northumberland.  Born in 1914 he grew up in a home defined by the First World War with his father killed, and his uncle whom he lived with, returned disabled with a severe injury.  Norman himself joined the army in 1938 chosing the 2nd Cameronians' Battalion known as the "Scottish Rifles", because they were 'war-like'.  

Martin Bell: "Norman Winchester was no reluctant soldier.  He wanted to be in the front line, to see action, to take on the enemy.  And he did, with the allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943."

"I was in charge of a machine gun.
I was a good machine gunner.
God knows how many rounds I fired.
I liked to hear the noise.
Breathless to hear, the gunfire, the future on fire."

Photograph from the Imperial War Museum showing Norman Winchester with his battalion, the 2nd Cameronians, landing on the southern tip of Sicily, taken by the Army Film and Photograph Unit, 10 JUly 1943.
©Imperial War Museum

In the early hours of July 10th, 1943, Norman Winchester's battalion was amongst the first group of soldiers to land under fire on 'George Beach' Sicily.  This was a crucial invasion for the Allies.    In the words of Winston Churchill, "The paramount task before us strike at the soft under-belly of the Axis in effective strength and in the shortest time."  

The Sicily campaign was crucial to the Allies' success in regaining Continental Europe.  The Allies aimed to secure this portion of the Mediterranean for Allied Sea and Air forces, to intensify pressure on Mussolini and be the first step towards eliminating Italy, and to divert German pressure from the Russian front.  All three of these objectives were achieved, but not without some fierce fighting.   Although it is well known that the Italian soldiers soon surrendered in vast numbers, the first-class German troops fought hard to hold on, especially to the strategically important port town of Catania, because via the Straits of Messina it is the gateway to mainland Italy.   It was on the Plain of Catania that Norman was involved in prolonged battles and heavy shelling to gain bridges across the Simeto River, often fighting the enemy at very close range.  There were many who killed and were killed on both sides.

As a historian, one of the most fascinating parts of the project involved my taking Norman to the Imperial War Museum for the first time, where where, with the guidance of Toby Haggith in the Film Archive, we viewed hours and hours of film footage from 1943 and 1944 showing the invasion of Sicily and mainland Italy.  The Imperial War Museum also agreed to a special request that I wrote to the Gun Curator, Paul Cornish, who took us down to the armoury, and he allowed Norman to hold and handle a Bren Gun again, and the two were involved in intense technical conversations and dialogues about warfare and strategy.  These visits of a more traditional oral history method to restore memory were very successful, and many more details were forthcoming from Norman about his experiences of fighting in Italy.

But for me, what was most revealing, was that the process of composing involved returning to certain memories again and again.  And once the music was scored,  Norman had to return to his words about the war, to help Karen with the Libretto.  It was these repetitions that finally, I think,  unlocked the key memory that had been troubling Norman, and he was able to articulate to us what it was about.

"One incident remains very clear in my mind
I fired at two German soldiers.
This memory stinks a bit.
I saw one fall and one seemed to get away.
I got busy with my gun.
I went wild with it.
I wasted a whole magazine of bullets to kill him.
He staggered back - eyes a dodge two drop to the ground
I presume I killed them.
The joy it gave me was intense
We really were a-killing people then"

This method of working with a veteran is very unusual, because instead of a conventional chronological military history, we revisited one battleground at Catania again and again, to produce a piece of music and prose about the emotions a soldier felt in battle, particularly about anger and fear; and the joy of killing, and the joy of survival.   And so it was that through this one episode Norman recovered the whole experience of his war.

What I learnt as a historian is that you find spark and humour, determination and dynamism, within a crumpled withdrawn figure in a wheelchair.  And there is a great value in respecting what people chose to tell you in a life history, so that if you pay attention to their selection of story and verbal form, you can piece together their most significant episodes by picking over words and themes.  This means ignoring the media sound-bite culture, and instead giving your subject time, so that you can return to certain stories in sessions over several months, using different stimuli, both conventional and less conventional.

I also learnt that when you do start to hear an authentic story buried within,  you must respect what you recover, even if the truth  is a  dark shocking and complicated story about the joy of killing.   As a historian and documentary-maker, I have to ask, what kind of 'truth' should we in the media be aspiring to recover?

In recent years, those working in documentary radio and film genres, are aware that we are entering a field where methodologies are contested.  Just in the way more traditional historians have wrestled with questions of interpreting documents, we are also concerned with the manufacture of 'testimony', particularly when first-person 'witness testimony' is the vehicle on which the evidentary 'truth' rests in this genre.

There is no doubt that music added a special depth to this documentary in search of war memories, allowing us to dig deeper and deeper.   It is unusual, also, to be asking an interviewee not only to describe their feelings in words, but to express them physically in rhythms and melodies.  This extra dimension made for an extraordinary documentary journey, and I will be forever grateful to the composer Karen Wimhurst and the veteran Norman Winchester for allowing me to trace every inch of that adventure in sound and memory.

Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing (Granta Books, 1999)
John Keegan, The Face of Battle (Pimlico, 1998)
Ben Shephard, A War of Nerves (Jonathan Cape, 2000)
Alistair Thomson, Anzac Memories (Oxford University Press, 1994)
Jay Winter  & Emmanuel Sivan, War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Listen Live
Audio Help
BBCi Religion's Remembrance Sunday website ..>>
BBC Radio 4's This Sceptred Isle website ..>>
BBCi History's W.W.2." website ..>>
In Our Time
Thursday 9.00-9.45am, rpt 9.30-10.00pm. Melvyn Bragg explores the history of ideas. Listen again online or download the latest programme as an mp3 file.

Martin Bell was a BBC journalist for 32 years. He became a household name reporting dramatic events around the globe.

He twice won the TV Reporter of the Year award and received the OBE in 1990.

Bell gained prominence as the BBC's white suited war correspondent during the Balkan civil wars of the 1990's.

He was injured several times reporting on conflicts. He once joked of a shrapnel groin injury: "I was terrified to put my hand down my trousers."

Unexpectedly, he became an MP in the 1997 General election when he defeated Neil Hamilton. Bell immersed himself in constituency work showing the graft and professionalism that characterised him at the BBC.

He failed to be elected in the last election and has now returned to his profession of journalism.

News & Current Affairs | Arts & Drama | Comedy & Quizzes | Science | Religion & Ethics | History | Factual

Back to top

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy