This haunting mystery is based on the true story of the discovery in 1943 of the decaying body of a 35-year-old mother stuffed down an old wych elm in Birmingham. One of her hands had been cut off, suggesting the possibility of a black magic ritual. To this day nothing is known about the identity of ‘Bella’, as she was named posthumously by local graffiti artists, nor of the child that she was reported to have had. ‘Poor Bella’, writes the composer, ‘Whoever and wherever you are – Rest In Peace. You have become more vivid to us in death than you possibly ever could have done in life’.
I came across Richard Askwith’s article in the Independent in August 1999, and little did I know that the information it contained would haunt me (and still does, to a certain extent, even though the piece it spawned is complete) for the next three years. The simple tale (and all the more intriguing for it being true) of how three boys discovered the decaying body of a 35-year-old mother of one in early 1943 stuffed down inside an old wych elm, posed a number of questions. Why was she put there, and by whom? And, most intriguing of all, who was she? Who was “Bella”? (“Bella” being a common Black Country name that graffiti artists adopted for her.) This is, of course, a mystery do this day; the case, according to local police, is still wide open.
I suspect that we will never actually know, as Bella’s skeleton was stolen a while later from the Birmingham University Medical Department. They hadn’t even managed to match her teeth with any dental records. It seems that, for somebody out there, no evidence is better than scant evidence. She must have been privy to some decidedly potent information that parties unknown would rather she kept secret. A secret that needed to die with her.
But what? Who needed to “clean house”? She’d reputedly had a child, but whose? And where is that child now? One of her hands was missing (actually found buried close by), which reveals the strong possibility of a black-magic execution. Was she the hapless member of a coven? Or maybe a spy-ring? She had met her horrifically violent death during wartime, after all.
Bella’s macabre story has become enshrined as part of local mythology in South West Birmingham. It would seem that everybody has their own angle on who or what she was. When I visited the area at the beginning of 2003, I stopped two octogenarians out for a stroll, who told me that they thought she had probably been “on the game”, as they put it. They laughed uneasily when I asked them if they had known her personally. As I left them, to walk up Wychbury Hill towards the obelisk on the Hagley Hall estate, I noticed four teenagers adding their own graffiti to the confusion of cryptic signs and arcane scratchings scrawled around its base. One of them was called Matty (a name I would use for the boy who had been the first to discover “Bella’s” body down the tree: he would soon die after from the shock, and bird’s-nesting would never be the same again for the other two boys). I asked him if he knew anything about “Bella”, and he instantly became cagey about things; as if it were too touchy a subject to embark on, particularly with a complete stranger. I was amazed to discover very fresh-looking graffito, in thick white paint, on the western side of the obelisk declaring: “Who put Bella in the Witch elm”, almost as if the body has only just been found.
But what was it about this rather grisly tale that spurred me to write this piece of music-theatre?
I had asked Caryl Churchill if she would be interested in writing the libretto for me. I saw her phenomenal play “Far Away”, and felt that if anybody could do the story justice, she could. After all, why not start at the top! Sadly, she declined - she was very nice about it, but the story obviously hadn’t got to her in the same way - but I was ultimately grateful to her for saying no. I’d secretly always felt that if anybody should write the words, I should. I should be the one to wrestle with my own personal reasons (demons?) for why the plight of Bella had struck such a chord. I’ve often found that the only way to get to the root of an obsession is to write it out of one’s system. I’d wanted to write words for ages – now was my chance. Engage!
I had a vague idea of the format of the piece, and I knew that I wanted to present the piece in a pared down way. My ultimate feeling was that you should be able to pack the whole into the back of a van and tow it around. Of course, the piece became slightly more elaborate as it took off, but I think that I basically stuck to my original overall plan of an intense 35 to 40 minute scena with additions; a moment of catharsis that billows from unknowable and terrifying depths.
I have always been drawn to the idea of myth as a way of dealing with universal states of mind and human problems at one remove, thus avoiding sentimentality, but allowing sentiment to burn through. This would be the first time that I had used something that is essentially a “living” myth or legend. I found it to be as potent, if not more so, than the Greek myths that I’d fed from before (in pieces such as Minotaur Games and Icarus Lamentations). I suppose I’d ultimately felt, as I do now, that with such an open-ended story, I could go anywhere with it, and that almost anything could be projected onto the secret details of Bella’s possible background and life. I rather hope that they never find out who she really was, and how she came to be resident in her tree. Maybe, more by luck than better judgement, I’ve hit upon the real reason for how she got there! Poor “Bella” – whoever and wherever you are – Rest In Peace. You have become more vivid to us in death than you possibly ever could have done in life.
© Simon Holt, April 2003