We're working in partnership with Gallery Oldham to help rethink their reminiscence boxes as tools to stimulate art, writing and shared reflection.
The mill next to Freehold metro station in Oldham is derelict, there’s a tree growing out of one window, birds sitting in another window and the rest are full of iron shutters, or daylight. But memories of this mill and others like it make the fabric of many lives.
The people we work with during our Oldham-based project are mostly in their 70s and 80s. The mills were an immovable part of their childhood, like rations and wars and dole and hopscotch (often called hotflag round here).
The mills were the biggest employer, the daily pay cheque and lifelong grind, the soundtrack and the skyline of these lives. It’s hard to translate that experience into words or artworks or poems. How do you remake the texture of times so completely gone, their ruined remains in the form of colossal buildings like dinosaur bones?
History is big a job to deal with in one bite, people find it easier to talk about specific moments or objects. Today’s sessions were a case in point. The morning was devoted to a discussion around toys, fed by objects brought by Joy from Gallery Oldham and a doll's tea-set from Lois. A wooden nodding dog, a skipping rope, a whip and top, a miniature tea-set. These things sparked recognition – like seeing an old friend from way back – and with recognition came a flood of ‘I remember’. What we didn’t expect however was that this discussion would bend its way toward the infamous Bentley and Craig murder case and capital punishment. Interesting that these symbols of innocence should usher in a world that had nothing to do with rosy nostalgia.
We had several ideas for art and writing exercises. Lois particularly wanted to try people with making their own dolls’ teapots and cups using clay. Meanwhile, I invited folks to write poems around the ring of spilt tea left from the bottom of their cups and compose circle poems – an idea stolen from Alec Finlay. These poems use the experience of drinking tea to reflect on the passing of time. Because they’re circle poems they loop inifinitely around one statement.
Some of the results will pictured in our next blog, showing combinations of both sets of pieces.
The afternoon session was to throw us even more of a left curve. What came up here as a subtext to people’s memories of toys (they didn’t have much money and therefore didn’t have toys or the time for them) was poverty, war and revolution. I jotted notes of the conversation as usual and so caught some of its repeated themes as it patchworked a history of Oldham into a bigger history of working people in Britain. Alternately funny, moving, angry and defiant, these words resonated as I walked to the tram stop after the session.
when the war started, what were we fighting for?
once a year early to church Whitsun?
walk with the church, carry the banner
carry the bloody lot
it amazes me we took everything they told us
did what we were were told
do you think there’ll be a revolution one day?
nobody ever explained it to us.
(excerpt from group poem, 27 Feb 2013)
The mill stared me out of town with its big, empty-window eyes.