Friday, 31 May 2013

honey trap

Our project with Gallery Oldham documents ideas for creative workshops, using reminiscence boxes so that others can try them too. We've written session notes for a while now, often with ideas discussed, or even point-by-point guides.

However, our most impressive trick is very simple – conversation. The art of conversation means not only talking, but listening. Out of conversation comes first trust, then engagement and the wonderful reminiscence that is the backbone of our work.

Today's morning session in Oldham was a case in point. I brought with me a packet of mints and we discussed sweet jars in the sweet shops of memory, while crunching peppermint. Out of this flowed a conversation that roamed from mint humbugs to a police raid on a brothel to stealing lead off a roof. It's a pocket history of childhood in a tough northern town. It's my job to have a pen in my hand and jot down these moments, using people's exact words and listening out for the most ear-catching phrases. They're often rambly and rough-hewn, but to my ears these pieces are poetry. They will be revisited and participants will often strip out individual phrases or sections, but the heart of what we do beats here – if you choose to hear it.

sweet jars

en masse

humbugs, humbugs, humbugs

indoors, in jars

coltsfoot in slices to buy

go to a herbalist quarter pound

sarsparilla in bottles in George Street

back to me mam's to claim

toffees for bonfires

(I'm an old bugger now, a fogey)

all the old ladies sitting outside

give you a threpenny bit for errands

they're living on snuff and extra strong mints

I've led a frivolous life

toffee apples

fry's peppermint crème all down your shirt and

up your elbows, oh chocolate lick

a jar to catch the monkey

boiled sweets and bullseyes

fire them with a catapault at your sister

the old ladies gave you a mouthful

pineapple chunks, cola cubes

the miners send you and your bike to buy

baccy twist

to chew

Mumps Bridge over Oldham

round the corner a little tobacconist


tobacco smoked in brandy

and jars of

sweets - he'd make you a mixture

up Gas Street by the Royal Oak

down again on your bike across Bottomley

honey trap

(brothel on the corner of 101 Waterloo

full of Councillors and Dignitaries

snatched when the Vice Squad did a swoop)


Emery's in the market hall for gingerbread eunuchs

with smarties for buttons

old ladies

90 years old farting and growling at the kids

the attraction of the windows

fight for the best

kayli and Spanish off yr finger

go home and your mum tells you to get them clean

lemondrop, cinder taff

kids come on Yorkshire Street with a football

aniseed balls

and pontefract cake

for those who want relief

sitting all day duty free the old ladies


and farting and burping

have you anything to declare?

dolly mix

vanilla milkbottles

take the lid off and dip your hand in.

Group poem

Gilbert, Geoff, Ida, Julie, Harry, Sydney

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Objects of our affection

Objects of our affection project
Warrington Museum, 28 May 2013

I come from energy

a fat and bubbly lady with pork pie hands
and starched apron
I come from the hustle and bustle
of a fast furious room
with laughter and smells and tastes and
lightweight and clanky
I come from worn, bleached hands
nails crammed with suet and sugar
and flour and eggs, she is
menacing and bossy but
fights for cleanliness.

(Photograph of pudding mixer detail, and poem, by Christine)

We're working with a group of carers to re-label objects at Warrington Museum, creating new viewpoints and stories items we've encountered in the museum displays and the stores. Not only is this a chance to creatively re-think some of the museum collection, it is also a much-needed respite for the carers from their demanding roles.


Being a carer, you think about others all the time and it becomes a habit. You forget that you have needs too. You're just tucked up in your day-to-day. Now I've started putting on a different head for writing and art. It's my Worzel Gummidge head, it's a luxury to have it for two hours. Then when we're done, it goes back in the box.

The sessions allow people to revisit their shared past and to think about what it means and how it has informed who they are. Dave was brought back to his childhood in the last war by catching sight of a gas mask case:


I'm thinking of things now that were in the back of my head, lost. They're coming forward again, making themselves known. I was talking to my wife about the last session and she'd shared some of the same experiences, growing up during the war. She remembered the gas masks too.


It's opened me to new things doing this, you're making me think outside my usual. I'm doing things that I wouldn't have thought of. It's what I wanted, to get away from the everyday and put in something fresh. A little challenge is a nice thing to have.

What has struck me has been the affection and emotionality that these objects uncover, wrapped in all their histories and associations. It's a kind of spell-casting to hold them and project oneself into their lives. We worked fast, everyone producing several pieces of writing. I've put a couple below, very lightly edited:

corner shop

the smell depended on what

was 'in' on the day

fresh bacon, sweet and smoky

a box of photographs

memories from the past

letters from loved ones

never to be repeated

a jumble of colours

packets, bags, advertisements

a freshly mopped floor

a sticky fly-catcher

stuck to it - crystals

connections with the universe

sweet cigarettes, bread

milk condensed in cans

cough cures, pills for all and

my teddy too

one eye remains 55 years on

sheds sawdust so he's wrapped

in an old pillowcase

homemade treacle, toffee apples


all the basics, brushes, buckets

things made by my children:

a peg-doll,

cards sent with love, a

plaster mould

of a tiny hand

a note to mum on the back

of a cigarette packet.


Finally, Derek writes about that curious sensation of breathing the air in a museum, the dust of the past - and how the sounds of now seem also to be sounds of then:

aircon and parents and children talking busy atmosphere not noisy cars going past on the other side smell a woody musky atmosphere temperature ambient people talking as if they are interested in something learned people and schoolchildren teachers came into this museum a long passed project at school maybe objects appear to be lonely but others bring a memory of good times in a lively room in a country mansion a home with no TV or radio where people make music, laughter.


Friday, 24 May 2013

post pluvium

Oldham, Making Memories project

Smell is a memory-prompt. The smells of coffee, or a roast dinner, or eau de cologne carry with them a huge freight of memories and meanings for different people. We've rarely worked with scents and so we decided it was time for a try-out during a reminiscence-art session. We brought rose water, perfume, vanilla, bread, coffee, oranges and lemons to the workshop, some small bottles and some clay to make labels.

Research we'd done suggested that smell can help people with dementia diagnosis to remember, cutting through the confusion. But in our morning workshop it became clear that the struggle to find an association was too big for people in later stages of dementias. Something different and fascinating happened instead: they talked beautifully about the process of trying to remember.

An emotional highpoint of our morning was a tiny but significant incident. One particular participant has big difficulties with recollection and language itself. She smelled some fresh bread and was able to utter the word 'loaf'. It brought enormous joy to her, that rekindled spark of naming and the happiness stayed with her the rest of the morning.

The afternoon was with a group who again had various dementias, this time less developed. They're a very likeable group of people, but sometimes fractious and there had been some growling between them before we started. The session itself was great fun, but had an undercurrent of the conflict remaining. People bring their lives to these sessions and sometimes life is messy.

Lois and I are probably the most ruthless critics of our work and afterwards we were discussing the session when Milly the volunteer who'd helped us popped back into the room. She had a message from one of the participants: “Margaret would like to say that she had an excellent afternoon with you. She said you're a great change from all the familiar faces here and the TV too. She'd like you to come back, tomorrow.”

I've been looking over my notes from the session and would like to end with this little poem from Sydney, talking about the delicious smell of the world after a rainstorm. Sydney was a scholar of both Latin and Greek - the phrase post pluvium is his translation of 'after the rain':

after the rain-storm
a row of night-scented
and virginia stock
after it rained a strong scent
of the old roses
rosa canina
rosa, rhodon
bourbon roses floribunda
after the rain
post pluvium.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

George Formby and the mummy

Warrington 21 May 2013 – Day 1 morning
Objects of Our Affection

We've started a 10 week project at Warrington Art Gallery, working with people who are carers, documenting their reactions to objects in the museum through artwork and poetry. We're particularly interested in labelling the museum objects with people's stories, emotional traces.

There are two bigger ideas behind the project. The first one is that carers, who sometimes have a tough life, get an opportunity to revitalise themselves - share experiences, socialise and be something other than a carer for a short while. The second hope is that their observations about the 'secret life' of the objects in the museum will make a fascinating complement to standard museum labels and information panels.

The workshops were full of affectionate reminiscence as we played creative games with old toys and bric-a-brac. The first game was to identify objects by touch (they were kept in a bag) and to describe them not using names, but sense descriptions – touch, weight, smell etc. We then discussed collections and the urge to make them. The conversations were fascinating in themselves, but they also allowed something else to happen – people got a holiday from their day-to-day and instead were able to think about something else.

When you're a carer you're isolated, stuck on your own, in your head. You don't socialise often. Even though the person you care for is not with you you can't switch off from them. It's lovely to be distracted here, play games. We've shared lovely memories, happy times. 

So many memories are brought back by the objects in the bag. It's great to use different words than I'd use for normal life and also to switch my usual thoughts off, start thinking with my hands. Using words like 'knobbly', they're not words you'd use in a shopping list, they're not supermarket words. It's scary to put my hands into the bag at first, going into the unknown... '
(Participant J)

The last activity was to go around the galleries looking for objects or pictures that struck a chord and then write a label, describing why the object resonated. It was here that the conversation went deeper, as people connected the works in the museum with their own lives.

Two of the choices touched on grief. One was R's horror at seeing the mummy of a young boy here in Warrington, so far from his home in Egypt. Another was a grave doll, from ancient Peruvian civilisation. It reminded J of the experience of losing her partner – she also put some objects into his grave with him and described it very powerfully. It was astonishing to connect this very venerable relic with someone's living experience – suddenly the museum stopped feeling like a museum at all and instead became a receptacle of human lives, human hopes and feelings.

Child Mummy, Warrington Museum

But most of the human feeling expressed in the workshops was of a cheery sort, punctuated with much laughter. It seemed a good omen that one of our group discovered a painting of George Formby tucked in a corner, complete with his ukulele and cheeky-chap grin. George F was a local boy and we hope to follow his example of optimism and good time-ism. But absolutely no ukuleles.

George Formby, Herbert Wilkinson 1944, Warrington Museum

Friday, 17 May 2013


Making Memories, Oldham 

Some of the best sessions we run are lucky accidents, which come from a mix of careful planning happy coincidence. The right people, the right topics, the right skills all come together and a wonderful workshop is the result. The flipside is that just as things can go magically right, they can also go magically wrong.

I'm coming home from a workshop that was intended to be a celebratory reminiscence about the joys of pubs, with some poem-writing and art-making to follow on. We'd prepped thoroughly and in fact were testing ideas that had already been very successful with a previous group, so we were feeling confident. What we hadn't anticipated was that nobody in the group today liked going to the pub.

Not only this, the one person who had the biggest experience of pubs didn't think of them as celebratory at all. She had been a Landlady and when asked what her customers liked by way of pub games she replied stonily: 'Nothing, we were strict.' But what did they do all night we asked, our enthusiasm weakening a little. 'Talk,' she said. Anything else we asked, by now a little desperate. 'Drink.' she said, grimly.

What did emerge from this session was a lovely set of reminiscences that were easily woven into a group poem. It also made us question ourselves and re-evaluate what we thought was a dead cert session plan. But oh how we sighed. And a glass of wine this evening is a very tempting thought.

Oldhamers are proud

of their drinking

the dust from the cotton

makes them thirsty

The Swan

and The Horse Edge

drink in excess and

it takes control

but oh the dust

in The Gaumont

and on Union Street

they're very clannish

self-contained and

what Oldhamers don't like is snobs or the rich

but they'll do a good job for you

they work hard at

The Mitre, The Randolf...

Extract from group poem 15 May 2013

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Ring a bell for dignity

Lois writes: It’s frightening how quickly you can become accustomed to things that perhaps you shouldn’t get accustomed to. I guess its part of our survival; we adjust, familiarise ourselves, become desensitised and then begin to accept our circumstances.

Prior to moving into a Care Home my father-in-law had a series of agency carers looking after his physical care needs. The first time the implications of this really hit me was when we were visiting I witnessed his regular ‘put to bed’ time of 7pm at night - earlier than my 3 and 8 year old children. Of course I recognise that the over-stretched, under paid carers have to select someone to go to first - but it still felt so uncomfortable. This was a man who given the choice would stay up to 10pm before falling asleep in front of the tv or listening to music. Instead he lay rigid on his back all night till 8.00 or 9.00 in the morning worrying about accidentally knocking his catheter. So how is it that I became desensitised so quickly? Is it simply the powerless we feel in face of the enormity of caring for older infirm people?

I’ve been considering again this sense of frustration and powerlessness recently whilst working in a Care Home. On the surface this care home looks very smart, big open plan dining area, even cloth napkins on the table. The staff are friendly and helpful and interested in our activities there. But everything is dogged by constant noise. The big open planned dining hall - two floors of it, echoes with sound-and we aren’t there when the residents are eating…

We’re used to noise in our venues (and at home I have two noisy children) but some noises are really intrusive. Every staff member carries with them a pager, and they are constantly going off, echoing round the space high pitched ringing. The staff explain to us that they all get accustomed to the sound, they ignore it after a while, but as a visitor I feel the noise makes the home feel like a impersonal, posh hotel… not a home. The noise sets my nerve endings on edge, what effect does this have on an older person, one with a condition such as dementia?

“Of all the senses, hearing is the one that has the most significant impact on people with dementia in terms of quality of life. Noise that is acceptable to care staff may be distressing and disorientating for a person with dementia.”  Social Care Institute for Excellence.

What’s going on when we can so readily acclimatise ourselves to an un-healthy environment? When the policies take over the real caring?

Two thirds of older people living in care homes have a form of dementia, while only 60% of them are staying in accommodation specifically designed for their needs. This makes it harder for carers to provide good personal centred care, and provide activities. There are people researching into this area and suggesting simple changes that can improve our care environments, such as the wonderful ‘design for dementia’

Contrast this with another Care Home we are working in, it’s not so smart, and there’s plenty of loud sounds; banging doors, of daily choirs, but all this brings laughter or a raised eyebrow- this particular home feels like a home, just one with a very big family in. 

Friday, 10 May 2013

Oldham Royals

We've been working in partnership with Gallery Oldham to devise new ways of working with memory boxes to stimulate reminiscence. On Wednesday we revisited our reminiscence around the topic of the Royals, royal commemorative crockery, biscuit tins and souvenirs. The theme is a rich one because it highlights such big gaps in the social fabric, between rich and poor, past and present, Empire and UK.

Many of the folk we work with remember the inter-war period vividly and the royals were celebrities of the day. Several of the women in our group had been taught how to curtsey and most people witnessed the Queen's visit to Oldham. There was the usual mix of grumpiness and acceptance about the royals. Unusually, one person had been to the Palace to receive an award (he was tight-lipped about what it was) and could describe a Buck Palace tea – very good Battenburg cake apparently. His description of the Queen: 'She is very gracious, but extremely small.'

The point of this session was to go with people's reminiscence and then stand the whole thing on its head and invite people to depict themselves as a King or Queen, drawing either a likeness or a symbol of themselves onto a paper cup.

The sensitive, quirky portraits that emerged were joyful celebrations of the individual, gently subverting social pecking orders.


1 Prepare a paper cup by painting the background patterns. You'll need a colour that brings to mind royal crockery – blue was the colour we opted for. Paint a simple background, leaving an oval space for a portrait and perhaps some extra spaces for dates, a motto and some patterning.

2. Invite participants to make a portrait of themselves as a king or queen. This might take the form of a traditional portrait, or might be a symbolic crown, or an initial followed by the Regina R (for instance, Mildred would be MR) or even some abstract marks.

3. Ask them to add a date, perhaps their date of birth.

4. Ask them to add some words in the space left for the motto. Perhaps it could be a family saying, an idea of what they'd do if they were monarch, a memory of a time when they felt like king/queen, or most importantly of all describe the cake of their dreams.

Themes to discuss

Reminiscence about Royal events. Views on Royalty. Personal reflections on a time when they felt like a VIP.

For more photos please visit

Thursday, 9 May 2013

knitted costume

Oldham 1 May 2013 Making Memories

We've been making mini-poems on ceramic tiles, working with older people who have a dementia diagnosis. The pieces recall the tiled walls and pool interiors of old swimming pools and the public wash houses that were sometimes next-door to the pool.

The tiny poems can be read singly, or else as units of one larger poem. For people who might struggle to maintain attention for a long time, and additionally have some physical problems (eg. eyesight, arthritis) very compact written pieces are a good method. The poet/artist Ian Hamilton Finlay is a wonderful source of poetic strategies that are short but resonate with much bigger ideas.

Both groups we worked with were full of enthusiasm for public baths as a conversation topic, but the conversation swam off into directions we didn't expect. For a start, many didn't know how to swim because the school gave them a few sketchy lessons and left the rest to their parents who were too busy to teach their kids to stay afloat. So what we might now think of as a universal play experience was fearful to some. A second surprise for me was that alongside many swimming pools, wash houses were also to be found, sharing a boiler room for that rare commodity hot water. The wash houses provided the facility of a bath for people who didn't have such a luxurious thing. In the wash houses, people also did their laundry. Sydney recollected: 'Women with big arms, mangling.'

The pieces were made by rolling out some air dry clay, cutting out a square and then using old printers' typesetting letters to print words into the clay surface. These poems were only one or two words long, so the choice and the treatment of the words was very important. People selected a short phrase from their reminiscence that had particular meaning to them. The writing process added another layer of meaning – for some the little metal print blocks were a confusion and their lettering 'took a walk' – which added incident and emphasis in unexpected places.

One of the pieces that gave me (and the maker) much pleasure simply said 'SYLVIA PADDLE', the words accompanied by a line of circular marks like punctuation morphing into bubbles. Sylvia explained that this little statement felt like an order – she didn't enjoy swimming and this was an instruction to get in the sea, do what she was told. I like the way it is in the present tense, as if the memory Sylvia is still here, still on the verge of being told what to do, or resist.

Another of these mini-poems is 'BITTER RIVER', the words arcing across the tile like water in a valley. And in fact this was a reference to swimming in a bitterly cold river valley up on the moors of childhood. To my mind the phrase also conjures the bitterness of salt in the sea, of chlorine in a swimming pool and of the carbolic soap, beloved of many mums in the era.

For more photos please visit