Friday, 13 December 2013

How much is in a tale

We're on the search for memory prompts to serve as reminiscence aids for the project Making Memories. The sheer physicality of an object (a rolling pin, a potty, a toy car, a perfume bottle, a teapot, a spigot, a bob-chaser, a doozie...) is a powerful tool. Just as taste can prompt remembering, a la Proust, so can touch, smell, weight. One of the best gadgets we've discovered in this respect is a pile of books.

Collection of Beatrix Potter's Books 

Lois and I brought books from our collections this morning to Shaw Side, Residential and Nursing Home, we worked with people who have a dementia diagnosis. The table was piled with a diverse set: illustrated children's books both old and modern, Pooh, Alice, Peter Rabbit and assorted chums, an atlas, the Observer Book of Flowers, the Observer Book of Planes, a “Cyclopaedia”, a rhyming dictionary of my Dad's and a venerable book of Keats' poems.

Lois had prepared some outsize library cards as templates for people to write/draw into and we'd a stock of creative writing exercises in our back pockets. This felt risky because dementia can incapacitate folk very cruelly – language dexterity suffers, for example - and we didn't want to over-tax or embarrass anyone. But conversely we didn't want to underestimate people either. So, the paper and pens were around as an option if anyone wanted to take it (most didn't) and meanwhile I wrote down their observations as material for a group poem.

Page from The Observer Book of Planes

What became apparent was that all the people around the table were capable of entering the world that these books opened into. Even if it was with faltering steps, they went right on in. The illustrations were a key, the sumptuous colours of the plates in the illustrated Alice in Wonderland, the exquisite Beatrix Potter artworks, the heart-warming cheeriness of Winnie the Pooh. All of these caused delight, amusement and even wonder. An ex-seamstress marvelled at the embroidery-like detail in Beatrix Potter. And a model aeroplane enthusiast worked slowly through the Observer Book of Planes, before passing it onto the ex-WAAF veteran sitting next to him. The woman next to me gasped audibly at the autumn colours on a page of Winnie the Pooh.

Lois's childhood copy of The World of Pooh

But the language too held a fascination, people picked key phrases or words and rolled them around their mouths, savouring them. One of my neighbours went into a long, detailed reverie about the meaning of storytelling. Her language was scattered and diffuse to my ears, but she spoke with her own precision and the power of it pulled me in. She ended with: “It's a big thing, how much is in a tale...”

Books are not just made of words. They have a powerful physical authority and they bring a huge number of associations to mind, good and bad. The words within are translations of the authors' raw experience into language and the reader re-translates them into various sorts of understanding. That understanding is a gift of the reader to the reader and it occurs within them; it is their possession and it cannot finally be measured or judged except by them. What was so moving today was to see that the pleasure given by a book can exist in a place where understanding sometimes seems very far away.

Atlas dating from 1933


Responding to books

Hold a book – guess what's in it without opening it. Make up your own story for it.

Open a book and sniff the pages – what does the smell remind you of?

Draw around a book, then another and another, until you have a cluster of rectangles; give it a title.

Exercises, to be written onto library cards

Categorise your favourite book, replacing the name of the author with your own name, the Dewey number with your date of birth and summaris the story in no more than 20 words.

Write the first line of an invented story on the card, spreading your words out across the whole card, hopping between lines and using the gaps between the words to illustrate the story in some way.

Decorate a library card to be the front cover of a favourite book.

If there was a library of your childhood what would be the titles of ten of the books?

Make a story using at least one word that rhymes with 'book' in each sentence.

Tut, tut, child!  said the Duchess. Every thing's got a moral, if only you can find it

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