Thursday, 11 December 2008

The art of hearing aids

'There is a great art in using hearing aids,' Barbara commented at the beginning of this session. It's true: the things are a miracle of electronic engineering, but they squall and squeak through many of our gatherings like disgruntled babies.

One of the sadnesses of growing old is the isolation that can result - and bad hearing exaggerates this, drops the sufferer into an aquarium of muffled noise and looming faces whose words are lost in swirling tinnitus - another of the sadnesses of growing old is that the voices of older people are often ignored - seen but not heard, and not hearing.

This Friday we felt that we owed it to to the group to do a lighter session - the holocaust-related material is heartbreaking and heavy to carry week on week - so in order to find a lighter subject, we talked about light itself - a cutup of the conversation is to be found on this blog, titled the bedeken.

The subject came from the kabbalic A poem for the Sefirot as a wheel of light by Naftali Bacharach, the result of dipping the magnificent Poems for the Millenium vol 1 edited by Rothenberg and Joris (met Jerry Rothenberg awhile ago at dinner with Tony and Sue Trehy, but of that another time) - was delighted to find a concrete-ish poem form that dates from ways back and another older tradition than that of Dada and Noigandres - and so we talked about light and we made sure that everyone was heard.

Although Pat did have a snooze.

the bedeken

the bedeken

what is light? we don’t know

sometimes it behaves like a beam of particles
sometimes a
the sun must come up tomorrow
gladdening the bride - musseltov! good luck!
light is something I haven’t got
light meaning understanding and the longer days
seeing things that you can’t see is the dark
something I haven’t got
the dark/the sun

go out and lie
mention a rainbow, leave the curtains slightly ajar
at night, light refreshments bless you and
preserve pure oil to light candles
white light, all the colours, every religion has light
put it through the prism
bells to be rung, the priests roar
back to Stonehenge, the druids worshipping to catch the sun
facing west, see the sunset over the trees
the sun in the one candle
the lord shine and turn his countenance
we are all brought up blinkered behind those walls
think of summer and the longer days
what is light? we don’t know – something I cannot have
all religions carry their candles
lighting their memorials
sometimes a beam of particles, sometimes a wave
go out and lie in it
why does it worry scientists? because they can’t see?
the lights up and down fantastic
the lights upon the

sea prism
good sabbat to you and you and you and him
and I’ll keep a little bit for myself
things don’t grow in the dark
light is something I haven’t got

the call for prayer:
sun come up from the earth-rim like a bubble
brighten and ripen
the bride and groom

Myra, Barbara, Pat, Betty, Susie, Diana
5th December 2008
Morris Feinmann Home

pills by the bucketful

Last Friday, at Cherry Tree Hospital, working on our pilot ‘Patience project, we sat with a fantastic group of 9 older people all on the ‘Rehabilitation Ward’. We discussed what it feels like to live with pain, I found them to be inspirational in their attitudes, some had had a lifetime of pain, others living in retirement with it. Here are a few quotes:

“day by day, hope the next day will be a little bit better.”
“it’s a great thing when you can jump out of it, the body can be a prison sometimes”
“fight against it all the time, it will come never the less.”
“can’t move like I used to, must be something stopping me”
“hope and pray, they find a cure”
“tormenting irritation”
“best thing to try and think about other things, mind can conquer your body, can’t come easily though”
“got to make the most of what we’ve got”
“and hope the pain, next day is a little better, pills by the bucketful”
“it’d be like no end, there’d be no end to it, I’m on fire, I really feel it burns and hurts’
“an all over feeling, makes you depressed, you have to block it out”

we finished the session with a look at my collection of old medical tins, which everyone enjoyed, reminiscing about everything from Fennings Fever Cure, to Harrogate Iodised throat tablets, to permanganate of potash……pills by the bucketful!

Photo © Lois Blackburn 2008, for more please visit

Friday, 5 December 2008

Bring light towards you

A remarkable art project bringing together older Jewish people, Imperial War Museum North and the Morris Feinmann Home in Manchester will commemorate the holocaust in poems displayed at Piccadilly Railway Station, Manchester.

On Holocaust Memorial Day (27th January 2009) poetic texts created by the older people, many of whom are holocaust survivors, will be displayed in lights on the electronic billboard at Piccadilly Station, Manchester. The holocaust has often been linked to trains: millions of people, particularly Jews, were taken to concentration camps by train before being killed in the notorious nazi Final Solution during the Second World War. This artwork will give fragments from accounts of their journeys: to destruction and journeys of escape.

‘Kindness’ is one of many arts projects run by the arthur+martha organisation; artist Lois Blackburn and poet Philip Davenport have been working with older Jewish people living at The Morris Feinmann Home, Manchester, exploring issues in regard to the holocaust. John Collins from Imperial War Museum-North is part of the team, bringing objects and personal stories from the museum collection to discuss and prompt memories.

“This work is made up of family histories, experiences of displacement, refugee backgrounds and direct holocaust memories,” says Davenport. “We are interested in the bric-a-brac of people’s lives, the tiny moments, rather than the grand history. We called the project Kindness because some of these people experienced a terrible lack of kindness. And because they were persecuted for being a certain ‘kind’ of cultural group.”

Lois Blackburn added: “It’s a privilege to meet the wonderful people at Morris Feinmann and we are delighted about our collaboration with Imperial War Museum North too. This is important work, but it touches very deep memories and we will tread delicately. One of the women we worked with used the phrase ‘Bring light towards you’ in a poem and that little phrase seems to sum up our philosophy for this project – whether it is the light of realisation, of finding hope, or simply of clear recollection.”

Maria Turner, Activities Co-ordinator at the Morris Feinmann Home, described the effect of arthur+martha’s work: “In a very sensitive and caring approach, the project has enabled our residents to talk about their experiences and express their feelings.”

From 24-31 January 2009, Imperial War Museum North will be hosting a series of free events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, including gallery tours, lectures, musical performances and storytelling. The Museum also runs regular object handling sessions and tours for school groups learning about the Holocaust.

Funding for Kindness has been provided by the Clore Duffield Foundation, through Sparks: The Clore Jewish Development Fund.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Cherry Tree Nov 28

Around the table in an old nightingale ward people are face-to-face - it's a relief to be gathered in a group rather than moving from bed to bed as we tend to in the modern wards.

It's a remarkable and charming group - the lady sitting next to me has lost her sight in the last two years but has great equanimity ("I try to accept what's given with good grace") - another lady waiting for a cancer operation is nervous and brittle - an older man quiet, tremulous with war memories - a woman drooped in semi-sleep comes alive with the conversation, and another and another...

(1920s: at school as a child eating an apple, surrounded by other children so hungry that they are waiting for the core to eat.)

We talk about the time they are in now, at the end of their days and the time they grew up in amidst war and poverty but with a remembered sense of community - Lois and I jotting down their observations - there's a consensus among the group that many feel lost in this time and useless - where is there a place for all this experience? - I tell them about 'other societies' - what a catch all - where older people are considered to be in the last phase of their lives and it is their function to reflect on what they have lived - this is their contribution to society - this is what I've read though have not witnessed for myself, so can't vouch for the truth.

What's surely true is that it's an indictment of our own place and age that we do not have the ability to receive this wisdom from our elders, even less value it - but still, in this long room they sit full of treasure.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

‘Now I think in English’

(Holocaust survivor, Morris Feinmann Home Nov 2008)

The first holocaust survivor I met was a man called Meyer – he had been in Auschwitz – showed me the tattoo on his wrist – I was interviewing him for a newspaper several years ago and we talked for hours – he told stories that were so cruel I sank back into a kind of dream – the voice stayed with me for weeks after, little mirror fragments of someone else’s terror – in the last few weeks Lois and I have interviewed several survivors, including a man who was interned in Buchenwald – each time I slip into the same familiar uneasy half-here state of self-anaesthesia.

Over the nine years that Lois and I have worked together we have talked with several thousand older people about their life stories – in some ways I wonder if I’ve lived my life too much through them, because I love these accounts so much – have I become a hollow vessel for other people’s lives? - I wonder if you can really learn through other’s experiences or if, like reading a book, that is only part of the story – you have to find out the rest by being fully within your own history?

When I visited Berlin recently I was struck by how energetic the city is and yet how haunted – as I rushed between the u-bahn stations or walked around Prinzlauerberg on my way to meet artists and poets I felt as though I was being stepped through by ghosts – I’d spoken to so many older Jewish people who’d left nazi Berlin (and lost whole families there) that it was difficult to separate my now from their memories.

I feel extremely privileged to have spoken with the survivors I have met (oh how insufficient these words!) – but the accounts divide me – I have shied away from reading very much about the nazi holocaust – it seems so unremittingly hopeless - and yet like every human who has curiosity I also contain a terrible need to know just what happened – although I can find no overarching sense there.

Work on the text pieces for Piccadilly Station is close to done and none of this is any more resolved – perhaps one of the things that we are bearing witness to is our own struggle to understand.

'The German I talk is not the same as the language the German people are talking here'. (Paul Celan, letter)

Kindness and the Imperial War Museum

On Friday afternoon, John Collins from the Imperial War Museum North, paid his second visit to The Morris Feinmann Home. For the discussion, we suggested the theme of ‘Why the Jews?’ John brought in documents and handling materials from the Museum, then started the discussion with Hitler’s rise to power and the harrowing impact it had on the Jews. We investigated evidence of Anti-Semitism and possible reasons for it.

Before the discussion I felt nervous about sitting with a group of elderly Jewish people and posing the question, ‘why you?’ Many of the participants had been directly affected by the Holocaust. However, everyone seemed to be keen to discuss the question. It was an incredibly moving afternoon. John was eloquent and knowledgeable in his presentation and during his talk I watched woman who had experienced events first hand in Berlin, nodding in agreement and sharing their memories. One of the most moving moments, was when John showed us some replica callipers, and how they where used by the Nazis to measure racial purity and therefore human value. A woman who hadn’t spoken until then, said quietly and with matter of fact, that they had been used on her. I spoke with her later, and she explained that when she had left Berlin, the family went to live in Holland, where at school her teacher had used the callipers to measure the skulls of any of the children who where suspected or known to be Jewish. To know some of the history is one thing, but to meet the people who experienced it is quite another.