Monday, 24 December 2012

A Warm Winter

We hope that everyone reading this has a happy, safe winter festival.

It's the end of the year - arthur+martha will take a holiday interlude until early January. This blog is by way of a hello and thank you to the many people we've spent time with in 2012.  In assorted homeless drop-ins, dementia groups, sheltered housing, universities and art groups we've been met with kindness, humour and bravery.

The warm of human company has been an abiding theme, especially as the weather grows cold and we witness the hardship it brings for some folk. But delight and fasination are also there, keeping back the dark. We're lucky enough to share in extraordinary lives, as we run workshops and discussions and all the rest. We'd like to express our gratitude to all the people we have met and worked with over the last year. This little patchwork below, of portraits and artworks from the year is a souvenir of those enounters.

Friday, 21 December 2012


The arthur+martha exhibition 'the warm /&/ the cold', textiles and textworks by homeless people, is at the Holden Gallery, Manchester Metropolitan University until 25 January 2013.

Second of a 2-part blog

Philip writes:

(We were showing a group of homeless people around an exhibition of their own work at Manchester Metropolitan University...)

We moved onto the big pieces, the textiles. Here are fragments of stories, the lives of homeless people, embroidered onto quilts and painted on ceramics, often by the tellers themselves. They are responses to simple questions - which don’t have simple answers. When were you warm? When were you cold?

The group had only seen the pieces as little scraps of cloth, not sewn together into the large, communal artworks that they'd now become. They'd come in from a bitterly cold day and were suffering from the bite of winter. But as they warmed in the space, they also warmed up to the work. We started to hear expressions of delight, of pride.

People talked about being physically cold, but also emotional warmth: 'The atmospherte, people's handiwork, people's hearts. The art makes it homely in here. It's real. Makes it homely when people pour their hearts out. I feel relaxed and I'm not usually, I'm usually on edge...' (Maureen)

From shepherding a little group of - what felt to me - very fragile people we were suddenly in the presence of artists. They expanded to fit the role, the room - relaxing in the sofas by the artworks and chatting about the meaning of it all, the FEELING of being a maker. The project was devised to help people develop new skills, socialise and build confidence - and in this moment that was precisely what it achieved.

Volunteer student helpers from the Embroidery and MA Textiles Department at Manchester Metropolitan University also helped to stitch the work and made quilts in reply. Volunteers from the Women's Institute additionally lent their needles and expertise. 

The project challenges stereotypes about homelessness, combating hate crime against homeless people and emphasizing needs shared by us all – especially shelter and acceptance. Lines from the denim quilt are currently being shown as text animations by the BBC, on Big Screens in Manchester and Liverpool. 

To find out more, follow these links:

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Warm, vorm

The arthur+martha exhibition 'the warm /&/ the cold', textiles and textworks by homeless people, is at the  Holden Gallery, Manchester Metropolitan University until 25 January 2013.

(Part 1 of a two-part blog)

Philip writes:

They came straggled and frozen out of the November weather, like a line of refugees from old war footage. Clothes bundled and grey with damp, faces pale. As they got close to, I could see that people were shivering.

Lois and I had been installing an exhibition of artwork by homeless people. Our heads were full of technical details and logistics, as always when installing a show. This morning we'd scheduled a celebratory little gathering of homeless people involved. So it was a reality-jolt to see our familiar group from The Booth Centre, when they filed towards the gallery. Somehow I'd not expected them to be hit by the cold so brutally, not OUR group, our companions.

As soon as they stepped inside, they flocked to the radiators. M, was almost doubled in pain, he perched himself right on the scalding pipes and shivered endlessly. J miserably requested the loo, asking permission while squirming uncomfortably. The white faces seemed somehow tiny, reduced from the lively personalities we'd encountered during our workshops sessions at The Booth Centre, The Big Issue office and the Red Door. These were people who were now concentrated simply on living. I watched them struggling and - stupidly - I felt like crying, like an outraged kid who has just discovered unfairness.

Hot drinks were being served to students around the corner and our group filtered in amongst them, pouring hot coffee into their shaking bodies and eating snacks for the sugar burst. Their clothes and skin marked them cruelly apart from the fresh-faced students who bustled about them. They moved slowly and their eyes contained something faraway.

Then as we settled on sofas and people slowly began to warm up, there was a sea-change in mood. They started to look around them - and see their work. Curiosity replaced misery. We did a walkround tour of the pieces, first the ceramics - wry little lines about warmth, food, shelter, scripted onto mugs and plates.

A particular favourite was a big yellow plate whose enormous capacity delighted everyone - 'You could eat for a week off that.' This piece caught the attention of one of our regulars - he did a double-take. 'They're MY words.' He said. Minutes previously he'd been unable to stand up straight, but for a little while, the pride in what he'd made, the joy of that artefact, that other him, pulled him some way out of pain.

To read more, follow these links:

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


The following article about our project the warm /&/the cold is from The Big Issue in the North magazine. Dawn Bunnell writes:


The traditional arts of patchwork quilting and embroidery are being used to record the experiences of Manchester’s homeless community.

the warm /&/the cold  is a project run by arthur+martha arts organisation, led by poet Phil Davenport and artist Lois Blackburn.

Created out of denim fabric, the quilt is made of denim from recycled pairs of jeans - twenty-seven in all - embroidered with personal descriptions of when a homeless person was warm or cold.

The project began eight months ago and has taken arthur+martha right into the heart of Manchester’s homeless population working with vendors from The Big Issue in the North and also people using the Booth Centre. The project gathers together artwork, poetry and interviews born out of spending time listening to the life experiences of people living on the streets.

Poet Phil Davenport said: “The quilt is created by asking simple questions that have complex answers – when were you warm? When were you cold? They lead into the whole area of homeless experiences. Physical warmth and extreme cold, but also emotional warmth, or being left out in the cold of rejection.

“We work with people who wouldn’t normally get heard, yet have a lot of wisdom. Many people who live outside of society see what’s going on more clearly then everyone else. People we've met also have great humour and resilience, which is an inspiration to me personally.”

The experiences are written onto the fabric by the homeless people themselves, who have also helped embroider their own words, with support from students from Manchester Met University.

Once the six by nine feet quilt is completed, it will be displayed alongside a range of other quilts made during the project at the university’s Holden Gallery, from 3 December for two weeks. These quilts will then be donated as housewarming gifts to people who are being rehoused.

Andy (participant) and denim quilt

Phil said: “The quilts are traditional, but also represent warmth, hospitality and the home - and the stories they tell are preserved through touch. It's a very ancient ritual we've tapped into, the passing on of personal histories.”

Little animations featuring lines from the big quilt are being screened throughout November and December on Manchester’s BBC Big Screen outside the Triangle shopping centre and on Liverpool's BBC Big Screen.

Phil added: “It has been wonderful to do this; we were moved and honoured to hear the stories. And the project has obviously been a big deal to the participants, one guy we spoke to had his files lost by the DSS, he felt invisible – he told me working with us made him feel visible again. A woman today kept saying how joining in with this had boosted her confidence, just a bit of talking and sewing. Sometimes it's the little-seeming things in life that are the biggest.”

Exhibition of quilts, ceramics and prints the warm /&/the cold at The Holden Gallery, Manchester Metropolitan University, starts 3 Dec 2012.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

do unto others

In the course of our Oldham project 'making memories' we are trying to find ways that we can intensify and find meaning in memories, using objects.

Working at The Grange (Housing with support) in the morning and Highbarn Day Centre in the afternoon, Phil and I adapted our on-going project 'Lost Property'. The technique gives everyone an opportunity to subtly effect the meaning of their selected object, and emphases their reminiscence. While Phil led the session, I wrote 'field notes'....

Walter with Rolls Royce

Phil introduces his toy dinky Rolls Royce, explains his history with the item as it goes round; smiles all round as he explains the frustration he felt as a child having to keep it in the box. It's carefully handled by the group, Doreen shares memories of dinky cars her sons played with. Phil asks 'Did you have a special toy? Conversation flows between members of the group, sometimes directed straight to Phil. Doreen keeps spying the other objects in the bag, curious to see them, prompting me to get them out. Walter takes hold of the lead toy soldier with real delight and an animated face.

do unto others  Eunice, Oct 2012

The conversations inspired by each other seem as lively as those inspired by the objects, especially so when a subject everyone has an opinion about - such as how to punish children! This became particularly animated and passionate.

Good to have some objects to show with an element of mystery , the small dog on a marble base produced a range of ideas for its use... Paper weight, box lid, or simply a decoration. I would like to see space within these memory boxes for mystery objects, ones that provoke imagination and play - where everyone is on the same footing, staff and participant.

Labelling: the group got on with writing labels without questions, we didn't go into detail as to the reason why we were writing on the labels. There is an ease amongst the group, perhaps due to the relationship built over the previous sessions, perhaps the enjoyment of the conversations before the writing exercise. V was the only one who struggled, it was her first time with the group, she seemed confused at times. She would have benefited from one to one attention throughout the session. Doreen, Yvette, Eunice, and Reet understood and savoured the extra dimension and depth the labels gave to the objects.

Everyone agreed that it was useful to pass on a message. That they would all be curious to see a label attached, that it would impact on the object, 'It becomes a story'. in Doreen's case the labeled doll became a story of life and death.

'my first night duty' Doreen Oct 2012

The various objects passed round focus attention; people speak about the object, which in turn inspires more conversation, drifting and at time leaping between topics. 

Introducing new objects allow subtle directing of conversation...

Reet: I love it coming here, I'm so pleased that you're carrying on. I shouted yes! When I heard it was going to carry on. 

Questions asked:

1. Do you have a childhood object or toy or memory that is your most important.
2. What conclusion have you drawn from life? Or did someone ev give you a good piece of advice.
3. What is the link between the answers to these two questions?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A welcome at The Red Door

the warm /&/the cold project
Bury Housing Concern Nov 14 2012

As part of our ongoing project with homeless people, we've conducted many mini-interviews with homeless people, which are fascinating and moving accounts of difficult lives. We've also been in contact with many carers, support workers and helpers at the drop-ins and centres we've visited. One such is a volunteer helper at 'The Red Door' drop-in, known more officially as Bury Housing Concern.

Homelessness happens to anyone, any age. Mainly it follows family or relationship breakdown, that's the main one. The big problem.

We try to help people with the situation they're immediately in, whatever level of urgency it is. Have they just come in wanting a shoulder to cry on? Have they just become homeless? Do they need a bit of TLC or are there deeper problems? We work our way up the ladder, starting with what they think they need. Then we go on up. A lot of people don't understand their rights and their needs. Usually I get the tears, my job is listening. They come to me with a story and I'll ask what help they need.

As somebody who has been homeless myself, I always tell them my story and then we compare notes. We end up chatting and I find out what they need - and I tell them the rest, their rights and so on. It can be very emotional.

I get a lot of kisses and cuddles in this job.

I think you need to be a good listener; they don't need advice ramming down their throats. Someone might've come in here for months, then one day they'll say: 'We need to talk and they'll break down in tears - and we'll talk properly.

I love doing this work, the job satisfaction is so big.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

From Mayo to Melbourne

The Big Issue in the North office, 7 Nov 2012
the warm /&/ the cold project

Here's an interview with Peter, a very cheery homeless man in Manchester who we met at The Big Issue in the North office today. This is one of many such encounters, documented as part of our project with homeless people in Manchester, discussing their lives. Peter comes from County Mayo in Ireland, but has his sights set on getting to as many places in the world as he can that begin with the letter M. Manchester is just the start. We've heard many accounts of just how punishing life on the streets can be, but Peter has a different point of view.


I like sleeping out, I find it natural. I've an awful addiction to television. No problem with that on the streets. I'm qualified to be a farmer, I'm just one who doesn't have a farm. If you want to be a farmer you have to get yourself a farm. It's a good life outside, it is THE life. You have happiness with the time you've spent. I wouldn't be happy with a history of well-watched Coronation Street.

It's very cheap on the streets, no rent, no heating bills – no heating. I find a log fire or a turf fire to be the best way of heating. It's a free life. I've been moving around the last two years. Money can be a problem, but I've always worked, always been able to make the money in one industry or another. I want to stay on the road awhile then at the end I'll buy a house and a farm. When I settle, find true love or whatever is out there.

I ran out of money, the cheques started bouncing. Got a heavy prison sentence which ran me out of money more. Sold the farm - got me debt-clear but I didn't have any way of moneymaking. I started travelling, doing work. Cards for cash in Dublin, had fun with that. Kept farming, WOOF-ing (Worldwide Organisation of Organic Farming) doing odd jobs and now I've found The Big Issue.

From here, truck driving or farming, see whichever comes in. See the world while I've the chance: Amsterdam, Spain, Holland, Europe, Russia, Australia – the whole lot. When you own a house you're un-free, it's restricting. It buys you a safe place to stop but you can't run out the door and be a player. You're either a jet or a homeowner.

I've never come across that rough a time on the street, I'm a fairly happy-go-lucky fella. I know what a hammering is – know what a fight is and how to dodge it. Usually it's at night these things happen. I go to sleep through all that, it's the right time to be doing it anyway, at night. Find somewhere to sleep, stay in hostels, shelters, or parks, wherever you can pitch a tent. I have a tent, never leave home without one.

If you'd like to follow Peter's travels, go to his Facebook page: Patrick J Larkin at

Monday, 5 November 2012


17 October, The Grange, Oldham

Philip writes:

We're working on developing reminiscence boxes, for use in care venues for older people. The objects in these boxes can spur very powerful remembering in people, even those who have memory problems.

We're trying various techniques, many of them light and playful, to add different facets to the reminiscence experience. Today, we put the objects into a bag - participants had to identify them by touch, reaching into the bag, exploring them by touch rather than by sight. The results caused great hilarity and gave the session a different focus than usual, stimulating much speculation and concentration. Smell is famously a trigger for memory, but touch is less used.

I'd brought various relics from my own childhood to the session, amongst them some toy soldiers. Here is the section from my field notes when the soldiers made their appearance:

Walter is completely transfixed when he encounters the toy soldiers in the bag. He gasps with recognition and a look of joy lifts his features. His delight is so big that it communicates itself to everyone in the group. His train of thought is fascinating, from childhood play to military service. 'It's going back for me. The subject isn't nice BUT the memories it evokes, they are nice. Cast them in lead a long time ago. (Dips into the bag and holds up one of the toy soldiers.) You can tell he's old, his rifle is drooping. I knew a lot of lads in Germany who were injured, became friends. Politicians have got a lot to answer for, people are the same everywhere, it's what they're directed to do by politicians is the problem.'

The reminiscences were cut up into lines and also put in a bag. People 'lucky-dipped' the lines, which were used to make a poem - a composition technique famously invented by the surrealists in the early 20th century, going under the title Exquisite Corpse. Dipping for objects and for poem lines brings an element of play into remembering and takes away from the fears that can accompany dementia.

I wonder what the 10 year old me would have thought of this game?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A life about meself

Spaghetti Maze: dementia and life stories

Lois and I visited Bury Dementia Cafe for the first time this week. We've been commissioned by Bury Art Gallery to devise life stories, working with people who have a dementia diagnosis and the Cafe was the latest port of call.

A life story document helps people remember their lives as memory fails - an invaluable ally as they progress through the stages of dementia. It can also be crucial for carers to 'know' someone in their care quickly and to understand their mindset. Finally, life stories are a kind of heirloom which can be handed down through a family.

We're experimenting with the many life story templates that are available, bringing some fresh thinking to the field. For years now we've used avant garde writing techniques to help people access and write about their memories and in this project we're trying some of those approaches. But we've also been asking participants what they believe are the most important parts of their lives and reinforcing that by recording their conversations, noting things they like to discuss.

This week we brought some of the life story templates to the session and asked participants and carers what questions they think a life story should answer. Did their lives break down into easy-to-spot categories? What were their important life stages? What would be good questions to ask so as to find out about a life? The questions that people suggested are in bold in the text below. What phrases did they use to describe certain periods of their life experience? The phrase 'The Dancing Years' had a wonderful ring to it, as an evocation of teenage freedom and restlessness. And rather than the ponderous word Autobiography, I liked the phrase 'A life about meself.'

Just about everybody chipped in with some thoughts. Here are some of them below, from my notebook jottings. 

Childhood 'A learning time'
Teenage 'The dancing years'

Life experiences and emotional histories shape our reactions. How do you react to difficult circumstances?

“Mum and dad's music was motown. I still love motown...” Who influenced you? How were you influenced?
People you meet change you and alter your path – What's your path? What shape? Was it a wandering road or a straight line? Did you get to where you were headed?
Politics: 'I was a political animal, through and through. But I put family first.'

Family stays with us – how do we keep it alive? Grieve for it?

Inherited beliefs: 'The need to work and how to treat people. Justice. Treat everybody with FAIRATION.'
Family history and rebellion against it and yet how precious it becomes when we get older. 'I wish I'd asked more.'
'It's because they're no longer here and yet you're trying to hang onto them.'
'You're curious about why your children are the way they are.'
'Tell it, if not for us, for your grandchildren.'

Fitting a whole life into a small space, like a life story book. How do you squeeze it in, choosing the most important bits? 'It's difficult to compress..'
Individuality is difficult to describe. 'The unusual thing about my life is...'

Heirlooms as history.
Objects have some of their power because of their personal or social resonance with history.
'Being born in a certain period shapes your future.'
'These events shape the human being you eventually become.'
'It's a devastating thing to be bombed.'
What childhood memory would you keep? What experience would you pass on?
Autobiography 'A life about meself.'

'I hope that you have managed to enjoy the opportunities you have worked for.'
How fortunate are you?
Travel - 'I was able to travel, the world opened up.'
Things you might have done (but didn't). What are the great might-have-beens in your life?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

What brave masks we wear

I don't like living on my own, I miss someone to talk to since my husband died. Some people like their own company but I don't. People never think of others as socially handicapped – not because of physical disability, but because of opportunity. I was left in a big house completely alone, everything echoed. I got hypothermia: not because I didn't have the heating on but because I didn't care. I was socially handicapped, really lonely.

This little moment of conversation at one of our workshops touched me very much when I heard it. The observations were made by one of the older women to Lois this week. It captures the brutal fact of loneliness very eloquently - and the craving for company, so strong that it outstrips hunger. These comments were made by a person who on the face of it is confident, out-going and very insightful. What brave masks we wear.

Because I've been keeping 'field notes' of our sessions in Oldham recently, I had the opportunity to catch these words. The participant had full knowledge; I hope that her words speak for others in this predicament and might foster some understanding.

Eating on my own is horrible, I need someone to talk to when I eat. I cook a meal, but there's no one to share it with, taste goes even when you're hungry. A Saturday drags on and on – sometimes on a Saturday I might not talk to a soul.

Anything like this helps (ie. being in a reminiscence session) just to be with people. It gives me something to talk about, to listen to apart from my own voice. You verbalise when you're on your own. Some activities are more interesting than others, but if you crave company to be honest you'll go to anything. I go to bingo here, but really we want conversation. I never played bingo before this, I had no interest. And when we do play it, you can't talk properly you're too busy.

A perfect activity is something like this: where we're doing something and discussing it and you have to think. I can think to myself I've spoken to someone, done something today. The good effect of it lasts longer.

When my husband was dying, I sat with him reading in the ward. After he died, my confidence went and I find it hard to go out on my own. When I was young I went to Paris on my own, now I find it hard to walk down the corridor. And even if I do get over my agoraphobia, what's the point? I'm over eighty years old, I've got nowhere to go to. I need to talk.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The cold and the cold

We're finishing the warm /&/ the cold our project with homeless people over the next weeks. The following interview is with J who was kind enough to describe his life very frankly. The interview took place in the summer, but I've held it back til now because J spoke so powerfully about living with the cold, surviving the time of year that's now nearly upon us.  

Sleeping in snow - cold, you know what I mean. Times you are just waiting for the sunlight, for the morning to come. Are you going to make it through the night? Get up and walk around a couple of hours, get the blood moving. The worst? Being wet and cold, that's when you get pneumonia. A lot of people die in their sleep on the street.

January time, freezing. Always try to get under cover, get a bit of cardboard. Even if you're sleeping out in spring or autumn, you'll need cardboard on a stone floor. I used to know some lads who would stack ten or twelve bits of carboard, like a mattress. Wheelie bins, I've slept in them but they're dangerous. Fall asleep and next thing you're getting minced in a bin lorry.

Fella died in Brighton last year when I was down there, bled to death through his back passage. Cancer or something. I knew him by sight, seen him drinking. I stay away from drinkers, it's easy to fall into a lot of things - heroin, drink, renting. I keep myself to myself. Have a few friends. Good to have mates, three or four blokes and you're safe. Amount of people who get kicked in... Kids battered a fella to death with a shopping trolley. Madness. Some people do it for the fun of it I think, must be drunk. I try not to sleep in the city centre. Walk a mile or so, if it's dry and warm kip in the park. If it's wet, you need to be out of the wet. Somewhere where the nutters aren't.

People on the streets, Ive met lawyers, doctors living homeless. Maybe their wife died, or a kid and they've run away from it all. The trouble with the street is it's addictive. There's always something happening. No one to tell you what to do. No person you are responsible for except yourself, or your dog. Things change every minute.

Dogs are good company. I'm thinking of getting a dog. You look after them and they look after you. A dog's got a woolly coat and they're warm to cuddle. And they keep strangers at bay. The dog, he'd eat before me. If people see the dog looking nice, they're kind to you. If they see a dog looking emaciated...

One of the worst things is finding your friends are dead. I know it always comes as a surprise, but on the street it happens a lot. It can be such a lot of times. Three or four in a month. The average life expectancy is 44. If you've been on the streets since you were 16 you haven't seen doctors regularly. Lads on the street if they're poorly won't go and see a doctor. You need money first. Do you chase money or go see a doctor? You need dinner down your stomach before you need meds.

You can have some good laughs though. I remember being on top of a mountain in the Black Hills, on a sofa, taken four Es...

A lot of people take too many drugs, that's the problem. Self-harm, suicide. One lad I knew used to cut his face. I said if you've gotta do it, cut your arms. Springtime that's the last time I saw someone self-harm. This girl - I saw her arms...

I dunno, people feel sad of themselves. All running from something. Not crime, things you done to your family. Say you've got a visit with your kids and you can't see them cos you've got no money and they're crying... One bloke, my daughter's godfather, died sleeping out. He wasn't a drug addict, just a drinker.

But everyone dies, if they've got a house or not.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Eveybody is a memory

This is an account of a reminiscence session with people who have a dementia diagnosis, using 'memory boxes' as a spark for remembering. The boxes are filled with memorabilia, each box themed around a particular aspect of life – school, holidays, royalty, etc. We've been commissioned by the Barings Foundation to work alongside Gallery Oldham on development of the use of such memory boxes.

The following is based on Philip's field notes, written as the session was actually taking place. We're learning from the approaches taken by Gallery Oldham, observing and trying to see possibilities for areas of development.  We've noticed the power of objects to ground people who struggle with the process of remembering. In this session that shock of remembering was palpable – people actually jerked reflexively when they saw some objects. This session was led by Glenys from Gallery Oldham, at High Barn day centre.

Philip's notes, taken October 2013

Glenys starts by holding up the first object, a rectangle of stone the size of a bar of soap: 'D'you remember the donkey stone?'

(Donkey stones were used for cleaning and smoothing the front doorstep and some of the front stonework of a house, like a stone brillo pad.)

'Oh yes and you smoothed it over...' says one participant.

People are jolted by the object, its charisma. But they struggle to follow the associated conversation and questions, which the previous group had enjoyed. This particular client group evidently need time to absorb and respond. Pauses are vital, to allow depth of response from participants.

Conversely, if people from the group also interrupt the flow, this also means participants don't trust the safety of the direction; there's confusion rather than a theme to hang onto. With the clash of the effect of various dementias in one space there is a great deal of distraction and interruption. Some authority is necessary, but how overt?

More objects are passed around the room. The sense of touch speaks loud. Powerful effect that the objects have on the participants – cutting through dementia haze. The presence of these talismans of the past is almost magical. They are far stronger than photos or even conversational clues. Could this be further reinforced by using smell and sound? Noticeable how this group are unable to engage with one another fully in this particular situation. The conversation is directed towards the objects rather than one another. People speak to the thing itself, as if it's their own raw past.

'I feel 99 now' – a wry observation.

'Going back some years now.'

Rich memories here in this group of battered minds and yet untapped. How to reach through? Most people here are in their 70s and 80s – what a vast swathe of history they've lived between them; and how fascinating it would be to know how it is to be the custodian of all this memory and yet to have it shorn away by amnesia: one woman says, 'I think I should know, but I can't describe it.'

'Everybody is a memory.' Another participant makes this very beautiful remark, but is lost in the flurry of individual conversations and the objects. Key observations like this could be noted perhaps and fed back to the group...

'We have learned something here today haven't we?' says W, without any confidence, as if she's been attending a lesson part-understood. Lois and I talk about us learning from her, rather than her from us. W then tries to pass on one of her memories, struggling hard to recollect. She is full of the need to share this information – it's clearly compelling her, the force of the need to tell. It occurs to me that this is perhaps one of the most fundamental human characteristics, to remember and to pass on memory – this is how we make ourselves and by making our history pass on the essence of our understanding. But the words fail. She's cheery, despite this set back: 'We can laugh at it all,' she says.


- Power of objects to reach people with a dementia diagnosis

- these people need time to reflect on the objects and respond

- poignancy of age and memory loss can hit people heavily (eg. 'I feel 99.')

- deep-seated need for people to have a chance to articulate their memory experiences

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Life lessons

I have had a difficult lesson of late: 'Lifestory work is just not for everyone' however much I wish it was.

I find myself getting tied up in knots at times, trying to give everyone opportunities to have this kind of experience - we see the great results that can be achieved for the participants, their carers, families and friends and want that for others. But giving real choice means enabling people to come and go in sessions as they choose and listening to people who say they just aren't interested.

I spoke to Linda from Oldham Life Story Network about our projects,  She was helpful in her straightforwardness. She said 'Lifestory work is not for everyone, it's to support the person, and to put out what they want to share.' In other words, it's centred around personal choice.
We've had people drop out of session before, when the act of remembering has just been too painful for them - due to the content of the memory, or the frustrations of the fight for that memory (due to dementia, or other health conditions) or other barriers. But what if someone is unsure, or their capacity for decision-making is shaky? 

There are tricky judgements to be made sometimes, and none of us are infallible. In a recent session, a member of staff encouraged a participant in our group to stay, even when she was clearly agitated and wanted to leave. Often in these situations, we'll step in and suggest that the person leave. However, we also have to respect the insight and judgement of staff too. It's a balancing act, the staff usually know the participant much better than we do, and therefore should know how far to push - but such moments leave me feeling uncomfortable. We also have to look at the happiness of the whole group, when one person feels agitated, it can easily spread to others. 

We have worked with people with difficult histories before - reminiscing with holocaust survivors and former refugees was challenging at the time. Recently we have been working with a women, who over the course of our encounters, revealed a very disturbing past, with memories of beatings for her and her mother from her father, and hints at abuse from her husband and former boss. She seemed to find it cathartic to talk about these issues in the group - an unburdening - but she couldn't stop herself coming back to the subject, whatever else we were talking about. This impacted on the whole group. I believe that the issues raised for her personally were so serious that they needed individual attention. We have discussed this with the staff, and don't feel it appropriate to work further with her - and will be referring her for receive professional support. 

Life story work, is fundamentally there to support the person, and to put out what they want to share. Every project and everyone we work with, we learn more. They're not all easy lessons.


Thursday, 11 October 2012

a homemade bogey

On Wednesday morning, Phil, Glenys (from Gallery Oldham) and I were at The Grange, in Oldham as part of the 'Making Memories' project.

Gleny's brought with her a collection of objects from the Gallery Oldham, themed around the Victorian Kitchen.  One participant commented when she heard we would be looking at the Victorian Kitchen 'I know I'm ancient but I'm not that ancient.' But as the morning went on, it became clear that the objects brought in where all still in use when they were younger. Participants reminisced about these 'antique' items, then followed by creating some beautiful prints which I share here.

'We used to race on bikes, and bogies made from pinched wheels, the Industrial North, the wealth of the country, the heart of the country.'

Used to donkey stone the Jambs as well as the steps, the stone strip used to come up lovely. That stuff would be difficult to get of your clothes. I didn't help, it was my job!
"Donkey stones, oh yes, give rags to the rag and bone man. Down South we were posh, put Red Cardinal on or scouring powder. Lovely pavements, all cleaner than now." 

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

How do you tell a life?

Pinfold Centre, Bury 28 September 2012

The idea behind our project Spaghetti Maze is to provide memory props for people with dementia, to help them recall their lives. There are many such projects and 'life story work' is becoming a common phrase in care of older people – but we're adding some new elements.

We've built these life stories around favourite, or recurring, memories reflected in art and poems made by participants. Many of the artworks have key phrases from these memories written into the image, so that words and pictures entwine (as they often do in our projects). Our theme is the family tree and trees generally, spinning off into material about childhood and fairytales.

The artworks are made by participants and phrases from their poetry are handwritten by them into the visual pieces. The hope is that these visual/poems will be powerful memory-aids because the makers are connected to these pieces of paper by their own sense of touch.

Family Tree, Kathleen Simon, Sept 2012

Poems and artworks and extracts of conversations are all included in the package of material we're putting together for each person. We hope that they'll be useful for carers looking after participants as they go further down the 'dementia pathway' as it's known. Our hope is that, using a book of this material, someone can sit down with a participant and engage them in conversation about their past life in a way that is  meaningful and multi-layered.


But how do you tell a life? It's a question that has vexed the great artists and writers. Variously and in random order Proust, Lyn Hejinian, Adolf Wolfli, Susan Hiller, James Joyce have played chase with the essence of being alive. All attempts must fail of course, but as Beckett said, the trick is to 'Fail better.'

The life story books we've seen in care settings usually contain the basic facts of someone's passage through society: details of marriage, children, place of birth, occupation, together with hobbies, dis/likes regarding TV and music and puddings and similar. But isn't there more to tell? Or are bald facts actually the best memory triggers for people with dementia? These things certainly aren't the common topics of conversation among the people we've met. We've kept returning in our chats to the touchstones of memory, usually set down in childhood, or moments of great change.

Putting together a great swathe of Proustian complexity is not the answer here. These little life stories are functional things, to be used by carers who might not have much time and need to access information quickly. Also, the participants need stimulus that is powerfully relevant to them, rather than arty and diffuse.
'Charles chasing Katy' Kathleen 2012

Our guess is that providing the material that someone talks about passionately (say a childhod obsession with football) is going to be more useful in such situations than lists of marriages, births and deaths that mean little to a gradually self-alienating consciousness.

The time commitment necessary to make these life stories work has been large. The raw material of anyone's long life is going to be huge; this is further compounded by the difficulty that participants have in grappling with the task of remembering, understanding, documenting. For some people with dementia, the act of writing is a vertigo experience, sickening and fearful. This afternoon, I've spelt out a participant's words to them letter by letter; this morning, even making the letters was a giant stretch for one person. We have to be very careful that the individual involved is willing to undertake this challenge and doesn't feel overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, or humiliated. Discussions of this sort are not always clear-cut – there's a balance to be struck between empowering the individual and protecting their confidence which is easy to shatter.

Football, Gordon, Sept 2012

But there has been much pleasure on the way, as well as confusion and anxiety. We hope it's been worthwhile for the participants' sake, but it can't be judged yet, the patterns we've made aren't clear. And first we must trek through the dark wood of memory and dementia, searching for the path, trying to see those precious breadcrumb trails.

For more artwork and poems please visit

Monday, 1 October 2012

sheep shearing

(Lois writes) Last week I spent a day with the Bakewell Age UK day centre, reminiscing and creating artwork with a group of men. It's a group formed by chance, by illhealth. They mix economic and social backgrounds; people born and breed in Bakewell with newcomers to the region from all over the country. They have retired from a range of jobs from an International Banker, to a maggot farmer, to a engineer for Rolls Royce.

Some are hard of hearing, many have dementia- but it all seems to work, the staff and volunteers have created such a warm and friendly atmosphere, that the older people using their services feel safe to chat, listen and join in with my reminiscence and creative activities. This was the first week with this particular group of men, so we chatted in general about their working lives. With two farmers at the table, much was talked about that part of rural life.

Sheep Shears, monoprint © Lois Blackburn 2012

'Got a job as soon as you could walk, all had to drive the tractors, girls and boys. The farm was at Wardlow, you didn’t get a lot of choice, it was decided for you that you would stay on the farm.

My favourite job was shearing, done only once a year. Take them down to the river at Ashford and throw them off the bridge there. A few days later sheered them with hand sheers, it was a skill. Wrapping had to be done in one piece, fold it in, keep it clean, start at the head, when you got to the tail end, wrapped it round with string and round. It had to be a good job or they would knock your money off, any string or bits and they would throw it out.  You washed the sheep to get the debris of, sticks, mud, left it a few days to let the grease come back making it easier to handle.' Stanley

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The many uses of a rolling pin

I often feel guilty about the collections of objects I have gathered over the years - and the dust that they collect - however, yesterday a few started to earn their keep. Phil and I were in Oldham for the Making Memories project, working with older people at The Grange Supported Housing and at High Barn Day Centre. Reminiscence; loose poetic forms and printmaking were inspired by the objects.

The Old Fire Range, monoprint, Eunice Booth

Over the course of the project we want to look at how people respond to 'real' objects as opposed to photos of objects. Does handling an object, feeling its weight, texture, dimensions even smelling it, prompt a deeper more meaningful memory? My instincts say that a real object will be more powerful than a photo.

There will be other factors to take into account, each individual will have a different relationship with the objects shown, depending on their own histories. One day to another we can all respond differently to the same objects - additionally, each group  of people creates a unique dynamic which affects responses. Finally, each dementia is dissimilar and at various stages of progression, making another layer of subjectivity.

Yvette's measuring spoon, rolling pin, mixing bowl and board, monoprint.

In the afternoon I only used a small fraction of the objects I brought - all on the theme of cooking. The Turkey Baster inspired some interesting discussion around its possible uses- it seems that providing some more un-familiar objects in the box might be quite useful. The Palette Knife didn't get much response - except the desire to flick icing across the room! The object that got the most reaction to was the Rolling Pin,  a simple object that many people have in their kitchen, which sparked conversation and demonstrations. Irene commented: 'When you see things like this, it brings all sorts of memories, to hold it is totally different than looking at a photo, it brings back memories- I used it to stamp potatoes, roll pastry, wave at the children - that rolling pin came in quite handy.' 

The reminiscence seemed to help distract those participants caught in a loop of conversation or thinking, giving them a break and something else to focus on.

In the coming weeks we would like to try using some of the cooking utensils and make some scones, letting smell and taste become part of this exploration. And Phil likes scones, especially cherry scones...

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

What exactly is a kitchenette?

Making Memories. Oldham – Day 2

Our partnership with Gallery Oldham is a kind of meditation on time, using the contents of reminiscence boxes as a rosary. We're collaborating with the Gallery Oldham and local participants to add material to the reminiscence boxes. Boxes are full of carefully selected objects from the past 100 years, gathered into thematic mini-collections – School, work, Ceramics, Royal Family, etc. These are taken around the local area and used to stimulate discussion among older people, or school children.

Today I shadowed Glenys from Gallery Oldham, who has had 5 years experience of working with these boxes and has added many of the objects and ideas herself. It was fascinating to see another approach to workshops and especially to witness the generative power of these little items to make a spell of the past come back to us. Glenys very kindly let me make notes and question her about the thinking behind her two sessions today.

The morning was a 'taster' at The Grange Supported Home, with a small group of participants and Dorothy the manager; the first box contained twenty or so ceramic objects, mostly related to the royal family. The discussion wound out from a small candlestick through to the dubious genaeology of the royals, via the vexed subject of kitchenettes. (What is a kitchenette? Opinions differ – and who actually has authority over these words anyway, or more broadly these memories?) Glenys presided over a very sweet-natured conversation, weaving in her own childhood and a little specialist knowledge about the objects, to ground us.

The afternoon was at High Barn dementia day care centre, a very different group. Here, Glenys produced her Cotton box, packed with objects and photos from the days of the cotton-manufacturing industry, which once defined Manchester and the North West of England. Many of the people in this group had worked in the mills and so they looked at the bobbins and knotters and paraphenalia of making not as pieces of industrial archaeology, but as pieces of their own lives. It was especially moving to me to see people whose memories play cruel tricks on them come alive with their own pasts, triggered by this haphazard box. One lady consistently described herself as stupid, foolish, dumb – the dementia clearly a huge embarrassment to her. And yet, as she spoke she took these inanimate objects and reconnected them with life.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Join the NAFFI

Lois writes: Yesterday I was in Bakewell at the Age UK Day Centre for my project working memories. I had prepared material to discuss with the group around workers rights, Unions and working conditions. Members of the group took a typically matter of fact approach to working conditions: 

You stood up for yourself. As long as you did you your work you where ok. There was no health and safety, no union, you could be sacked- if you didn't work there was no money. We never went off sick, no sick pay, you had to get better as quick as you could. A doctor would say get home and take two aspirins! Flora

The only member of a Union was Herbert who worked in a Steel Forge in Sheffield:

Of course I was a member of a union, you had to be in those days. Transport and General Union first of all strangely enough. You were expected to be in a union, just a thing you had to be in. You took things for granted- paid your dues and that was it.

The subject moved onto uniforms, most people wore overalls of some kind, freshly ironed and sparkling clean...

Mary explained: in the NAFFI wore a uniform, blue overalls and to go out in khaki skirt, top and hat, all to match. You got your uniform, it wasn't uncomfortable.

monoprint (detail) © Lois Blackburn 2012

Was a housemaid to start with, then the war started it was either join the Land Army, or the NAFFI, so I joined the NAFFI canteen. I trained as a manageress, to go here there and everywhere. We preferred the army than the air force, the air force thought they were a bit up-perty, a bit of a snob shall we say. Used to start about 10.00am then to 2.00pm, then later on 7.00 till 10.00 we all had different hours. Only thing we didn’t like was getting up at 6.00am, because we couldn’t do anything… But when they started blowing the bagpipes and the horns it would echo in the Nissan Huts. That’s when I met my husband, in the H.L.I, (Highland Light Infantry) up in Northumbria.

The Sergeant Major would go round with his big stick and flip the kilts up, check they had the right gear on. (our windows where to high to have a look!) If not, got JANKERS… do extra duties, the main one working in the NAFFI doing all the washing up.

Food we gave them depended on the day, hot dogs and cakes one day, and sandwiches. Mostly cigarettes they went for, they weren’t rationed there.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Carers meeting

(Lois writes) This afternoon I sat in on the Carers meeting, a monthly group hosted by Age UK salford in Swinton. Carers Ros, Vera, Shirley, Margaret, Pam, Renny and Betty with Age Uk Staff, Maria and Student Social Worker Dean. The conversation was frank, honest, at times upsetting, broken and relieved by laughter. I attempted to get a flavour of the conversation in my notes, which I have typed up here. I was very moved by the meeting, by the strength and dignity of the women and how they supported one and other. 

It’s hard to think about it when they’re ok- choosing a care home.

The guilt starts right at the beginning, whatever you’re doing you feel guilty. Right from the beginning, you think you can manage, then another thing happens and in your head your screaming- am I pushing myself to far?

Driving, it’s a real miss in their lives- I think particularly the men. They don’t want to give it up. He was clipping the curb and forgetting where he was going. I was feeling so guilty thinking about getting him to take his driving test again (people with a dementia diagnosis need to re-test) but we had to do something about it.

Sometimes I feel my life has just stopped, I’m just going to the shops then coming back, going to church and coming back… For us there are no buses on a Sunday, and a journey that would take 10 minutes in the car takes 2 hours by car.

Ray and Shirley

I was sat in that car park for half an hour crying when he first went in for respite. It took them a long long time for them to persuade me that he needed daycare, but he loved it. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I couldn’t cope. It comes on you slowly how bad things are getting. Guilt- and you’re thinking they couldn’t look after them as well as I can. I was going down rapidly, loosing weight, getting ill, after he went into care a number of friends said they were so worried about me… I was doing an ostrich.

They get so clingy, they rely on you for everything, you have to do it in little bits.

I had three nights away with me dad in Ambleside, the Hotel knew about me dad. He was fine during the day, but at night, in a room the didn’t know… at 1.30 in the morning the night porter rang saying; ‘he’s a bit distressed, doesn’t know his room number.’ I got down there and he was sitting there like a little lost child, it took me nearly an hour to calm him down he was so distressed and upset. It ended up with me having to lie next to him in his bed trying not to move, trying to calm him down. We finished our holiday early.

Norman and Betty

We’ve got the ‘Just Checking’ monitoring system going at the moment, we’re seeing how many times he’s getting up during the night (you use the system for people living on their own) It’s very useful.

If you see a blue butterfly near a hospital bed, it means someone has dementia, and needs assistance to make decisions.

Tricks and tips for holidays:

·               Lots of post-it notes up with ‘your at…’ or ‘we’re in…’ etc.
·               Tire him out during the day so he can sleep.
·               I would ring him up and say are you up? Are you dressed? Your clothes are on the chair next to you…
·               Make sure they have some I.D, name and a phone number
·               Let staff know they’ve got dementia
·               If you’re out anywhere go to the disabled toilets- there’s only one door there so they can’t go out any other way.
·               Once you’ve packed his case away move it away, or (my dad at least) will unpack it again and I’ve arrived somewhere with half the stuff missing.
·               Getting hold of a Radar key is not difficult, I just said he needed constant care, he needs supervision- you can’t tell a person with dementia to wait. Its especially good if you go away, how many toilets are closed… so it’s really useful.
·               The Police have a vulnerable adult list that they can be added to, then if they get lost they can easily access help. Bus drivers, taxi drivers should be aware of people with dementia, should be on the lookout, should have had some training.

Brother and sister Dave and Vera

He pretends he’s normal, most of them do- their making a liar out of you. I’ve got the guilt, am I making a mountain out of a molehill? You start to go within yourself, withdrawn into yourself, you feel on your own. That’s why coming here is so important, until you’ve experienced dementia, you don’t understand, that’s why this group is so important. After 5.00pm and at weekends the services aren’t there, we’re with them 24/7.

He was all nice in the doctors yesterday, but he was banging the table when he gets home, I was thinking, is he going to hit me?

If I feel well and good I can cope really well with him, but if I’m not feeling well I can loose it, then I feel guilty- he’s forgotten it in 5 minutes, but I feel so guilty.

Got to try and put the past into the past, and deal with the future and the now, and treat the person with dementia.

Some people will shoplift when they have dementia, if you let the staff know most are sympathetic, and its much less embarrassing. In most stores a vulnerable adult wont be prosecuted. The best thing to do is to let someone with dementia prone to shop
lifting carry something with them in a bag, gives them something in their hands.

My husbands in a care home now, you wouldn’t recognize him. Last time I visited I thought he’d had a stroke, he was walking so lopsided.

With dementia they shuffle, patterned carpets disturb them, you need to minimalise things for them, keep things un-cluttered, keep things clear. Keep patterns away, plain open planned spaces. Even patterned clothes can be confusing. Some people hallucinate with their dementia’s, then water infections and medications can also cause them.

I want to thank all of the carers for letting me sit in the session and Maria who gently and kindly guided us through the conversation with advice and personal insights.