Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Mantlepieces and mothers

Oldham 27 March 2013 Making Memories

Reet with mantlepiece drawing on acetate

There's an old phrase “hearth and home” that doesn't get used much any more, because real fires are a rarity nowadays. But "hearth and home” is still a powerful idea - warmth and shelter are at the centre of most families, it is to be hoped. Today's workshops homed in on this part of life. We brought in the kinds of little ceramic figures that people used to decorate their mantlepieces and these became a stepping stone towards talking about the home itself. Both morning and afternoon sessions were full of affectionate warmth, mixed with some sadness.

Doreen with range drawing

Doreen at The Grange built up a detailed memory-picture of the fire and mantle of her home in the 1930s. It wasn't an easy home life, because her's was a single parent family, but she tells of it with humour and gusto. Her piece of work layers the jauntiness of her own personality, with another angry undercurrent – her mum's favourite phrase - “You're such a nuisance.”

In the afternoon another of the pieces carried a similar double-edge. B's picture of a canary in a cage is told to be quiet and eat its dinner – “Let your meat stop your tongue.” The answering phrase “Canary sang a lovely little song day long day long” is upside-down. Hidden under the layers of acetate drawing, caged by them, is a delicate drawing of a yellow canary. Again, B's relationship with her mother was a conflicted one.

Below is an outline of the stages in making these drawn writings. It's a not a set of rules, just a set of beginnings...


Draw your childhood mantle-piece onto a piece of acetate paper – mum's knick-knacks, a clock, heirlooms, prized possessions.

Put another layer of acetate on top. Write one of your parents' favourite sayings onto this layer, responding to the shape of the drawing. Phrases that might come to mind: 'Cleanliness is next to godliness', 'You are a nuisance', 'Waste not want not' etc.

Add other layers of drawing/writing on more acetate as desired.

Finally, draw a fire on a piece of white paper in approximately the right place to fit into your mantle-piece drawing. Don't worry if the fire overspills, or doesn't quite fit – it's the IDEA of warmth we're after.

Useful Qs

What were your family's prized possessions?

What were you taught about niceness, neat appearance and good manners?

What do your family's ornaments 'say'. Are they showy, delicate, brassy, ugly, nostalgic, sentimental...?

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


We've been working in partnership with Gallery Oldham to devise new ways of working with memory boxes to stimulate reminiscence. We're particularly interested in capturing people's voices, thoughts, minds-eye images – because these things are aids to future remembering.

Oldham 20 March 20

Our two memory boxes have been given broad working titles of High days & holidays and Ceramics. We play fast and wild with these categories, taking tangential journeys off them just as the human mind does in reminiscence.

So this week in our ceramics session we brought in a potty/chamber pot/gazzunder/pee pot, to stimulate conversation. Because the subject of toilets is slightly taboo, it brought a frisson of energy to the discussion which gave the sessions a buzz.

The two writing exercises we brought to the session are listed below, as a start-point for a similar workshop. We also make a habit of jotting down the conversation and reading it back to participants. We are careful to use exactly their own words, but only jot down the sentences that are most unusual or interesting to our ears. One of the delights of this is the treasury of funny, fascinating descriptions it unearths. For instance, a potty in the 1930s was often called a 'gazzunder', because it 'goes under' the bed, for use in the night if the only other alternative was a cold outside toilet.

We've often found that the domestic details of life often tell the biggest stories. Out of this humble discussion came tales of back-to-back housing, social unrest, the British fondness for earthy humour, Saint Benny Hill style, and most of all a clear, physical description of just how hard life was back then. It's easy to forget that those 2D faces in the photos of the 1930s and 40s were once people who felt the cold just as we do now and a good way to reach back to them is to touch their physical lives.

1. Tear up a newspaper into rectangles, roughly double the size of today's loo paper. Write a word describing the memory of parents' or grandparents' inside/outside toilet, or the legendary potty of childhood. Now write down the name of a newspaper – or headline of a newspaper story – from childhood. Repeat the process until your group has written 20 or so sheets. Put them all into a container – preferably a potty – mix them up and take them out in random order. Read them out – this is your lavatorial poem.

(Or as a variation, pick a word on the piece of newspaper that seems to pair up nicely with this first word. Draw a circle around it.)

2. Potty mouth. Draw a potty. Fill up the rest of the page with the most elaborate, ridiculous insults you can think of. You must include the phrase 'potty mouth' somewhere. Technical tip: Shakespearean insults are a good start, many of these can be found on the internet if they're not in your head. Whoreson dog! Varlat! Buggerlugs! Perhaps the words can spill out of the potty...

Friday, 22 March 2013

Acceptance, denial and the losing of marbles

'You are my sunshine' badge

We're working in partnership with Gallery Oldham developing the use of memory boxes for reminiscence amongst older people, including people with a dementia diagnosis.

March 13, Oldham

Philip writes:

Let's not pussyfoot, dementia can bring terror and anger and bitterness among many other calling cards. The work we're doing with memory isn't a panacea for those things, we're not doctors, but we are a distraction. Rather than allowing participants in one of our groups to enter a negative mindset, we can help to short-circuit the blues and the fury – sometimes.

This day in Oldham gives examples of both situations and how we dealt with them. Thematically we were dealing with the subject of pubs and the social life around them, but we were also dealing with participants' very particular needs.

Our first session regularly includes two people who have a dementia diagnosis. One of them is perfectly aware of this and will 'own' the illness, talk about it, and try to negotiate around it. The other person is in denial of what's happening, has a tendency towards anger. The two are chalk and cheese as they say and often fight. We only recently found out about the unspoken dementia - and it therefore took us some time to realise that there's possibly an underlying issue. Dementia is the elephant in the room and like any unresolved issue it causes tension. It's a tricky situation and one that we've so far defused by using the creative activities and conversation. We've also had after-workshop discussions with all concerned. However it's possible that we'll have to ask the aggressor to leave the group. Our duty is always to make sure that we run a 'safe place to play' and occasionally this needs reinforcing with firmness. But for now distraction is working fine.

The other session is with a group of six to eight people, most with a diagnosis of dementia/s, at varying stages. This group have generally been a very 'up' session for us. Although there are tremendous difficulties for some participants to overcome, there are also two key advantages - acceptance and very importantly humour. Laughing can't solve complex problems in itself, but it helps to de-stress a situation and in doing so we all move on. These sessions use a higher mix of game-playing than we'd usually employ (singing, playing marbles, etc.) but the play also quite evidently brings delight. Interestingly, here is also the venue where the deepest political discussion takes place – one of the participants is very hard left, another is a war refugee and others are ex-mill-workers with no illusions about their position in society. This isn't a rosy-glow gathering, but it is a fascinating, funny, damn good time.

The game of marbles we played there brought particular delight. It was a small riot. Marble skills of 80-plus years were employed. Particular hilarity ensued when the staff had to dodge the little glass balls of peril. There was perhaps an element of revenge in the joke, but most of all laughter that was shared equitably.


1. Look at some examples of beer mats, bottle tops, etc. Invite participants to draw their own bottle top or favourite drink. Perhaps the drink might incorporate their own name and a famous slogan (eg. Alfred, probably the best grandpa in the world. Gladys is good for you, etc.) Make the composition circular and it can become a badge.

2. Word association game. This is an excellent way of getting a discussion going, or stimulate ideas for writing. Our discussion this time was themed around pubs and the word used are listed below. We often use pairs of opposites so that the game is more intriguing.



a tot/saspirilla

landlord/Salvation Army

pork scratchings/apple pie

tavern/show me the way to go home

Reet's glass of Babycham

Thursday, 21 March 2013


We use a lot of photos and objects to prompt conversation and reminiscence. Whatever the age of the participants visual prompts can be useful, and it can be particularly helpful when someone has problems with their memory. We've started out own collection of reminiscence resources and will be sharing them on-line via our flickr site

Walter's Dog Tags

The first contributions to the collection (a few shown here) come from Walter Mabey, a regular participant in our Making Memories project, Oldham. Thanks again to Walter for letting us use and share these images.

Walters mother and father 1917-18

Walter at the Co-op Offices Manchester, with Honeywell computer in the background

Please note that no photo maybe reproduced or passed on without the permission of arthur+martha.

Friday, 8 March 2013

You can have my teeth

We're working with Gallery Oldham to expand the possibilities of memory boxes in reminiscence, devising creative exercises.

Doreen's moustache March 2013

We've been using lateral thinking methods for our workshops. Reminiscence tends to work along certain lines and themes with the outcomes reduced to safe bits of nostalgia.

We've found that bringing off-the-wall thinking to the workshops keeps things interesting for us and for the participants. It's also a way for people to express their opinions, make their mark. Lives and history don't necessarily fit into neat little boxes. What we're trying to do is find the personal, the individual stories that weave into a broader tale. That is what makes for good art an it is also what makes for insightful history too – the retelling of the familiar, the finding of new meanings.

'nibbling apples' Rosemary March 2013
Much of our inspiration comes from 'concrete poems', sometimes called shape poems, and we used that approach today. Lois created some templates based on dentists' teeth charts. Participants wrote a letter into each tooth, spelling out first the name of a favourite sweet and then a dentist-related word, alternating them until all the teeth were filled. It's a straightforward word game, a little like doing a crossword. To our delight, the afternoon group – many of whom have dementias – enjoyed this exercise greatly. Some people picked words that linked together to tell a story, others were content to be more random.

In the morning and afternoon, we played a word association game. Playing takes pressure off, asking questions like 'What's the first thing that comes to mind?' dodges people's fear of not being able to remember.  Avoiding approaches that make a closed success/failure outcome is a good policy. There's no right or wrong if the whole thing is done in the spirit of play and a joke. Word association  can bring a great focus because it's so immediate. Not so long sentences or circuitous openers or complex questions. Our group of people with dementias were fully engaged – leaning in concentrating, waiting on the next word...

Here's some of the material from the word associations:

you can have my teeth

they're falling out all the time


tooth fairy

baby teeth

under the carpet

under the rug

put salt with em

otherwise the fairy can't

leave sixpence

a farthing

a threpenny, don't spend it all at once

screw it in permanent

collecting coins for a mouthful

a farthing a wren

a sixpence a tanner

the old bob with the old king on it shiny

to pay the dentist

(group poem, extract)


Make a simple templates based on dentists' teeth charts (see above). Participants write a letter into each tooth, spelling out first the name of a favourite sweet and then a dentist-related word, alternating them until all the teeth are 'filled'. It's a word game, a little like doing a crossword, which can bring poetic results.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Our house, in the middle of our street

Pinfold Lane Centre, Whitefield 1 March 2013

Kath with drawing of childhood home

Philip writes:

We're coming toward the end of Spaghetti Maze, our project making life stories with people who have a dementia diagnosis. We've had a break from the project to assess the material and on returning to the Pinfold Lane Centre in Whitefield, we were made very welcome by the staff. Interestingly, although our participant groups have memory loss problems they all remembered us too – despite a 3 month break – which suggests that we've impacted on them quite deeply. Hopefully, it also suggests that we are doing something right and the bonds we've formed are strong.

Both sessions were very heavily planned because we're tying up loose ends, bringing our work with this particular set of people to a close. We wanted to fill in any gaps that we might have left in the life stories and so had very focussed and time-aware sessions.

Mary designing picture frame

We're also thinking about taking this work forward - how we can develop this further into a large-scale life story book that we will publish. We have spent over a decade working with many, many groups but the connecting thread has always been the telling of lives. Now we're turning these skills and techniques into a how-to guide for others to use, particularly people with a dementia diagnosis and those around them – carers, relatives.

Today, Lois brought two drawing exercises; a particular success was the suggestion that people draw the home of their childhood. Often people are reluctant to pick up a pen and draw. It's a big leap of faith to trust that they won't be mocked, by us, their peers, or (most devastatingly themselves, seeing oneself produce drawings that appear child-like can lead to a sense of being diminished). Actually, today there were no complaints. Drawing a house is one of the very first things we learn to do at school; it is iconic and because of that people didn't seem to mind having a go. Perhaps because the point of a drawing like this is that it's not technically perfect. Like a picture of a smiley face, it's the spirit of the thing that counts.

Doreen drawing childhood home

We're also building a repertoire of new writing exercises. These have to tread a line between being informative and something more wayward, which allows room for the eccentricity and tangential thinking that makes an individual. We tried making little charts of family members, name, rank, and other details and putting them into a grid. Dependent on how this is filled in and read out, this can be a 'straight' information chart, or a more elusive, poetic piece.

The Pinfold Lane Centre is a dementia daycare centre, but it is also a remarkably happy, safe gathering place for people people who sometimes struggle with the world. It's a haven, a house of memories, a place of forgetting. Every time we make our goodbyes, I realise that I've been uplinfted by my day there. It's the biggest compliment that I can think of, to the staff there, that from much misery and confusion they bring something joyful.

For more about the project please visit

Friday, 1 March 2013

Isambard Kingdom Brunel & Co.

We're working in partnership with Gallery Oldham to help rethink their reminiscence boxes as tools to stimulate art, writing and shared reflection.

Philip writes:

The mill next to Freehold metro station in Oldham is derelict, there’s a tree growing out of one window, birds sitting in another window and the rest are full of iron shutters, or daylight. But memories of this mill and others like it make the fabric of many lives.

The people we work with during our Oldham-based project are mostly in their 70s and 80s. The mills were an immovable part of their childhood, like rations and wars and dole and hopscotch (often called hotflag round here).

The mills were the biggest employer, the daily pay cheque and lifelong grind, the soundtrack and the skyline of these lives. It’s hard to translate that experience into words or artworks or poems. How do you remake the texture of times so completely gone, their ruined remains in the form of colossal buildings like dinosaur bones?

History is big a job to deal with in one bite, people find it easier to talk about specific moments or objects. Today’s sessions were a case in point. The morning was devoted to a discussion around toys, fed by objects brought by Joy from Gallery Oldham and a doll's tea-set from Lois. A wooden nodding dog, a skipping rope, a whip and top, a miniature tea-set. These things sparked recognition – like seeing an old friend from way back – and with recognition came a flood of ‘I remember’. What we didn’t expect however was that this discussion would bend its way toward the infamous Bentley and Craig murder case and capital punishment. Interesting that these symbols of innocence should usher in a world that had nothing to do with rosy nostalgia.

We had several ideas for art and writing exercises. Lois particularly wanted to try people with making their own dolls’ teapots and cups using clay. Meanwhile, I invited folks to write poems around the ring of spilt tea left from the bottom of their cups and compose circle poems – an idea stolen from Alec Finlay. These poems use the experience of drinking tea to reflect on the passing of time. Because they’re circle poems they loop inifinitely around one statement.

Some of the results will pictured in our next blog, showing combinations of both sets of pieces.

The afternoon session was to throw us even more of a left curve. What came up here as a subtext to people’s memories of toys (they didn’t have much money and therefore didn’t have toys or the time for them) was poverty, war and revolution. I jotted notes of the conversation as usual and so caught some of its repeated themes as it patchworked a history of Oldham into a bigger history of working people in Britain. Alternately funny, moving, angry and defiant, these words resonated as I walked to the tram stop after the session.

when the war started, what were we fighting for?


once a year early to church Whitsun?

walk with the church, carry the banner

carry the bloody lot

it amazes me we took everything they told us

as gospel

did what we were were told

do you think there’ll be a revolution one day?

nobody ever explained it to us.

(excerpt from group poem, 27 Feb 2013)

The mill stared me out of town with its big, empty-window eyes.