My Reminiscence experience I think began with meeting Harry Patch. He visited Weston to open a RAFA memorial in 2005 and at the age of 106 years was still active although confined to a wheelchair. I had read his autobiography ‘The Last Tommy’, the account of his First World War experience in
the trenches and his later life, and went to meet him on the beach lawns to autograph my copy of his book. The crowds came out to greet him, brass bands played loudly, army cadets marched proudly past the old ‘warrior’ but unfortunately there was no way I was going to penetrate the throng to get my autograph so a disappointment.
However the idea of preserving the memories of those fast-disappearing veterans was born and I bought a small voice recorder, a camera and registered my interest on the Somerset reminiscence web site. My participants were found in Church coffee mornings, residential homes and any friends who wanted their elderly relatives’ life story recorded. I transcribed our conversations and uploaded them to the website; I found it a joy to listen to and record living history.
It was therefore with great interest I heard that the new museum was having a local display gallery with an audio content which I felt I could contribute to. A one day course on reminiscing was advertised by the museum and Katherine the museum supervisor, who knew of my interest, invited me to join which I accepted.
On a sunny Wednesday in July I joined a group of similar minded people in the museum. Kate Horbury was our trainer with assistance from various charity members. The model we were to use was from the ‘Art 4 Dementia’ course based in London. This involves getting involved in activities such as music, singing, drama, painting, photography, creative writing and dancing but we were going to confine our area of speciality to visual and creative activities with the use of paintings, photographs and objects. Role play was used to help us with real life situations and to that end we were split up into leaders and participants. A 1930’s poster of a beach scene with 4 young women on donkeys was shown to our group and comments were invited. The charity overseers scrutinised our replies and provided helpful tips such as “slow down with your responses and be patient” etc. I came away feeling confident and ready to engage with the outreach team.
My first session was at Tilsley House residential home. Accompanied by Katherine and Tina we were warmly welcomed by Jane and her staff and introduced to our participants sitting at several tables. Sticky labels with our names on were handed out by Tina and the reminiscent boxes opened and the contents handed to the residents for their comments. My training did not prepare me for what come next; a painting brought little or no response from my companions, it quickly became apparent that they were handicapped by deafness, blindness and dementia and together with repetitive answers to my questions made my conversation one way. A break for tea saw my companions slowly drift off despite my efforts.
As a postscript, although my first session was a disappointment, I remembered the old adage, ‘One Sparrow does not a Summer Make’. So I took a leap of faith and rejoined the team for their next event. Amazingly, the residents opened up their hearts to us! Singing songs of yesteryear; sharing their love of animals; confiding their life stories-wonderful tales of past encounters. For example, Joan (not her real name) worked at Filton airport in WW2 manufacturing the tail fins of Bristol Beaufighters. The air raid alarm sounded but she was not able to get to the shelter. This saved her life as the shelter took a direct hit and there were many killed including her dear cousin.
It’s social history like this that makes reminiscing such rewarding work. May I say to new reminiscers, although the museum training is limiting, on-the-job experience can be so rewarding. It’s fun; go out there and enjoy our social heritage while it’s still there.