Memories: a national asset being wasted

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The Independent Online
THE ROT of the family has many consequences for frail old people and most of them are well enough known. Paid home-helps replace dutiful, unpaid daughters as bed-makers, dusters and dish-washers. The social worker visits once a week.

And now, at this season, there will be cards on the mantlepiece from the grandchildren, badly lettered tO GrAndMa (writing is not what it was in her day), with a ps from their parents saying that, traffic permitting on the motorway, they hope to be there about five o'clock on the 24th.

This is how freedom, mobility and ambition have arranged our lives and, though inner and outer voices sometimes nag us, we are more or less happy to let other people, paid by national and local taxation or privately, take the strain.

The professions of medicine and social work have provided substitutes for the family. The day-care centre has replaced the neighbourhood. Doing the hokey cokey may not have the same rewards as a grandchild dandled on the knee, but the people in charge are kind and help you, if you are frail, to get on and off the lavatory, raise you in and out of the bath.

But what happens here to memory? Whatever their demands, that is what the old have always given us; some sense of individual history, of how things were before we came along.

Until this week, when I went to a new day-care centre in London, it had never occurred to me that remembering - vocally remembering - was also a casualty of atomised families and fractured communities and that it needed to be formalised as a kind of amusement or therapy, like the hokey cokey or back massage.

In fact, Reminiscence - an official recreation which deserves the capital R, like Ludo - turns out be one of social work's small growth areas. At the Soho Centre for Health Care, they have regular sessions of Reminiscence which are focused by subject and framed by rules. One week it might be "Schooldays" and the next "Work". Participants must not interrupt one another, confidences must be kept. Objects (tram tickets? Sunlight soap?) to stimulate the memory are kept in the Reminiscence Centre at Blackheath in south-east London, a sort of memory bank.

A publisher specialises in Reminiscence quiz books for the old. In the Soho centre, I looked at one.

Q: What were people asked to Dig For?

A: Victory.

Q: Whose catchphrase was "Can you hear me mother?"

A: Sandy Powell.

(Further Q: Who was Sandy Powell? Further A: If you need to ask, forget it).

All this was a surprise. I had no idea that memory was a niche market. I had thought that we all grew up with some equivalent of old Steptoe or Alf Garnett, forever remembering.

Marie Marsh, who runs the day-care centre for Westminster City Council and Age Concern, said that you sometimes had to go carefully during sessions of remembering. People did not, on the whole, like to remember grief, and for that reason the war was not a popular subject. The coronation, on the other hand, was very popular indeed.

"Any particular coronation?" I asked. There are many people still alive, after all, who can remember three.

"You know, the coronation," said Ms Marsh's assistant. "In 1951 or 1952 or whenever it was.'

I supplied the proper date - that summer everyone at school got New Testaments with EIIR stamped on the jacket. And now, feeling like an inmate rather than a visitor, I was taken to see some people who would talk about their memories.

There were three: Amy Brown, born in Chelsea, west London, 1908; Rose Maddocks, born Dublin, 1913; Jim Proudfoot, born Lowestoft, Suffolk, 1918. One way to summarise their lives, although it is a poor guide to their personalities, is what they once did for a living. Mrs Brown was a domestic servant: "I started as a kitchen maid in a big house in Cadogan Gardens on a shilling a week." Mr Proudfoot worked on a farm and on fishing drifters before the war and for United Dairies after it, with service in the Royal Air Force between. Mrs Maddocks moved as a teenager from Ireland to England and worked in munitions.

Here are some of the things they said, witness statements to this closing century.

EARLIEST MEMORIES

"THE WHEELS on my mother's wheelchair. She had rheumatic fever. My dad had died. I was about four." (Mr Proudfoot)

"Something one night in our house. This must have been 1914. My mother's brother was in the Lancers and he was going off to France. He was worried about his horse. I remember the tears, how upset everyone was." (Mrs Brown)

"Going to school in Dublin. Going to school and not learning much." (Mrs Maddocks)

FIRST PUBLIC EVENTS

"THAT EXPLOSION in the East End. What was it called now? It shook our flats all the way over in Chelsea. I remember a man on the street saying: `Silvertown went up." Yes, that's what it was, the Silvertown explosives factory. A lot died there, mainly girls and women. They'd all turned yellow from the TNT [explosive], but it was all hushed up." (Mrs Brown)

"An election meeting in our village hall at Hopton. We were taken along to sit at the back and told keep quiet." (Mr Proudfoot)

WORK

"IT WAS hard, very hard. On the farm, you used to have to pick out all the sugar beet by hand. That wasn't a very good prospect, facing a 30- acre field on a cold morning. You worked and you bit your tongue." (Mr Proudfoot)

"Yes, if you so much as looked at somebody sideways, they'd give you the sack'. (Mrs Brown)

SEX

"It happened but nobody talked about it." (Mrs Maddocks)

"If you had sex in Hopton you just went about with a smile on your face." (Mr Proudfoot)

"What with the horsewhip and the old man, you didn't dare go wrong." (Mrs Brown)

"If a girl went wrong she moved away." (Mr Proudfoot)

And the later sexual liberty? Nobody was disturbed by it - "You have to go forward with the times." (Mrs Brown)

CLASS

"HOWEVER POOR you were there was always a little bit of snobbery there. My mother was in service and she used to say that there was more snobbery below stairs than above them. And if you went to the village dance you always took a packet of Woodbine in one pocket and Players in the other. Woodbine was your normal smoke. The Players were there in case you met someone." (Mr Proudfoot)

"Yes, but the proper gentry weren't so bad. We were never supposed to travel in the lift with the family, but if they were there they'd say `Come in, child, come in'. The butler would never say that." (Mrs Brown)

WOMEN

"THEY WERE treated badly. The men kept them down a lot. They hardly ever went out, they were too busy at home making ends meet. When a girl did go out, she always came home to questions, `Where've you been, oo've you been talking to'." (Mrs Brown)

"You were down at the bottom. We never got a proper education. All we got was prayers." (Mrs Maddocks)

"I don't want to boast but me and my wife always went out together. That was unusual. I played darts once a week for years with a group of fellers and I never knew they were married. I can never stand hearing a man doing his wife down, it annoys me. To talk about your wife as "the old woman', that's terrible." (Mr Proudfoot)

THE BEST TIMES

"I'D BE about 13 at the time and I got a brand new bike for Christmas. It was pouring, but I spent all day on the bike and got soaked." (Mr Proudfoot)

"My uncle who was in the Lancers died and it finished my grandfather off. But at the end of the war my mother took us all up to Hyde Park to a concert . Dame Clara Butt was singing. Lovely. I'll always remember that." (Mrs Brown)

"Being here [the Westminster centre]." (Mrs Maddocks)

FOOD

"THERE WASN'T much of it to begin with. You know what they used to say at the butcher's. A sheep's head please and can you leave the eyes in? It's got to see through us through the week." (Mr Proudfoot)

"Bacon and egg, dripping and bread. Good beef dripping." (Mrs Maddocks)

"And it doesn't seem to have done us any harm." (Mr Proudfoot)

MISSING THINGS

"PEACE AND quiet. It's all noise now, everything blaring." (Mrs Brown, to the sound of the hokey cokey from the day's exercise class)

"Manners. I was taught to say please and thank you and good morning. Everybody's in a rush, everybody wants to get things done too quickly." (Mr Proudfoot)

POLITICIANS

"TO MY mind, the only one who was true to his word was Winston Churchill. He promised us blood, sweat and tears. And by God we got them." (Mr Proudfoot)

THE FUTURE

I WONDERED if they believed in the after-life.

"We have to believe there's a heaven. But we'll have to wait and see." (Mrs Brown)

"Nobody's ever come back to tell us." (Mrs Maddocks)

"So it must be a good place." (Mrs Brown)

"Probably three square meals a day and all found." (Mr Proudfoot)

Laughter.

AS MR Proudfoot almost put it, they had all been on the platform when the innovations that define the 20th century had arrived. Radio, television, phones, cars, jets, computers, central heating - amazing changes for a generation who had spent their childhood evenings in the light of coal- fires, oil lamps and candles.

Of course, we know all this from books and television documentaries. We can easily be connected to the past. Or can we? I had never heard of the Silvertown explosion before Mrs Brown remembered it. Even quite detailed histories of London do not mention it. Eventually, I found a description. It happened in 1917 during a fire at Brunner Mond's chemical works. Fifty tons of TNT went up, a large area was flattened, 69 people died and another 400 were hurt, many seriously. In the war, it was nothing.

The site lies just across the Thames from the new Millennium Dome at Greenwich. When and if I go to the Dome, I will think of the scene for a moment: wrecked houses, dead munitions girls, the water shaking in the river for the 10 miles up to Chelsea. It deserves to be remembered. That will be Mrs Brown's gift to me.

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