Ancient Mysteries: Stories from the Trebus Project
REVIEW BY MADNESS AND LITERATURE NETWORK MEMBER ANDREA CAPSTICK Originally published in journal Signpost, reproduced here with permission from the author (A. Capstick)
REVIEW BY MADNESS AND LITERATURE NETWORK MEMBER ANDREA CAPSTICK
Originally published in journal Signpost, reproduced here with permission from the author (A. Capstick)
This book contains a remarkable series of narratives by people with dementia, put together by David Clegg, director of the Trebus Projects - a series of adventures in art, music, and spoken word named in memory of the Polish veteran Edward Trebus. Trebus filled his house with things that other people had decided were rubbish, convinced that in time a use would be found for them. In a similar way Clegg has become an archivist of the memories of people with dementia, determined to capture them before they are lost for good.
The urgency Clegg attributes to this work is palpable ‘Just how close to the edge we came,’ he says, ‘is clear from the fact that there are half a dozen stories here that include the last ever spoken words of the contributors’. Some – like Elsie – had been considered more or less mute before the project began. Her story begins, with the words ‘I’m so pleased to do this…. I never thought I was popular enough to write a biography’.
The material in the book is often hugely entertaining, often deeply troubling. There are 28 stories here, ranging in length from 27 exuberant pages to two faltering lines. We meet an array of fascinating characters including the ‘Belle of Bangalore’, Lulu’s dressmaker, Sybil Thorndyke’s maid, acquaintances of Doris Day and Amy Johnson, a Bletchley Park code-breaker. We also meet, over and over again, people whose lives have been blighted by poverty, by the early death of parents, by sadistic teachers. The broad sweep of 20th century social history unfolds alongside the quirky and mundane. And everywhere there is the memory and impact of war.
Molly tells the story of what appears at first to be a conventional happy childhood, until we realise that within her family TB, diabetes, epilepsy and rickets carried off one member after another. Ellen ends her story with the homely recollection that she’ll have to go now because she’s left a pan on the stove. Elizabeth refers to her questionable diagnosis as ‘Outsider’s disease’, and Sheila bemoans the disappointment of a reunion with her newly-wed soldier husband due to the bromide the army had put in his tea.
The title ‘Ancient Mysteries’ was chosen by Catherine whose own story ends the book. Whether deliberately or not the last few pieces reflect the importance of interpretation in life story work, and the possibility that some mysteries – like the nature of Daisy’s relationship with her father, and Meg’s with her employer – may never be resolved. Catherine’s story is particularly rich in metaphor and allusion, with its references to balloons, silver boxes and umbrellas, baths of cold water and chopping knives, to dividing up minute quantities of bread, and to never wanting children because ‘they would all have been crying for bread’ and people would start calling her ‘bloody Jew again’.
Reading Ancient Mysteries I was reminded of these lines from a poem by Keith Douglas (‘Forgotten the red leaves’)
Almost forgot. How slowly they return
Like princes into the halls they once owned.
Douglas was a poet of the second world war, and the lines speak of the difficulty the dispossessed have in reclaiming what should be theirs. For some of the contributors the recovery of memory can almost be heard happening in the process of this intense, communication. ‘Such a long time ago, it seems’, says Sid, ‘like I’d forgotten it for centuries’. Jean reflects on how ‘these things keep coming back at midnight – nothing in the day’, while Catherine asks ‘I wonder why it is I can remember these things? I’m wondering now if I’m the only person who remembers….’ In lines like these there is a definite sense of the return of something precious and lost.
There is a generosity and humility about this book which owes little to the dogma of a personhood somehow bestowed upon those with dementia by the ‘cognitively intact’. This is just about listening and bearing witness to what is already there.
- Dementia / Alzheimer's
Reference: Mark Brown and David Clegg (Eds.), Compiled from the words of Gladys, Molly, Michael, Polly, Gordon, Elsie, Jacques, Sam, Julius, Mary, Helen, Vera, Maria, Sarah, Sheila, Sid, Bob, Dolly, Olive, Jean, Ellen, Elizabeth, Rose, Daisy, Edward, James, Lily, Meg and Catherine. 2007. Ancient Mysteries: Stories from the Trebus Project. Limited edition; available from www.trebusprojects.org. £15.00, 2007
- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Thursday 29th July 2010
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