* * *
In 2009 a colleague of mine at the Free Word Centre lent me a book. ‘You have to read this,’ she said. ‘I met with the editor the other day. He’s looking for people to help edit his next book.’ The book hadn’t been commercially produced. It had a strange black and white striped cover and it was printed on thick, creamy paper. There was no author or blurb on the cover. Just a title which read:
Stories from the Trebus Project
I started reading it on the bus on the way home from work. After about forty pages I had to stop. I was getting through it too fast. I didn’t want it to be over so soon. This was my first encounter with the Trebus Project and the work of David Clegg. David had spent over five years working with people with dementia, piecing their life stories together from hundreds of fragmentary phrases. Ancient Mysteries was a collection of these life stories as told by the elderly people who had lived them. Some of it was fantastic. Some of it was mundane. In each monologue the personality of each speaker came through so vividly. Here were people who had lived, and despite society’s dismissal of them as not just old, but often some kind of crazy, they had a huge amount to say.
I volunteered to edit one of the pieces in David’s next book Tell Mrs Mill her husband is still dead. Then in 2013, David sent me details of a vacancy for an artist in residence post with Age Concern. Where the heart is was a multi-disciplinary project which would see artists from different art forms placed in dementia care settings and then produce work based on the experiences they had.
As my friends could all tell you, I could bore you for hours about the people I met, the things I saw, the times I needed to have a large glass of white wine and a bit of a cry when I got off the train at the end of a day in placement. I won’t. If you’re that interested, I kept a blog about the whole experience. But one of the most important things, I realised, was just how little we think about getting old and what might happen to us, or the people we care for, when we get to old age. Either we fear age, or we try to pretend it simply won’t happen. When I looked around for poetry on the topic, I found Larkin’s Old Fools, or Jenny Joseph’s old lady in purple, but not much else that tried to capture the difficult combination of the pain and the pleasures of old age. Yes, some of the people I worked with on Where the heart is drooled, but they also told some great jokes; one old lady was really angry all the time – ‘that’s not the dementia, she’s been like that all her life’, her daughter-in-law commented. As the residency progressed, I found myself less concerned with trying to capture some sepia snapshot of who these people had been, and much more interested in who they were now – what things made them laugh? How did they feel about the other residents in the home? What did they think of their (often terrible looking) lunch?
fatherhood and motherhood, an anthology about age and ageing seemed like a perfect fit. When I pitched the idea to Emma, I said I wanted to find poems that would respect the complexity of old age. They might be celebratory or they might be very sad poems – the best ones would probably be a bit of both. I had a feeling that the theme might have a very wide appeal; that here was a topic that doesn’t normally get much attention, even though, if we’re lucky enough to get that far, we’ll all feel the stiffness in our joints one day, or find ourselves just losing an hour, thinking about someone from very long ago. As it is, even I’ve been surprised by the volume of submissions we’ve received already, and I’m also really moved by how personal so many of these poems seem to be. I’m really excited to get started on the editing process. This is hopefully just the very beginning of the conversation. If just one more person picks up the phone to their grandma more often, as a result of hearing about the anthology, then I think I’ll consider half my job done.
* * *
Sarah Hesketh is a poet and freelance project manager, whose first full collection, Napoleon’s Travelling Bookshelf, was published by Penned in the Margins in 2009. In 2013 she was a poet in residence with Age Concern and a book of poems resulting from the residency, The Hard Word Box, will be published in autumn 2014.