Thursday 26 November 2009

A Memory Project

In 2008 I was lead facilitator of a Heritage Lottery funded project called Leicester Jewish Voices. The brief was to collect memories of being Jewish in Leicester during the 1940s and 50s and to turn those memories into a book, a website and a touring display. Val Moore, the Head of Writing School Leicester, managed the funding and I set about organising the collection and sorting of the memories. Our original idea was to run a small project. It turned out to be far bigger than either of us had expected.

This was a Writing School Leicester project and so the emphasis was on writing rather than oral work. I decided not to run the writing workshops as I had known these people all my life. I needed someone from outside the community and I knew just the person, Miriam Halahmy, an experienced workshop leader who I was sure that the contributors would love. Together we planned a series of themed workshops which were to form the nucleus of the project. We would be working with people who would not normally call themselves writers, including many elderly with sight and mobility problems. We planned a range of methods to keep things flowing; brain storming with flip chart and brightly coloured marker pens, fluorescent post-its for capturing those special sound-bites and scribes for any contributors who needed help.

My fears that we might encourage people to relive past pains, holocaust memories or wartime losses were soon banished. The project was full of laughter, warmth and friendship. Miriam was brilliant and I was right. The contributors loved her. She led a series of more formal workshops while I organised smaller discussion groups and one-to-one interviews. As non-writers, some contributors were initially reluctant to write but we only had to mention a word like ‘rationing’ or hold up a sepia wedding photograph and there was no stopping them. Our carefully planned themes were soon ignored but this was perfect. We were receiving stories that we could never have planned for because we didn’t know they existed. We were collecting priceless pieces of social history that would otherwise have been lost forever.

I was determined to reach a wider range of contributors than just those who were attending workshops. I used our original plans to develop a distance pack and sent out copies to anyone who expressed an interest. Word spread in a way that would not have been possible pre-Internet and I started to receive memories not only from all over the country but from all over the world too.

By the middle of the year we were working as a team; Miriam and Val with their invaluable writing experience, Glen Tillyard who organised the photography, scanning of old photos and the web design, George Ballentyne who helped with the checking and proof reading, Micky Wright who produced the cartoons and Ian Simons who is still in charge of delivering, setting up and maintaining the touring display. There was also a team of enthusiastic volunteers led by Judy Hastings who kept the whole project alive and buzzing.

The hardest part of the project for me was sorting the memories into a book. It took many weeks of reading, sifting, sorting and re-reading until slowly what had started out as random reminiscences emerged to tell a story of a small, self-contained community and the enormous upheaval it experienced in the 1940s when families of Londoners flooded into Leicester to escape the bombs. No one knows for sure how many Jewish people came to Leicester at that time. Many families spent the war here and then when their men were demobbed they returned to London. I managed to contact a few of these people and so was able to include a little of how being Jewish in Leicester felt for them. A large number of evacuees settled in Leicester, and it was these people, together with refugees from Europe, many of whom had experienced unspeakable atrocities, who helped to create the new, vibrant and diverse Leicester Jewish Community of the 1950s.

I now had the story but not quite the book. My previous writing experiences had ended here, with the typed manuscript being posted to the publishers, but this was different. With Val Moore's invaluable help we planned the pages, chapters, glossary, in fact all the parts of the book that I had previously taken for granted. Time was running short. With only two weeks to get the entire manuscript ready for sending to Think plus Ink, a brilliant team of local book designers, much of the final checking and rechecking was done late into the night. Only when the manuscript was placed into their hands could I breath easily again. Within days they produced A3 proof sheets and for the first time we saw a real book emerging from the typed pages that I had spent so many hours agonising over. With their design eye and expertise we worked together to produce the professional, attractive book Jewish Voices. It was then that I knew that I had achieved my goal. I had a book of memories that would be of interest to more than just the family and friends of the contributors.

Sunday 22 November 2009

There’s more to a name than signing a book

The publication of my first book, Bathtime Rap, in 2008 presented me with a dilemma. People kept asking me to sign their copies, but what to put? How to sign? Should I end with a flourish of wavy lines, like Queen Elizabeth? Should I sign my first name only, like Madonna? I thought of all the times I had asked authors to sign books for me. They had calmly written a well-rehearsed message followed by a well-rehearsed signature. How difficult can it be?

I find anything to do with names difficult. I’m hopeless when it come to remembering other people’s names. I know the theory. You’re supposed to see their name written on their forehead and you must use it at least three times as soon as you’ve been introduced. Impossible. Even when I think I’ve got someone’s name right I’ll do anything to avoid using it in case I make a mistake, not good practice for a teacher, and it might even have contributed to the high levels of stress that finally convinced me to leave the profession.

Names are a constant source of confusion and concern for me, even my own name. My mother has always called me Rosalind but my friends call me Ros. I try to be Rosalind at work and Ros at home but that causes confusion. As a teacher I was often called Miss which I hated and sometimes even Sir which was worse. I once worked at a school where the students called the teachers by their first names. For me it didn’t work. It changed the dynamics. The teachers were no longer held in such high esteem. Names are more than just titles. They give us our social identity, but they also give us something more. I can never hear the name Luke without remembering the ‘very naughty boy’ I taught in a Year 6 class. Sorry to all the really nice Lukes out there. I guess I’m the one with the problem.

It’s one thing having name problems at work but it’s far more embarrassing when it happens at home. About ten years ago my sister moved to another part of the country. At the same time she started to use her middle name, Rifka. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t refer to my sister as Rifka. When I visit her, all her friends, who have only ever known her as Rifka, must think I’m crazy. As a loving sister it’s the least I can do to avoid confusion but the word won’t come out of my mouth. The closest I’ve got is to say to Josh, the dog, ‘Take your ball to Auntie Rifka,’ (yes, of course he knows what that means!) We’ve now reached a compromise. I call her big sis and she calls me little sis. Problem solved.

But now I have a bigger name problem, my husband’s. I call him Rod. Everyone calls him Rod, except his doctor. On his birth certificate Rod is his middle name and it’s the same on his medical records. Because of his ongoing illness Rod has to make regular hospital visits but I don’t know the man who is being called out in the clinic and the consultants are talking about a stranger. Again I have reached a compromise. I have become regal. I refer to ‘my husband and I’. It would be so much easier if he could just tell them that he’s called Rod but he says it doesn’t bother him. If only I could be that easy going.

So what would you like to call me, Rosalind, Ros, Mrs Adam, and why does it matter anyway?

Sunday 15 November 2009

The Powerful Pen

Dumping baggage, chemotherapy and notebooks

There have been many times when I’ve started to write about one thing and found myself writing about something that I didn’t even know was in my head. It sounds as if the pen is magic but I suspect it’s more to do with my sub-conscious. Be it magic or sub-conscious activity, it’s a particularly useful way of dealing with a troubled mind, with worries and problems that won’t let you think clearly. It’s a way of dumping your baggage. Just sit down and write about everything that is worrying you. It's best to use a notebook, then you can close the book and your worries are safely held inside. You don’t have to be a writer to do it. It doesn’t matter about spelling or grammar. You’re the only person who need look at it and so you can write what you like, when you like. There are no rules – except maybe that the notebook should be a cheap one. I once made the mistake of buying a beautifully bound notebook which is still on my shelf, unused, pristine. It was just too beautiful to sully with my problems.

I’ve been filling up a lot of notebooks recently. On Monday my husband, Rod, starts his third course of chemotherapy. It looks as if this will now be a regular feature in his life to try and control his body’s production of Amyloids (sticky platelets). His first course was in June 2008. He was given a bag full of pills which he had to take in varying amounts on different days of the week in 28 day cycles for three months. The treatment was referred to as CDT which stands for cyclophosphamide, dexamethasone and thalidomide. I was shocked to hear the word thalidomide again after all these years. The specialist warned us that it could cause peripheral nerve damage. That made sense. I clearly remember being horrified by the headline news stories in the early 1960s of all those babies who had been born with malformed arms and legs and shuddered at the thought of Rod having to take that same drug. Before he started the course the specialist read out a form which Rod (aged 65) had to sign in his presence. It was all very serious and solemn. He had to declare that he would not have any relationships with any women of child bearing age while he was taking the pills.
‘You mean, it’s ok for him to do so after he’s finished the pills?’ I wanted to say but I didn’t. Now was not for time for flippancy. When I got home I told my notebook all about it, using angry, vitriolic words in the safe knowledge that this writing was for my eyes only. Logic says that it should have made no difference to how I felt but it did make a difference. It really did.

My notebook doubles as a writer’s notebook and so in-between my rants are funny snippets of conversations overheard when I’m out and about, descriptions of fascinating people I see on the streets, special events that I want to remember. I sometimes browse through old notebooks for ideas (yet another way of avoiding doing any real writing!) and I’m often amazed at how many little snippets of good or funny events are slotted into the times that I thought were filled with only bad.

I’ve included a few extracts from my notebooks below – but not the really private vitriolic rantings. Like I said, they’re for my eyes only.

My notebook extracts:

20.04.07 Pegging washing on the line when a small squirrel saw me and froze. He stared at me. I stared at him. I could see a free, wild look in his eyes. I wonder what he saw in mine.

15.04.08 Kangeroos don’t really like boxing. They hate contact sports. [No, I don’t know what it means either!]

14.07.09 It’s weird how we say How are you? when we meet. We don’t really want to know. Can you imagine if we all started going on about our troubles? [I developed this idea into a poem which turned into quite a therapeutic activity for me. Not sure if it will make sense to anyone else but I’ve included it below anyway.]

How am I?
I glance at a reflection of a face.
There's a family likeness, my mother perhaps.
My face is not so pale, or
tired, or lined.
I'm right… aren't I?

Ask me about the back of my
I know them.
They're wrinkled, liver spotted.
They work hard.

Ask me about my feet,
The corn on my little toe,
The aching
The thickened nails.

But don't ask me about me.
You see,
if I dwell on who I truly am
I will be reminded of my fragility,
My transience.

So let me busy myself with daily tasks,
Fill my mind
with the banal,
The cat, the dog,
Cooking, cleaning,
To avoid a space in my head
For being aware of me.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Plot lines, gasmen and stem cell harvesting

My new children’s novel is starting to come alive. I've written a crisp one sentence strap line and a lively promotional paragraph about my female protagonist with attitude and the ghostly sightings that defy logical explanation. I’ve plotted each strand and divided the story into manageable quarters. Last Friday I completed the first quarter. All was going well... until life’s great hefty foot kicked away my flow of creativity once again.

Yesterday my husband, Rod, had his stem cells harvested. Over the weekend he had to inject himself with a hormone solution to stimulate stem cell growth. It stung. It made his bones ache and, to add to his discomfort, the central heating gasped a final warm breath and we were plunged in 1950s style chill, icy mugs and plates, shivering clothes in the wardrobe, even the carpets are too cold to walk on. I’m typing this while I wait for a gasman to arrive with a new control board. If only it were that simple for humans.

Rod has Amyloidosis. It’s rare, sticky platelets in the blood that build up on the organs. It’s treated in pretty much the same way as myeloma. He had two course of chemotherapy in 2008 but the platelet levels are rising again, hence the stem cell harvest. He will be starting his third course of chemotherapy shortly and the stem cells have been frozen in liquid nitrogen in case he needs a stem cell transplant in 2010.

The process of harvesting stem cells could have been lifted straight from a sci-fi novel. The machine is a bulk of metal with knobs and buttons, wheels and tubes, flashing lights and buzzing bells. Black, bakerlite style knobs spun, clicked and whirred as the machine sucked blood from a needle which had been inserted into Rod’s left arm. It travelled through a spaghetti of tubes into the machine before returning to his body via a needle into his right arm. In the machine the blood was spun and separated and over the next four hours we watched as plastic pouches filled with different coloured liquids. The most important pouch was the one containing a brown/beige sludge, his precious stem cells.

I have learnt a lot about medicine in the last year and a half. I used to think that a transplant meant putting a new part into the body because the existing one was faulty. It does in some instances but not in this one. The stem cells will be reintroduced to Rod’s body to help him recover should he need to have high dose chemotherapy treatment. We hope they’ll never be used but it’s reassuring to know that they’re there if needed, rather like my writer’s notebook where all my treasured ideas and creative thoughts are collected and stored just in case one day I need them.

Future blogs:
How I use my writer’s notebook
There’s more to a name than signing a book