Retreating, reflecting, restarting.

There has been quite a gap in my blog over recent months. I took some time out to reflect on  all the different aspects of my work including my own writing, using creative writing with older people with dementia, working in collaboration with other artists.  And you can see, I did a bit of knitting to help the reflective process

Summer Knitting Project- request for Batman Teddy for new baby

Request for Batman Teddy for new baby

I’m in the process of redesigning this blog to include creative writing  with  people with dementia, facilitating  community groups, researching and evaluating community projects……  as well as my own fiction.

Lots happening in the autumn which includes

-working with Equal Arts on their Creative Age programme in Stockton on Tees

-working with sound artist Geoff Sample,  Bell View Resource centre  and forty older people on their emotional experience of living  in rural  which will result in an installation  at the Watchtower , Berwick upon Tweed from 10th October. see our blog

-working on evaluation of community projects

-getting my novel ‘The Boy in the Beach Hut’ out of the laptop and onto the bookshelf.

That should keep me busy as dark evenings approach – and more knitting perhaps.


Poetry in Motion, Poetry in Medicine.

Last week I had a big day out.  I went to London on the (very) early train to attend the Hippocrates Medicine and Poetry Symposium. This is an annual event which includes a programme of speakers and ends with the announcement of winners of the prestigious Hippocrates Poetry Prizes. Two of the speakers really captured my attention and my imagination.

A young medical student talked about his project looking into the representation of psychiatrists in film (Dr.Dippy, Dr. Evil, Dr Wonderful) and presented his findings in series of four beautiful poems hand written on the stereotypical spider inkblot pictures used in psychiatric consultation.

A cardiologist from USA explained and read some of his ‘echo’ poems inspired by the magic of sound pictures taken of damaged hearts through echo-cardiograms; poems also inspired by the patients he worked with and the decisions they faced together.

My colleague Cathy Bailey and I also gave a brief presentation about a small project that  I facilitated at Northumbria University using creative writing in reflective practice with student nurses working with people with dementia.

It is not surprising that my highlight of the day was Kate Compston who had worked as a counsellor in Cornwall, winning the first prize in the NHS category with a poem Lovely Young Consultant Charms My Husband. She captured the moment when the diagnosis of DLB (Dementia with Lewy bodies) was revealed with humanity and medical knowledge to explain her husband’s memory loss, hallucinations and cognitive impairment; his elated response to the young woman  consultant and Kate’s sense of impending tragedy.

Creative Writing session with student nurses reflecting on the joys, challenges, responsibilities of the job.

Creative Writing session with student nurses reflecting on the joys, challenges, responsibilities of the job.


Party Time

Isn’t this the best ever party cake you have ever seen?


The cake was based on a glass picture designed and made  by ‘Fred’  who is over eighty years old with early stage of dementia, a reference to the years that he had worked as a miner under the sea off Sunderland. This delicious  cake was made for the end-of-project-party at the National Glass Centre (NGC) where I have been working with glass artists, staff and volunteers and a group of people with dementia and their carers.  My role as writer was quite small, as the main focus was to give the participants opportunity to make glass objects, socialise with others and enjoy a mainstream cultural venue without feeling that dementia might be a problem. However we did produce small pieces of writing with most individuals as well as a group poem in response to one of the exhibitions which included over one thousand glass ‘teardrop’ shaped pieces  hanging in a beautiful sequence of waves and curves.

Many of the conversations centred on the topic of work; this was more than just reminiscence as it is our work which often gives us a sense of identity. Most participants of the project remembered the site of The NGC as a place of engineering on the banks of the River Wear; a reminder of other industries on the riverside and in the Sunderland area: – shipbuilding, mining, rope making-as well as other jobs such as teaching or caring.  Many of those industries have disappeared now and replaced with smart modern buildings – the University, the National Glass Centre- and riverside walkways with manicured lawns. But for some of the people who wad worked in those areas, they saw the developments as a step backwards, they would have preferred to see the bustle and muddle of shipbuilding because there were always jobs  for local people.

Feedback at the end of the project from all the participants was overwhelmingly positive; the weekly sessions  were  described as a chance for socialising, being creative but also an important opportunity to return to making something, being productive.  Families and friends can now see their dozens of glass objects on exhibition at the NGC, challenging the stereotype that people with dementia cannot create or make a  significant contribution to the cultural life of the community.


The Facilitator, The Farmer and The Foxett Sisters

It says on my blurb that one of my roles is  ‘facilitator’, I prefer that description when running workshops or events as it fits my approach of providing a creative, calm space with a programme of activities. The aim is to enable participants to write, learn, discuss in a way that is not stressful, not like school, not like an old fashioned teacher.  Usually it all goes well; I do a lot of preparation, print out relevant material and the feedback is good. Sometimes I get carried away with the group discussion and realise I’ve missed out something important but mostly its ok.

However this approach definitely does not work with The Foxett Sisters, seen here looking as if butter wouldn’t melt…They have sort of Jekyll and Hyde characters: soft and affectionate in the house, with kids and other dogs. But wild and disobedient as soon as they get the sniff of a hare, deer, fox. (Its in the Foxhound/Bassett Hound genes). This has resulted in numerous ‘incidents’ – the most recent being a phone message from a local farmer which went something like this-

I saw your damn hoonds in with my sheep last night; if it happens again I’ll take the law into my own hands and SHOOT them.’

After conciliatory phone calls, apologies, grovelling and more money spent on garden fence reinforcements,   I thought we had persuaded him that the dogs are NEVER allowed off the lead and their recent escape was an unfortunate incident. BUT this morning I met the same farmer while I was walking the dogs on a narrow track as he was driving his Landrover and trailer. This required that somebody had to get into the bushes – and a chance for me to prove my disciplinary, old-fashioned teacher style with the hounds. Of course The Foxetts only sensed anxiety in my voice, refusing to budge and threatening to wriggle out of their collars and leads. The farmer watched for a minute, shook his head, muttered loudly and slammed his foot onto the accelerator, taking several hawthorn branches with him as he roared away. Leaving me ready to sit for a minute with the hounds for a drink and a biscuit as a reward for poor facilitation skills.



……. and the next thing.

For several years I have been involved in a wonderful project, Bell View in Belford in rural North Northumberland,  where local people came together to develop a resource centre and housing project for older people when the existing residential home was forced to close. Rebuilt on the site ( which was also originally the old workhouse)  Bell View now runs numerous community and creative activities, day care and café in a light and beautifully designed building.


Detail of ‘clikky’ mat made at Bell View

Always looking for innovative and creative opportunities, Bell View invited me to develop a writing project collaborating  with sound artist Geoff Sample. After months of discussions and funding bids, we received Arts Council England grant and the ‘Where We Belong ‘ project started  in November 2014. Since then we’ve been talking and running workshops with over thirty older people about their experiences of  ageing, isolation, belonging in a rural area.  You can get details and hear some wonderful voices on the project blog at    By the end of the project we will have produced  an installation at the Watchtower Gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed, including Geoff’s  soundscape which will accompany the written words which I am collecting and editing and deciding …….how to exhibit  those words in a gallery  space?? So many themes and inspirations have emerged – acceptance of change, love of family and friends, delight in making and producing,  and a youthful pleasure in being alive.



What next?

So, after the end of the study visit, the report writing, the thinking and the reflection-how to put all the learning into practice?

I’m lucky to have two projects  to work on. ‘Meet Me @ The NGC’ is a weekly session for people with dementia and their carers, an opportunity   to come to the National Glass Centre (NGC) for a workshop with glass artists and a little bit of creative writing with myself.

Many of the conversations I’ve had with participants have focussed on ‘work’ . This is more than reminiscence; work is often what defines us. The riverside site of the NGC is also a reminder for many people of the decline in industry on the banks of the River Wear and in the Sunderland area- shipbuilding, mining, rope making. For others, their active roles in working in their community: teaching, caring.

I prefer the riverside as it used to be- watching the ships being launched- plenty of jobs. Now its just a place to walk the dog.’

These conversations were also inspired by the ongoing ‘work’ at the NGC where glass blowing can be observed and the huge installation of over one thousand hanging glass ‘teardrops’  which  often provoked a response of ‘How did they make that?’. 

At the end of the workshops, participants  commented that it was rare chance for socialising and  being creative but also an important opportunity  to return to making something, being productive.



Stories from the West Side- Chapter 8


 For some time, I’ve wanted to visit Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada; partly influenced by the beautiful short stories of Alastair Macleod, living on Cape Breton Island. Last year, I met his son, Alexander, also a fine writer, at a writer’s workshop where we compared the history and geography of Northumberland, where I live, and Nova Scotia where he grew up. Due to the complex economic changes, both areas have seen a decline in traditional industries of fishing, coal mining and farming and increase in tourism and property development.   Both on the East Coast.

It seemed an important place to experience as part of my study visit where I wanted to explore older people’s sense of place and belonging in a rural setting. I wanted to investigate the sense of identity which I have found in my work with older people in Newcastle and Northumberland, where place is often central to identity, and personal histories are written in the scrubbed doorsteps or the rope factory or the ship building or the mines. Those structures may be gone but they live on in many older people, not as fond memoirs, but as a real sense of identity.  For those living with dementia, it may be one aspect of identity which is more easily evidenced in creative activities.

It was such a relief to find, via the internet, the Eldertree Project, part of Antigonish Health and Arts (AHA!), based in a small university town two hours from the main city Halifax. As I drove there, across wide expanse of forest and field, I kept thinking ‘This is Scotland in Canada!’   Early migrants from Scotland (Nova Scotia=New Scotland) and Ireland established European settlements with their traditions of music, farming and fishing. Now their cultural legacies are maintained in local communities, alongside references to First Nations Canadians.

I had been invited to a community event at a residential care facility and arrived to a sunny garden,  full of people listening to a local band playing country music. Two members of staff were dancing with residents, glasses of juice passed around.  Before dinner, everyone was called in to watch a film made by AHA! with music and song created with older people,  local children and local musicians. The film reflected the local culture in the present, not just reminiscing about the past.

This was a celebration with a special tea where residents could invite guests to share a meal. I was lucky to be guest of Paul who had dressed for the occasion with blazer, white shirt and tie. As a new resident, he told me of his recent fall and diagnosis of dementia;  significant changes since his lifelong career  as an engineer building trails through the forest for trucks carrying timber. His descriptions were very vivid as he talked about ice skating on the estuary in winter, living at the edge of the water, walking the old trails he had helped to develop. His story and those of other older people are being collected to create a performance piece to celebrate and acknowledge the elders in the community.

Paul had arrived at a point in his life when we was aware of diminishing memory, distressed about having to live separately from his wife who was in a different facility because of her own health difficulties, For him, the minutiae of each day seeming to stretch into an unclear future.  I was struck by the way he dealt with those changes in his life with such dignity and calm, how the celebration event allowed him to be a host again, to enjoy the live music outside.

Estuary near Antigonish

Estuary near Antigonish

Whilst in Antigonish, I had been asked to facilitate a workshop and discussion with the AHA! Group about our shared experiences of using creative writing, collecting words, opinions and memories from older people especially those with dementia.  The workshop included health and art professionals and volunteers working on the project, as well as my host, Anne Simpson (local poet, novelist and essayist) who had a key role in mentoring emerging writers on the project. Discussion ranged across the challenging subject of ethics, the extent to which we censor or select from other peoples stories, what support do we get from arts and health networks nationally or regionally, what is the most appropriate artwork to illuminate the writing, what is truth, whose truth are we representing, what values do we as writers and artists bring to the process.

This discussion reinforced for me that it is important to approach writing with older people with dementia in the same way that I might prepare for any community based workshop with people who have not written before, aiming to make it participative, that people learn from the activities or the readings, that everyone has equal opportunity to be involved and contribute to the cultural life of the community, regardless of memory loss.  The main difference is that I am usually the one holding the pen and doing the actual writing whilst collecting words directly from participants in the dementia workshops.

We talked about dealing with difficult stories where confidentiality around violence or abuse needs to be maintained but the impact can be captured in other details- the wedding ring flung in the drawer, the financial struggle of a single parent. These are universal themes that cut across age groups, dementia diagnosis and individual histories.  This gave us opportunity to reflect on the ageist attitudes which reinforce the cognitive difficulties associated with dementia. No wonder we often hear older people say ‘I don’t want to be a burden.

This discussion was held in a residential care home working along the principles of the Eden Alternative approach, where creative expression and arts activities are part of the daily programme. This was evident with the art work on the walls and atmosphere of inspiration and vitality throughout the building; so different to some silent facilities where residents spend hours dozing in plastic covered chairs. I was reminded again that science now demonstrates that creative expression is as effective as psychotropic drugs in maintaining calm and communication; there is no excuse for this vital approach to be ignored.

How do we capture those times of change, allowing people to express their emotions about major life challenges, moving from independent living to residential care- which eventually becomes end of life care?  A programme of creative activities can become central to care, central to honest communication and freedom of expression.

As I left Antigonish, close to the water and en route to Cape Breton Island, I thought about Paul and his future, the opportunities he might have for returning to the forest, quoting Latin names for plants, smelling the pine, listening to the water moving. I was reminded again and again, that the sense of ‘place’ is so central to our sense of identity, crucial for Paul in celebrating his past as well as his future.

Paul: social host, nature lover, engineer, husband, environmentalist, ice skater, Nova Scotian.