I wrote this blog post for Bristol Life of Breath Project, so am now posting it here. I’m very proud of the work that a group of us did in primary schools in early 2019. I’m using some of the ideas we experimented with in some new workshops I’m devising for GP Dr Sarah Temple and her company Ehcap. Her work on emotion coaching for parents and children helps a great deal of people and I’m proud to be part of the development of this too.
Panel on Aging, 2nd February 2018
Dagmar Wilhelm @UWE invited me to run a panel on Aging at her conference Vulnerability, Exclusion and Domination at The Watershed. Hazel Winter performed some of her poems, “Menopause”, “My hair is thinning at the front”, and “Facing up to 50” from her book, ‘I’m Scared of the Pig on the City Farm’, and in doing so adding some rock and roll to the panel. Dr Joanna Cross delivered a fascinating talk, looking at the theme from her perspective as Gerontologist. I loved Jo’s observations about ‘extra-normative’ women Christine Keeler and fictional character Edna in Sandford’s play “Edna the Inebriate Woman” (Sandford is known well for authoring ‘Cathy Come Home’ directed by Ken Loach).
In my own investigation (so far) of getting older, of aging, of grappling hormonal changes, navigating a divorce and having a 50th birthday, I’ve found a seam of creativity – I’ve been writing and creating a lot of work, which has been helpful to me. This includes the first draft of a graphic novel, and before that the play Silva Lining’s Care Plan, which is based on real carer diaries and addresses what care, especially of the elderly, really is.
Elderly. Elder… ok so what’s this idea of being an elder… when does that happen? Does initiation into it have to be rocky and tricky?
Should we just ‘think young and keep smiling’ as a woman in a café recommended me last week?
In the words of Sharon Blackie who writes in her book ‘If Women Rose Rooted”
“Becoming elder begins at menopause, an entire journey all of its own: a biological, spiritual and emotional rite of passage whose impact is often underrated. Menopause is not a medical condition, it is an earthquake, shaking us to our deepest foundations, wiping out the edifices we’ve so carefully constructed on what we once imagined to be the solid ground of our life. Menopause hacks us open….
The relinquishing of identification with fertility, youth, and motherhood… entails a time of deep grieving. Sometimes we clutch to all that is vanishing, unable or unwilling to learn to love our beautiful silver or white hair, to live comfortably with our new wrinkles…. Sometimes we refuse it, postponing the inevitable with hormone therapy and hair dye; It seems like the harshest and loneliest of all lessons, in this society where elderhood is so little valued.”
So I ask the question:
- Is there a safe place to remove masks and be vulnerable enough to talk about these changes? Quick answer: I am in a private Facebook group with old university friends, which does provide this in part.
- My second question – is there a way to reclaim the place of elder in our society?
Three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, @peacedirect and Oxford Research Group founder, Scilla Elworthy says – “Post-menopausal energy emerges when we suddenly become invisible… it was incredibly liberating. Your energy becomes your own instead of thinking all the time about who is looking at you, who might desire you.’
She also talks about Wrath. “Wrath is different from rage… it carries an urgent instruction about what needs to happen.”. There can be much power in the wrath of an elder. She talks of how ‘Elderhood is a huge under tapped resource’.
One of the things I did in the panel was invite people to write a letter to their ‘getting older selves’. Quite a few people read their letters out and some were feeling more private, which was fine too. I always love hearing what people have created and what they might have realised about themselves in sessions like this. One UWE lecturer said she would like to use a similar exercise with her students. She called the exercise disruptive – in a positive way. I take that as a big complement.
Thanks to Dagmar, Hazel, Jo, and thanks to our audience, for listening and contributing to the session.
Hazel Winter Hazel has spent 30 years playing in guitar bands including Bristol’s Blue Aeroplanes and has released four critically acclaimed solo albums on her own Death Row Bride label. She has been produced by John Parish and Adrian Utley (Portishead), and has played in Utley’s guitar orchestra with conductor Charles Hazelwood. Hazel is going to perform from her first book of poetry, ‘I’m Scared of the Pig on the City Farm’ .
Dr Joanna Cross moved to Somerset in 2000 to look after her mother who had vascular dementia, and studied at the same time after working as a drama teacher in East London. She has a doctorate in Gerontology (“Truth to the Materiality of Later Life: the Significance of the Aesthetic for the Support of Older People” 2015). Her current aspiration is to develop new ways of understanding and communicating respect for cultural diversity in later life via the performing arts. She is an equity member and did work for Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Elspeth Penny is a theatre/arts and health practitioner with www2buproductions.org. Recently funded by Arts Council England, she wrote and directed Silva Lining’s Care Plan, a play about carers and dementia, a collaboration with University of Nottingham. She runs many arts and health projects with organisations such as Somerset County Council, Nailsea Town Council (Letter to My Grandchild), schools, WECIL and Life of Breath project www.lifeofbreath.org. She is currently creating an online course exploring identity and change, particularly in that ‘getting older’ space.
Vulnerability, Exclusion and Domination. A conference in conjunction with a performance of “Woman One” a monologue bsed on Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Monologue”With the kind support of Hypatia (the Hypatia Diversity Project Grant) and Social Science in the City, UWE.
Photo by Miguel from Social Science in the City.
My 16 year-old son and I were invited by Anna Best to do an arts residency at The Mothership in Dorset at the end of October 2018. This is an account of that week.
We know that we will be doing some work together. We don’t know what we’ll be exploring exactly, and we’re given the freedom to not know. No result is expected – this is luxurious, even decadent, in the best possible way. We’re both at periods of life where there is transformation and change. He will leave home soon, maybe next year, maybe in two years, so I will be looking at what this means to me. I know I want to go deep into whatever I explore.
Practicalities first. We are staying in a studio overlooking a giant oak.
Anna’s beans are drying on one of the shelves:
We have a compost loo which we’ll share with other people, there is no internet. Chris is next door with Simone the dog. We have a vast landscape to wonder in, including a disused railway line. Bridport is 20 minutes drive away and there’s everything we need there, including food shops, pubs and cafes. I’ve brought most of what we need anyway. There are other rural local produce shops and pubs nearby, and it’s not so far from the sea. I pour over maps to get my bearings as I don’t know the area at all. We are near Powerstock, not far from Bridport, and oddly close to places we used to go when we lived in Devon, such as Lyme Regis.
We will present our work at a showing for Force 8 on Friday, 5 days into our residency. http://force8.org is “a creative collective of artists, writers, designers and musicians founded by Anna Best and Hester Schofield in 2016 to promote a culture of thinking and progressive dialogue through contemporary art that will inspire people in Bridport and the surrounding area.”
Where to start? There are many resources available to us: Resource 1. we have brought books. Some are his choice, some are mine.
Resource 2: a random selection of materials. The combination of them is in itself of interest to me. I’ve brought wood cutting tools, paper, inks made out of soil, he’s got threads, wool, knitting needles, an antique wooden milk crate full of materials including paints.
Resource 3: there is a lot of extraordinary nature outside, so our palette is full and there are endless textures and colours to find.
Resource 4: In our application for the residency, we started from a statement that Bede attributed to Plato – “Inside everything, there is a perfect form“ which I think he picked up from studying Ethics and Philosophy. Another way of putting this is that everything in this world is an imperfect representation of its perfect form.
Resource 5: In the summer we were in North Wales and my mother, sister, cousin, my children and I had walked to the beach for a swim. On the walk down, Bede made me a boat to hurl away into the sea, as it was my birthday. It was rainy and cold and it was the perfect thing to do. I have brought the photo of this.
Resource 6. Making letters to an aspect of self is my thing…. so I would like to do this. Writing letters to the breath every day makes it easier to catch the journey of the week in the writing – they somehow catch the nub of each day. They give the whole thing a slow paced rhythmic quality.
The first thing I do is ditch any idea of a plan, or a list or any tightening around my waist. I do keep looking out to check Bede is ok though….
Watching your mother go into a deep creative zone in an almost off grid rural location and having no-one else about isn’t every son’s dream. And you might be amazed he actually came at all. Well so am I, and it isn’t all smooth…
“How long are we here for?” he says on day 2, impatiently.
“Seven days” I say.
“But what exactly are we doing here?”
“Making things, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. Just making art. You know that. You wanted to come!”
” I don’t want to do an arts project, he says. I want to be at home.”
And there was the ‘You’re so deep mum’. It wasn’t a complement.
‘Yes, I am.’ I say, simply and get on with sewing fragments of text onto a piece of paper.
After that he settles in, or just gives in and finds what this is about for him. Unstructured time, un-led… no one is telling us what to do and there really aren’t many people around… all this is fine. It’s such a contrast to the stitched up quality and quantity of time in the rest of life… school, jobs, volunteering, walks, Duke of Edinburgh, Ten Tors, and so on. There is certainly no manual of how to go about making a piece of work here. Physically and in atmosphere, the place is remarkably like the farm we were lucky to be able to live on in mid Devon for eight years, before we moved to North Somerset.
I offer to give him structure, which he refuses, but I throw out a few lines in case he wanted to catch them. Such as a quote I’d been told at a wedding the day before we’d left. “When you change the things you notice, the things you notice change.” This goes down surprisingly well.
But if we’re open to noticing the perfect form of everything, then which parts of what we encounter will get sketched onto my notepad, or scratched into something he is making? What form will we use to pull it into a piece of work? Will we even make a piece of work together?
The time we have at The Mothership is during the week of the end of October, our Halloween; this was once seen as the thirteenth month. I read about October and November in Ian Siddons Heginworth’s book ‘Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, A monthly guide for your soul’s journey on this beautiful earth.’ I read slowly as I like to let the thoughts of writers that I like seep through me, not just over me… though perhaps I’m just slow, and it’s my way of justifying it. His words make more sense to me whilst in this landscape than they would have done at home. You might say they enter me as much as the surroundings, the elements, the fierce winds on our last night there.
We don’t garden as we’d thought we would, so it is more about the landscape, the stories, the fire, the materials we find in these places. We visit the sea and the fossil cliffs.
We have walks in the forest next to the house, alone and together in various changing lights.
”I’m blowing through the elder” he says. ‘It’s pithy inside. You can easily remove the pith”. He’s carved out holes and blows the top, I hear it make a trembling airy sound. Then he shaves a bit more, and the sound disappears. That’s perfect, I think. It’s a silent recorder. And just then steam shoots out of a log.”
Everyone who walks into the space or we come upon becomes part of the work. The stories of everyone who we talk to, influence us or are woven in. The theme seems to be around cuts, threads, sewing up, tracks, circles. A saying goodbye, and a what next? Quite often words elude me, and I confuse words with others – he’s quick to point it out. That’s creative brain at work. He’s got to write an application to a school. It irritates me to have to get that bit of my brain out (the left hemisphere), but of course I’m going to help. I don’t want him to leave home just yet, yet if that’s what he needs, that must happen. We go to an internet cafe to do it.
So in the end how do you choose the right thing to put into this grand sketch of a mother-son moment in time, and what to leave out? Perspective is necessary, to distinguish between the irrelevant details and if no-one else is there to do it, eg a dramaturg, a work partner, it takes longer. I’m already making excuses for the unformed quality of my work. Yet there’s a joy in staying as free in ideas as possible for as long as possible. On Thursday night, I start to create something in script form. I am still pulling threads together when Hester and Anna arrive at 5 pm on Friday for the showing. Bede has lit a fire dish outside.
I haven’t expected it, but the making of objects, the formation of ideas, our creative journey becomes the main thread of the script. There is also something emerging about rising to the challenge of being an elder, in spite of not really wanting to be.
A fire dish. Stories. Everyone who is there tells a story, each one brings something new to the circle.
This is Bede’s story, though it’s changed and refined and perhaps got both more factually accurate and more poetic in retellings since. ‘If you cast your eye across the bay towards Plymouth, you can see Eddystone Lighthouse. Eddystone built his lighthouse out of wood and glass, and to show off how well built it, he decided to sleep over inside it, for the first night it after it was completed. And that night a great storm came, an unlikely storm, and swept it all away, and him with it. So I was on the sea, on the way to France, thinking of this story. I looked out of the horizon and I could see the world was round. You can’t get that perspective on land. We can make the land straight by building railways, but the sea will always be round. Railways were built across America, they cut off Buffalo paths. We westerners build roads, square buildings, straight lines…”
Bede also shows what he made… the silent elder recorder. A bamboo pen. A mini church door. A book bound in leather and filled with painted images: the images illustrate cell division. A thick knitted something which ‘has not become anything yet’, but then becomes a circle, a cowl. He tells a story around a fire dish. He composes a song.
I make a series of letters, in ink and red thread. Seven stories joined by breaths, stitches, insults, home truths. I then write a 24 minute script which is finding what it is.
What does Bede think about what we have made? He likes the fires and the stories but he doesn’t want to hear what I have written. Of course. But he doesn’t mind I’ve written it.
What do I think of what we have made? Perhaps I have made something out of the extraordinary ordinary – this place, the occasion, just having a week to play with. Or even something ordinary extraordinary? I like it when Anna says the studio looks like we’ve been living there for weeks – I suppose we have let ourselves get pretty messy at times. I hope I have not been sentimental, and I hope it gets people feeling something, but know I’ll need to do a lot of cutting.
When I read my words, I see that my metaphors are thick and deep, where as Bede’s thoughts are so clear, even if not simple. Does this make him a better artist than me? I know the detail can confuse the whole, and I need time to work out which is which.
What medium should this writing end up as, I ask at the showing. I’m not so sure yet. Theatre? Radio? Novellette? Long poem? Hester suggests it’s radio, it’s so internal. “You really need to stop and listen to the words, the words are enough in themselves.” I agree, and think that the character called Time could blossom if on radio. Hester sees it as a working through, an interpretation of a dream, or the unconscious, through referencing the every day. Anna says that though some of the references are familiar (she’s lived her for some time, and visited since a child), that this doesn’t make it dull. Knowing a place for years, seeing it through seasons and periods of life, seeing the same thing again and again just makes it richer, deeper, and hearing about it from different perspectives is part of that depth.
Yes – life gives everything we need. When you change the things you notice, the things you notice change.
I ask Hester and Anna to create their own letters to the breath which they do, speedily. I hang them next to my letters, at the window overlooking the oak tree.
Then they tell their own stories beside the fire. Both pick up on themes and leave something new to this story. We blow breaths to each other and receive them back and then go back to our lives.
This whole thing is a walk through something, the 13thmonth, a ritual, a song. It feels as though it touched something honest and true, but I can’t yet understand it – how could I?
I look up my notes of a workshop I went to the week before the residency, about building your dream idea. One of the exercises is a visualisation. I read my account of the visualisation – my vision if you like: it’s about a tall lighthouse by the sea, I am at the top of it talking to a big crowd, helping millions of them see differently. Let’s hope that vision doesn’t get dashed into the sea, I’ll have to build it with better materials than Eddyson used.
My youngest son comes for the last day, after his trip to London where he spent time with my mother. He’s been to the holocaust exhibition at The Imperial War Museum and played Fortnight with his cousin. I encourage him to create something. This is what he makes:
“So for now the cycle is ending…. Down by the water’s edge, our ship awaits” writes Ian Siddons Heginworth
Thank you to:
The Mothership and Anna
Ian Siddons Heginworth; Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, A monthly guide for your soul’s journey on this beautiful earth’
Hester, for recommending ‘If Women Rose Rooted: A journey to Authenticity and Belonging’ by Sharon Blackie, which I’ve been reading since.
Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannia
The Viking I met at Adele and Nic’s wedding.
Eggardon Hill, which we could see each day, and our friends at 3CaneWhale whose beautiful song ‘Eggardon Hill’, sent little ripples to us throughout the week.
My colleague Dr Alice Malpass has written a blog about our Being Human event at the Arnolfini in November 2017: it’s on the Life of Breath website: https://lifeofbreath.org/2018/01/gasp-making-breathlessness-less-invisible-through-the-creative-arts/.
Theme is one of my favourite subjects to teach as it informs the heart of any piece of creative work, whether it be film, fiction writing, theatre, photography, non fiction, textile work… you name it. Plus it’s about emotion, which is the cornerstone of creating anything meaningful. This workshop, and my recent Creative Sparkle workshops have taken me back to the material I taught on the Narrative MA module at Norwich University of the Arts (I loved that job!).
Film maker Dr Vicki Smith asked me to run a workshop at BEEF over the summer. A privilege to be running the first in a series at BEEF’s current home: The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.
BEEF – Bristol Experimental and Expanded Film – describes itself as ‘a film and sound collective with an analogue heart’, it’s well worth looking up and getting involved in. Vicky is a true experimental film maker and thinker and it’s been great to get to know her through this.
It’s a joy working with creative people, giving them a pile of tools to explore and improve their work and sharing stories. In these workshops – there is a cultural knock about, as one of the workshop attendees wrote in their feedback. Indeed – I view any workshop as essentially being a process of, ‘I am nourishing you and you are nourishing me.’
More about the workshop details:
Details: SATURDAY 30th July at BEEF’s current home: The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, 14 Hillgrove St, Bristol.
DAY ONE : EXPLORING YOUR MEDIUM
This set of workshops may be taken singly or together. Close attention will be paid to the role of sound and the senses in experimental film, the advantages and creative applications of different film formats and the consideration of audience.
10-12 am: Elspeth Penny: Narrative – Communicating through Media
A narrative is the unfolding of a structured communication to an audience. Story, genre, time, space, theme, style, plot, characterisation and dialogue, sound, movement, image. This workshop uses practical exercises to explore theme – and how a well worked out theme affects everything we communicate.
Elspeth Penny makes films, tv, literature, theatre…. always ideas led. An experienced creative workshop leader, Elspeth has taught for over fifteen years, including running an MA module in Narrative at Norwich University of the Arts, and loves to work with people of any age and level of experience.
Now for the feedback.
Thank you to all of the participants who gave feedback:
Very open and dynamic in approach. It did need more time perhaps! Good location and resources. Made me think more about the direction of my work and how to develop it.
The exercises were good and energizing and brought the group together in a dynamic and creative way. The film and book examples were well chosen. The exercise at the end of using colours, projection and camera to rapidly explore a filmic theme was really fun and a great idea for an explorative tool.
– The creative exercises are very inspiring and helpful.
– The drawing on overhead and filming is brilliant help to see your theme in action.
– It could be an hour longer.
– Please do more of these workshops.
Really stretched by boundaries.
Felt like I could think more freely.
Wow have something/pointers to take away and follow up.
- Great cultural knock about
- Made me relax and share
- Great set of tool kit to go away with that could be transferred to all/most creative processes.
- Great sense of security in the group.
Points to improve
?? Too much in 2 hours. Needs a day.
Note to self: Don’t try to do too much in an hour!
Thanks to Vicky and Esther for your help in planning and on the day.
Thanks for watching.
Breathe Easy, the Forest of Dean April 19th 2016
‘My Dear Breath, I have lived with you for 83 years, the first 23 were good! but you have been unkind’ – one eighty-five year-old, Clare, writes to her own breath in large pink letters – she’s been using Beetroot ink and a feather to write with. She tells me she had Asthma since she was a child, ‘I used to wonder if I’d wake up dead.’
It’s the first time I’ve been to the Forest of Dean. I get to Great Oaks Hospice, Coleford an hour early. A man is cleaning a lawn mower, whistling away, and I feel at ease. I consider how I’d not mind spending time at any hospice if I could hear someone going about his tasks so happily. He helps me carry in four boxes and several bunches of different coloured rolled up paper into a warm open room in the basement. I set up, ready for the Breathe Easy group to arrive.
I have arranged to do something for the first half of the meeting for Forest of Dean Breathe Easy group. Mike Green is Secretary of the group – he and his wife greet me, then the participants begin to arrive.
‘This looks interesting, intriguing!’ says one slim friendly man, Archie. The table is all set with tablecloth, homemade inks, pens, pencils, chalks, charcoal. There is something about him that reminds me of my Geordie grandfather Grumpy. Grumpy had chronic bronchitis from years of dedicated smoking and spent the last fifteen,or was it twenty years of his life? – looked after by Gran – he was largely bedridden towards the end.
As we start the workshop, there are six people at the table, and a few more trickle in until we are thirteen.
I introduce myself and tell the group how I have developed my letter-writing project Scent (www.scent.buzz). I warm up with a drama exercise using the breath, play a specific kind of consequences, appropriate for the group, ask everyone to write five messages to their five-year-old self in the past, then ask everyone to write a letter to their own breath.
Mark is a jovial man whom I immediately feel at ease with: he chats to me about parenting boys and various theatre pieces he’s seen.
‘I wrote a letter to my lungs actually,’ he tells me. He has written, ‘We are behind you with this’ at the bottom of his chosen piece of humble white A4 paper. He continues – ‘It has helped me to be less critical of myself. That’s because of the five messages that you asked us to write to ourselves as a child.’
It’s harder to be mean to a child, so addressing ourselves this way does tend to help us be more compassionate with ourselves.
‘My letter is basically all about what breath and I can do together’, Clare tells me, with a little regret in her voice. She then says more cheerfully, ‘This is another way we look at ourselves and our illnesses – there is a lot we can do without medication.’
Everyone reacts to the workshop in their own individual way. Participants talk to their breath in tones ranging from kindness and friendship to reprimand, such as Clare’s, ‘But you have been unkind.’
There’s a discussion in the group about whether keeping the letters is a good idea. I suggest that they might like to pin them up to remind themselves.
I know from previous groups that people have admitted that they think their partners will laugh at them if they pin them up. It’s not out of unkindness, but perhaps out of embarrassment about expressing emotions or needs.
Mark tells me that he’ll take it home and throw it out, the way everything else goes in his house. One participant suggests to him that he might benefit from seeing it – why not put it on your wall?’ He considers it, then he says that he’d like to keep it for a while.
Here’s another thoughtful extract.
It’s tea and raffle time. I am offered a raffle ticket, but I say that I wouldn’t like to win and take away the prize from one of the others. The raffle master insists. Luckily I don’t win.
‘I think we all enjoyed that and wish you were here for longer. Perhaps you could come back?’ Mike tells me.
‘That was tremendous. I really did get a lot from that’, Carol says as I’m leaving.
A few days later I get a letter through the post from Mike:
‘Your workshop last Tuesday gave our Breathe Easy members food for thought and a creative outlet not experienced often enough on third Tuesdays in the Acorn Suite. I hope you agree that the varied response, in words and images, is proof of the value of the afternoon to those present, not least the fun of it.
Mary tells me that the procession of the exercises led her to realise she could rise above negativity and begin again to enjoy life.’
I am both moved and humbled, in particular by Mary’s feedback. To me it shows that this is not just simply about letter writing and communicating to some part of yourself, as profound as that might be. It’s also a procession of exercises, a progression of ideas, a transition which participants can go through. If it helps a single person to ‘begin again to enjoy life’ then it’s worth doing.
Thank you to: Mike Green, chair of the Forest of Dean Breath Easy group for all his help and for the photos (when I discovered I’d left behind my camera); all the participants, whose names have been changed for purposes of privacy; Great Oaks Hospice, Coleford for their welcome; Dr Alice Malpass, NIHR Research Fellow for referring me to Forest of Dean Breath Easy group after we both delivered talks at the Life of Breath research group; Jess- Farr Cox; Philosopher Professor Havi Carel, http://www.lifeofbreath.org/ for inviting me to talk at her Wellcome Project Funded project research group in Bristol.
December 2015 – January 2016
This is an account of a project where I took three groups of children through evening tiredness after a day at school, and travelled deep down Goatchurch Cavern in The Mendips. I witnessed them enjoy the sensations of a damp but not watery cave, become familiar with the habitat of bats and cave spiders and become at ease in amongst rocks and edges in what, for the children, essentially became a stone play park for an evening. I then led writing workshops with them.
Photo: Gabriel Gilson
- Planning the project: how it came about.
- Workshops: I am going to describe what I did in the workshops, with the hope that this might be interesting and useful for others, including here a few examples of the writing.
- Additional writing (in the end notes) and more photos.
- Planning the project: how it came about
Late November 2015
I am commissioned in late November, over tea at my house with Stuart Bardsley of Discovering Blackdown Project http://www.discoveringblackdown.org.uk, to take groups of children down a Mendip cave, then run educational creative workshops with them.
The aim is to bring awareness to the Mendips, in particular Blackdown (the highest hill in the Mendip Hills, Somerset), to the children. It’s all funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, so it’s free for the children. I have heard from a caving friend that December is a good month to cave – caving instructors and caves are less busy.
- I have asked Robin of Somerset Adventures to be the professional caver in charge of the activity (for two reasons: 1. I met him randomly on a walk as he emerged from Goatchurch Cavern, along with a boy whose inspired Grandad had employed Robin for the day. Robin is an ex GP and since I often work with GP’s, I am intrigued about his shift in career. I also think this bodes well for trip safety.
- I have got most of the Scouting leaders on board and they have sent out emails to parents. Pip Riley is asking the boys in Scouts who she thinks will benefit most from the offer.
- We have full sets of children (with a waiting list) who all want to go caving in the ten days before Christmas… all of which I thought was a long shot.
- Robin and I decide on exploring Goatchurch Tavern. The trips have been divided up so that it’s three groups of eight children, mixed ages and a mix of girls and boys. I have made an effort to encourage girls to come: in spite of the Brownies not taking part officially, two Brownies will be able to come with Cubs, and three guides have signed up.
Photo: Gabriel Gilson
Even though some of the children have been down Goatchurch Cavern before, Robin brings new stories and takes us down new passages, or familiar ones in a different way, so that there is a feeling of real adventure to the evenings.
Photos: Gabriel Gilson
- I decide, after three damp, dark physical evening caving trips, at the time of year I could be late shopping and wrapping up presents, that caving is the perfect feral, healthy antidote to all things Christmas. It’s deep below the earth and there are no tinny renditions of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, or images of Santa anywhere to be seen *note to self to do this again next Christmas*.
- Things I don’t enjoy: disciplining bundles of over excited kids who won’t go one at a time, but instead tumble over each other seemingly head first into holes – “X jumped on Y’s head Miss, and then Y Kicked Z”; running, chasing naughty boys who hurtle too fast towards the pitch black road (once we’ve got out of the cave); asking the children to listen, endlessly.
- More things I enjoy: sloshing through streams on the way up to the cave; slipping down dark passages and squeezing myself through crevices in a hard hat and overalls; being held by rock; persuading my knees and muscles to navigate challenging climbs; the pleasure of physical capability; the hidden wildlife and physicality of being far beneath the earth; those still moments when Robin describes how to navigate the next passage, hard hats on children, tiny red lights flashing.
- I take voice recordings just after the caving, where I ask the children for their impressions, and to state colours, smells and sounds that they’ve seen.
- There are no injuries. Caving is, as Robin says, actually pretty safe.
- In Arthur’s words. “That caving was so amazing. I did all the challenging things. The belly dip was awesome. Probably the best of the lot.”
Photo: Gabriel Gilson
- Workshops exercises and writing
By the third week of January, all the writing workshops have been completed.
This is how the numbers panned out.
- Workshop 1: 7 cubs
- Workshop 2: 8 scouts
- Workshop 3: 14 guides (12 of which hadn’t attended this caving trip, but most had been caving other times).
- Workshop 4: 2 brownies and 1 cub at my kitchen table.
So the workshops….
The Cubs are raucous but engaged.
“This is fun,” says Jaiden, to the boys next to him, during an exercise we’re doing, which makes me happy.
Another boy says to me at the beginning, ‘I can’t really write, can I do pictures instead?’, to which I answer, ‘Of course.’ However, the boy gets really absorbed into the writing, especially with his own unusual rhythmic poem, which he’s reluctant to stop.
The Scouts are animated and excited throughout the workshop and produce excellent writing.
At the end they perform some of their writing to the rest of the Scouts, which goes down well.
The Guides are more distracted at first. This is in part because I have asked the whole group to take part, 14 girls in total, when only two of them had actually been caving and it takes a while to ‘catch them up’ on the caving experience. I also regret using a long thin table, which wasn’t as conducive to intimate work as the round tables in the other groups. Mid way through I change position to some low stools, which helps, and also I do a bit of stand up drama work which relaxes everyone. The guides settle in, with the help of their leader and we get some good work out of them.
Here, I will describe what I do in the workshops.
Then I will follow up by sharing some of the children’s work. A couple of things to say about this. I’m not correcting spelling mistakes in their writing: it’s written here as they wrote it. Also, there wasn’t time to edit any of the work in the workshops, so this is how it comes out first time.
Task 1: To warm up, we remember the trip using photographs and the voice recordings that I took just after the caving.
I ask the group to stand up and ‘send a word round the circle’. One person chooses a word, (in this context a caving related word) such as rock, then the next person has to ‘catch it’ and send it on to the next person, by saying it in much the same way that it has been said. This way, the exercise is about listening, rather than reinvention: it becomes quite hypnotic and rhythmic. It is a good antidote to over excitement in a group.
Task 2. The writers start to gather words and ideas… I emphasise that the point here is the quantity, not the quality of the writing. It’s ok not to spell things well, or worry about what the writing looks like, because it’s about the ideas being free to come through. (Grammar and spelling can always be corrected later if necessary).
Task 3. Focusing on creating a sense of place. I ask the children, without thinking too much about it, to write down answers to these prompts: One thing you saw when caving; Two colours; Two tastes; Three sounds; Four smells and Five textures.
I like Scarlett’s answer to ‘One thing you saw’ – it was, ‘Bats like pencil sharpeners’ and William wrote down: ‘A caramel waterfall’ to describe the ‘limestone waterfalls’, which Robin had shown us, which had formed over thousands of years of dripping water.
I asked the cubs to write down their emotions, and I had a whole range: Excited, Scared, Happy, Sad, Tired. Another Cub said, “I felt really quite (sic) and very nervous. Sounds around me were cool. I heard rocks.” (Dilan)
For more examples, see end note [i]
Task 5. This exercise is about focusing on creating characters: including the question of whether to write in first person or third person?
I say: “Looking at the caving experience, whose point of view can you look from? The ideas can be as imaginative as you like.”
Some of the ideas are The Dark, Bones, The Handrail, The Air
I fire out a lot of questions. I ask the children to write down answers without thinking too much about it. The aim is to build a whole character, with a path… what do they look like, history, desires, looks etc in order to bring them to life. The aim is also to excite their imaginations.
Here is an example, again from Bede, who is looking from the point of view of “The Cave’s Mouth, which has seen many people passing by.”
What do they look like? Bede: Grey and jagged.
Who are their friends? Bede: Hates all.
What is their job? Bede: Sits still.
What do they want more than anything else? Bede: Peace and quiet.
What do they have in their pockets? Or if they don’t have pockets, what would they put in a pocket if they could? Bede: Stories, stalactites.
What game would they like to play? Bede: Sleeping lions.
What is the worst thing that could happen? Bede: Nothing.
Task 6. A writing exercise focusing on Goatchurch Cavern.
This goes like this:
- Write a list of five things that you saw in the cave
- Then five textures
- Five emotions
- Write a stanza using these lists. Use a specific amount of words on each line: 1357531. Having strict rules for a task always forces writers to become very inventive.
- Share the poems. To the reader: Never apologise for your work, just read it.
- To everyone else: Pick out one thing you liked about the piece and share that.
The results are as follows, and I think show how the children are empathizing with different parts of the cave, exploring their own relationship to the landscape and to themselves:
Annoyed and sharp
Why to me, you come
To explore my expanse of cavernous depths
Then you go away
Part of me
For other examples see end note[ii]
Task 7: What am I?
This is about reading out some writing to the rest of the group, without saying who the character/ the point of view is, and allowing the audience to guess.
The Scouts are the only group that do this. They all go through their cave characters, and the other Scouts (who hadn’t done the workshop), listen, guessing.
What am I? by Oliver
I have red stuff pouring out of me and I can no longer do anything. I used to have friends and would swoop around in the darkness collect my food. One day I was going around my dayly bisnis when splat! And I suddenly went to a cloudy palace! I can fly again. All the food in the world was there I could just do nothing all day, No hunting! But the best, bit, the best bit was I had no flees. I was so full of myself I crashed smack bang in the face against a piller and was out cold. Once I had come back to my sences a spiky tooth, horned figure stood over me. The devil! Noooo!
What am I? by Bede
How dareth thou take thy presence nearth thine as all thine wants to do is sleep and lye. Stories and stalactites in harmony, peace and quiet for eternity.
(Trespassing travelers strolled arrogantly into thine mouth.’
Answer: A cave’s mouth
For others, see end note[iii]
Task 8: Sticky notes and Free writing
Everyone writes someone they’d like to take down a cave on one sticky note and lay them out on the table next to each other. For the next sticky note, everyone writes down what that person wants more than anything else, and puts that sticky note underneath another random one. The following sticky notes all have words on them, all which make up the character, but are randomly laid underneath the others. Next, everyone picks one vertical column of stickies, and write about that.
I also asked the guides to write freely for three minutes from a point of view of their choice. Here are some of the results:
Her small blak eyes surveyed her pray as they strolled past. They were loud and obnoxious. She stretched her wings and readied herself for attack one let out a high piched squeel and shone a bright light onto her body. The dark spikes of her fur distorted her shadow. Irritated that she had been disturbed, she flew at them, fangs ready to peirce their veins. (Unknown Guide)
Other examples, see end note [iv]
Task 9: Group writing
I asked Scouts and Guides to choose their best phrases, or get partners to do the same, then I gave them a minute only to put all the phrases together to make a poem or a story.
The Scouts created this one:
It was just another day in the cave when a bat pooped on me. The revenge of the pole adventures began!
Joining an underground river seemingly for ever,
There is someone who randomly talks when we turn lights off.
The cave at just the right angle for the next time to happen,
Where shadows do not dance.
Cave, party he hated.
This came from the smallest group, the three Brownies/Cubs:
Drop eats a bit of air – Bob had given him some because, Drop’s helmet looks like bowling balls. It is very rocky in the cave.
Other examples, see [v]
Task 10. This task was just for me. I wanted to create a piece of writing, which tumbled out of the landscape, the children and the caves.
See end note [vi]
Finally, it’s early February and I have been handed some handwritten accounts of the caving trip by two of the boys who didn’t make the writing workshop.
Wojtek Aleksinska (Scouts) wrote:
The Caving trip was thrilling and fascinating. I have been caving four times before and I never have been on a better caving trip. The two hours of caving were definitely worth it. Not only this caving expedition has been challenging and fun but we all learned about the caves and the things inside them. I also really enjoyed the absaling from one hole to another and the climbing upwards to the other part of the cave. The moment when we had to crawl through a tiny tunnel was the most cool because I have never done it before. In all for me it was an amazing expireance and I would love to do it again.
Bartek Aleksinska (Scouts) wrote:
I very much enjoyed the caving trip that took place at Burrington Coombe. I have been caving quite a lot however I still found it very fun, interesting exciting and adventurous. I was very interested in all of the shapes and object there were down the cave like animal bones and bats. I was also very sapprised in how small gaps we squished through. Further more I found it really fun sliding down the steep slopes. It was by all means the best caving trip I’ve been to.
Photo: Gabriel Gilson
[i] For an example of a full list, Bede, one of the Scouts wrote:
Two colours: Absence of light, Absence of black
Two tastes: Mud, Dampness
Three sounds: Bats, Dripping, Scuffling
Four smells: Mud, Watery mud, Viscous mud, Water
Five textures: Tough, Smooth, Viscous, Runny, Smooth as ice.
Other example of smells were: Mud, Water, Pungent, Musty (George)
Smoke, Fresh dirt, Mud, Water (unnamed Scout)
Other examples of textures were: Smooth, Grainy, Rough, Rigid, Wavey (George, Scout)
Grayscale, Earth, Rough, Sharpened, Chlorophil. (Unknown Scout)
Rough, Bumpy, Jiggered points, Smooth ((Hannah, Guide)
Out of breth
I was relly relly scared
Desperat to get out of the cave
I want to get out
I’m nerly ther
I get annoyed
When we turn lights off
There is someone who always randomly talks
They annoy me so much
I wish they
Scattering themselves everywhere
Creeping in the darkness, terrified
Spiders crawling at the top of
The cave, feeling weird and excited
Scattering themselves everywhere
Small human being
Shouldn’t have come to my
Glorious cave and yell very loudly, slowly
Hate him, hate him so
Annabel: Guide (unfinished)
Lonely Black Darkness
This is where I live
Lonely, on my own. In complete darkness.
In a cave
Eating a nauciating orange banana
While flying through the black dark sky
After finishing the organge banana
He flew back
The eyes red
Alone cold, have alone cold
Room, cold, sadness, life, cave, dark
Alone, cold, have alone cold,
The eyes red
What am I?
Just sitting there
Ten pound note in my hole
I never move away from stuff
(Written from the point of view of Air)
What am I? (by unnamed Scout)
But when though comes to thine
It is sleep that thine pines,
Until thou goes away
Hine shalt not sleep another day.
Answer: A dead bat
What am I? (by unnamed Scout 1)
I fall from the sky, I peirce into the ground, unless the ground is non-permable, then I become surface runoff. I go into a flow of H2O, I heat and rise to the sky and repeat?
What am I?
Answer: I am a raindrop
What am I? (by unnamed Scout 2)
around the world
helps people and life-forms
every-where such as around the nose.
What am I? (by Scarlett)
The animal went into the cave and there he has his birthday party. He brings his most precious thing – a nut – and sings ‘America’. He climbs into a tent and turns into a poo. ‘Daddy’ he yells, eating a cabbage.
Answer: A cat.
What am I? (by Arthur)
Oh my friend James, he got washed away, I could not do anything! I curse my web of spider form. The flood killed him, brought him down, oh how I whish him not his spider body, and come back in my time instead.’
Answer: A spider’s web.
Thirteen year old Cece whose favourite song was adele was about to go down a mysterious gloomy cave for a very sad occasion a funeral. (Hannah, Guide)
Down a deep dark cave, that stretched for miles, bubbles, the welly only wanted one thing and that was to be free. Bubbles didn’t like caves but he was being forced to go down it. One thing stood in his way and that was the tight holes he had to go down. (Maya, Guide).
Deep in the shadows of the caves at Burrington Hole, within the porous bubbles and deep cracks of the cave wall lives a very small creature. Silence… the mystical Mendip snail. All is quiet. She is suddenly woken from her winter’s slumber by a light beaming into the hollow. She pokes her head out of her pointed shell, and surfaces into a darker hiding spot… (fragment from Aimee-Claire: Leader, Guides)
Bubbles was a welly
He went to a party for Nelly
In a cave with this lucky pillow
But he wanted to be in Madrid with silk pillows (Jasmine: Guide).
Woody (Cubs) wrote:
I was in the cave
I was in the cave
I was feeling hard
I was in the cave
I was in the cave
I was hearing silence
All wanted was silen please god give me real silence. Then all of a sudden I heard this clump of children wich sounded like a herd of eliphents.
Ollie (Cubs) wrote:
‘rock toc a rock dog for
in his pocets were
His hands and
Met a dat fkiw
This was the Guides’ group writing
Down a deep dark cave that stretched for miles
Thirteen year old cece who’s fav song was adele was about to go down a mysterious gloomy cave.
One day while eating a nauseating orange banana he died… RIP Nigel.
He saw, as he opened his eyes, a raging hen party,
Gras was scarce over the colder months,
There was nothing she loved more than cudding her teddy who reminded her soooo much of cleanliness.
Finally Fernando the uicorn realized his cave was much too small and he needed to buy a mansion in spae with Ronaldo the hamster.
Endless dripping of the water off rocks
… and a pool that he went under water in.
His wife Izzy was 1
We kept on playing weels on the Bus.
Can stil bring it like Kim Karasian,
That poor little mole called Cece
Partying til the very end.
And also from the Guides:
There once was a mole called Cece
Who had a twin sister called Mimi
In the kitchen they would bake
While eating sour cake
Listening to the song No Diggity.
She went to a cave for her death
And with her was Beth
That poor little mole called Cece.
Cave offering, by Elspeth
Torn I go,
Down the giant staircase,
Thousand years old.
A lesser horseshoe clings on tight.
Torn I go,
A rock like a worn out dashboard
Rolled up wrinkles, a frozen waterfall,
A bony vegetable smell.
Torn I go,
Down The Drunkard’s alley,
Black burned chocolate marks,
Sooty Victorian deposits.
Tender leap over an ochre crease,
Stalectites (tight to the ceiling),
Brightening with all their shininess.
Torn I go,
Down The Coffin,
Dead air chambers,
Cold boulder, columns forming,
An old man’s face.
Torn I go,
Down The Squeeze,
Calcit and Moonmilk deposits.
There’s a bit of a drop-off,
Where life’s been taken out by volcanic ash.
Torn I go,
Down The Badger Pit,
Down Hobbit stairs,
Down The Diamond Chamber,
Down a shallow descending sandy slope.
Wave by wave, I inch up,
Reach up whole bodied,
Past acrid bat bones and
Hand-like prints in cold stone.
Piece by piece,
Our guide tells of,
Bones of lion, woolly mammoth,
Dragged into corridors,
Past veins below earth,
Walls of enfolded seashells,
Clogged by mud.
See ghost cavers, clothed capped,
Trouser legs tied with string,
Ladies in wet through knitted skirts,
Hanging from old hemp rope,
Hands, arms, feet and spade,
Painting sooty letters,
On sloping shelves,
An amber glow of candles, or carbide lights on belts.
For today’s bright torches, kids’ voices.
Slipshod I fell,
The tremor in my back,
Broken by the violent flood,
The cold breaking my resolve.
Flood out the dust,
Torn I go,
Reach up whole bodied,
Hand into notch,
My torso hugging slimy walls.
Photos: Gabriel Gilson