Published on January 27th, 2014 | by Jennifer Jones1
Creatively writing in Rutherglen, “We had the best of it, back then”
As part of the Digital Commonwealth Creative Voices programme, we have commissioned a number of creative tutors based around the campuses of University of the West of Scotland to delivery Creative Writing, Documentary Film and Community Songwriting to a number of different community groups to gain access to a new creative practice and to produce a creative response and digital artifact triggered by the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Below, Andrea McNicoll (pictured above at the launch of Digital Commonwealth) tells what she has been up to in the first in a series of workshop in Creative Writing in South Lanarkshire.
I’m Andrea McNicoll and my role in the Digital Commonwealth project is to deliver a series of creative writing workshops with marginalised groups. My first group of participants is older people living in a sheltered housing complex in South Lanarkshire. I recruited participants through information sheets that were delivered to the 96 flats within the complex. I was delighted to receive a written response to my information sheet – from a resident who felt unable to come to the workshops but still wanted to take part. She wrote about her memories of the Second World War, the Clydeside bombings and how she met and married her husband. The subjects she chose to write about helped me realise that older people would probably be most interested in talking and writing about their pasts, so I then circulated a prompt sheet for the first workshop in which I asked potential participants to bring along a treasured possession. Nine people attended the first workshop. Most of them brought photographs and talked, in turn, of their experiences in the forces, being evacuated, the housing conditions in Glasgow and their families. As they talked they began to compare memories and share them with one another so that by the end of the session there was a sense that the talking had brought them together in a very therapeutic way. The ‘homework’ I set them was to choose a memory, reflect on it, and then write it down.
As I was tidying up the common room after the workshop, another resident came in and told me she was sorry to have missed the session. I summarised briefly what the project entailed and she took a copy of the writing task home to her flat. The next day an envelope dropped through my letterbox. Inside was a piece she had written about living in a prefab as a wee girl! Two other residents expressed an interest in taking part but were very reluctant to join the workshops and try writing for health reasons so I visited them in their own flats for long chats about their lives. With their permission, I recorded the conversations that took place and will now transcribe their words into text that they can edit as they please.
Only four people attended the second workshop. One of the original participants is in hospital and his wife, another participant, is busy with visiting. Another has family problems. I guess the other two decided it just wasn’t their cup of tea. Three of the four in the second workshop had written something for me but the fourth has very poor eyesight and feels unable to write. This man, whose oral story-telling skills are very fine, has agreed to let me visit him individually to write down a beautiful story he recounted about delivering telegrams during the war. During the first workshop, everyone had mentioned the dance halls that Glasgow became so famous for in the forties and fifties. I decided that since the majority of the participants seem to find writing alone a challenge, we would instead write a collaborative poem about ‘the dancing’. I put on a CD of big band music – Glenn Miller- and asked them to sit back for a few minutes and allow their thoughts to roam. Afterwards I used a series of prompts to elicit anecdotes about the Glasgow dance scene when they were young. I wrote their comments down on a white board as they were speaking and later organised their words into a series of lines that make a poem:
We had the best of it, back then
We had the Barrowland, the Playhouse, the Albert and Savoy
And the F&F in Patrick where my brother found love’s joy,
We had the Berkeley with its mirror where the girls wore longer skirts,
And the Plaza with its fountain and those would-be Fred Astaires.
We had the Palais down in Dennistoun, where I met my husband Bill
And the Locarno on Sauchiehall Street where the Yanks would pick up girls.
We learned to dance with chairs in church and burgh halls,
The hostess in the Kinema used to pull boys off the walls.
When a line of girls turned you down you never could quite guess –
Was it that they didn’t like you, or couldn’t dance the steps?
I recall a hefty man who jitterbugged the best,
And Davey from the shipyard who used to practice in his breaks
On footprints that he’d drawn out on giant-sized steel plates.
One time I wore a sweater knitted from angora wool
And left fur all over my partner’s suit when the dance came to an end!
I remember going to Blackpool at September weekends
When we filled the Tower Ballroom with our soft-soled Glasgow shoes.
The last number of the night was always the same old song
About who would take you home that night after the dance was through,
About who was going to hold you tight and whisper, “I love you, I do”
Composed by Ena, Jim, Harry and Eddie
Andrea will continue to work with the group for two more weeks, before embarking on a tour of the south west of Scotland, visiting groups in Dumfries, Ayrshire and Renfrewshire, each producing their own unique response to the project to be shared online. Look out for posts from our community songwriting and documentary film makers soon.