Southport Promenade 1930


Shirley is sitting in her armchair watching staff come and go. She cheerfully waves to each one as they walk by and they wave back. “She’s lovely, the new one”, say’s one of the care staff, “You’ll have no trouble with her.” On her bedside table Shirley has a small radio, a well-thumbed book about Berlin and a 1970’s style gents, gold-coloured wristwatch.

Shirley's speech was punctuated by increasingly frequent and lengthy silences. These silences are identified by gaps in the printed text.


I think I should add a few comments about the background to these conversations and the process of documenting them. In 2007 the manager of a care home for people with dementia invited me to do some life story or narrative work with the home’s residents. The manager hoped her team would support the visits, find out more about the residents, and pick up tips to improve their communication skills. The project had been running for several months before Shirley moved in. Unless stated in the text the conversations with Frances and Shirley took place privately in room 21. The sessions with Peter took place in room 21 in the presence of his wife, who sat quietly throughout. Sessions with other people took place either privately or in groups at their request, both with and without the presence of care staff.

The sessions were loosely structured and informal in order to encourage the participants to talk freely about whatever subject they liked. Participants could end a session or opt out of the project at any time. Frances cut short several sessions whereas Shirley always wanted to extend the visits. The conversations were then carefully transcribed from DAT tape, which was reused to keep costs down and to make it easier to access the content and move between content from several visits. Each week I transcribed about 10 hours of recorded conversations. The transcriptions were always made on the same day as the recording so that the tape could be re-used the next day. Unfortunately this meant that it was not possible to keep any of the voice recordings.

Shirley enjoyed the sessions enormously and she was always keen to share her story with her family and friends and with the care home staff, despite or because of the fact that she knew they might be surprised or shocked by her comments. Shirley’s relatives were given transcriptions at her request, which they often used as the basis for conversations when visiting the home (Shirley’s bike rides being a seemingly endless source of amusement). In contrast Frances saw the sessions much more in the nature of  ‘work’ (both in the sense of being a continuation of her work as a journalist – her story being a ‘report from the frontline’ - and as a process of working to ‘make herself better’). Frances insisted that the door was closed and Shirley was happier to have it open. Despite an amplifier Frances’s voice was sometimes so quiet that it caused a few gaps in the transcription. 

We openly discussed publishing the stories and having them performed by actors and potentially broadcasting them at some future date. Both Frances and Shirley were keen on this idea and it provided a definite motivation to continue and some might say an incentive to embellish what did happen if they felt their story was not interesting enough. The difficulties each speaker had in retaining the thread of what they were saying meant that the amount they were actually able to fabricate for the sake of a good story was limited to a level which is far below that of people without dementia. Where there are inconsistencies it seems more likely that these are due to the enormous challenges each person had in piecing together fragmented recollections. 

The notion of gathering information for a monologue led me to edit out some repetitive material which should have been retained had it been known from the outset that it might form the basis of an analysis. However it was not until several months after Frances died that I began to see the ‘Cobra’ stories as a group and to see links between them or consider how they might be creatively interpreted from different scientific and artistic perspectives, and how that analysis might be of interest to a wider audience.

As with all the other stories in the archive I tried to follow conversations rather than lead them. To my memory I do not believe that I asked Peter any questions beyond introducing myself and briefly explaining my project and the archive of stories. In Peter's case I think that I stepped into an outpouring of words that started before I arrived and probably carried on much the same after I left. With Shirley and Frances my contribution was to prompt by reminding the speaker what they were talking about if they came to a stop, or occasionally to fill in gaps where they were becoming frustrated by reminding them of something they had mentioned in a previous session. For the most part I simply served as a willing listener arriving at a regular time. DC


Session 1


I’m so keen to excel at this. I was born in Southport in North Lancashire... I could start by telling you about my parents. My father was Russian... he was from Latvia... Riga, I think. My mother was from Southport. No, actually she wasn’t, start again, she came from Scotland. She came with her mother to Southport... for a holiday there. She met my father, and they got married... that’s it. My father was with his uncle and they were in the fashion business.


What did I just say?


His uncle? Oh, now is that right? They came to the hotel for the night and met my mother and her mother and went on from there. I don’t have any memory of it at all. I have no memories of my grandmother... in fact I’m astonished that I don’t. Apparently my father was not a family man... his name was Rabinovitch.


My father travelled a lot, selling textiles. He seemed to go from place to place so he sent us to boarding school in Southend-on-Sea. I remember the first days... mother took a lot of time sewing on the nametags. When the door closed for the first time I thought I’m not staying here, and I ran away.


I had a brother who was mentally disturbed... poor soul, he was such a good looking boy... anyway... two sisters one older and one younger... we used to fight... I probably had to change. I think I disturbed my poor mother. My brother went into a home where he wasn’t at all happy. We had a lovely photograph... he had such a lovely face so you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong at all. He was sent to a home and he couldn’t stand it, and he just wasted away and died... he was thirteen. He just seemed to disappear and then mother said he died. I don’t remember the funeral at all. My mother had a distressing family.


My sister was a lovely girl but we had squabbles because she was favoured. She was sharp and I wasn’t. In the end my mother had to change the school for her, so we went to separate schools after that... separate uniforms and what have you. I remember my mother having to explain to the headmistress of the first school why she took me away from her. We got on so badly that we had to be kept apart. We were jealous of each other for our mother’s attention even then.


I felt I had to travel... I felt I had to go away from home. The war gave me the opportunity. I remember I came to a superintendent girl... she wasn’t called Superintendent, I don’t know what she was called... she used to get me to clean out the stove... an iron stove with embers... she talked to me and I said I wanted to leave home. She said, “But you may never see your mother again.” That didn’t strike me as a bad thing at all.


I met such interesting people and I used to enjoy listening to them talking to each other, which I felt I couldn’t do because I wasn’t educated enough. I thought, oh goodness, if I could only speak and understand like that. I would try to listen to these people and jot down their words and that was my education.


Then somehow I got to Berlin... I was educated to be a secretary by then... I learnt to use a typewriter as fast as I could. It seemed that the faster you could type, the more interesting would be the jobs that you got... and I did get one or two very interesting jobs... I wish I’d learnt a bit more about them. It all seems terribly vague. Do you remember during the war that Hess was imprisoned? They wanted girls to join the... to get some information out of him at in-terr-oh-gay-tion. They used these girls, me included, to do fifteen minutes of shorthand... typing notes from his interrogations... I saw him... I reckon I saw him... but he didn’t leave any impression on me.


Berlin was ruined... we had to try and restore it. We had to get to know the people so they would give us information. What we did do very naughtily was join the black market... every week we used to get a selection of spirits if we wanted them... whisky and brandy... and we were young and we didn’t care for them... so we used to go to with the Germans. They had lovely clothes... beautiful things... we’d take these bottles of spirits and exchange them for a lovely dress. They needed food and when we saw the beautiful clothes we were quite delighted to exchange.


Session 2


I think I met my husband in Berlin... I was working in Berlin as a secretary... I think that’s probably right. Have you heard of the airlift? Well the Germans... oh, it’s gone.                    


It seems a long time back but it left the most vivid impression. There were four different countries involved... the English, the French, the Americans, and the Russians. We exchanged goods at the railway stations. Some of the German people were so eager to exchange because they could trade our whisky for foodstuffs. What they had available to us was their beautiful family treasures and clothing, dresses. I remember I kept a silk dress for ages, red with a beautiful floral print. I remember one of the big generals visiting Berlin, and I was introduced as a sort of example of respectable Englishness. He remarked on the beautiful dress, which was very possibly stolen from one of the Jewish families. The Germans all seemed to have such lovely clothes.


The Russians were the new enemy... so we were out there to help the Germans. I was the English secretary to the head of the police. He was a most attractive man... handsome and an attractive personality. He had a German secretary and me as the English secretary... we had adjoining offices. I would be typing his speeches and he would pass them over for translation to his German secretary... he was...  oh, I’ve come off track. Who are we talking about? I had a nice flat and he would call for me every morning in his beautiful car. If you did well you were well looked after. I had a lovely flat on the Lindenstrasse. Linden is lime, lime trees... lovely. There were rows and rows of beautiful lime trees. We had a tennis court, a swimming pool, dining facilities... it was luxurious for us.


Hess was in prison... they used to fish him out once a week to interrogate him. I was brought along to do my fifteen minutes. I suppose I was treated well because they got information they wouldn’t have got otherwise. I do so want to tell you the right things. It’s funny that Hess left no impression on me whatsoever. Isn’t that interesting? I’m not sure. Was he in the Spandau? Is this Hess I’m talking about now or myself? Is he still in prison? Where am I now? Is this Berlin?


It was the beginning of the Cold War... there was a tower with a wonderful supermarket. We used to go and get a coffee and watch the people coming and going. One day we saw a crowd of people crowding round a street painter... he was drawing people as they passed. People were saying, “Come, come and look!” It was so exciting... my husband had his portrait painted. I took it to the National Gallery and I asked the people in the gallery to confirm that it was an original and that all this really happened, and then I wrote to the headquarters in Berlin to see if they could discover who he was. I never seemed to get a reply.


Session 3


Where do we start today? Did I tell you about Berlin? The airlift? The planes were coming in one after another... it was so exciting... and we were rather superior... in our gardens and in our tennis courts and our swimming pools. I’d changed my name by then. My office was next door to the Berlin Police Headquarters. I used to pass big sheets... pass those plans in to his office, and he had a German girlfriend who used to translate. It was great fun... there was a little woman, I suppose she was quite elderly, about seventy... and the English police people were teasing her... getting the old lady to stand on the table and do a little dance for them... oh yes, we had a bit of fun teasing the old women.


We were all separated, the different nationalities... and you know there was a sort of special weekly shop for the people who were running that port... all black market... the poor East Germans were separated from the other Germans... what was I talking about?                      


They ('the Germans'.DC) were kept under strict economy and they were quite hungry... their houses were ruined and their shops were ruined... and we were in luxury. We exchanged dances for spirits with the American soldiers. I used to take gin and whisky, even bread, over to the East Germans. They had so little, even ordinary food, they would exchange their beautiful family treasures for our food. Really some of them were starving.


I was very naughty about the black market because I tried to get hold of things I really shouldn’t and send them home. I sent my sister a gold watch and my mother was horrified, she even tried to conceal it.


DC. It sounds like you took advantage.


Then everyone took advantage. I never really thought about it. They were quite eager to exchange some of their clothes and jewellery. We would sit outside in the sun... in my memory it was always sunny... and we’d see lots of people we would recognise... it makes me smile to remember it. We went to cinemas and concerts. I remember the beautiful concert hall in East Berlin... there was so much gold... tiers and tiers up to a high painted ceiling... very opulent with chandeliers. I wore a beautiful hand printed red silk dress.


It’s such a shame that I don’t remember the name of the café where we used to sit. I did for such a long time. We had a drawing... a souvenir. I kept writing to the hotel where we stayed, asking them who the artist was. I wrote and wrote and wrote and heard nothing. I have nothing to show you. I think of the times when they were interrogating Hess and we had to go in and take notes and I thought at the time, you know, should I take something... a letter or something written down to prove it. This whole thing seems to have been completely brushed out.


My husband-to-be had a German secretary and I used to see this German girl at our weekly exchanges of black market goods... I didn’t like her. I wanted to push her out of the way... I was so jealous for his attention. He had an invitation at the headquarters in England to come back... this German girl persuaded him that she should accompany him. I remember getting on the train and finding out that she was there. She followed him as far as the border but then she couldn’t go any further. We came back to England and we were on Kensington High Street... there seemed to be an office where you could make wills and on the spur of the moment I persuaded him to marry me there and then.


I don’t have anything on paper to remember my childhood, nothing at all. I know I was a tomboy. My sister is two and a half years older than me and we used to go into the park and, oh, I remember so well the lovely iron railings we used to climb... and the spikes on the top of the railings caught on the ribbons on my hat. When I went home my mother was very cross. I remember there was a birdcage in a sort of zoo. We poked our fingers through the railings and a bird got hold of my finger and tore my glove. It seems such a little thing but I remember it so clearly now... my mother was very, very upset that I tore my glove.

See footnote photographs of the aviary etc in Hesketh Park in Southport. DC

My mother was always so busy, giving birth to so many children... I did see a beautiful miniature of her... it’s lost now... she dressed beautifully... coiffured hair and she always looked marvellous. Did I tell you that when she walked in the park one of her friends looked at me and said, “Good Lord! Is this the very best you can do?” I was very plain as a child. In the early days we seemed to go to concerts and salons where the aristocracy had special people to show off their talents. I got some signatures from the head people, such a long time ago... I’ve lost them now. I don’t even know who they were.


Session 4


Oh you’re back for more interrogations (she laughs), I’m so pleased. I want to do well. I think I started to write my life story before I came here... little bits... fifteen minutes of typing and then take a break. I think it must still be at home. I stayed in the... (long pause) ...river. Well, I’m thinking of the river that pushes me past, and the waters and the sea underneath.                 Anyway I’ve written this part down so I can check it. I can picture a photograph of the soldiers, me in the middle, but I don’t seem to have it with me.


We did a lot of drill... but you see we didn’t go out to Africa for a long time. We were picking potatoes in Northallerton, practicing doing rough work before we went abroad. My father and mother were so busy that I don’t think they’d noticed I’d gone. My father was a Russian Jew, which wasn’t at all the thing to be. He was travelling with his uncle in some industrial work which was very artistic... it was more materials... beautiful materials... textiles, could have been. Rabinovitch was his name. I can’t remember the first name of this man... my father’s name. I ought to know that! But I don’t. The Russians were really not very popular so you used to try and hide the fact that you had any Russian. And as for being Jewish, my mother did not allow that at all. I don’t know how my mother and father ever got so close that they needed to marry... I just think that her mother was too strict... I don’t think she liked the idea that people in the hotel were gossiping. I don’t remember my grandparents... I don’t think they visited. These days, grandparents are looked on as rather superior beings to be looked after. I’m well looked after here... comfortable and warm.


My mother was keen for us not to carry on using the Rabinovitch name when my father went away. She gave the impression that she was ashamed of the Jewishness of it. As a matter of fact I had a rather Jewish nose and I had a bit chopped off the end... I was so ashamed of my nose... the very beginning of plastic surgery... my mother encouraged us to hide the Jewish side of the family. We were very keen on being thought thoroughly English, but she was from Scotland and he was Russian.

Interesting that John Charnley - former British Union of Fascists (BUF) Hull District - became chairman of the Southport Chamber of Trade.

In the 1930’s Charnley advocated a strategy of ‘permeation’ – members of the BUF were exhorted to infiltrate athletic clubs, boxing, rowing, tennis and cycling teams. The aim was to forge grass roots support and ‘embed sleepers’ and to act against Jewish business interests. Oswald Mosely addressed a meeting at the Floral Hall in Southport in the early 30’s – BUF ran an office in Southport, one of a handful north of Birmingham – North West was a focus for BUF activities. It’s not surprising that the family business struggled and that Shirley’s mother wanted them to hide their Jewish roots from her friends art the Tennis club.

Nelly, that was my mother’s first name, though she liked people to call her Margaret. This is all in Southport... I hated it... I just thought all the time about leaving. My poor brother he was just round the bend... he was the eldest... I remember taking him for a walk and he had stiff legs and the other children would be laughing at him... obviously he wasn’t quite all there... he used to be playing on the floor like a little child... and I’m ashamed to say that I was rather ashamed of him. I always wanted to be amongst a better class.


We were living in a house divided into two flats and a very nice gentleman that owned the laundry, called Mr Hanson, he liked my mother very much... they were always laughing together. I remember that he had lots of money and he gave us a lovely radio... one of the first radios, as a present. Mother had a lovely plum tree and she used to give him lots of her plums as a present. My father didn’t know anything about this. I think my mother was rather close to Mr Hanson. My father was always away, and she needed him for support. Mind you my mother was very beautiful and popular with her own crowd, which, as a matter of fact had a lot of tennis players. I remember that our house was divided with Hanson’s at the bottom and we had the next two floors. My sister and I used to have to share the top flat, and the double bed, but she was so kind to my mother. She was always rushing down to get the breakfast and tidy up while I slept... if I came down I was told that I interfered. I did love my mother so much and I never seemed to get the chance to know her well.


Session 5


Going back over it all does seem to help... yes it does... and, oh yes I need it, I know that very well.


I was a feisty child. I wonder where all that came from... not my father and not my mother. We used to have a park not far away from our home... mother was quite pleased to send us to the park and we were all for climbing the trees and railings and having a good time and the park keeper was always chasing after us. 

I think that most – if not all - of the events that Shirley remembers from her early childhood took place in or around Hesketh Park in Southport. The feel of the whole story - and particularly her early memories – is, for me, the feel of someone moving from place to place along a well-trodden route and remembering a fragment about each place as she passes. Her mental map, hardwired by repetition, is being used make connections between story fragments now that the narrative connections and the chronology are coming apart. This might help Shirley to keep the story moving despite sometimes not having much of an idea where it is going (though I’m sure it’s something we all do unconsciously). DC

My father, I think was successful, you wouldn’t think a business of that sort would survive in Latvia but there you are. He came back and the first thing he did was to go to his sister and give her money to help her with her singing career. I suppose she may have been famous. I never saw her or met her. There were strongly two sides to the family and they did not mix. When he died my mother changed her name... she did not want Rabinovitch at all and neither did I. She was very conscious of it, in those days they were either for Jewish or against Jewish. Lots of schoolchildren were quite willing to make great fun of the Jewish name, not fun... dismaying... a thing not to be thought of was Jewish, because there was that thing called the Holocaust not very far away... we were ashamed of being classed as Jewish.


My poor sister... she didn’t know what to do with her life... because she knew her father couldn’t afford to give her a career. She did all sorts of silly things like buying a caravan and living in that... and for a while my young sister took a different view of life altogether. She was very fond of my mother... but what did she do? She didn’t want to leave my mother so she gave up everything. We were jealous of each other as to which of us my mother would eventually favour. Of course my mother was not in a position to take sides because my youngest sister did everything for her. She gave up any thought of a separate life to care for her.


My mother was always worried that we wouldn’t be able to pay the grocer’s bill and that prayed and prayed on her mind. We had a grocer, a very nice fellow called Lesley, in fact we had a photograph of him that’s lost now, isn’t it funny how everything gets lost? Lesley never worried about us settling the bills but she worried, my mother fretted and fretted over it. She had jars with coins for each of the bills. She and my father were at loggerheads. He needed the money to run the car and maintain his business and she needed to feed the children.


I don’t know how many brothers and sisters I have... I went away from home first so I’m not sure I kept on track. Maybe you’d be surprised but I went to work in Marks and Spencer’s. A very nice girl on the stall where I helped tidy up, she used to take me to her home for a meal, she had a big family but they were a very happy family. I used to think, oh why can’t we be just like this? There were always such arguments in my family and I’d be pushed off into the basement to do my homework. My father’s meal was always reheating in the oven. My older sister who was very fond of my father and she was very cross with me for being against him. She seemed to keep in touch with him but I didn’t. I think he went back to Latvia. The Germans might have got him for all I knew. I never found out anything but I never cared for him, and we never saw eye to eye. He treated my mother badly and he was rough with us. I remember him as being really rather silent and serious.


When my father disappeared my mother became terribly upset. All her friends at the tennis club started to... well she had no money at all. I’m afraid to say that I didn’t help. We used to do long congas along the seafront from the school and remember I once saw my mother walking along the promenade and she looked so frail that I felt embarrassed. I wanted to leave Southport so I started to look for paying jobs in the newspapers. One thing very much led to another and I moved to London. I stayed in a bed-sit up near Marble Arch. Fortunately I found some temporary work in the post office. I sat next to the postal superintendent. He was instrumental in me joining the ATS as a way of getting abroad. It suited me down to the ground.


Shirley mentions tennis five times throughout her story and always associates it with wealth, status and ‘superiority’, something that was removed when her father disappears (or dies). There is a strong sense that Shirley feels something that was her due was taken away when she was a child and she has struggled (or sees herself now as having struggled) for her whole life to get it back.

“My mother was very beautiful and popular with her own crowd, which, as a matter of fact had a lot of tennis players”

“We had a tennis court, a swimming pool, dining facilities... it was luxurious for us.”

“We were rather superior... in our gardens and in our tennis courts and our swimming pools.”

Looking at the story as a whole it's noticable how often Shirley talks about things that have gone missing and how often she suggests that her sister may have been favoured. In my own family the grumbles about inheritance rumble 20 years after my father's death. There's an interesting parallel to Frances's story when Shirley begins to search her room for an object when she is in fact searching for a memory, and her complaint that she has nothing to concrete help her remember.



When I came back from Germany I went to see my mother and, well there’s nothing to say, she didn’t want to know me.


Session 6


I find it rather tricky being here, I tend to want things that are at home and I think they’re next door but they’re not. They do feed me well here... the food is very good... the staff are... varied. I had one little girl yesterday, she was supposed to find my clothes and dress me a bit and she didn’t say a word throughout. I tried to talk to her and be polite and she didn’t say a single word. After a while I realised that she must be a foreigner and maybe she didn’t know English at all. I suppose I’ll get used to it. The Polish man helps me quite a lot and he’s very nice. I’m not sure why I’m in this section but it’s... in a way I feel rather banished... they’ve got rid of all the unnecessary things but I don’t mind, I like change.

The feeling that she has been ‘banished’ or excluded reoccurs several times in the story – she mentions hearing laughter through the walls. “I remember hearing them in the next room laughing and chatting and I thought how wonderful it was, they never do this at home”. However shortly before this comment she mentions sometimes being confused about whether she is in fact ‘at home’ now. Her feelings of being banished are based on hearing laughter and conversation coming from somewhere else. Room 21 is toward the end of a long corridor; the main lounge, the nurse’s office and a small staffroom are at the other end (this in itself might lead one to feel banished – the room would not have chosen by Shirley. It would be the first available). The sound of staff talking and laughing often carries along the corridor from the staffroom. DC

My mother liked tennis... this is before she married... had she been married before she married what’s-his-name? No, she hadn’t because I remember we went to Llandudno for a holiday. My mother sent my sister and myself to the                  not a swimming pool... a rink. I remember I fell in and my sister said she’d take me home and she did. Where was it I said this happened? There was an ice rink... and I fell clean through the ice or into the water and she took me, I thought she took me where my mother worked, which I thought was a hotel, the hotel where she met my father.


Some of her very early memories (falling into water etc) resemble the kind of sensory (pre-language) memories that some people believe can be retained from around the age of 2 or 3. DC


There’s so little of my memory left... it’s all in little snatches... it’s difficult to put together. I can tell you that I didn’t have any connection with my family... I didn’t know my father had died until two and half years later. I once asked my sister where my father was and she said he’d died two and a half years previously. The only memory of him that I remember is how cross he always seemed to be. He was a very tricky man but he had a very nice car. When I left home and went to the Wirral and I got myself a job dry cleaning and that kind of thing.


I went into a shared house... different types of people from different areas. There was a businessman and a young fellow trying to make a career for him self, and there was the lady who ran the place... well what can I say, I didn’t miss my family or even think about them at all. Talking about my mother I didn’t seem to have time to get to know her at all. I was keen on studying, arithmetic and geometry and logarithms of all things. It sounds like I was quite a swat. I tended to be pushed down into the basement. I was quite happy down there. I didn’t care to be interrupted at all. I know I could get very bossy if I was interrupted. As soon as I met this girl at Marks and Spencer’s I thought that I should get myself a job, she was very kind to me, and she made me welcome at her home when I cut myself off from my family, although I blame them... looking back it was half and half... they didn’t care. They weren’t interested in me and I wasn’t interested in them. I never felt they cared for me until... well I went on a trip to York, and I was on a cycle... and I (laughs) I packed all the things that I needed in a carrier bag on the back and off I went. I was so pleased to be free and on my own... from Southport to York... it’s such a very long way... I actually slept under hedges. It’s amazing when I think of it. On my way I had to find somewhere to sleep and I went into a café and they told me about a guest house next door, they hadn’t any rooms so I sat down for a coffee and I remember hearing them in the next room laughing and chatting and I thought how wonderful it was, they never do this at home... I wish I could have a family like that... but I couldn’t get a room so I slept under the bushes. I remember a big cart coming past me and two cart men saw me on the road with all my things, and I remember them looking at each other as if to say, “Good heavens, what’s she doing here?” I didn’t like to be stared at... oh, I specially tried to remember something and it’s gone. I remember seeing lots of monks. I seem to remember one monk trying to teach me how to do things, how to live. Practical things, like picking potatoes. It’s very difficult for me to make sense of these memories. I don’t think I was any more than 14 or 15. I remember practicing cycling distances, checking the distances each time to see how far I could get... getting further each time and writing it in a book... by the time I was 14 I was determined to get away. I’m wondering about my mother because when I think back I never thought about whether she’d be worried at all... well... she had a lot to do with the other children and looking after her husband. I never got to know them. My father disappears entirely from my memory and I couldn’t care less. My sister told me about him, that he died, either before or just after the war... actually what happened is my older sister asked me if I’d seen or heard from my father lately and I said, “No, I don’t know where he is.” She said, “Well, he died!” They didn’t know where I was and I suppose they didn’t care. The only way to get away was to get into the forces and that’s what I did.


If I had only been a bit more courageous I could have been... one of the              well                   could have been                     there were two lots of army people, who were sent out with REME, one was             the             troops                      well they had uniforms and badges and I didn’t have that                         or did I?                       Perhaps I had different clothes and little badges. They were paid more. My mother was very cross with me. I was a Corporal in charge of a troop of ATS working for REME. Corporal Rabinovitch. I know that when I was in Africa there was a sign up on the wall showing the vacancies and I sort of made my own way. I resigned from                well I seemed to take a chance and I got to                A good part of my life was


Berlin                 Would it be Berlin? I really should remember the name of the man I was working for in Berlin... the times I’ve typed his name... I can’t remember. I’m rather forgetting what I wanted to tell you. I was always being trained to improve my typing... between 80 and 100 words a minute... one had to be fairly good... I had a lot of important documents to type. I remember that Hess man caused me a lot of problems. I remember typing endless letters about him. He was quite mad. We were trying to rebuild Berlin getting the troops to copy the English Bobbies... I was            oh yes                   I was in the office.                                 My husband was single. He was instructed                     “Look after the families of the wives.” He had to join us for meals and that’s how I met him. A huge dining room and the German girls were such good waiters. I had a wonderful time in Berlin.


Session 7


Shirley seems very excited. She explains that she has been anticipating my arrival and is keen to tell me something. She tells me that she has given a transcription of these sessions to her niece and her family. She tells me that they "enjoyed them very much" and that she is keen to continue.


I had a niece and when she heard that I’d been going up to Yorkshire on my bike, she said to me, “You’re quite ridiculous. You shouldn’t do that.” As far as a hay cart with two fellas on, seeing me cycling along, she said, “Ridiculous... you shouldn’t have done that.” I put my nightdress... my eyes down on the grounds and said to myself, I’m not going to look at them because they’ll think there is some sort of connection between us... I looked down on the ground. I don’t understand it really... it doesn’t give me any thought and as for... well it’s more like a dream. It seems such a long way to go on my bike.


DC. You mentioned Northallerton, I wonder if you were stationed there. It’s a lot easier to cycle from Northallerton to York than it would be to cycle from Southport.


I can’t recollect Northallerton... I don’t even recollect the word. I slept under... bushes. But, well, as for getting out, I did want to get out... I became adventurous... a bit further, a little bit further. I’d write all the distances in a book. Then I went so far that I couldn’t go back.


I went to a boarding school... did I mention?               I went with my older sister and they thought I was the elder and they put me in a dormitory... the other children got together and they gave me good bashing. My parents used to send in big boxes of chocolates, which the old people would always snatch. I didn’t make a single friend. Being called Rabinovitch didn’t help. I know that my mother used to say don’t talk about being Jewish... don’t get friendly.                She was a bit afraid for me. I know I was picked on for being a Jewess. It was               I know when I left I wanted to find my mother and father and they weren’t bothering or I don’t think they were bothering. I think my parents paid quite a bit for me to attend and                    well the money ran out. I once remember hearing my mother talking about me being at the school and she said that she felt very sorry for me, she’d seen me walking along the promenade and she said I looked frail.


Was I the youngest daughter?  I’m less sure the more I think about it.


Then I seemed to be in the Wirral... I was writing to firms and I couldn’t get work anywhere... I know I went in for dry cleaning specialising in suede gloves. Oh of course this is when I was with my sister in the laundry. That’s funny...              it was Mr Hanson’s laundry but that wasn’t when I moved.                    It was his laundry but he had nothing to do with the working of it. I’m trying to get myself back to the Wirral.


I wanted to be independent.                   Before that what was I doing? Oh, was the laundry downstairs or is that here? I remember the            woman in charge            there was a sewing machine and she wanted me to mend all the torn things.

A few years back I moved into a care home for a few weeks. Even though I knew I could move out and come back home at any point I hoped that the experience would give me some insight into the daily experience of living in a care home. One of the things that struck me immediately was the noise at night. Care homes tend to run their washing machines at night to use low cost electricity. One care home resident I met lived directly above the laundry and he came to think he was on a ship due to the nightly sound of the sloshing water and the washing machines. On several occasions Shirley mentions that there is a river under her floor which I’ve always interpreted as a dream-like notion linked in some way to feelings of instability and change. Because I arrived in the daytime I never realised that Room 21 is directly above the laundry, nor did I experience the low background noise that came through the floor at night. Interestingly Shirley mentions that the family home in Southport was above the launderette. I can find no record of a launderette ever existing in the street where she says she lived.

At the beginning of Session 11 Shirley says; "Do you know when I woke up this morning I really thought that this was my house. I heard the...   temporarily... because as they went down, they went to pick up... or more or less join their own homes... join with their houses... apparently this was only a stop-gap... it’s not my permanent room... and when they went... the strange thing is that they’re connected by a river. – "I heard the"... seems important as does the fact that she says she was confused when she woke up i.e at the end of the night. It’s the sound of ‘a river’ (later described as “an underground river”) that makes her feel that Room 21 is connected to a room (or rooms) where she lived or worked in the past. It's clear from the fragmented nature of this passage that she is struggling to make sense of the idea. DC


...   temporarily... because as they went down, they went to pick up... or more or less join, their own homes... join with their houses... apparently this was only a stop-gap... it’s not my permanent room... and when they went... the strange thing is that they’re connected by a river. 

My father took me to the Wirral... I think he was glad to have rid of me... I moved into a back room with a cobbler... a nice man... very undistinguished in a way but so kind and we got on so well. He suggested that, he thought I had a good voice... he thought I should get a job on the stage. I ought to remember his name but I don’t. I should remember my boyfriend in this house.                          There was                    a comedian and what was I saying? A good-looking fellow, we were rather made for each other. We went to the pubs and things. I have no idea at all who he was.


                                   Oh… I can’t think what happened.

Oh yes, I got a job in the Post Office...


I joined up just before the war... REME... did I mention REME?


I lost contact with my family... that was amazing wasn’t it... well no, they have a life and I didn’t fit in at all... they were very annoyed with me because I didn’t join in with the laughter they had. I think I was a bit of a bore. I didn’t get back in contact when I came back from Berlin... shocking isn’t it? (She laughs)


When I came back from Berlin I asked my sister if she knew where my father was because she kept in touch with him in a very small way and at that point she said she didn’t know where he was, that maybe he’d gone back to Russia. He did stay in touch with her sometimes but it stopped. She didn’t know whether he was dead or not. I used to send money home but I did the wrong thing. I should have written letters and kept in touch but I didn’t... I’d just put a cheque in the envelope. That was very wrong of me. My mother used to write me lovely long letters thanking me for the money and asking me to write and tell her how I was but I never did. I know my young sister was worried about my mother not getting enough money and my mother always used to get terribly worried about me letting on that my father was a Jew. My mother was... well she was quite disturbed in her later years.


Have I only just arrived here?


I was always too old to have children... Raymond was ninety something and I must have been about                                    in my                     in my late twenties? How old am I now?               Twenty? Less?                        


My boss was the Chief of                        I typed             he treated me as if I was below him and his staff... he had a German girlfriend in the next office... one of his girlfriends. I travelled with him every morning.               I wish              I wish I could remember.


I didn’t ever type his name... I used to type “Dear...             ”


It sounds like I lived quite an adventure.


Ellen... were we just talking about my sister Ellen, what did I know about Ellen? I can’t think. We were very...     she was short and stubby and I was tall and thin.                 My father looked very sort of severe with longish black hair and            ah             and whiskers, and a beard just like yours.


I had a most wonderful miniature of my mother and I’m trying to remember... I can’t get round the fact that it was in the drawer for ages and I used to show it off. I was ever so proud of it because she was beautiful. It seemed to vanish.


I had a beautiful photograph of my brother, hand coloured... in an oval frame... a beautiful old-fashioned frame and I used to look at it every time I went out and came in. Poor chap. He couldn’t talk. What a shame. He used to get on the floor, puzzles and anything like that pleased him.        He didn’t seem to mind people staring at him but I found it all rather shaming.


Session 8


Dies the door shoe? Dies it show? Does it shut?


How old am I? 1914 to 1918 so that’s twenty.


I should remember my father’s name but, no, it doesn’t come to me. Just a minute, talking about not having... my cards... my mother had a brother in Palestine and he seemed to be able to send us chests of Jaffa oranges... oh, lovely they were... he was always very good to his other sister who I think was somewhere in the Midlands. He used to go and bring her oranges and see to her when her husband died... he was very good. This is my uncle. I don’t know what he was doing in Palestine.


The Kardomah was on Lord Street... I remember it was so elegant with rounded windows. I remember Lord Street, the main shopping street with lime trees and a bandstand in the middle. Strange that I don’t remember my address... a very middle class type of house with a garden at the front and back... I don’t think my father ever visited the garden. Isn’t it amazing that I remember the address of the Kardoma but not the street where I lived? I did, not long ago, but it seemed to vanish.

See footnote photograph. 

Because she remembers both streets lined with lime trees, I wondered whether Shirley might conflating Lord Street in Southport with Lindenstrasse in Berlin. It turns out that both were lined with lime trees.

The TV tower in Berlin is at the end of Lindenstrasse (this may be where Shirley remembers drinking coffee and looking down onto the city), however she says ‘Butlins’ (an apparent non-sequitur) directly after mentioning the Berlin Tower. Butlins ran the Post Office Tower in London, so she may be confusing the two (suggesting that parts of her story might not have occurred where she thinks) or she might be making a simple mistake. DC

The name of the school... was it Crowstone College? That doesn’t sound right. I remember the uniform, navy blue with white banding in between... a sort of shallow dished top and a hat with a band of yellow and black. I liked it. There were other colleges around and we... it was in Southport... we used to go in what they called crocodiles... for walks along the front and my mother and father would go for walks just to see us.


Her early memory of a caged bird tearing her glove when she was in the park; Hesketh Park was the only park in Southport with an aviary. The park is next to Argyle Tennis club (Shirley was unsure why a lot of her mother’s friends were tennis players). She goes on to mention that she thinks she went to ‘Crowstone College School’, but she thinks the name doesn’t sound quite right – ‘Croxton’ Preparatory School (sometimes referred to as ‘Croxton College’) is next to the park. A chap at Southport Council offices suggested that Shirley may have gone to Croston School, which is about seven miles inland from Southport. It seems a bit less likely than the Prep school round the corner but it would make sense of her feeling that she's been 'banished'. Following the road around Hesketh Park, one comes to Park Road and then the Promenade where Shirley mentions walking in ‘congas’ with her classmates. DC


I can’t seem to remember my brother’s funeral.


We never knew anything about my father’s business... isn’t it amazing that he didn’t take any interest in his children? I don’t recollect him talking, never. I think I was half afraid of him and half disliked him... his wife was suffering with the bills and he wasn’t taking any notice... he’d run up bills as quick as anything and not worry... my mother was the opposite... she had jars with labels on for all her spending.


Not rolling pins, they were called... mangles as long as me... one part under the other...  it seemed more like a scientific thing... two girls took the sheets out of the tub where they were washing, two girls to pick them up, as they came through the roller and they were perfectly flat. In this laundry there were two floors... what was I saying?           I was going to say there were two floors and my sister would be standing at a table that was quite big and she’d be parcelling the laundry in brown paper. Behind her was a lift and she’d pull the lift up or let it go down to the vans. It was like a factory. The place was rather cut in two, on one side you had a lot of ironers on boards... and the other side was where my sister was, there were packers, near the lift... I think she was about sixteen. If we could get to the side where there were drying off things that had been ironed in an area that looked like a room but it wasn’t a room it was just a section with hot air going through after they’d been ironed... if we could get there then we couldn’t be seen by the supervisor and we could have a joke with the boys. When we got to the end of our section... what was it now... I don’t remember, we got up to tricks... I was sent out to the shed to do the cleaning of the lamps... not lamps, gloves... cleaning them with petrol... not such an easy job either... you had to have special brushes and a delicate way of touching the gloves. Maybe it was my first job. The atmosphere in those days was you were either high up or low down and I think we were trying to get back up the ladder.


She had fine taste, my mother. And oh she was elegant. I know her family had a lot of money and it was her brother that provided the money and helped his sister when she wanted to go on the stage... we never saw him... and yet my father was spending the money on a driver and leaving her with nothing but oranges.


When I cycled away I’d already left boarding school... that seems strange... I don’t think this is right... at that time they couldn’t afford it... how can it be? It has something to do with money... I can’t imagine how they ever got married and yet there were a lot of children in that marriage, 1,2,3... 5,6...  as many as 7.


My father was with his... I was going to say his brother... my uncle. And he had a sister who was in music halls... no, this woman he tried to help with money was...      I think she was on my mother’s side.                        Am I talking about Raymond? I thought it was my mother’s side of the family that he helped... is that right?


My father disappears... I have memories of being in the basement doing my homework and my mother was preparing a meal for him. I never saw my father again... I seem to remember that he just upped and left one day and we were expecting him back and he didn’t come back. It must have been very sad to see his dinner left cooking in the oven... sadder now than then.         


I remember the headmistress of the school came round to talk to my father and she wanted to persuade him to let me go to university but we couldn’t afford it... he was badly off... disappointing because I was doing well at school.     Isn’t it funny that I can’t remember what my sister did, whether she stayed on... yes! Yes! She did, because she was older. That’s what happened and it caused a split...                                   


I remember my father was in another room because he wasn’t well. He seemed to get pneumonia and bronchitis and he was told to stay in bed in the other bedroom. I’ve only just remembered that he wasn’t well. The money stopped coming because he couldn’t work. I don’t think he ever recovered and my mother was with my younger sister and they looked after each other. They were devoted to each other. My older sister wasted her studies. I was so upset that I didn’t have the chances she had. I walked out at 14 when my sister went to university and I’m not sure I ever went back.


Session 9


This is absolutely correct, all of it, absolutely... I think so. It sounds right when I say it but I can’t remember any of it.


I remember the front door of the school and the stairs going up... it was a kind of hall I think. I must have gone to the school for a while, I really must have done and               I remember the Sundays when we were invited for tea by the headmistress. She enjoyed looking after the top girls. When I think on it I’m not so sure I was withdrawn from school so much as            well              that I didn’t get a chance to carry on. The teachers thought I should go on to study at university but I went to Marks and Spencer’s.


Lord St was lovely... a high-class place... all along there were lime trees. There was a library... an art section in the library... and a café with its lovely smell of roasting coffee. I remember I saw my mother in a garden... I saw her... I did see her just before she died... and she didn’t recognise me at all. She was just looking at some flowers and I just looked with her and I thought I won’t disturb her and say do you recognise me or, you know? I hadn’t seen her for years and years and years.


Session 10


Shirley greets me enthusiastically with open arms. She is speaking very quickly. After a few sentences her speech returns to its usual slow pace.


I have something to tell you... something on my mind that I need to tell you before I forget...  where we lived is just round the corner. I hadn’t realised that this place is connected. See if you can get a picture that shows the road sloping down. I used to ride down the hill with my feet on the handlebars. Ah yes... it’s very interesting... because... it’s gone. Are we still in Southport?


DC. We’re in London.


I could have sworn we’re in Southport! I thought I could smell the sea.

Shirley's confusion is understandable. The care home is about 200 metres from the Thames. There are often gulls in the garden and at hide tide in the summer there is often a distinct smell of seawater. 


I had a lovely photograph of Berlin to show you... I had it in my last place and my friend... I want to ask her if she’s seen it... it was quite a big photograph and I’m sitting in the front row of soldiers with my hair sticking out and I look so thin and weak with all these strapping fellows. I remember sort of hiding the photograph and then I was never able to find it again. I thought you could pop round and get it.


I must think about how I moved from Africa... I must think about that... it’s very interesting... how interesting that I don’t remember it at all. Gracious yes, it’s gone completely.


I was sent right out of the room just before Hess came in.


I bought a lodging house up in Marble Arch with Raymond’s army pension. We went to an auction and chose a house with four storeys. Raymond had some money. Actually he wanted to invest in Paperrmate Pens and I managed to persuade him to buy property instead. We bought a couple of houses in a good position for letting near the station. One of the houses was already divided into flats. We tried to improve it... making rough bed-sits. I remember I once fell straight through the bathroom floor into one of the flats below... the floorboards gave way and I went right through the floor and through the ceiling below. People were told they could rent a flat providing they didn’t expect too much.


Session 11


Shirley calls me into the room as I walk past. She seems very tired. Her room is in disarray. She has emptied the contents of her drawers and wardrobe onto the bed.


I’ve remembered something else for you... now I’ve lost it. I was looking for it and now it’s slipped right away.


Would you be interested in Berlin? Berlin was divided into four... I need to tell you quickly... and I... I don’t have a view. Now what was it that brought me down here?


Do you know when I woke up this morning I really thought that this was my house. I heard the...   temporarily... because as they went down, they went to pick up... or more or less join, their own homes... join with their houses... apparently this was only a stop-gap... it’s not my permanent room... and when they went... the strange thing is that they’re connected by a river. I didn’t l know about it. My house, my real house, was getting smaller and smaller... and it couldn’t yet be called empty because somehow we were putting more people in it... there were a huge number of people in my small room. It was such a small house now when I look back... with one, two, three, four floors and, well I never once saw the very top of it. I was on the bottom and now I’m right on the top. I remember all the tight slopes... riding down the hill on my bicycle. And I used to row in a foursome... not a very superior type of boat but I was stroke in the boat... I loved to ride... I think I was bullied into rowing with the school... we had various times when we were shot off to this swimming pool... I was afraid of it really... and anyway they shot us under the water and I wanted to cling on to the side of the boat. I don’t seem to remember... oh yes, there were two of them, Miss Crabb and another one and they came round to see my father, didn’t they? Both of them came to ask if they could keep me on at a cheaper price... but we were desperate for money. I always wanted to travel and the only way was to join the ATS... I don’t think my mother minded what I did... she was always trying to look after her own children... I wish I’d studied a bit more in the young days because a lot of the corporals were given a higher position and they wore medals on their tunics and I didn’t... or not until I complained about it... they put me in charge of all the girls writing shorthand for the top notch people. I remember so well that boy in Africa, oh yes Nick... he was a really jolly fellow and he kept us in stitches... I wonder what’s happened to Nick? He used to tell us all about his visits to different women... oh yes he was quite popular... a jolly fellow... he was still young but he liked to tell stories about these women he visited... he was quite a Casanova with the women.


Shirley’s story moves from a basement to the top of a tower. Her first memories are of climbing up (on railings), being in a basement, being under water etc - boating lakes in Southport & the water gardens where schools would practice rowing. About half way through she starts to talk about looking down on the crowds from a tower. Although not quite so clear there are parallels in Frances’s story (she thinks she has been duped somehow about her room and is now living above her original room). DC

I had a photograph tucked away in the bookcase, a lovely big photograph of all the police... I’m right in the middle... I don’t like to worry you but the photograph disappeared just this morning... and my mother’s letters... such long letters... I’ve been trying and trying to find one of the letters and I searched and searched and I... who would want to take her letters? It makes me very sad to think that those letters are gone. Some people try to snatch the letters away.


Session 12


Fragments from a group conversation.


One of the other care home residents smiles and nods towards me:  How did you meet him?


We met on the buses, didn’t we? After I retired... my husband was a lot older... he couldn’t drive any more... and you helped me with my bags. We used to sit and talk about helping remodel Germany... I remember... yes, I remember being in Berlin... I was doing shorthand and typewriting with a few friends... taking it in turns to write down what was happening... a fifteen-minute scribble and then we went off... I did think I saw a little bit of the war there... because I was scribbling when they said, “Bring him forth from the prison.” and it was Hess. It was when he was being interrogated. Was that in England? I think he passed me in the corridor... you were there... it was very swift... he had warders holding him on either side. Did we say it was Spandau... where the heads of the...                        oh                   it’s gone. We were working as, sort of, secretaries in the court... my boss, Major Herbert, was in charge of the German Police... they were trying to copy the English Bobby... it all seemed to centre around the sort of amusement place... the tower... Butlins? You could go up and have a drink of coffee and look all over Berlin...

Shirley may be confusing the Post Office Tower in London with the Television Tower in Berlin. The Post Office Tower was indeed managed by Butlins. The Televsion Tower opened to the public in 1969 the post Office Tower opened to the public in 1966. 


I remember. I got friendly with a German girl that helped clear up the china and getting our meals... she took us to see her parents who were deeply involved in the black market... I remember they were almost starved with us taking over the economy... I sent an old watch to my sister and my mother was very cross... my boss would have been very cross too... he was actually trying to end the black market and he’d make the plans and pass them to me about the police and whatnot... when the police would be at a certain station... I’d know exactly where not to be.   


I liked to travel... in my 80’s I went to the Hermitage... Russia... when I was 84... my father was Latvian. My father was travelling... I think my mother... my mother and I haven’t seen each other for years and years. Is she alright?


I was in boarding school... didn’t see my father at all... well, he spoke in English... he didn’t look Russian... clean-shaven like me... he is quite stern I remember that... very stern in the flat when he was scribbling away, my sister and I were joking together... he said, “If you don’t shut up I’ll throw you out of the window.”


Having married and changed my name from Shirley Rabinovitch... my mother was always concerned that we should make too much fuss of our father’s name. Do you know I don’t remember losing him… I do not. Do you know when I met my sister again... which was a long time afterwards... I said, “When did you last speak to your father... our father,” she said, “Didn’t you know? He died so and so many years ago.” That was very strange wasn’t it? It’s strange that I didn’t know. I have a funny feeling that this is much more recent. I think I was speaking to her about him last week.


I tried to get over... to feel the feel of the waters under me... and my sister was trying hard to get me out of the pool and she managed to do that... then my bloomers were filled with water and they fell down. I remember being helped up and out of the pool. We must have been on holiday but my father wasn’t there yet.


Session 13


Two months later.


Isn’t it annoying when one starts to forget... it spirals away... tomorrow I think it’ll come back. My friend has just gone. She’s gone back to where she works in Marks and Spencer’s… did you see her? We met on the buses. I used to walk in the park... and                 in fact... what is it when one day a year we used to go and plunge into the Serpentine? It’s winter... I thought I did it but I never did... I wanted to. It’s so stupid what one doesn’t do. Did you try it?


DC. I’d be tempted. Did your husband do it?


Husband? Was I married?


DC. You had a house near Hyde Park... you persuaded your husband not to invest his money in pens.


Oh... aren’t you good! What a good memory... I was trying very hard to hang onto it and it’s gone. My sister, the younger one, she spoilt her life... she stayed to care for my mother... I’m not in good form today... Did you know there’s a river under the carpet? I didn’t know, one of the young girls told me.


I miss getting around... I was always adventurous... I went to Africa and... oh and Venice... don’t miss Venice... I enjoyed it so much... Florence is nothing in comparison... the boy                  David... standing on his ledge... wonderful. What is the animal he’s with? Is it a cat... or a dog... I think it’s a cat... what am I saying? There are lots of cats in unexpected places.


I really thought this line was in Frances story. Surprised to see it was actually Shirley who said it. Both start talking about the presence of cats towards the end of their stories. It makes me wonder whether really was a cat in the building or one that lived close by that could be seen from the window of room 21. Maybe an ornamental cat? DC

There was a big... like a wishing well... a fountain... to throw coins... and make a wish.


DC. Did you go with Raymond?


I didn’t marry Raymond... did I? Oh yes... in...            a                church...                          we followed a couple into a citizens advice bureau near the church... they seemed to want to get married... to get right into it... and it seemed such a good idea that we got married there and then. Was that in Venice? Did I tell you about Berlin?


Session 14


I remember coffee... the smell of coffee                 and I remember all the people... Berlin


Life was going on... looking down... on all the people. There was an artist in the crowd. I climbed the railings to see... I caught my ribbons. Mother was so cross that I caught my ribbons.


Oh David... you are Mr                        ...Clegg! Oh but I don’t know where I am... Where am I? With my toast (she waves a triangle of buttered toast) and my head?


I’ve met such interesting people... yes...                oh yes...                I love to look back on my life... it was such a treat... a treat to talk.


I so want to make myself better. Talking helps, it does help.            


What I...            I regret...              I do regret most...             ...Is my sister here? You can’t change what’s already happened... I thought I heard her voice.                My elder sister... Ellen... and because... through our years we were... not close... squabbling. The main thing was we both loved our mother... through her hardships... and we were jealous of each other and the interest she took in either of us. I hated it... I felt such jealousy... so silly. One day soon I’ll write her a letter.


Shirley died three days later.


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Alison Wray.  Session 13: You had a house near Hyde Park… you persuaded your husband not to invest his money in pens.

This input from David epitomises for me the importance of the work he has done with people like Shirley. Because he has taken her own story down, in her own words, he is able to feed back to her information at a level of detail that can help her reanchor herself into her own narrative. This harvesting of information, so it can be reinvested, is not only an effective means of scaffolding conversation with a person with Alzheimer’s, but a mark of tremendous respect to the person. David has listened to Shirley, taken her seriously, allowed her to be the expert. One shudders to think of how different Shirley’s last months would have been without the opportunity to work with David in this way.

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 30/07/2012 09:19

Shirley’s story raises some significant issues related to narrative ethics, not least because, on a superficial reading, there are some aspects of this story which do not appear to present her in a particularly good light. Many readers, I suspect, may experience an uncomfortable ‘double-take’ when they read about the incident in Berlin where an old woman was made to dance on a table for what seems to have been mere entertainment.  Similarly, Shirley makes reference to the black market exchange of beautiful clothes – including a red dress she wears to the Berlin Opera House - which she knows to be the property of someone quite possibly on the verge of starvation1.  This may raise concerns in some quarters related to informed consent. Three key questions arise here.  First, is what Shirley is saying true?  Second, if it is true, would she have revealed these things about herself if she did not have dementia?  Finally, should Shirley’s story be placed in the public domain, even anonymously, when it may expose her to disapproval.

Before we can start to answer questions about the actual ethics of reproducing such a story at all it seems, then, that we first have to ‘depathologise’ the narrative status of such accounts when offered by people with dementia.  That is, we have to question the easy assumptions that the stories either are not true at all (due to ‘confabulation’ or ‘attention seeking’, perhaps) or that they are too true (due to loss of the cognitive control which would have enabled someone without dementia to censor their content).  Here I would argue that it is far more ethical to accept the truth value of a narrative offered by a person with dementia than it is to dismiss it as mere invention.  Part of the truth to be discovered may be symbolic, but that does not alter the narrative’s meaningfulness, either for the person with dementia or for the reader.

Once we have suspended our disbelief in this way, what becomes apparent is that the narratives of people with dementia may actually have a somewhat privileged status as historical testimony.  Due to the relative emotional and linguistic disinhibition characteristic of dementia, they are one of the few sources of uncensored information now available to us about the ‘war years’. (Shirley’s story perfectly illustrates why we are mistaken to think that they ended in 1945.)  What we have here, then, is an unsanitised account of history as it was lived at the time, without censorship, evasion or self-justification.  What it tells us, valuably, is that in turbulent times, and in situations where the outcome is unknown - where perhaps it is not even clear which is the ‘right side’ to be on - the majority of human beings are apt to behave in rather similar ways.  When David suggests to Shirley that she may have taken advantage of the Berlin blockade and airlift to trade on the black market, she replies that everybody took advantage then.  This is truer by some margin than the still widely accepted belief that the Allied victors in Germany did not behave in ways that other victorious armies have always behaved.

Like the novels mentioned in my comments on Peter’s story, Shirley’s narrative also works retroactively and it is only in Sessions 4 and 5 that we begin to gain a different perspective on some of the events described in the earlier sessions.  Shirley’s own father is a Latvian Jew, whose previously successful business has gone into financial reverse during the 1930s.  While these were lean years for everyone, it seems likely that this change of fortunes was at least partly the result of the anti-Semitism then endemic in British society.  At around the same time, and for the same reason, Shirley is physically attacked by other pupils at her expensive provincial boarding school.  Shortly after this, she is taken out of school and has to take up a menial job away from home.  Her father disappears, and her mother is so afraid of persecution by association (the silence after ‘All her friends at the tennis club had started to……’ speaks more than words) that she and her children change their names.  Shirley herself goes to the lengths of changing her appearance through cosmetic surgery in order to pass as non-Jewish.  This sequence of events is, sadly, shockingly, not very different from the experiences of Jews in Nazi Germany during the same period. (As an interesting aside, though, the Nazis would not have considered someone whose mother was non-Jewish to be a Jew.)

For Shirley, it’s clear that post-War Germany represented a land of opportunity; somewhere she could go to escape her unhappy family life, present herself as a member of the conquering British nation, and enjoy the spoils of war.  A significant few years younger than Peter, she does not feel the same sense of personal responsibility toward the dead, because at the outbreak of war she was still a schoolgirl in a British boarding school.  When she claims merely to have done what everyone did at the time she is telling the unvarnished truth. (See image) This was her chance to be on the ‘right’, winning side and to have a future.
It seems to me that in the process of constructing this narrative, Shirley herself has made these connections.  She refers to the experience as one of direct psychotherapeutic benefit, ‘Going back over it all does seem to help… yes it does… and, oh yes I need it, I know that very well.’ For society as a whole, however, it is also important that these connections are made, and that we do not simply take the comforting line that the rise of fascism in the 30s and 40s was a singular and isolated evil that will never reoccur, because ‘we’ are ‘not like that’, or because humanity has evolved so far morally in the few intervening decades that no such movement could ever again take hold.

In the context of dementia, proof that this is not the case is rather painfully evident.  When a leading British moral ethicist calls for NHS patients with dementia to opt for euthanasia rather than ‘wasting resources’ it is prudent to bear in mind that the Nazis did not start by exterminating Jews.  Initially it was the old, the mentally infirm and the disabled they targeted.  They believed it hygienic and efficient to rid their society of those who consumed resources, but were not economically productive.  In our own society we are beginning to lose sight of the fact that people who now have dementia are the same generation that fought the war, gave birth to the welfare state, and supported it through taxation on their hard-earned and often meagre wages.  The idea that we may be indebted to people with dementia for this reason does not seem to feature very strongly today, even in the discourse of person-centred care.

Ultimately, I think it is for this reason that the moral and ethical imperative is to publish stories like Shirley’s as widely and intact as possible.  In revealing that our fundamental human nature is often weak, fallible and self-serving, Shirley’s story carries a stronger claim to moral truth than the versions of ourselves we might prefer to construct.  And it reminds us that the history we do not learn from is a history we are condemned to repeat.  _________________________________________________________________________________
1 The food ration for Berliners in 1948 was 900 calories a day.
2 That Shirley’s work here involves typing the confessions of war criminals in preparation for the Nuremberg Trials adds a further note of irony.  Records suggest that by the time Rudolf Hess arrived in Berlin he was claiming total amnesia, so it is unsurprising that Shirley has no memory of what he said.  At the same time there is an interesting parallel between her own remark, ‘The whole thing seems to have been completely brushed out,’ and Hess’s alleged response to every question he was asked at this time: ‘This is all a fog’.

Images 1 & 2. Exchange of black market goods for food in Berlin 1946 / 47.

Andrea Capstick

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 15/08/2012 13:00

From session 2. 'It seems a long time back but it left the most vivid impression. There were four different countries involved… the English, the French, the Americans, and the Russians. We exchanged goods at the railway stations. Some of the German people were so eager to exchange because they could trade our whisky for foodstuffs. What they had available to us was their beautiful family treasures and clothing, dresses. I remember I kept a silk dress for ages, red with a beautiful floral print. I remember one of the big generals visiting Berlin, and I was introduced as a sort of example of respectable Englishness. He remarked on the beautiful dress, which was very possibly stolen from one of the Jewish families. The Germans all seemed to have such lovely clothes.'

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 28/12/2012 10:21


My previous comments on Shirley’s story were based mainly on the early sessions and the Berlin airlift material. Here are a few comments and queries based on what I take to be a shift in content and emphasis in sessions 5-14.  David confirms that at this time Shirley was often unwell, and we know that these were actually the last few months of her life.

There’s a qualitative change from Session 5 onwards, as though Shirley has now said what she has to say about Berlin, and only refers to it again in passing.  The exception is the group session, Session 12, when Shirley temporarily goes back into what I think of as 'performance mode'; her Berlin script is produced again here like a well-rehearsed party piece. Otherwise, the narrative seems to me to become more introspective beyond this point, perhaps as though she's realised that the Berlin period isn't after all the real story of her life.   She seems to be digging deeper, both in the sense that the memories which are foregrounded come from an earlier period in her life, but also in terms of their emotional intensity.  If the Berlin narrative is sometimes disturbingly blasé given the devastation and deprivation within which it is located, these later sessions tell us much more about the domestic situation Shirley felt she needed to escape.


In relation to the laundry under room 21 - the earliest reference seems to be at the beginning of session 4 where Shirley says 'I stayed in the (long pause) river.  Well, I'm thinking of the river that pushes me past, and the waters and the sea underneath…'  Subsequent references to water, rivers, sea also often seem to break through the surface narrative as though there are two different stories being told in counterpoint to each other, one which is intended, and the other which is more elemental and wells up from underneath.  In session 5, for example, Shirley says that as a schoolgirl she saw her mother looking frail on the promenade (sea front) and felt embarrassed. Then in mirror-image, in session 7, her mother saw Shirley walking along the promenade and felt sorry for her because she looked frail.  There's something very unprocessed about this by comparison with the Berlin material: a series of repeated, refracted, often conflicting attributions of familial shame, guilt, envy and lack of care which are difficult to bring within a single frame of reference.


Shirley doesn't just talk about living over a laundrette, but also later about working in a laundry.  The dry cleaners’ mentioned elsewhere may have been part of the same business.  I believe that she must have actually worked in such a place, because the description of the laundry in Session 8 is too precise - and too embodied - to be merely a reaction to the sound of the present day laundry below Room 21.  It seems more likely that hearing sounds from the laundry in the care home has triggered memories of her earlier work in one.  The fact that she makes connections between the two seems evident from: 'Oh, was the laundry downstairs, or is that here?' (Session 7) and 'In this laundry there were two floors' (Session 8).

In Session 13 Shirley again refers to 'a river under the carpet', and there seem to be other chains of association, which perhaps do flow (literally) from the sound of the laundry, eg falling through ice into water, and being 'pushed into the basement' (Session 6); falling through the bathroom floor into a flat below (Session 10); being 'shot under the water… I was afraid of it really' as a schoolgirl (Session 11); being rescued from falling into a pool as a child (Session 12), and plunging into the Serpentine (Session 13).  I suspect what happens here is that the cues from the present day environment (whatever they happen to be) govern which memories are foregrounded, so that, for example, a sound like waves triggers the memory of something that happened at the sea-side.

Another aspect of these later sessions that interests me is that although there's a strong escape theme throughout the whole narrative, in Sessions 1-4 this is largely about escape into the armed forces and the rather phony existence of Shirley’s time in Berlin.  In the later sessions she talks about a chronologically earlier attempt to escape her home life by going off on her bike, sleeping rough, and relying on the kindness of strangers.  She seems to associate riding her bike with freedom, independence and a sense of daring as though she's only really in her element when doing that ('I was so pleased to be free'  Session 6; 'I used to ride down the hill with my feet on the handlebars' - Session 10; 'I loved to ride' - Session 11).  Symbolically at least the statement 'I walked out at 14 when my sister went to university, and I'm not sure I ever went back' seems a pretty emphatic rejection of her birth family (and another echo of Frances).  It's easy to forget, however, that 14 was actually the school leaving age at the time, and it wasn't unusual to go away from home to work at an age we now consider to be barely out of childhood.

Re-reading Shirley’s story also reminded me how much the act of telling defines the story that gets told.  For example, every time a narrator says 'I've only just remembered…..'(as Shirley does about her father's illness in Session 8) we have to assume that this is something that wouldn't ever have been recalled were it not for the narrative process.  However, this may then shed light on things said earlier that Shirley herself has previously interpreted differently (her father's disappearance and death). It also struck me that - again like Frances' story - the 'deep narrative' has a fairy-tale structure; the dead/disappeared/emotionally unavailable parent, and the rivalry between the children for the other parent's attention/affections. 

Again, as with Frances, there's a significant emphasis on lost/missing/stolen photographs, portraits, letters and documents (eg 'some people try to snatch the letters away' - session 11).  

Andrea Capstick


Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 29/12/2012 13:31

The aviary in Hesketh Park in Southport. 

"I remember there was a birdcage in a sort of zoo. We poked our fingers through the railings and a bird got hold of my finger and tore my glove. It seems such a little thing but I remember it so clearly now… my mother was very, very upset that I tore my glove".

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 18/03/2013 16:21


"The Kardomah was on Lord Street… I remember it was so elegant with rounded windows. I remember Lord Street, the main shopping street with lime trees and a bandstand in the middle. Strange that I don’t remember my address… a very middle class type of house with a garden at the front and back. Isn’t it amazing that I remember the address of the Kardomah but not the street where I lived? I did, not long ago, but it seemed to vanish."

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 19/03/2013 10:08


The workhouse

One day, when I was visiting Shirley, a nurse told me that the care home where she lived was a converted school. Given that the building looks like a typical 1970’s care home this didn’t seem likely, so I asked some of the other staff. Although most of them didn’t know anything about the building, those who did concurred that it had been a school. I decided to try to find photographs of the school to show Shirley - I was also curious to experience the sense of something being out of place that might arise from seeing pictures of school children taking lessons in rooms now occupied by old people - however the idea went on the back burner soon after, when her condition deteriorated. I recently set about finding a plan of the school to satisfy my own curiosity and to try to place Room 21 and hence the three stories making up the Cobra project in relation to the history of a physical space. For the sake of a good story I thought it would be interesting to see if the history of the land prior to the building of the school / care home contained echoes of its current use or any connection with the content of the three stories.

Room 21 is on the north side of a small park. On the south side of the park is a busy shopping street. The park contains a handful of gravestones and table-tombs. The notion that the building had been a school turned out to be the echo of something more interesting; there had been a school on the site however it had been within an enormous workhouse. The gravestones were the remains of a private burial ground for the workhouse, which was used as an ‘airing ground’ by the male inmates. The park is still used in much the same way for the residents of the care home.

People often re-edit – or simply dismiss – the ‘life stories’ of people with dementia to remove what might be seen as psychologically ‘difficult’ material. I wonder whether someone chose to censor the real story of the land because they were concerned that the truth might have disturbed the residents of the newly built care home. There is the possibility that one of the new residents or their relatives made a simple mistake and the idea spread among the staff, or they chose – for whatever reason – to paint a more cheerful picture.

There is a mismatch between some of the historical records in regard to the workhouse. Like the events in the stories it was often very difficult to know what really happened and when, even when it related to bricks and mortar. The workhouse, for example, appears on a map dated ten years before it was supposedly built (though building work may have been underway at this point in time). Photographs of the buildings taken in 1904 show a major range incorporating a grand entrance on the north side, but this range is not featured on any plans or the maps. There are hints of money changing hands – or passing from one board member to another – to complete work that was never started or was finished in slapdash fashion. Given the inconsistencies, this is as close as I can get to a chronology of the space before the building of the new care home.

On 3rd February 1727, the officers of St Luke’s Parish, Chelsea, agreed that “the Churchwardens be empowered to take, with all convenient speed, a proper house upon lease, in the name of this parish, for the use of the Poor”. In 1734, three-quarters of an acre of land was donated by Sir Hans Sloane for the building of a workhouse. The first building was erected in 1737. A substantial proportion of those entering the workhouse were doing so due to health reasons, which led to a significant role as a hospital. People were admitted, and sometimes discharged, with the briefest possible records. A fragment reads; Lunatic (sent to Bedlam), Bastard, Lunatic, Sick, Sick, Drunk, Itchy, Lunatic, Itchy, A bad girl taken away by a beadle, Sick, Drunk (discharged to Basingstoke).

A map from 1738 shows a large H shaped workhouse with two courtyards (north and south) and an east and a west wing. The workhouse was built on undeveloped land. This means that from the point at which the land was first built on almost 300 years ago it has always been used to house people who were unable to ‘care’ for themselves.

The main entrance was on the north side of the building (Room 21 would be on the south-west side). The east wing was originally designated for women and the west wing was for men. At this point the space later occupied by Room 21 would be at the far end of the male ward, where it would slightly overhang above a cobbled courtyard. Records from 1740 state that the newly opened workhouse “met all the possible needs of its occupants” – however by 1748 – only ten years after its completion, it was said to be in a state of disrepair. This signalled the beginning of a continuous programme of demolition and piecemeal redevelopments that lasted well into the 20th century.

The 18th century workhouse housed an astonishing mix of people; alongside dozens of labourers, cleaners and scavengers there was a policeman, a doctor, five butlers, an optician, an artist, a chimney sweep, a comb-maker, a doctor and a “gold-embroideress”.

By 1838 the workhouse was said once again to be “replete with every convenience and in every aspect suitable for the purposes of such and establishment”. Just three years later it was said to be “grim” and neglected. In 1843 the women’s ward was so badly affected by dry rot that it was being “propped up”. According to some records an entirely new workhouse was erected on the site in around 1845, however other records suggest a more piecemeal redevelopment. A “dead-house” and a “vagrants’ ward” were added and a start was made on new women’s ward on the east side of the site (presumably the old block fell down or was demolished). The number of pregnancies went up between 1845 and 1860 suggesting that separation of male and female inmates was not maintained. In 1870 the west wing (where Room 21 would be situated) was being used to house women and babies. Around this time the workhouse was “home” to more than 300 people. There is evidence that the inmates prepared wool for weaving.

A typical cross section of the inmates reads:

Jeffrey Edwards – age 13, ran away with a new suit of clothes.

Hester Graham – discharged as “drunk and quarrelsome”.

William Buster – age 59, promised to go home.

Theodosia Gardner – escaped over the wall.

Elizabeth Bury – ran away with a huge quantity of combed wool.


By 1880 the building was described as a “warren of neglected buildings and tunnels” that provided “inadequate accommodation for imbeciles”. In 1902-3, two ward blocks and a guardian’s office were added to the southwest (the office building still exists, amusingly it is now a holistic health centre providing ‘therapeutic Thai massage’!)

Despite records of an extensive redevelopment the footprint of the buildings on all but one map remains identical from the 18th century until 1960. The one exception to the layout shown on the maps is a detailed street map from the 1930s, which represents the workhouse as an ominous black square.

London County Council took over the building in 1930 with the intention of converting it for use as a nursing home for old people. At this time plans were drawn up to change the alignment of the building so that the main entrance would be through the western block, where the entrance to the care home is today. There are no records of this work ever starting. However photographs from the 1960s seem to show both a north and a south entrance. As late as 1965 there is still a mention of the building being used to shelter homeless people (described by the retiring warder as “undesirables”).

An article in Chelsea Post from 1965 states that “in the west wing, after the last war, mothers and children were jumbled together in miserable squalor”. Photographs from this time show many broken windows. The Sun newspaper described the building as “an embarrassment” and a “symbol of London’s housing failure”.

In the second half of the twentieth century plans were submitted to demolish the building and replace it with a teaching hospital. All the planning applications failed. A decision was then made to replace the old buildings with a far smaller “state-of-the-art” care home, with single occupancy rooms replacing the old dormitories. It was a surprise to find that there was a public protest when the buildings were marked for closure and demolition. One councillor stated that, although from the outside there was “no hiding the building’s history as a workhouse” from the inside he felt “it met every possible need of its residents”, almost a word-for-word echo of the statement made in 1838.

In 1969 the old care home came to a controversial end when one of the nursing staff “spirited away” a “wealthy, senile doctor” (Daily Telegraph - June 1972) and hid him in her house for two months because he was “not being treated properly as a gentleman”. The nurse was sent to prison for 18 months when it was found that he had signed a number of cheques for her to cash and changed the contents of his will leaving her his house and possessions. Interestingly one of the newspaper articles from the time sides with the nurse by suggesting that she might have been doing the doctor a favour in getting him out of the building.

Bringing the story full circle the new home has just been marked for closure and declared, “Not fit for purpose”.





















Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 03/04/2013 08:18

The women's ward on the east wing of the converted workhouse in 1969.  

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 04/04/2013 10:45

East wing of the former workhouse in 1968.

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 05/04/2013 09:34

The 'rest room' in the east wing in 1968.

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 05/04/2013 09:38

This is the only photograph I could find of the old workhouse showing the south side of the east wing. The photograph was taken in 1913. The position of room 21 is highlighted. 

Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 12/04/2013 10:49


Some general thoughts about the associations of the laundry

Last week, when I was looking through a handful of photos of room 21, I spotted a notice attached to the room’s bathroom mirror (detail enlarged). Shirley was the only storyteller in the entire archive of over 250 stories to talk repeatedly about washing and working in a laundry, and her room was the only one to have a notice of this type. Shirley would have seen this notice and the evocative ‘period’ picture every day when she used the bathroom (and washed herself!) and she may have heard the washing machines in the care-home’s laundry below her room when they were used at night – (She mentions that she lived above the laundry in Southport and yet the architecture of the properties in the area does not seem to allow for this possibility, which would suggest that she is merging memories of her room in Southport with her room in the care home).

There doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt that Shirley did work in a laundry at least once, probably when she was in her teens, a time when she (like many teenagers) wanted to rebel and assert her independence. These daily and nightly prompts may have planted the idea that the laundry was something she could talk about whether she was conscious of the influence or not.

Shirley struggles to place the laundry and its significance (an opportunity to ‘get away’ from her family) in time and place, and her struggle continues to surface throughout the weeks of our conversations. I’m not convinced that she wanted to get away from the care home – in fact she gave every indication of enjoying her time there so these re-emerging feelings may have been difficult for her to understand.

The care home ‘Information for new residents’ pack talks about the goal of ‘promoting independence’ during washing and other daily routines. There were three or four signs around the unit that said much the same thing. It would be impossible to know what significance the phrase ‘Promoting Independence’ had for each resident but for Shirley the associations relate to her family and the laundry, whilst for Frances they are both domestic and political i.e. connected to the repression of free speech in Prague and Cyprus.

Shirley; “I know I went in for dry cleaning specialising in suede gloves. Oh of course this is when I was with my sister in the laundry. That’s funny… it was Mr Hanson’s laundry but that wasn’t when I moved. It was his laundry but he had nothing to do with the working of it. I’m trying to get myself back to the Wirral. I wanted to be independent. Before that what was I doing? Oh, was the laundry downstairs or is that here?"


Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 18/04/2013 07:47

A sort of anti-comment by the artist Becky Shaw. 

"I've been reading the texts for weeks and am finding them incredibly thought-provoking, but I'm finding it hard to prepare comments/responses as I'm not sure I can add something beyond what’s said already. I feel rather pretentious when I say this, but I feel like the only response I could make would be to make some work in the flesh. The spatial complexities are so overwhelming and disorientating that I feel like I would need to go to the place, or one like it, as well as making models, objects- exploring the still lives for example. Obviously this is not what you need and runs counter to the project anyway as it focuses on the nature of speech. "


Posted By: Cables Clegg Date: 02/10/2013 07:46