Prayers before breakfast!

Prayers before breakfast!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Sacha's Hotel Performance for 24:7

If you'd like to see wwhat the whole play finally looked like, try this. It's a rather dark video - in several senses, but it gives flavour of the performacne and why it was so appealing.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Remembering the Dead

The Reading of Names
Remembering the Prestwich Asylum Community
St Mary’s Church, Prestwich
13th October 2011

The Greater Manchester County Record Office, an obscure building in Ancoats, holds one of the great historical archives of the nation – the admission books of the Prestwich County Asylum., from 1851 to the 1960s. They tell about the lives of many thousands of people who spent time in the asylum. It was a substantial community which, at its height, had over 3,000 patients and it employed many generations of local people. From these resources, the play, Telling Lives was devised by Cul-de-sac theatre and played as part of Manchester 24:7 theatre festival in 2011.

In researching for that play, I came across the work of the Prestwich Local History society who had compiled the names of the 5,000 pauper lunatics who are buried in St Mary’s churchyard. Their graves were unacknowledged until 2006. The vicar, the Revd. Bryan Hackett, suggested that a ceremony of reading of their names might provide a fitting memorial to those generations who have gone down into history without proper acknowledgement. A community theatre company, like Cul- de-sac, seems an appropriate vehicle for being involved in such a ceremony and we feel privileged to be part of the day’s community activities in the church.

Theatre has much in common with religious practices. It involves ritual, focus, art and a degree of meditative control. These all seem to be appropriate characteristics when remembering the dead. Few of us today, could have known any of the Prestwich patients who are buried here, yet many of us will feel drawn to this act of remembrance. Perhaps it is salving our own fears, that, hopefully, we too will be remembered, at least for a little while, by those who were important to us when we were alive. Rituals help us to focus and to share the ambiguities of being alive, to make them less intimidating. The ritual of the reading the names binds us, the living, together in a sustained public act. We put aside our own concerns to share in the emotions of other people and that gives us insight into the nature of life and increased sympathy for others.

Honouring the dead also extends our communities to the people who have gone before. They would have felt these things just as we do. By implication, it equally extends our communities into the future, to those who will come after us, whom we shall never see. They too, will share some of these emotions, but about us. The reading of the names is also ritualistic, and in that, it is like a form of meditation, a chance to slow down the pace of the world to something that more nearly matches the pace of our ancestors. Those slower brain rhythms are perhaps more ‘natural’ for human beings and this is what gives us a sense of comfort. And it seems right, morally right, to honour the dead. It stresses that all lives are important, regardless of social class or state of health. It asserts publicly and positively that other lives are valuable and that it is human value that is the foundation for all communities.

But it’s still a valid question as to why we want to do this? It’s perfectly natural, indeed essential, for us to remember our close relatives and our dead friends; but to remember those we never knew? What kind of ‘remembering’ is that? If the names were on Babylonian clay tablets, rather than printed paper, would it make a difference? There is something important about proximity and community. The Prestwich names are linked to our present community by a closeness in time. 100 years is a little span. Genes in St Mary’s graveyard are now distributed in us. We will pass them on to the future. Communities are more like long rivers than bounded pools.

And unlike the Babylonians, the Prestwich patients had real images of themselves for us to look at and study. They are not simply the army of faceless victims that social history normally turns up. Through their photographs, we see their humanity in their expressions. They are mirror images of ourselves and reflect back to us our own emotional life. And they had names. As actors today we will ‘remember’, Lily Handley, Willaim McVeaty, Ann Warburton, chiefly as characters in a play, the details of whose lives we have invented and created out of our own imaginings. It is a process that actors have to use in order to embody a character. But they were also real people, two of whom, Lily and Ann, are buried here, in this mass grave. We will read out their names and wonder, rather than remember, who they really were, what they felt, who they loved, what lives they really led. The Prestwich archive offers a strange form of resurrection – because of the haunting power of the photographs in it. We can’t stop ourselves from imagining their lives and sufferings and triumphs. Human beings are narrativisers. The purpose of art and ritual is to give greater intensity to each passing moment of our lives. And many of the Prestwich patients had just such an intensity for an imaginative life, the kind of visions which artists share with the mad. We need stories and ritual tellings, in order to understand how we fit into the flow of time. In recognising these patients from the past, we acknowledge that we too will fade from history – but, we also know, that it is better to have lived intensely. It is a gift we should treasure

But beyond our professional duties, it’s still a valid question as to what we are doing it for, to what purpose? I think an act of deliberate remembering, is a kind of purging of sorrow. We cannot get through life without experiencing sorrow. That is the human condition. It makes us feel helpless, as if we were again like a lonely child. But the Prestwich dead, when they were well, would not wish us to linger in sorrow. They would want us to live life hopefully, as we would wish it for our friends. The Stoics felt that, although sorrow comes to us as like a blow from outside, how we respond to it is under our control. We must first bear sorrow and then master it, and we can do that through courage and resilience. That makes a return to happiness possible. In the Prestwich archives, those two qualities – courage and resilience - can be found in great abundance. Despite the lack of modern drugs and treatments, nearly half of the population actually recovered from their distress, often through simple things like diet and rest, as well as from skilled professionalism and kindness, key qualities which bind communities together. Sorrow is a gift for which we do not ask, but it makes life a richer thing. The Prestwich community teaches us that and we are acknowledging that in reading out their names.

Finally, we can legitimately ask, what good will come of our acknowledging the dead? Under great pressure from the way we live today, is our sense of belonging in a community. The communal spaces where we might once have gathered to meet our neighbours - the church, the pub, the park, the market, - are all finding it harder to survive and play this binding role which enables communities to work well and to nurture their members common interests. An act of remembrance like today’s, reminds us that we need each other, in good times and in bad, as we did in the past, and more importantly, as we will in the future. As the character William Stubbins, (who was a real person in Prestwich), says (fictitiously) in the play, “We are all part of each other’s happiness”. That too, is what we are remembering.