I’m running a writing workshop as part of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf literary festival. The aim of the workshop is for participants to produce their own pieces of memoir, poetry and fiction, using their own memories as a starting point.
Since my last workshops in May, I’ve been very busy honing my skills and developing new ideas. I’ve started a longer reminiscence course at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell. Last week, we used the theme of school days. I wrote a poem for the session, using memories of being stuck the most boring primary school assemblies ever at Portway Junior School in Derby.
Nowadays, assemblies are short and snappy, and led by children who have prepared something special based on a topic they have been learning about. My junior school days were only thirty years ago, but things have really changed. We had to sing never ending hymns with droning verses and choruses, terrible recorder recitals. The hymn books were covered in peeling blue plastic. When another teacher dared to suggest a hymn that was more fun to sing, the head-teacher used to rant in front of everyone. Her assemblies were usually diatribes against something she didn’t agree with. She used to make vegetarians sit on their own in the library to eat lunch. I would have preferred that, compared to the bullying lunch monitors and hideous luncheon meat that we had to force down!
To write the poem, I used memories from all five senses: the elaborate displays of work in the hall and the blue hymn books, the smell of warm rubber and those hated school dinners; the taste of blood from a scabby knee; the drone of the headteacher’s voice as I day-dreamed; and the feel of the cold parquet floor.
It was useful to remember, and a good exercise for my memory!
An aroma of warm rubber rises from my plimsolls.
Sitting cross-legged, picking a scabby knee.
The new skin is sore and red but satisfying in its smoothness.
The scab bleeds a little at the edge and I lick my finger,
Metallic-tasting blood fizzing on my tongue.
The parquet floor is dusty, cold on bare legs.
A faint tang of floor polish and the ghosts of school dinners:
Khaki mushy peas and sweaty baked beans.
The headmistress rants about keeping up standards
Her voice becomes a monotone drone.
My legs turns twitchy, staving off numbness.
The teachers cast hawkish eyes up and down the rows,
Keeping watch for fidgets, whispers, pushes and shoves,
Sharp tugs on long plaits, bogies wiped on jumpers.
I dream, staring at a wall displaying a tree with paper leaves.
The monkeys swing and jump in the humid forest air.
The leaves rustle; wind in the branches. I open my eyes.
The others are standing, opening the scuffed blue books.
I’ve missed the hymn number. Fumbling the tissue-thin paper,
The dirge starts, heavy and tuneless to a pounding piano.
Full of words like:
Eternal – just like this assembly – going on forever with no end in sight.