Last year I began running series' of reminiscence sessions at Wheatfields and St. Gemma’s Hospices in North Leeds. I am always taken off guard by the seemingly never-ending ability of objects to get people talking, not just about museums-approved stories but offering the most amazing personal details and memories of past adventures.
Once we get past the initial assumption that the “lady from the museum” (always makes me look round for the lady!) is here to deliver an in-depth lecture on 13th Century Bell Ringing or the complex mating rituals of the common fig wasp, we can get down to the business of “here’s something you might find interesting…did you ever…?” – insert open-ended / humorous question here. People to date have generally contributed willingly - apart from the man who told me it was none of my business after I phrased a question poorly (serves me right for prying).
One gentleman told me with great relish about his group of mates who were paid by a local farmer to gather firewood for the November bonfire. Every year they deliberately piled the wood just a little too close for comfort to the gentleman farmer’s barn wall thereby necessitating another payment to get the pile moved to a safer distance! When asked if the farmer ever got annoyed at this quite transparent money-making venture, the man replied, “Well, he kept paying us!”
During a session on the topic of food and drink, I pulled out a “can opener” from the mystery box of outreach dreams and unwrapped it explaining that it was from our “customs collection” and was made from the tooth of a hippopotamus. I was pontificating about how a whole hippo had died to make what really amounted to quite a pathetic kitchen implement only to be interrupted by a strident voice telling me that I’d got it wrong.
Imagine then a discussion about people’s cream / custard / condensed milk preferences, tales of hiding food from stern and eagle-eyed dinner ladies, “scrumping” in orchards, making home-made toffee apples out of the caramelised dregs of sugar cane in the corner of a farmer’s field and serving a pint of ale in one powerful pull of the pump (the tiny lady who contributed this little gem spoke so proudly) and then a voice cutting through it all with:
“Did I ever tell you about the time I ran over a hippopotamus with my train?”The low murmur of conversation around the room disappeared. We searched the room for the speaker who turned out to be the gentleman who had spent the majority of the previous hour drifting in and out of sleep (quite normal for all my sessions).
Tea cups were rattling - a sure sign that I was soon to pack up and leave - but I just got time to hear about the long, heavy cargo trains he had driven across vast areas of sparsely populated, post-war East Africa. He’d seen the beast straddling the tracks too late to stop and the resulting “knock” hadn’t derailed the engine but had left the creature looking “not very clever”. Dead of course - mercifully by the sounds of it!
I feel truly privileged to have heard such an excellent tale! And how bizarre that it was inspired by an object which had been brought to start conversations about people’s food and drink memories.
Seeing the gentleman holding the hippo tooth, telling his tale to an astounded audience and the gentle smile of a good memory remembered was priceless. Call it stolen, call it borrowed but his story has become part of my set of stories I can use to engage people’s interest in the objects I use for outreach. And all good stories should be retold!...