Guest Blog: Eleanor Thom

In this guest blog our Citizen Writer in Residence Eleanor Thom shares her experience working with the North Edinburgh Over-50s Drama Group and why elephants are so important. 

‘Elephants never forget’, the saying goes. I’d just arrived at St Margaret’s House on London Road to meet the North Edinburgh Over-50s Drama Group for the first time. I’m five years into the Citizen project now, and still meeting new faces as well as working with writers who started with us back in 2018. When I meet a new group, I usually just join in and observe. That day, because this was a drama group, I was feeling a little nervous. I found drama terrifying at school. I was a very shy kid who wanted to disappear behind a book, and my insides would twist at the prospect of being ‘on show’, either on stage or on the sports field. In the only play I appeared in, I was given a non-speaking role: a recycling bin. I stood on stage while people threw rubbish at me.  

I know a lot of people feel a similar dread about writing, and I think that often goes back to early experiences too. Elephants never forget, but we never forget either. This is why unless I’m meeting an experienced writing group, I don’t turn up with pens and paper. The nightmare equivalent for me would be a workshop room containing a giant costume box and a spotlight.  

I need not have worried. The North Edinburgh Over-50s Drama Group are a small, nurturing bunch with such a close bond, it was almost like joining a family gathering. Straight away, I was adopted. We stood in a circle and played games, ‘zipping’, ‘zapping’ and ‘zopping’ each other till the rules got too complicated to follow. After a long tea break, we spent time working with objects, holding them, passing them to each other, and describing how they looked, or felt, or the smell and sound of them. Freda, who coordinates the group, had brought these objects with her, and she left plenty of time for thoughts to form in our minds before asking us to speak. She instructed the group to watch everyone else’s hands and look at how our hands can reveal our thoughts and feelings. I enjoyed this, as well as the relief that no one had asked me to mime anything ‘in the manner of’.  

The next time we met, I asked the group to bring one object from their home that they could tell a story about. It was left to them to decide which story they wanted to tell, whether it was set in the past, present or future, whether it was true or invented, and who the story was about. There would be no pens and paper, at least not yet. The group wanted to create a film to be shown at the festival, and we decided that we would hold the objects and film them in our hands while telling their stories.  

That second week several more participants were present. I knew I’d seen Cathy before somewhere, and it didn’t take long for me to remember.  

I’d first met Cathy in year two of the Citizen project. She’d attended what was probably the last in-person workshop I did before lockdown. It was at Royston Wardieburn Community Centre, and we were telling stories about home while creating a frieze on a roll of blank wallpaper with ink stamps. The paper ended up as a fantasy townscape crisscrossed with memories of all the places everyone in the room had ever lived. Later, still thinking about home, we told stories based on our keys. At the time, I’d been asking different groups to write about their house keys, a prompt that unlocked all kinds of stories. But of all the keyrings shared throughout the year, Cathy’s had stood out. It was a small, jewelled elephant. It was memorable how she cherished it and how it led to a long, detailed conversation. She had shared stories about neighbours, friendships, and travel around the world.  

Fast forward to March 2023. Cathy arrived at St Margaret’s House wearing a scarf with elephants stamping up it. The penny drops. 

“You love elephants!” I grinned at her. 

Elephants are lucky for her, Cathy explained. They still go wherever she goes. She swivelled to show me an elephant on her bag, and an elephant bracelet, and another elephant keyring. The object she had brought to film with the group was, of course, an elephant.  

All six participants contributed a story and an object to the film. Cathy’s elephants are joined by two beautiful soft toy cats, a painting, an embroidery, a singing bowl and a little fan shaped like a penguin. The group chose the title ‘Holding Memories’ since many of the objects they picked related to earlier chapters of their lives or to loved ones who had passed on or moved away. We planned to film a practice run, and later re-do the whole thing with better lighting. However, the group members shared their stories with open hearts, entirely themselves. Once the cameras were switched off, we knew that these ‘performances’ were actually the real thing. We had filmed moments that couldn’t be repeated.  

Written words came later when everyone composed a haiku for their object. We added these to the film as interludes, threads connecting themes of childhood, family, loss, friendship, and home. I think the final piece is a moving portrait of the group as a whole, but each storyteller’s personality is unique and memorable, like Cathy and her elephants.  

The final version of the film will debut as part of our Stories and Scran event at the Book Festival this August. Full details of this year’s festival programme will be announced on Wed 14 June – check out our website for more details:  

Citizen is our long-term creative programme working in partnership with organisations across Edinburgh and Musselburgh, offering local people a platform to explore identity, connection and place. The project is part of Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Communities programme and is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and through the PLACE Programme (funded by the Scottish Government, City of Edinburgh Council, and the Edinburgh Festivals, and supported and administered by Creative Scotland). 

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