If those lips could only speak, if those eyes could only see…

This old song, describing the sorrows of a man recalling his dead wife while standing before her portrait, was  sung by my mother’s mother when one of her daughters would play the piano after supper on Sunday visits.

She sang only a few favourites….one, whose verses I no longer remember though the tune remains, had a chorus:

‘Pull down the blind,

Don’t be unkind,

Someone’s a-looking, dear,

Pull down the blind.

‘Silver threads among the gold’ would signal the end of music for the night and was the prelude to the hunt for coats, gloves and bags, the issue of tins containing  home made cake and the sortie into the night air – I always remember it as being chill – to walk down to the bus stop, the lights of the main road visible at the end of the long lane from the house.

This came back to mind after listening to a programme on BBC Radio 2 which was part of a week when the Beeb concentrated on mental health awareness.

This might be a link: the programme was called ‘Dennis Skinner vs Dementia’

It was presented by someone called Jeremy Vine, whom I imagine to be some regular chat show host and took the form of an  interview in which Dennis Skinner described his mother’s descent into dementia, and how he came to realise that music evoked a response from a woman who no longer recognised her own family and brought her alive in herself.

Who is Dennis Skinner?

dennis skinner

He is now 84 years of age and has been Member of Parliament for the seat of Bolsover in Derbyshire since 1970 in the interest of the Labour Party.

A rarity in modern politics he has worked for a living in a hard business –  coal mining – and gained experience in local government before his first election to Parliament where he made it his business to master the procedures of the House of Commons in order to best further his aims of protecting and promoting  the rights of the weak in society.

Mark you, anyone who could understand and manipulate the rules of the compositing committees for the Annual Conferences of the National Union of Mineworkers and the Labour Party would have had no problem with the centuries’ old arcanae of the Mother of Parliaments.

Child’s play.

Known as the Beast of Bolsover he has gained a fearsome reputation for his impassioned attacks on Tory ministers;  frequently expelled from the House for his use of unparliamentary language, he is anathema to the blue rinse brigade and this was reflected in the presentation of the programme where Vine continually wailed that the listeners were not obliged to agree with one word Skinner said, nor approve of his political views…

I can’t imagine he would have found this caution necessary had the programme featured on of the Tory party Big Beasts – nomatter how objectionable their views on the deliberate impoverishment of the working class and the ruination of the NHS.

However, the meat of the programme was a description of Skinner’s attempts to communicate with a mother who no longer knew him, nor any of the other children she had slaved to bring up.

Finally he remembered from his childhood that when she was working – cooking, washing, ironing  – she was always singing! So on one visit home he took her to a quiet part of the park and began to sing one of the songs from the musicals  that she had loved…and in seconds she was singing along with him.

It did not bring about communication, or recognition, but for the length of the song it restored that woman to herself.

It is dreadful for the people who lose a loved one to dementia…but how much more dreadful for the sufferers themselves, cast adrift in a world with no compass….

Rest after toil

Port after stormy Seas

Ease after war

Death after life doth greatly please.

Spencer’s words may apply to those who retain control of their world…but where is the port for those tossed on the tempests of dementia?

It appears that memories laid down early remain the longest and revival of those memories allow those with dementia to return to the self that they were, that they knew…if only for a short while, to find port after stormy seas.

Sing songs may be fine for older people…but what of younger ones, brought up on the ‘worble worble bleep bleep boom’ of video games when their time comes to encounter dementia?

Will someone  think to revive these blasts from the past in the way that Skinner does for the groups he visits on the care homes of his constituency?

There is no history of dementia in my family: just as well.

After all, where, in Costa Rica, would there be anyone who knew the words and music to

‘The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom’.
















31 thoughts on “If those lips could only speak, if those eyes could only see…”

  1. “His mother’s decent into dementia” rings true for me. I remember the day my father died and my mother’s reaction was very out of character for her. Usually unemotional, she was overly emoting-little did we know that concurrent, she was having traumatic mini-strokes. That was the beginning of her decent into dementia. Whether it was actually diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease or mini-stroke dementia, the result was the same–she moved into the ethers in her wheel chair smiling away like she was on a cruise ship enjoying herself, oblivious to the reality surrounding her. There was one lucid moment toward the end, a benediction, when I told her I loved her and she looked at me, a recognition in her eyes and said in her usually reserved tone, “the feeling is mutual.” We had a lot of singing in our family. My father was from a poor family and their entertainment was singing and storytelling–a family of 9 siblings in England turn of the twentieth century. The singing and storytelling moved through the generations and fill me with a lot of wonderful memories. I wonder how many of them my mother retained, if any. Beautiful piece here, Helen. Thank you my friend. ❤

    1. Luckily we have not had the experience of dementia in the family – or among friends – and long may that situation last!
      At least your mother seemed to have serenity in her inner world.

  2. . . we have had family slowly fade away without disappearing and now J and I hold hands as we gaze into the whirlpool and cram our waking hours with things to keep the synapses fit and bouncing. Skinner is one of those I admire for his consistency and integrity – one does not always have to agree with another’s views to respect them (although I tend to exclude 99.99% of politicians from that judgement). J has been immersed in music pretty much all of her life and your post has given us a mooring buoy to steer for.

  3. I thought, why is she asking who Dennis Skinner is? Everyone knows who he is. And of course, everyone probably doesn’t these days. I might have a listen, it looks as though it might work. I have to say if I get dementia I should not like to live in the past. I’m much happier with the life I have made for myself. But if the worst happens, I shall probably be seen in Spain croaking away at ‘Poor wandering one’ which would at least be appropriate.

  4. Other bloggers have written about Mr. Skinner. He sounds like quite the character. I’ve seen people have mini strokes and the frustration that comes from losing one’s words and memories, something I think we all dread.

    1. I saw more of it when young when mother used to help out at a local day centre – though it wasn’t called that then. People struggling to express themselves and getting frustrated, people seemingly quite shut away within themselves…..

  5. I have always liked Dennis Skinner. The programme’s a great idea. However it can go too far. I know someone in a care home who has to endure being assaulted by the Rolling Stones and the Andrews Sisters when the music of his youth was Shostakovich. He isn’t mad yet but reckons he will be if they don’t stop

  6. It’s fascinating that the one thing that temporarily lifted his mother’s dementia was hearing the old songs she had loved.

    My father in law had vascular dementia for a year or so, and it was desperately sad for the whole family watching him slide into disintegration and incomprehension. Fortunately he was spared a more drawn-out decline.

    I love Dennis Skinner. As you say, he’s a constant thorn in Tory flesh and really drives them mad. Jeremy Vine is indeed a chat-show host. He’s also contributed to news programmes and documentaries. I imagine he included that caveat about Dennis because the BBC is terrified of being seen as politically biased and prompting huge Tory funding cuts.

    1. Yes, I suppose this government is petty enough for that…and the BBC bosses are so keen to keep their overpaid jobs that they will accept anything…

      I had no idea who Jeremy Vine might be until you and Susan enlightened me but he wasn’t impressive as an interviewer.

  7. Jeremy Vine is a proper political journalist (spent a lot of time in Africa) and has presented Newsnight and Panorama. He’s also an expert on some quite unexpected branch of modern music (I forget just what). These days he’s doing much more lightweight stuff. The comedian Tim Vine is his brother.

    So far as I know music doesn’t particularly resonate for my mother. Nor can you engage her in conversation that goes too far back. She seems most at ease with bits of the last few decades, and the last couple of weeks, curiously enough. Fortunately for us she likes the local nursing home, where everyone knows her and although she can’t remember anyone’s name, she is aware that she knows everyone there (patients and staff, some of whom she would have had a professional connection with). At the moment she’s just doing the occasional respite stay (the respite is for my father, not her, of course). She treats it like a holiday in a tropical resort, much to everyone’s amusement (and relief).

    1. Thanks for the info on Vine…
      I’m glad that your mother is happy with her surroundings….just as well, really….though do you think it helps that she knows everyone there?
      I don’t know enough about dementia and all its facets to know whether music helps everyone…but if it helps some then it’s worth a try. Mark you, bearing in mind Jenny’s comment there is music…and music!

      1. Yes I do think it helps that she knows everyone there. For the time being at least she knows that they are benignly disposed towards her. It helps when she is confused. It means she is less frightened. She does occasionally have outbursts of paranoia but at present it is directed at the family. I imagine that as the disease progresses we will start hearing stories about how the nursing home staff and/or inmates are up to something. But, so far so good.

  8. We were not a musical family so will no recourse to any shared songs but I experienced how music stays in the brain the other day. A boyfriend from my teenage years sent a few old albums on a memory stick. All bought over 40 years ago and not listened to since. The minute the tracks started paying I could sing along word for word and yet when I try to remember Roman emperors or chemical equations learnt at the same age I recall nothing.

    1. Amazing what we have embedded and forgotten….
      I think I have a mind like a ragbag…things rise to the surface completely unsummoned and as fresh as yesterday – but why they do is beyond me.

  9. I cannot think of anything much worse than dementia, and it is probably worse in the end for the person who is doing the caring. My father’s memory was going in his late 70’s, but he died from other causes before he turned 80. My mother had her wits about her still when she passed on very suddenly with a massive stroke.at 87, I just hope and pray that she passed some of her ‘wits’ on to me as I have never had a good memory!!!
    Hope that you are both well and life is good at the moment. Take care Diane

    1. Yes, how dreadful that the person you love and care for doesn’t know who you are.
      Mother is as sharp as a pin at 99…..luckily!
      My memory for facts is good – but what I did with the knife I had in my hand a moment ago is anyone’s guess…….
      Hope you are both well – and that the weather has improved. Friends tell me that it has been like November recently..

  10. I remember my dad tapping along to songs at the care home. They had a lovely girl come in who sang to the ‘inmates’ .

    1. Mother has Classic FM on all day….well, until horse racing is on the box,anyway…
      Should she ever have to enter a care home she’d need classic racing commentaries played over to her…

  11. Not a fan of Skinner either but he has talent.
    Sad when dementia strikes, several folks I know have relatives who suffer.

    1. That’s what I deplore – the waste of his talent. Still at least he was not doing it for venal reasons.

      I only saw it when young….and hope not to see it again.

      1. Jeremy Vine by the way does Radio 2 midday questioning some folks (I never listen) and is quiz master on Eggheads. However all to often he asks the eggheads to explain things I knew in primary school.
        He was on newsnight, supposed to replace Paxman but that failed. He is a bit lightweight for news.

  12. Dementia is a dreadful thing. If you haven’t seen it, try and find a copy of a film called ‘Still Alice’ that was released last year some time. It should have been on the Oscars list but was rather too good, I expect 🙂

  13. Strange. I thougth you’d done another post as I get them delivered by email. But I can’t find it. Oh, an dI have to say that I’ve gone off Dennis Skinner a bit since he came out for Brexit 😦
    Look forward to another post soon!

    1. I had one in draft but had to leave to visit mother somewhat unexpectedly before I could post it…goodness only knows what WordPress have done to it…I must check. Just returned home after 36 hours door to door feeling like death inadequately warmed up.
      Brexit was THE subject of conversation when I was in England…and not for the sort of arguments advanced by the politicians on both sides, either…it seemed much more to be a disinclination to be told what to do by either group of leaders in whom there seemed to be no confidence whatsoever. Interesting that ‘ordinary people’ seem much more sane than the politicians.

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