Jun 1 • 18M

Roger Hill recounts his life and work, the dementia dimension, the undefinable and the role of remembering

"Is it a vision or a waking dream?"

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Artists, writers, scientists reflect on memory, technology and culture

You’re listening with the Bluecoat in Liverpool: a series of podcasts taking the themes of our exhibition programmes as a starting point for 15-minute insights from artists, scientists, writers, educators, storytellers, and more.

In this episode, storyteller and broadcaster Roger Hill recounts his life and work, the dementia dimension and the role of remembering.

We started with the idea that this would happen: that there would be a recording of some thoughts relating to the current Bluecoat project. The cultural force that is Roger Hill has actually gone into a number of territories. I mean, throughout there's been education, but also there's been the arts, both as performer, but also in that kind of workshop facilitator, somebody who helps other people to do their own art, and the other people itself has branched out hugely from what started out really is working with young people mainly of school, age to people older than that, through youth theatre and then moving on to older people, to very old people in fact, to people in there they're third age, but also to much younger children, so that now the work concentrates, for example, on babies.

So that spread out, and also it spread out geographically - what became something that was pioneered in the North West of England, all around Liverpool and beyond, then moved out through the rest of the country, through the national associations that I was involved in,  and then went abroad to Europe connections and then round the world couple of times. So there'll be the geographic expansion as well.

If you said what's been consistent through that, I'd say: one,  the enabling of other people to do things. The consistent offering of information, skills, and experiences that would help people to grow and develop individually.

I think also a real sense that there is a lot to be learnt from the other, from not this here now, but from the different things, the things that are culturally other than us and therefore a real hunger, a real taste for always finding something new and different to engage with and probably looking from this perspective, which I wouldn't have been able to do a few years ago a real interest in the way in which the individual engages with the wider reality. I suppose what we now call neuroscience, but the validity of certain kinds of personal experiences, which has fed into the other thing that runs through it all is writing.

Reading, writing, researching have been something that I've been able to do, even when there's been no other kind of work around. So I don't think I'd find it very easy to give myself a job description or job title, but it must have something to do with adventurer in ideas.

The one thing that people have always associated dementia with is a memory loss. It's a cliché. It's been going for as long as people have identified this thing called dementia, and Alzheimer's to a certain extent.  I think it's really important at this stage of history to unpick the cliché, which is that you know that the person is experiencing dementia because they've lost their ability to recall. They seem to have lost their ability to deal with the present.

And that for me is the shift. It is indeed about the extent to which certain experiences which have happened in the past, aren't available anymore. But it's also about the ability to simply negotiate the present, even if those memories aren't there.

One of the things that I think was very important was the idea that people would develop the capability -  in fact, they automatically have the capability thrust upon them - of getting through daily life, without reference to their past experiences, or to their recent experiences and things that they've recently learnt. This is a state which we're all actually getting into more or less because we do don't we. We spend a lot of time outsourcing our memory to our phones and to our computers and to our hard drives.

So basically, we're having a bit of a reality crisis in society at the moment. Without actually volunteering for it, people who are experiencing dementia are in the forefront of that because they are themselves learning how to deal with -and the people who care for them are also learning to deal with - how to sustain individuality and, and identity against that background.

So we could come to a very, very blurry situation indeed as time goes along. And if so, then the work that we're now doing - partly in the Bluecoat, but obviously much more wide, and sometimes academic research - is about how do we organise the society around something that has less reference points and a weaker anchor to particular things.

There's a science fiction writer called Robert Heinlein, and he wrote several books. One of the characters in some of those books is a person whose role in society is to remember,  and to carry experiences for other people, almost like a seer, a Magus, a Shaman or something like that.

And the idea that there might be people whose role in society is to be the remembers of things is both fanciful, but actually in a strange way it’s actually true.  Now, as usual with this thing you say, what will the future look like? And you say, well, just look around. Because the future is out there now. It's just, this doesn't happen to be right next to us. There are some of us, I'd count myself in on it, somebody who remembers and says, but back in the day, these things happened, and you say, oh right, we'd forgotten about all that. Thank you for keeping us with that. But whether you can prolong that and leave a trace of those memories beyond human's physical existence without committing completely to technology is a very big question because, you know, it's easy to say all these server farms all over the world, they contain everything we ever need to know. It's fine.

Then, let’s say, the electricity supply breaks down, a bomb hits them, then everything was gone and we didn't keep anything up in our heads. So there's a real kind of existential question to be picked up on. But again, we're back with the idea that if you're experiencing dementia, then you were already in some sense developing a coping mechanism for what might be the human condition sometime in the future.

I will be doing something very ordinary. Not necessarily concentrated like this now, but I might be cooking an egg or I might be sweeping the floor or whatever it is. And I'm suddenly somewhere else. and the somewhere else I am is somewhere  I have been already. I can be very precise about it. It's not somewhere as in San Francisco. It is a moment when I was in San Francisco and that comes back to me and suddenly, in almost every sense of the word, I am there not here. I'm not holding the frying pan with the egg in it. I am actually in San Francisco for that moment I am in a moment that I had somewhere else, some other time.

And the implications of this are huge in lots of ways. I mean, one of the implications of it is that the neurons firing about in the brain are actually much more diverse and connected in interesting ways than we may be even thought. So what connects the cooking of the egg with the moment I met somebody in San Francisco? There is nothing that I can name that does that, but the brain has already posted that letter to that place, and to understand how the brain works the way it does is absolutely fascinating, but it also is an anticipation again of the idea that we have got multiple realities available to us. Under those circumstances, whether I choose them (and at the moment I don't choose them, they come to me involuntarily) or whether they're part of the scattergun effect of my thinking, that actually means that we've got possibly even a superpower there, which is the ability to access, if it's directed, a huge amount of things that are in the past and out there somewhere.

Living requires us to have a story, a narrative, and it's one of the things we are. We are effectively machines for creating narrative. We're machines for creating story and image and meaning. And so somewhere along the way, it is about the extent to which we can find strategies for still pulling islands out of the ocean, for pulling images out of blur, and the rest of it. And that will be the way in which we continue to function, but we will do it in a much looser way, such is happening now. And as I get older, I realise that one of the principles of that kind of dynamics is that energy must always be going into a system to keep it having coherence. If energy falls away or declines, it will get lost.

That's one of the reasons I think why dementia is more common now. As people get older, their energy levels do drop. The amount of energy that goes into them, the amount of stimulus, the amount of simple bodily umph that we have declines, and therefore the coherence of it, the pattern of it declines, and then we're in the cloud, and that wouldn't be a bad place to be as long as everybody understands that that's what's happened. And I'm very aware of it happening in myself, but I'm also very aware that it's probably reflective of … you could probably hear it in the type of music that's made in the 21st century. You can probably hear it in in the internet. You can hear it in the diffuse newness of everything. And it seems to me that that diffused, and this is something I'm experiencing in my later years. But I think again, I'm kind of a little bit ahead of the game because, anybody out there - which is most people are younger than me - will actually at some point start to say to themselves, well, I kind of lost that. I didn't know where I was for a minute, what was that all about and so on. And rather than panic, which is the way we've taken it up to now, which is that the moment all that stuff goes - well the only way is down the plughole basically -  we might actually start to restructure society around that being a human positive. And if it was a positive, it would allow us to do some amazingly new kinds of thinking.

Christopher Alexander and Gregory Bates - both of them big thinkers of the late 20th century - argued that effectively we have to deal with patterns and systems and structures and that's our way of understanding the world. Gregory Bateson invented a word called Cybernetics, which is both the fact that there is a machine like aspect to the way we think and live. As well as a flesh and blood living kind of thing, we are united by that sense of having operational patterns that keep us doing what we're doing. And that is essentially what memory is about. So when the energy goes and the pattern starts to disintegrate, then we are suddenly in the cloud of unknowing and the job is to find a way of making that work for ourselves and for other people. And that is about a care system. And that is about to a knowledge system.

The interesting thing about memory is that it is an active function. It's not a store. It's not like a back room where you put all this stuff that you've kept, but not wanting to use for some time. It genuinely is an active store, a little bit like I suggest, that these neurons firing off all the time and they are bringing memory to play upon the present in various kinds of ways. So I would suggest that we should always think of memory as an impulse to keep, but we also need a parallel impulse to forget.

So the idea that something goes off into what we might call a forgettory is quite important. Of all the things that we're in this moment here now, what governed what I will have access to later on is where my attention was. And this thing about the attention economy is very important, the idea that we give attention to things and we pay attention to things. It's all very much based upon financial metaphors.

Well, I haven't paid attention to everything in this room and I certainly haven't paid attention to anything behind my head because I haven't gotten the access to it. So there's a lot of stuff in here that is not available to me. So that hasn't gone into the forgettery. What has gone into the forgettery is a very fine filigree sense of all the things that might maybe interest me in the future, but something in me already knows that that won't happen. What Gregory Bateson calls an Ecology of Mind.

You might say each of our minds has got a landscape to it. It might be a desert landscape. It might be a jungle landscape. It might be green landscape. It might be an English pastoral landscape, but whatever it is only certain things can survive on those landscapes. And so when an idea comes to us or an experience, if it can survive in our mental ecology, then it becomes part of us. But as we know ecologically, you can drop a seed in a desert and it will shrivel. And equally, not all ecologies are friendly to all kinds of things that come into them. So, our mental ecology might easily discount something that we don't want or we can't cope with, or we can't deal with because of what it is. In a sense, we are both acting as involuntary selectors and monitors of our experience, but then once we have them, they rise up in us like mountains and they affect very profoundly the kind of life that we'll have.

In the book Alice Through The Looking Glass, the famous Alice is walking along and she walks into a wood. And she's walking with a deer, a fawn as it's described in the book. And when she gets into the wood with the fawn, she can't remember the name of anything. The terms have all gone. And it's the wood of unknowing, interestingly. And so while she's walking, the fawn explains this to her and says, you know, while you're here in this wood, you cannot name anything at all. The noun function of your language has gone.

And they come out of the other end - Alice is a bit concerned about this, but when it comes out at the end of it, I think she meets the fawn in the wood, but when they get out of the wood and therefore back into the world of knowing, then the fawn says, oh my God, I'm a fawn, and you're a little girl and, and runs away frightened because when the words came back, so did the ability to conceive that of the oppositeness and the difference between things. So at that level at least, language is effectively the medium by which we do our knowing at the operational level of which we can do things with that.

You've been listening with the Bluecoat. Produced by George Maund, Marie-Anne McQuay and Sam Mercer with sounds by Nil00. Thank you to Garfield Weston Foundation for supporting this series, and our core funders, Arts Council England, Liverpool City Council, and Culture Liverpool. Our public programmes rely on grants and donations, and you can support us at thebluecoat.org.uk/donate.

Further reading

Roger Hill
Where The Arts Belong
Baby Book Club
BBC Popular Music Show
Robert Heinlein
The Cloud of Unknowing
Cybernetics & Human Knowing
Christopher Alexander: Pattern Language
Gregory Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind
Lewis Carroll: Through The Looking Glass