Taking art to the (grumpy old) people
Today a group of age care workers represented by the Service and Food Workers Union went on strike in Auckland. The workers are mostly paid less than $15 dollars an hour, despite the fact that the rest homes that employ them are owned by Australia's Macquarie Bank, which is nicknamed 'the millionaires' factory' because it is one of the fastest-growing investment banks in the world. On indymedia long-time commie trade unionist and part-time muso and poet Don Franks made a memorable post in support of the age care workers. I might as well rip it off:
These workers deserve maximum support. I have worked alongside them very fleetingly, popping in for an hour or so to entertain with music. I do my shit and then move on; the regular workers in the rest homes are stuck there till the end of their shift dealing with whatever and then back the next day.
They keep doing that as the years roll.
I don't know how they cope.
Even a couple of hours can be testing.
The day before Anzac day this year I had a call asking if I'd pop up to Te Hopai Rest home and do hits from the blitz for the inmates. Bugger it, I thought, why not give the poor old dears a nice treat. I dug around the net for We'll meet again, Coming in on a wing and a prayer and all that. Even pondered trying a verse of Lilli Marlene in the original German.
I chucked on a clean white shirt and conservative tie, no jacket. Rest Homes are like hot houses at all times. Today was no exception, before I had my music book out and up on the piano I was sweating like a pig.
There was a big sign up saying "private Franks will entertain you from 3 to 4 pm."
"They're a bit pale today" said the Activities officer.
Indeed, all was deathly quiet on the Te Hopai front. Except the Kenny Rogers tape across the hall in the staff kitchen, barely audible when I came in and turned up to mezzo forte right after my first number. I said hi to the sonambulent assembly, invited them to sing along, flourished an arpeggio and gave them White Cliffs of Dover. There was a thin reedy descant somewhere in the back and at the end a polite flutter of applause. One very old lady near the front sat up straight and called out: " Make him stop -its disgusting!"
After 'Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major', 'This is the Army Mister Jones' and 'A long Way to 'there was more muted clapping and, from my critic, not muted in any way:
"Can't they get rid of him!?"
'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' went a bit better. Encouraged by the staff, two old ladies got up and danced together, another one kicked a yellow balloon around the floor. I kept that one going as long as I could, and then, a bit later, realising I was short of material to fill the whole hour asked:
"Ladies and gentlemen - any requests?"
"YES!" shouted the old lady near the front, seizing her opportunity "YES - "GET RID OF HIM!!"
Mercifully there was also a call for In the Mood.
Extremely hot all over by now I satisfied the second request and then, after a particularly insincere rendition of We'll Meet Again, the first.
"Well, I must say they don't look nearly so pale now" said the activities officer happily. Indeed, the one near the front was now quite red in the face. My guess is that she was a concert pianist or professional contralto before being stuck in the rest home. Whatever. Next Anzac day I'll be out protesting, permanently cured of sentimentality towards old wartime anthems.
Ah, the perils of trying to bring art to the people! Don's story reminds me of an incident involving Panmure's greatest postmodernist, Richard Taylor. An ex-girlfriend of mine worked part-time at a rest home specialising in the treatment of Alzheimer's patients, and was disturbed by the lack of stimulation that some of her 'clients' received. She began to read them poetry once a week, as a sort of experiment. Mostly it was fairly safe stuff like - if I remember rightly - Ted Hughes and Bill Manhire, but one week I slipped her a copy of Richard's notorious chapbook The Red to try out on the oldies. When my ex-girlfriend launched into Taylor lines like 'The head on the table is an accusation' and 'A Daddy long-legs got drunk and blew up to the size of the First World War' all hell broke loose. Patients jumped to their feet, forgetting their wheelchairs and walking frames, and began to speak in the foulest language imaginable in a rest home. Some appeared to be angered by the poems; others seemed merely excited. A few extra sedatives had to be dispensed with that night's cocoa.
I was quite excited to hear that The Red had caused a riot in a Papakura rest home, but when I called Richard to give him the news he seemed unsurprised. 'Of course, what'd you expect?' he slurred down the phone. 'I'm the most exciting thing that's ever happened to them'.
Take heart, Don. Great art always outrages some...