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Memoirs at St Dunstan’s: And the St. Dunstan’s Writers’ Weekend 2nd – 5th July 2009
Alan Morrison, Tutor and Co-ordinator
Writers’ Forum, St.
Like Seeing in the Dark
St. Dunstan’s is a national charity for blind and partially sighted ex-service men and women. Near the tidy cliffs of Ovingdean, a bus ride out of Brighton’s tortuous white stucco and past the imposing gothic of Roedean College, sits the vaguely aeroplane-shaped St. Dunstan’s central on its launching pad of plunging lawns (in spring, studded strikingly with constellations of daffodils). The architectural oddity of St. Dunstan’s main base, replete with cock-pit shaped frontal wall, is certainly impressive in its aeronautical art deco, which is understandably listed. It was here I came in early 2008 to take over the St. Dunstan’s Writers’ Forum from its indefatigable founder, Donna Vaughan, who had run it successfully for the past five years with a healthy and promising participation from many ‘St. Dunstaners’ (the proverbial term for beneficiaries of the charity). Having more than served her stint as the Forum co-ordinator – which also involves facilitating the annual Writers’ Weekend every July involving hiring established writers to give readings and workshops – Donna decided to bow out, and I was interviewed and then appointed as her successor; and, by dint of my extensive experience in the community as a creative writing tutor in mental health, and being as well a widely published poet, I was also offered a monthly stipend for what was now essentially a residency. But its main purpose of course has been to continue facilitating the Writers’ Forum, which takes place on the first Saturday morning of each month between 10.30am – 12.30pm, in the calming Blue Room (which is also home to the Queen’s Chair, a throne-like wooden high-backed seat reserved for ‘Her Majesty’ whenever she visits the charity of which she is also patron).
What I’ve learnt most of all through my being involved with the co-ordinating of the Forum is of the sheer tenacity of the human spirit and human faculties in compensating for physical impairments: in this case, partial sight, and blindness (though whether blindness is ever an absolute is open to debate; some St. Dunstaners have described it as ‘like seeing in the dark’, being able to make out some forms and tones). The extraordinary sedulity of St. Dunstaners Forum Members to put down their memoirs, autobiographies, fiction and poetry on paper – and, in the irrepressible cases of those such as Herbert ‘Syd’ Wisdom and Bob Early, actually getting their writings into print in published book form – is admirable as it is humbling. For those Forum members not yet fully published, there is also the monthly outlet of St. Dunstan’s Review (produced in large font, which showcases memoir, fiction and poetry of St. Dunstaners, mostly outside the work of the Forum, which shows how widely the writing bug grips many constituencies of this national charity). St. Dunstaners are also astoundingly empowered through the charity’s remarkable wealth of cutting-edge computer equipment and programs especially designed to assist the blind and partially-sighted in getting their writing onto computer (via ingenious software which verbally articulates anything scanned into it, including email messages; vocalised keyboards; and of course various Braille-based devices). But with or without such astounding facilities, the creative spirit of St. Dunstaners is unassailable, and as this selection of autobiographical writings from various Forum members will demonstrate, it’s lucky for us that it is so.
Alan Morrison, April 2009
St. Dunstan’s Writers’ Forum takes place between 10.30 am and 12.30 pm on the first Saturday of every month (bar January) and is open to all St. Dunstaners (only).
The St. Dunstan’s Writers’ Weekend is taking place on 2nd – 5th July 2009, open to all St. Dunstaners (only). During 3rd – 4th July, it will be featuring writing workshops and readings from guest writers Bridget Whelan (author of A Good Confession, Severn House Publishing, 2008), John O’Donoghue (poet, and author of acclaimed memoir Sectioned, John Murray, 2009), celebrated poet and performer Bernadette Cremin (reading from her latest collection Miming Silence, Waterloo Press, 2009), and Forum Co-ordinator and poet Alan Morrison (reading from his latest critically praised collection A Tapestry of Absent Sitters, Waterloo Press, 2009). Exact times of these events to be announced soon in the St. Dunstan’s Review in June.