Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Saxby

The natural light.
The smell of disinfectant.
A mashed potato food fight.
Smoking behind the bike sheds.
Sitting on the pipes to keep warm.
Prisoners of war walking up Derby Road.
Goalposts written on the wall in chalk.
Pigeons on the roof.
The sound of laughter.

These were just some of the memories we collected for the Primary Memory project. We interviewed 12 people who shared their stories about working or studying in the former Douglas School. Half pupils and half teachers. From a lady who was a pupil here in the 1930s, to the headmaster in the 1970s, to the last generation of pupils and teachers from 2008 when the school closed.The first person I spoke to was my mum, Vivienne Pinchbeck, a former supply teacher. She put me in touch with her former colleagues and the oral history archive grew.The interviews were edited down to 40 tracks on two channels, which could be listened to on wireless headphones while walking around the building.The headphones were placed on shelves with mementoes and archive material from the building’s history. A book on gymnastics. A cricket ball. Arithmetic written in chalk. A caretaker’s manual from the 1920s. Blue prints from the 1960s. A school logbook from the 1890s. A school photo full of smiling faces taken just a few years before they knew the school would close.

For the Heritage Open Days, Primary opened its doors for the Primary Memory project. Visitors were invited to listen to the interviews with the freedom to take a walk around the building soundtracked by these memories. People came who thought it was still a school. People came who wished it was still a school. People came who didn’t know what it was now. People came who did know what it was now but didn’t know what we did here. People came who remembered those smiling faces in the photographs. People came who were those smiling faces in the photographs. People came to listen to stories and people left wanting to tell us more stories. It was a dot dot dot not a full stop.

Since the event, which felt more like an archive than an artwork, it has become clear that Primary Memory is an ongoing project. It seeks to speak to more people who know the building and, in collecting their stories, it seeks to remember the building’s past as well as help to define its future. One man, who taught here in the 1970s, told me that my studio used to be called The Bridge because it looked like the bridge of a ship and it had the best view of the playground. Another man took me to the place where a photograph was taken of him with the cricket team in 1953. He held the photo up and we found the same brickwork against which he was standing and smiling 60 years ago. I visited a retirement village to interview a former pupil here in the 1930s and she remembered it like it was yesterday. She carried the memory of the building with her, she didn’t need to visit it to describe it. She sang me a song they used to sing in assembly. A taxi driver dropped me off one day and told me he came to school here and remembered the taste of the milk. It is telling when you ask a taxi driver to take you to Primary they don’t know where it is, but if you say the Old Douglas School then they do and often have stories to tell you about it. Perhaps I could interview him next time.

The city’s history is written by those who live in it. A building’s history is written by those who work in it. Primary’s history is different to its present, the building and its community are always changing, although the pigeons are still on the roof. But it seems important to mark its history, to remember what used to hang on the walls before our work, to remember who used to walk across its floors before we did, to remember who used to stand onThe Bridge before I did.To invite those who played a part in its past to play a part in its future.

– Michael Pinchbeck

Michael Pinchbeck is an artist based at Primary who works in installation, live art and theatre. 

Primary Memory took place as part of Heritage Open Days 2014. 

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