Keeping Blackpool Memories Alive

Jimmy O'Donnell's interactive remeniscences session, authors own photograph

September the 9th, 2005. Gentleman sees lady, smiles and wonders. The lady smiles back enigmatically and he knows he must be bold, for ‘faint heart never won fair maiden’. Standard stuff, except that she’s a lassie from Blackpool, Lancashire … and he is training to be a Catholic priest. Not anymore! Roll forward twelve years, happily married, loving sunny Blackpool, creating precious memories along the way and now helping others to remember theirs.

Jimmy O’Donnell had no thought of living in Blackpool until that providential evening in the No. 3 pub, when he fell in ‘love at first sight’ with a Blackpool girl. And now, as she says regularly, ‘Why would you want to live anywhere else?’

Jimmy is renowned for his interactive reminiscence presentations that are putting a smile on many faces across the county. He recently set up a project called Lancashire Memories, based here in Blackpool, where countless beautiful and cherished moments have taken place for millions of people over the decades. At the heart of his work is sensory reminiscence with older people. The idea that, as humans, we engage with the world through our senses and that what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell, stays with us in the mind and heart … that is a veritable ‘palace of memories’.

Blackpool evokes so much for so many. In one of Jimmy’s typical sessions, a photo of a donkey on the sands, the sound of the waves, the taste of Blackpool rock, the touch of vintage seaside souvenirs or the smell of hot dogs, encourages vivid conversation from those who might usually be reserved and quiet.

Jimmy’s passion for his work is obvious. ‘I love the way in which people remember verse and chorus of songs they have not heard or sung, perhaps even since childhood. I love it when a day room in a care home is alive to ‘The Blackpool Belle’ or ‘Sitting at the top of Blackpool Tower’ and when smiles and precious reminiscences come flooding forward, it is impossible not to be moved.’

In care settings, Jimmy plays ‘Name that tune’ with his gramophone. Most people remember the delight when they were first allowed to wind one up, playing their favourite records and loving the beautiful sounds of Gracie Fields or Doris Day, George Formby or Josef Locke, to name but a few. Precious memories were unlocked at Princess Alexandra home for the blind, by the sound of radio clips evoking reminiscences of listening attentively to Family Favourites, Dick Barton Special Agent or Listen with Mother.

His first ever reminiscence session took place in a Blackpool day centre, supporting people living with dementia. As Jimmy wound up an old music box and asked what the tune was, one lady, for whom dementia had taken away her ability to complete sentences, started to sing every word. ‘What is that song? Jimmy asked. ‘Lily Marlene!’ she exulted. Everyone gave her a round of applause. Everyone celebrated what she could (and do beautifully), rather than be saddened by what she could not.

An old image of the comedy actor Jimmy Clitheroe, had one lady remembering serving him ‘off-sales’, whiskey it seems, which she said was strange as he was so diminutive. A clip of a 1960s episode, led to many remembering Coronation Street battle-axe Ena Sharples. Locals, of course, knew her as Violet, a lady who loved this town.

Much loved Burnley and England football legend Ray Pointer, sadly passed away in 2016 in a Blackpool Care Home. As Jimmy strives to personalise his sessions, he had done his research and delighted in showing Ray a video clip where he scored a goal for England. Despite his dementia, his reaction was priceless, his smile unforgettable and for all the world, Ray was back on that hallowed Wembley turf.

Jimmy met Blackpool’s own Jimmy Armfield at a Carers’ Trust event on Stanley Park and handed him an old football rattle (made for ARP, as some may recall) which he took great delight in rattling. How many times Jimmy must have heard one from the terraces and what memories were evoked of his great playing days, only he can tell.

Jimmy also works in schools and colleges with his ‘Sharing Precious Memories’ project, emphasising and exemplifying the awesome power of reminiscence through sensory interaction with his vast collection of vintage objects, video clips, old photographs, music and dance. Where else would you see a ten year old winding up an old gramophone, playing an old 78 record of Frankie Laine, wondering how it works, where the power comes from and asking questions such as, ‘Is it a big black CD?’. Youngsters are encouraged to spend precious time with older relatives, to ask questions and glean answers so as to build a beautiful foundational life story, celebrating their past, valuing their present relationship and making a priceless treasure for the future.

As well as care and educational settings, Jimmy does talks on ‘The Power of Reminiscence’, training in person-centred reminiscence care and is currently rolling out his ‘Sharing Precious Memories’ project with adult groups.

We are truly blessed that, because Blackpool was a major 20th century holiday destination, hundreds of cine and video clips and thousands of photographs grace the internet. Yes, the World Wide Web, the biggest library in the world, has a decent sized Blackpool section.

So get on t’internet (as Peter Kay would say) and type in ‘Vintage Blackpool’ for starters and see where it takes you. As long unopened doors in your ‘palace of memories’ are unlocked, you may be surprised at what is there. As one lady said whilst showing the rest of the group how to use an old posser, washboard and dolly tub, “Eee, I’m remembering things I forgot that I knew!”

Bev Carroll

For more information please visit or call Jimmy on 07761-071696.

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