You’ll find the remarkable Booth Centre tucked down the back of Victoria station in Manchester, surrounded by garages, carparks, little eateries and mysterious businesses. Amongst drab surroundings it is a bustle of energy and purpose, a little sunburst. It provides extraordinarily imaginative support for the homeless community in this city. It’s welcomed arthur+martha here for over 10 years. Our Booth sessions have taken place in a hubbub of job clubs, quizzes, drama, singing, with everyone meeting together for exuberant mealtimes. It’s been a kind of home from home.
During the time of the pandemic, the Booth has quietened, but stayed busy. They’ve been supplying food parcels from their garden and providing activity packs and phones support for isolated people in lockdown. Many of the regular visitors to the centre have been scattered across the city in hostels and hotels, out on a limb.
Now at last people are starting to come back, and creative sessions cautiously beginning again. However, the big boisterous groups have gone, instead people work at individual tables, in large, well-ventilated rooms, wearing masks and visors.
(While typing this blog at the centre, I pause to sterilise my hands from one of the many bottles available.)
Today’s is the first poetry session I’ve run here in months. I work alongside the sewing group that Bryony leads on Wednesdays. The stitchers are deep in the making process, focussed on the intricate rhythms of stitching and colour. It’s a perfect atmosphere for quiet conversation — and I work with three people, jotting down their words, to make poems. I simply ask them to describe their morning and their impression of the world right now.
The person I’m talking to becomes emotional, suddenly blurting out words, letting go some old history. He apologies to me. Normally this would be because showing your emotions is “unmanly”, but these days the apology is because he’s scared of spreading the virus. He pulls his mask tighter, continues in an even tone, hidden under the disguise.
And so here’s a tale of coming out of prison straight into the wider trap of the pandemic — a whole world under lock and key. But it’s also a world in which we can finally hear birdsong in the city…
Been let out
The virus. Me,
I was in prison and then when
I got out, it had started and
The whole structure of life
Was DIFFERENT —
Getting a prescription, getting
Seeing the doctor
Feeling of uncomfortableness
Of threat. And yet.
Seen the FOXES?
One was here yesterday. And the birds of the morning
When you get to hear BLACKBIRDS
— Beautiful —
Now the traffic is quiet.
Gathering everything together:
“Get food, get supplies
That’s how we won the war!”
THE PRISON. Closed down, you were
Locked 23 hours a day
20 minutes in the yard
Volatile atmosphere, very.
Stopped all visits, all everything.
Was the best day of my life
And then — REALITY ATTACK
Went into a shop and they stopped me
Didn’t know what they were talking about:
“Stay 2 metres back!”
WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.
During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran our Facebook activity session, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE poetry videos. To see samples of the Booth’s online programme go to these links:
Phil would like to thank Bryony from Stitched Up Co-op for welcoming him into her workshop.