It’s one of those days that is so hot it hushes the city. Even the cars don’t seem to have the energy to honk their horns. The Booth Centre in the centre of Manchester is busy, but everyone is heat stunned.
I’ve here to jot down conversations and then rearrange the pieces with the speakers to make something new. I’m working alongside Briony from the Stitched Up Co-op, it’s her session and I am a kind of sideshow. People settle into the trance-like ritual of stitching, making cushion covers, embroideries, repairs…
I see a familiar face, one I’ve not seen in months. It’s Andy and we sit together to catch up and to make a piece. He’s been filling out his journal for our WHISPER TO ME ALONE project, he talks me through the journal pages, explaining his thinking. We are both wearing masks and so of course the chat turns to how strange it is, to be half ourselves and half medicalised.
The poem gradually finds its shape, other people chip in the occasional line or observation but the thread of it is held by Andy. When I read it back to him eventually, he nods brisk approval.
“It’ll do, Phil. Keep up the scribbling. I need a smoke.”
Reading it back, it contains all sorts of echoes for me. He mourns friends who are lost to the lockdown, scattered across the city in anonymous hotels, or simply gone into thin air. It throws a bit of dirt at politicians in general and our lot in particular. And underneath it all, under the mask, is an individual, who recognises danger but refuses to not be himself.
Red Dragon Zippo
A legal necessity, masks
I fully agree.
We just started too late and now the Dragon is here.
Listen to the ministers every day
A political mask. “Have a cigar old boy.”
Puff! The House of Commons is virtual
Defeated by the Dragon.
A mask changes you and now
I too am dragon-like
A dark persuader.
My neighbour says, “Andy you look better
Cheeky sod. But I can’t smoke, can’t breathe
And the air has been sold off.
Cigarette butt in the night, a red jewel to see by.
All my pals, all my villains, where are you now?
Rich man, poor man, beggar man and thief
(especially the last two)
I salute you my lovelies
The subways are still open, though.
Pain in the butt, a mask
But it prevents people
Sharing spray with me.
I’ll whisper fire in your ear…
Strike a spark, breathe it in – who am I?
Zippo with a red dragon
Tells me I’m more handsome in a mask.
As I cycle home from the Booth, I look out for faces I know. It’s difficult to tell these days because there are so many masks. I wonder if Andy would recognise any of the folks I pass by? Shoppers, office workers, rich man, poor man… Andy says hello.
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 a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.