These letters with a pen

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img_3653“Making these letters with a pen, working in slow-motion, it felt so therapeutic. Usually I’m on a computer, but computers aren’t everything. I could feel myself relax as I worked. And my head cleared and ideas came through. This is what education should be.”

This was our first workshop of 2020, the first of the new decade. We have shifted the venue to Back on Track, a centre for people who have been through difficult times (including homelessness) and are coming back to education. We invited them to contribute to A BOOK OF OURS, an illuminated manuscript that touches on their shared experiences.

Normally it takes a couple of weeks for a group to gel, but today people seemed to click instantly. There was a shared humour, around the room little jokes got picked up and carried on. People who are normally quite suddenly had a lot to say. And the intensity of their concentration as they worked was almost touchable. 

We saw smiles growing as they made their mark on the big white sheets of possibility. Slowly at first and then with greater and greater confidence, they began.

And to end it here, a piece of writing — still a work in progress — about asking for help. But it’s also about stepping into the new, about leaving the comfort zone. And it speaks for today:

Hard to ask for help. It’s a big step. That big mountain in your head. It’s the risk you take. You’re embarrassed, ashamed. A step into the unknown, pride stops you, all that dread. That big mountain in your head. It’s the risk. You’re embarrassed, ashamed. Expect yourself to know the answers. But you don’t, so then it’s a downfall. Step into the unknown — pride stops you. Hard to ask for help. And then you do and it’s fixed. And it’s amazing.

A joyous skyscraper

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The Joys

 

2019 is coming to a close. We would like to send out our thanks to everyone who worked with us this year, met with us, shared lives and memories, were kind enough to give us your time.

For much of 2019 we’ve been making an illuminated manuscript at The Booth Centre, working with people who’ve experienced homelessness. It’s an attempt to represent their rich and varied life experiences in a book that has the intricate beauty of the medieval Book of Hours. We’ve used ancient bookmaking techniques to tell stories of now.

 

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We’ve also worked with the War Widows Association and Dr Nadine Muller’s War Widows’ Stories Project to co-create a War Widows Quilt, which gathers short stitched pieces by 90 war widows onto a quilt, that was first shown at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich during Remembrance weekend in November.

 

detail war widows quilt

 

Both of these projects, in their different ways, invited a very deep response from all involved. We know that this wasn’t easy at times and we want to acknowledge the bravery and trust that was given to us by participants.

Finally, to all, we wish you good tidings, good times, good heart. And, if possible, joy.

 

Joy

 

What is it? Euphoria, happiness — is it?

The Government doesn’t know what happiness is.

Can there be a joyous skyscraper?

Joy is not my fault or yours.

Is recording joyfulness a thing of joy?

Is there violent joy? A stomping yes!

And have you ever seen a bluebird?

 

Andre

 

Sarah Joan

My mind is slowly opening

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12 December. The Booth Centre.

Today’s session in the Book of Ours project was not only our last one of the year, it was also the last time we will be in the Booth Centre until February. And happily it was a wonderful, productive day, full of concentration and gentle good humour. 

We’ve been researching the Suffrages, books of saints in the medieval books of hours, and rewriting them for this project. People have looked at medieval poems and then written about now — about people who have come to their help. Some of the poems describe personal encounters, others are about being inspired by an icon. It’s an instance of how engaging with heritage can help us to know ourselves. We now have the Saints Mike Tyson and Jimi Hendrix among our number. 

 

Born on Boxing Day

 

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Power and agility unchains your liberty 

Mike Tyson to some, to others Iron Mike

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Undisputed the world is yours truly

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Power and agility unchains your liberty.

 

Anonymous 

 

This suffrage for Mike Tyson is not only about boxing, it touches on racism and personal pride, on not compromising your inner self, on agility and danger. The piece is a triolet, a song-like poem form based on the older medieval rondel. Then in the afternoon the writer began transcribing the poem into the page setup designed for our saints, which is also based on medieval originals. And so he became an artist too.

Another of our writers described a woman who helped him at his most desperate. “It was my worst time. I was literally in a ditch, out of my head on substances. And she helped me, fed me for days, bathed me, got me on my feet again, ready to face the world once more. I’ll never forget, it’s moment that I always carry with me, how she helped a complete stranger. Me.”

He transcribed the poem onto the page and then began to illustrate it. He met himself again, in that moment. Saw it in the third person and was shaken, left deeply affected. And joyous too:

“I found arthur+martha to be an amazing experience. It is the first time I have expressed my emotions — it evoked profound feelings that I consider positive and a different outlet than that I would usually take to deal with my issues.”

Anonymous

As I left the Booth Centre today, our session support worker Louise told me that one of the participants had said, after making work with us, “My mind is slowly opening.”

It gave me the image of a flower opening, despite the rainfall, despite the desperation many homeless people experience, despite everything. 

And then my last encounter was with a person who told me, “I’m buzzing, I’m buzzing. I’ve just been given accommodation. I won’t have to sleep out tonight.” Gesturing at the downpour and the puddles. “Know what I mean?”

In fact, in some ways, it was a perfect day. 

Self-made mountains

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

Booth Centre, 5 December 2019

 

Asking for help can be the most difficult thing. It seems simple, but there’s a million reasons not to, infinite excuses.

“You’ve got to be ready to ask,” says one of our regular group who’s come through addiction and out the other side.

“It’s not easy, admitting you’re weak,” observes someone else.

“But is it really weak? Everyone needs help, it’s human,” says someone who’s just got a new flat. “I’ve been living out on the street, I needed a lifeline.”

It’s a morning of dancing around these tiny self-made mountains, delicate but terrifying.

Then in the afternoon we start with tears, as occasionally happens. The person next to me is literally shaking. Eyes dark with worry. Tears flood and emotion floods the room. Somehow these tears liberate everyone else, bring them closer to their feelings. And so we write together.

It’s a brittle atmosphere like a family argument, a storm waiting to burst. There’s sadness and anger, lightning strikes of shouting. Then between it all poems grow. People write about letting in simple pleasures. They talk about sunshine, the silliness and joy of just being. Little lines that are fought for so hard, shared and appreciated. Then shouting stops, the tears ease off, we have a strange peace. 

 

Help is too big to put in words

Naked in a big world

Myself to get off the drugs 

Help is too big to put in words

Myself to get off the drugs 

Mum and dad and me

Naked in a big world

Help is too big to put in words.

Anonymous 

I’m touched beyond words by these words. Their makers are so proud, yet embarrassed, yet delighted. There’s a shy grin.

“Maybe I’ll be back next week,” says a new member of our ongoing little club.

“Was it a bit much?” I ask another regular. He shrugs.

“It’s all part of the cake mix,” he says.

Bright mornings start with darkness

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

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“X was sleeping rough last night, came in here soaking and shivering. You can’t solve all of people’s life problems but you can give them a chance for just being. Just sitting and being. That’s what I saw him do today in the workshop, he was writing a poem, but also sitting quietly with his thoughts. Looking around a little, listening. Being a person.”

(Karen, Project Worker at The Booth Centre)

 

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These images are pages from a book made by people who have experienced homelessness, and/or had mental health problems. A BOOK OF OURS holds within it life events, celebrations and memorials, wishes, prayers and curses. Dreams.

The style of the book is based on medieval manuscripts known as Books of Hours. The first section is the calendar, other sections include the prayer cycle Hours of the Virgin and the memorial Office of the Dead.

 

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Over the last six months the Book of Ours project has grown into a wide-ranging exploration of history, of self, of what it means to be heard — and what it means to be ignored. It is a statement to say, “we are here.”

“The workshops, making the illuminated manuscript, have been the favourite thing I’ve done here at Back on Track. For me they’ve meant more than anything else, they’ve put me in touch with my own history. These memories stirred up and made new.”

(Anonymous)

 

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May calender page

We chose medieval manuscripts to give us a form, and to inspire us because they’re among the first history books, and this is the beginning of homeless history in a written form. Medieval manuscripts were the property of influential people, decorated with rich colours and goldlettering. We want to give this history the same treatment, make it the kind of book you can’t ignore. It’s a next step on from our history of British homelessness The Homeless Library in 2016 and links to projects such as The Museum of Homelessness.

The calendar pages are intricate tellings of the significant life events of nearly 100 people, intertwined with imagery and symbolism. It is a catalogue of tiny events, at first glance. Every day is a line of six words; read together they make a year-long poem that is a multi-voiced telling of the lives of groups. It is plum-full of the little things that make life rich with human encounters. Birthdays, weddings, the birth of children, falling in love. It also tells the story of sadder life events: bereavement, illness, addiction, violence. And yes, people commemorate the times they became homeless. They also talk with great power about the help they’ve received, especially from our host venues the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

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All of the workshops start with a table loaded with prints of illuminated manuscripts from different world cultures. We also bring in information and workshop exercises that are full of references to mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. Whether it is writing or creating art, all of the making is in dialogue with this rich heritage, which reaches back hundreds of years. It also connects to more contemporary culture, with the influence of graffiti shining strongly on the work and the echo of poets like Charles Reznikoff.

A significant partner in the project is the John Rylands Library in Manchester, which  hosted a highly successful research trip, designed for participants to encounter original manuscripts that are hundreds of years old. The group were not only intellectually engaged, but also moved, in some cases to tears.

“I work from my heart and soul. That’s why I get so tired, I put everything in. Everyone has their own reasons for joining in and for leaving… with lots of different things happening at once – poems, drawing, writing, calligraphy, a wide variety. Like us.”

(Johnathan)

Calender Year, Johnathan

 

This passion shows itself again and again — for making, for sharing, for diving deep into the art and the poems. Each page contains delight in colour, in wordplay, in storytelling and in turning the vast (and sometimes traumatic) life experience of everyone sitting around the table into a document that is as varied as the makers.

“I’ve got my wild days. But here I’m chilled out and I let the quiet in.”

(Roy)

Rich in colour and detail, full of compassion, but also shot through with despair, with anger, sometimes incoherent, sometimes speaking in tongues of fire. It’s an extraordinary experience to witness this book come together. Moments of gentleness and reflection sometimes erupt into fury, or weeping, or laughter. And the pages bear so many tales, bare so many souls, it’s a book that needs repeated readings, to fully take it in. And to get an inkling of the many layers of significance. We’ll end with this observation from Karen our regular project worker at The Booth Centre:

“One of the men sat next to me, he’s got a lot of things going on, sleeping on the streets at the moment. He’s had an amazing day. You could see how relaxed he was, how focussed… What you’re getting in this session is people who never join anything, ever. It is brilliant to see them getting involved, and it has a knock-on effect on how they engage with other services here and start rebuilding their lives, letting in the positive.”

(Karen, Project Worker, The Booth Centre)

 

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A BOOK OF OURS is supported by the HLF. Our hope is that this project helps to show the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more.