King of Flowers

A Book of Ours

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Today we were visited by Professor Jeffrey Robinson from Glasgow University, who came bearing questions – and that of course leads us to question ourselves. What is this stuff we are making…?

A BOOK OF OURS is an in-between thing, constructed of artwork, poetry and music. And yet it is only itself when all of these come together.

The original books of hours in medieval times were also multipurpose. They were used as a text for prayers, a manuscript for singing from, and a spiritual guide that depicted visions of the important saints, angels and devils to dodge or make friends with. Such a book would be left open on an altar for marking out the whole day in churches, abbeys, monasteries, and in palaces. 

Because we have decided to copy the format of the old books of hours, it makes sense that we also have images, words and music in our book. But there are other reasons too.

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Some of the makers are most confident telling their story through words. Others struggle with literacy and are more comfortable representing their lives on a page through images. For others again, it’s the combination of word and image that is crucial, both together. And now we are working with songwriter Matt Hill, the music is yet another means of reaching out…

Combining sound, colour, and verbal description, gives a huge range of expression — and that’s what you need if you’re trying to capture the essence of you. Particularly to describe your inner visions, perhaps when under the influence of substances, or when the emotions that drive your life are waves so colossal that they can only be shown by overloading all systems of communication.

Or simply to inscribe joy, as a flower.

The faces of strange hauntings fill the medieval books of hours and the imagination of the whole medieval world. Call them devils or angels, gargoyles, fairies or bogeymen, they are most definitely around. Perhaps they are forever part of human experience whatever name you give them.  They peep out of the page corners from old manuscripts, they’re in paintings too, and in churches, as carvings or sculptures. These photos that I took in Saint Laurence’s in Ludlow show the carved wooden seats for the choir. There you’ll find mermaids, witches, owls, even the pagan Green man. He peers at you curiously, as if you’re the mystery. And from his mouth comes new growth, a poem written in leaves.

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Sing Lullaby

A Book of Ours

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Brother James, Brother James
I am you, I am you
Roof and food and family, roof and food and family
I need you, I need you.

Brother Ladbrokes, bother lad brokes
Stop robbing me, stop robbing me
I have a got an acca, give you a smacka
Then I win, no cheating.

The Frere Jacques Variations

 

We returned to the Booth Centre today for our last big run of workshops on the Book of Ours project.

Over the last year, this blog has documented our slow but steady progress as we’ve made an illuminated manuscript together, a book designed to outlast all our lifetimes. It’s been a dream project for Lois and I, and one that’s brought delight and sometimes shared sadness, as our scribes and artists — many of whom have lived experience of homelessness — make this work.

Several of the most famous medieval illuminated manuscripts contain musical scores. Today we brought music into our workshops for the first time with singer and songwriter Matt Hill, who fitted melodies to some of the poetry from last year — and invites new songwriting.

Singing together can be a joyous thing. It can also be challenging to those of us who don’t have an easy relationship with pitch, following a rhythm or remembering a melody. Added to that is the embarrassment about singing that many people carry from their schooldays. And yet it was by singing a children’s song that we began to open up.

Brother Stephen, Brother Stephen / Where are you, where are you? Hair like copper wires, hair like copper wires / Where are you? Your eyes were blue… Matt delicately built the confidence of the group, bringing everyone who wanted to join us into the ring of music and charming songs from us — some moving, some humorous but all of them made together, out of our own voices. One instrument made of many people.

Esme, Esme, Esme, Esme
I love you, I love you.
You are my sister, you are my sister
You my all, you my all.

Love and peace, love and peace
Here to stay, here to stay
Everybody’s laughter and forever after
God I pray, here to stay.

Matt made it look easy but there’s a lot juggling required to bring together a group of people with complex needs, energies, backgrounds, states of intoxication, states of mental health.

So we played music — and it felt like play, not work. Songs flowed, rapidly finding their form. For instance, The Frère Jacques Variations. From being a distant childhood memory, it refocused into a song about memory, connection, and a picture of our city now, the lives it contains and the earth of Manchester itself.

In the afternoon the session quietened as they often do, became more meditative, more inward. Still the songs came, but this time more as individual statements. One of the most powerful lyrics was a simple, heartfelt goodbye to someone. It was written with tears as accompaniment this time, rather than Matt’s guitar. After it was done, the writer looked me full in the face for the first time that day and said. “I feel lighter.” If nothing else had happened that day, it would’ve been worth being there, for that moment alone.

Sister City, Sister City
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?
Underneath the concrete, underneath the concrete
Is the earth, is the earth.

Brother-sister, brother-sister
We need you, you need us
To get us through this, to get us through this
You need us, we need you.

The Frere Jacques Variations
With contributions from James, Keith, Lawrence, Flora, Debbie, Gary and Mo

She of a golden heart

A Book of Ours

The last session for now at Back on Track, and it’s sad to go. The group bonded together and launched themselves into making their mark on the big blank pages of A BOOK OF OURS. Over the last six weeks they have found ways to inscribe their identity, the fingerprint of themselves, using poetry, art, calligraphy, colour, design. Their work has been subtle and beautiful. Often it has been bravely revealing too. As we say goodbye to them there is a wrench because it feels like there is still so much more to be said, so much further to go with these artist-writers.

During the course of our three hour session, pages are inscribed, some illuminated with colours so vivid that they conjure a different world and way of seeing. Lawrence has devised a wonderfully elegant page for his description of his “favourite sin”, greed. The poem that it contains celebrates greed in a manner that would make Mrs Thatcher proud, and then halfway through the whole thing is reversed and the greedy “I” becomes the need of us — and “us” is homeless, penniless.

Meanwhile Chris has evoked a spell for meeting your own Death face to face, using an old Icelandic line. The piece is written in runes just the way it would’ve been hundreds of years ago. It is an ancient text in style and yet it also challenges the very idea of illuminated manuscripts, which vikings were famous for burning.

M has echoed the warmth of the sun in his carefully chosen and inscribed line from the Office of the Dead. This is a long poem about dying, but also about new beginnings and his page contains the green of new growth.

Finally Shannon has celebrated her mother in a page that glows with gold and with affection. Truly it is infused with love for Clarissa, she of a golden heart.

There’s always a lot of work going on behind the scenes in these workshops. Lois and I will have planned for it go in many direction, following people’s mood. Then on the day, alongside us are the volunteers, who gently support, encourage, lend their specialist skills and observe. Today, for instance, Gary is working on the subtle details around a capital letter. It’s a Miniaturists’ heaven he’s creating, a tiny nighttime planet hanging on a letter, with attendant owls. And as we work, Jess is carefully observing the session, making notes on the interactions, on the tiny moments of connection and disconnect that join us all together.

Crosstown Traffic

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

Our new volunteer Gary writes about the most recent illuminated manuscript workshop for the project A Book of Ours, at Back on Track:

Everybody is serious today. There’s only one more session at Back on Track, and pieces need to be finished in time. People very quickly sink into their own projects, painting, drawing, writing, calligraphy; everybody working quietly either with Phil, Lois or Steven, or just getting on with things by themselves. Mark opens the window because it’s so warm in the room, and you can hear the gentle hum of traffic outside, birds wishing it was spring.

I’m painting squares of black ink for Chris to try out as backgrounds for his amazing runic lettering. You’d think black was black, but no, there are lots of different shades, textures, depths, to play with. Chris opts for the blackest, and his red runes really shout from the page.

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Across the room, Lawrence is working on ‘Greed’ – Steven with his new lightbox helps focus and trace the Gothic script to tremendous effect. The finished page looks amazing, small imperfections, smudges and idiosyncrasies adding spontaneity.

Shannah and Mark can mostly progress their work alone: Mark’s calligraphy skills are growing fast and Shannah’s poem ‘Clarissa, Mother’ is simply beautiful as she scribes it. The letters make bright paths on the page.

The quiet and concentration is only broken briefly when Phil mistakes NWA for Madonna, and the room cracks up. It’s an easy mistake to make.

Later, as I sketch Jimi Hendrix as a saint, with an enormous afro halo, I wonder what miracles he performed in order to be sanctified. The song ‘Cross-Town Traffic’ runs through my head and mixes with the sounds of construction work and car engines coming through the open window.

Then suddenly time is up, and we’re all snapped out of our individual bubbles, to share with the group what we’ve been working on. Every piece is so completely different, but linked by experience, the experience of being human I suppose, and we’re all very rightly proud of ourselves. We leave the window open for the next group to listen to the hum of the traffic.

This arthur+martha project is based on the making of an illuminated manuscript  A BOOK OF OURS, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre and other support centres in Manchester. It gathers significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more.

We are often helped by skilled volunteers who bring varied life experiences and insights.

A BOOK OF OURS is supported by HLF.

 

 

They bid me take my place amongst them in the Halls of Valhalla

A Book of Ours, Projects

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It’s a strange thing, how joyful it is to be a maker. Even when what you’re making is about sadness, or pain, often joy pops up in the mix like a spring flower. Unexpected and yet just at the right time. Perhaps it’s what gets us through.

Today we worked on the Office of the Dead for the illuminated manuscript A BOOK OF OURS. This section of our handmade book contains a long poem about grief authored by many, including some of the people in this group.

At the top of this blog Kris is designing a page of runes, an original translation he’s made from the Viking phrase, “They bid me take my place amongst them in the Halls of Valhalla.” It’s what Vikings would say before they die, apparently. As he worked away on this piece, he joked with his neighbours, chatted to me about favourite reading (Nietzsche, Marcus Aurelius) and drank coke, all done with gusto. 

Crucially, he also worked with Stephen Raw our resident calligrapher, building his already significant design skills. Stephen helped him push the design itself, but also think about his posture, how he places items around him to aid working effectively, and how to use the materials in his hands with awareness: “The ink should do the work, not you. Let it fill the spaces between your movements. Breathe with it…”

Making art is a glorious distraction, that’s for sure. It’s also a good icebreaker, joining people together who sometimes have got frozen into solitude or depression. There are lots of theories about why art is therapeutic. The ancient Greeks scratched their heads over it, particularly Aristotle in his Poetics. Perhaps making art, or simply taking it in as an audience, really can lighten the load as Aristotle said — the bad stuff is carried away with a cathartic moment. The beautiful truth is that nobody knows.

Alongside the lettering, poems were being written with the same gusto. We’ve decided to write celebrations of the seven deadly sins for the next section of A BOOK OF OURS. The poems are of course a play on the word seven — they must contain seven lines and 49 words. Here’s one by Shannah, which began as a little joke about the deliciousness of not getting out of bed and gradually grew into a deeper questioning of why we rush life away, and how to join it without losing yourself — especially if you’re actually a sloth, not a person.

 

Sloth

Dawn to dusk I lay in my nest prepared for comfort

Smiling and letting all things be

Happily and sleepily, see the world pass by me

Having the dragging yawning time of my expected life. Slowly

One makes sense of what one could contribute

To the fast-paced world.

Unsuspecting of the human being.

Shannah

 

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In the corner, Lawrence and our new volunteer Gary busied on another poem celebrating Greed, pulling lettering ideas from the ancient Book of Kells. Heads together, they worked slowly and patiently, in a concentration broken occasionally by cackles over a particularly good pun. 

Bringing together art and writing in this project, we deliberately blur the edge between what’s a poem and what’s art. As Lawrence said, “I want to draw the writing. I want the letters to make the shape of what I’m thinking.”

In the sunshine of this January morning, as we broke the rules, there was a cheery camaraderie. It was a playground, not a schoolroom and within it, for awhile, we were ourselves. At least on paper.

 

Chris

These letters with a pen

A Book of Ours, Uncategorized

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

A Book of Ours

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