The big book of homelessness

A Book of Ours, Projects

Press Release

The big book of homelessness

People who are homeless in Manchester will make a medieval-style illuminated manuscript, describing their lives, in a 2-year project by arts organisation arthur+martha that has just been awarded funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Homeless lives don’t appear in any history books, but the Quilt of Leaves project aims to change that, with nearly 200 participants constructing their own accounts of homeless life throughout the year, with artwork, poems and songs to illustrate it.

rose print

‘Flower’, mono print on recycled book. Molita M. Part of the ‘Homeless Library Project.’

Artist Lois Blackburn from arthur+martha said, “These stories are part of our wider society, they just haven’t been heard yet. We feel that people with lived experience of homelessness have a huge amount of insight to offer us all. We’re delighted that we’ve received this support thanks to National Lottery players. We can’t wait to get started.”

Philip Davenport from arthur+martha adds, “We chose medieval manuscripts to inspire us because they’re among the first history books, and this is the beginning of homeless history in a written form. Those medieval manuscripts were the property of influential people, decorated with rich colours and gold lettering. we want to give this history the same treatment, make it the kind of book you can’t ignore.”

One of the main partners in the Quilt of Leaves project is The Booth Centre, a resource centre for people who are homeless and at risk of homelessness in Manchester where many of the workshops will take place.

we accept the little

‘We accept the little we have.’ mono print on recycled book. Anon. Part of the ‘Homeless Library Project.’

Notes

About the Heritage Lottery Fund

Thanks to National Lottery players, they invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about – from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. www.hlf.org.uk. Follow us on Twitter, Facebookand Instagram and use #NationalLottery and #HLFsupported.

About the Booth Centre

The Booth Centre brings about positive change in the lives of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and helps them plan for and realise a better future. They do this by providing advice to find accommodation, education, training and help to secure employment, free healthy meals, support in tackling issues with health and addiction, and creative activities to boost confidence and self esteem. The Booth Centre is an independent, registered charity (no. 1062674)

A question of survival

Projects, quilts, War Widows Stories

There are many lessons for me to learn during every arthur+martha project. Our involvement with War Widows’ Stories, comes with a steep and sometimes painful learning curve.

Like how many wars there have been involving the United Kingdom since World War Two, many names I’m familiar with; The Troubles, Falklands War, the Gulf War, Bosnian, Afghanistan, Iraq… but many others I was unaware the British fought in- The Malayan Emergency, Greek Civil War,  the Korean War- I’ve now met 2 war widows’ whose husbands died as a result of the Korean war, they call it the forgotten war. Both their quilt contributions have the word Korea embroidered- a lesson in stitch. And each of these wars results in war widows, and children without parents, on both sides of the conflict, brought into focus by the women I meet;

‘Your world is turned upside down, but you have a baby kicking inside you, so you’ve got to get on with it- life goes on.

In April my mum was widowed, in May I was a widow, in June my son was born.’ Kath

Sylvia signature

This is a project that carries weight and responsibility. Yesterday I met Kath, who had campaigned for years to have her husbands name publicly on show somewhere in his home town, a name plaque to mark giving up his life for his country. It took years, finally with the support of The British Legion she achieved it, his name is honoured in his local church. Other women I have spoken to have told me their desire to have their husbands names publicly displayed. It’s been the inspiration to have their names stitched onto the quilt, alongside the war widows themselves. It’s a small contribution, carefully, slowly stitched.

 

Typically our projects are run with repeated visits to people, in group settings. This allows for participants to slowly build their confidence and their skills. For War Widows’ Stories, we have a number of group workshops, but also wanted to bring in the voices of other women- ones who couldn’t travel to the workshops. So far I’ve done four home visits up and down the country,  and enjoyed everyone of them. One to one sessions allow a quick, intense, meaningful, getting to know someone, revealing a flavour of their story. During the visits so far we haven’t started stitching as I hoped we would, instead I often find I am stitching participants designs on their behalf. For some they haven’t the physical ability, some it’s confidence of their skills- this is the drawback of a one-off visit, skills and confidence development. But their words, handwriting and drawings say so much.

And finally for today, the constant repeated theme of the project- survival, the getting on with it. Kath, like so many stories I’ve heard was left widowed desperately short of money,  she went to a board of men to ask for a bit more money for the 6 week baby- they told her ‘You’re young enough to get married again, and go back to work’…

‘A question of survival. Four buses to work, four buses home. It was all buses and work. Self survival, going to work, coming home, bed and work and Robert my son.’  Kath

question of survival

One of Kath’s squares for the War Widows’ Quilt

Written by Lois Blackburn

The War Widows’ Quilt is being made as part of the War Widows’ Stories project.  The project is supported by Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, Liverpool John Moores University, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Imperial War Museums, the National Memorial Arboretum and the Heritage Lottery Fund.  

We will remember them

Projects, War Widows Stories

We stand on the doorstep of 61 Whitehall, a grand stone doorstep for a grand old government doorway. The words Royal Ministry on a brass plate by the black door. A bright, cold November morning in London and we are here for the War Widows’ ceremony commemorating the contributions of men and women made in military conflict, including their own lost loved ones. A cup of coffee and some fleeting conversations while everybody gathers, then we are out in the cold sunshine again.

The widows line up in a column, several people wide. A cohort of people that spans generations and places. A few of the older women are bent over, white-haired, tiny but determined. Later, someone tells us about the younger women who have more recently been made widows, they are carefully positioned in the middle of the rows to be supported and protected by the others. It’s a long line of people, a physical testament to the losses of all those conflicts, from World War Two onward. There is something huge about this group — because they represent so many missing. And because their burden has been so heavy, for so long.

crowd

A Scottish marching band arrives: the Southern Highland Pipe Band, their music swirls down the stone avenues, the bagpipes and the giant heartbeat of the bass drums. They accompany the column of widows who walk slowly up Whitehall. We are at the back of the column, standing a little apart to show respect. As we all walk, the crowd which is thousands strong watch quietly. Many people take photos, a few wave flags carrying the poppy symbol. One woman claps as we pass. People are quiet and attentive, often the faces are full of emotion.

We pass the centotaph, carved with three words The Glorious Dead. The column doubles back to face the Cenotaph, the empty tomb. A strong wind blows and late leaves tumble from the trees. Suddenly the faces of the women look stark and wild, I see tears on some faces.

The priest says prayers, there is a hymn, with subdued singing, snatched off by the wind. And then the old words, half-remembered from such ceremonies, from old films, “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

war widows association

“We will remember them!” The reply from hundreds of voices, some of them shaking with strength of feeling. There is a silence, for thought and then the single bugle call of Reveille, sorrowful as blues and yet undismayed. And then the amazement of the bagpipes, the great drone like a song from elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that people make such an earthly cry. Lois and I look at each other, unable to say anything.

We walk back, dazed by the power of this memorial, surrounded by a thunder of drums. As we walk I have the strangest sensation that we are marching through the past, connected to all those other marching feet following the drum. But at what cost comes glory?

After, we return to 61 Whitehall, with this group who we’re just starting to know, we climb three flights of spiralling stairs, upward to the vast military library. It’s a room containing thousands of books, some centuries old, and all of them trying to piece together what happens in a war. Strategy, tactics, empire, terrorism, torture, espionage hardware, software. And the question of justice — I see a copy of the Iraq War report, several volumes of it. But the people we are here with have the quietest military history of all, quieter than the spies, or the secret ops: the story of War Widows has simply not been told.

We will remember them.

library

Philip Davenport writing about our work as part of the project War Widows’ Stories. arhur+martha are making an embroidered quilt and a collections of poems with war widows. 

With special thanks to the War Widows’ Association who so kindly welcomed us to the event. 

A lost family

Projects, War Widows Stories

Last Friday I was lucky enough to attend The War Widows’ Stories ‘in-conversation’ event at The National War Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. Hosted by Dr Nadine Muller, with expert guests Irene Shiels and Sue Stout who shared their personal, frank, moving, at times funny, always informative, accounts of being a war widow.

Giving us the long-view was Professor Andrew Hopper who sharing his fascinating research on widows of the English Civil War.

Nadine explained: No two stories are the same, there is not one stereotype of a war widow- but there are powerful connections, emotions, thoughts and experiences…

I hope the following give a flavour of the afternoons conversation- the real rewards come from being there- if you are able I urge you to come along to the next (and final) in-conversation event on 2nd November at the Imperial War Museum North. 

 

I was a member of the RAF for 17 years, but when my husband died I realised I was an associate member…and then they took the membership away. I had lost my family, not just my husband, but my whole way of life.  Irene

 

With poppies now on sale for the forthcoming Remembrance Sunday, we spoke of the how we remember…

It’s not November the 11th, it’s everyday.  Irene

You can either live your life, or slip down under it. Mary

 

They spoke of the power and support of the War Widows’ Association…

Never underestimate the power of the collective. Those people that you never wanted to meet become friends and family.  Don’t underestimate how much speaking to people who have the same experience has, how valuable that is. Sue

United we stand. That is what has brought improvements, not just financial- it’s what we can do if we all work together.  Irene

You can find out more about this important, fascinating project at War Widows’ Stories. 

War Widows quilt in progress

War widows quilt, work in progress- pieced patchwork, inspired by Crimea Quilts.

A blank canvas

Projects, War Widows Stories

Quilt ideas

I thought it might be of interest to record and share some of the creative thinking behind the project and the steep learning curve as it progresses…

At the start of the project I am faced with a blank canvas. No colours, fabrics, set themes, images, words are decided upon, the artwork can go in any direction. But I don’t want to go and meet my fellow collaborators with nothing, I prefer to go with a framework, ideas that can be discussed, elaborated on, edited or even teared up. So the fun begins.

fabric samples

Sampling for the War Widows’ quilt

Everything starts with the war widows themselves. Thankfully a lot of interviews and background material has already been gathered by Nadine Muller and her team. For me the artwork is another way to communicate the stories. So what might war widows’ want to communicate? And how do we celebrate their stories, their lives? their individualality? They have been left out of the history books, out of the museum collections, this quilt and poetry collection aims to make a small contribution to addressing this, it’s a domestically sized artwork with big ambitions.

Some of the most successful artworks I’ve collaborated on in the past are the ones that play the materials and techniques against the subject matter, for example in the artwork Fresh Air and Poverty, a quilt illustrating how the World Wars impacted poverty and strife, I choose sumptuous fabrics, associated with wealth and splendor, silks, satins, velvets, colours associated with royalty. I aim to make artworks that make you look twice, surprise and gently challenge. So this time I’m taking a selection of fabrics that have been worn by the armed forces, masculine, formal, speaking of authority. I bulk buy 50 shirts, and carefully take them apart, as I’m doing so the material whispers to me, some still smell of their last owner, are stained around the collar or cuff, some have a name written in marker on a label or hem. The structure of the shirt suggests things, the shoulder epaulet when removed from the shirt, becomes a decorative edge for the quilt. The shirt pockets could hold secrete messages, love letters…

I’m looking for inspiration for the quilt technique, something that is relevant and meaningful. A memory comes of a quilt seen at the Quilters’ Guild. ‘Crimea Quilts’, quilts were made by soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors, at around 1860-1880s… from military felted woollen fabric. The romantic story is that these were made by convalescing military men in their hospital beds. The actual history is rather fuzzy around the edges, we don’t know who taught men these skills, or exactly where they were made. Each quilt is unique, but many share a similar look. They are a intricate, beautiful, ambitious artform and seem a perfect starting off point. I start collecting images.

inspiration and ideas

Sampling, ideas and inspiration for War Widows’ Quilt

Each element of the artwork is thought through. I take to my first meeting with the War Widows’ Association the fabrics, images of the Crimea Quilts and suggestions for the sizes of the individual pieces we work on. Phil Davenport (the lead writer) has been talking about letter writing as part of the inspiration for the poetry collection. I’ve taken that idea and run. I’ve sampled tiny postage stamp size squares, patchworked together.  I’ve used the size of airmail letters and envelopes as templates for fabric rectangles, these I hope will be stitched onto with words or images.  I suggest the war widows write and stitch their names and the husbands with their date of birth and perhaps their husbands date of death.

Mary, embroidery

Mary’s and John’s names, DOB and John’s DOD. Work in progress

Our first meeting is a wonderful mix of laughter, lively discussion and food. Lots of food. The fabrics are examined and given approval and as I hoped spark of conversations. The ironing of those shirts, the men inside them. I am reminded not to leave anyone out- I put on my shopping list red fabric to represent the War Widows’ Association and tartans, how I love tartan.

workshop

Impromptu embroidery workshop

I am rather taken a back when members of the War Widows’ Association don’t just want to write their signatures and DOB, but they start to stitch, it’s 10 oclock at night and we are having a  fabulous impromptu embroidery session.  Un-finished work is carefully wrapped to be completed on train journeys home, in precious moments of peace.

I couldn’t have asked for more. Time now for more sampling, cutting out and preparation of hundreds of rectangles and squares of fabric. I might just have to get the iron out.

Lois Blackburn

 

Questioning the past

Projects, War Widows Stories

Talking with members of the War Widows’ Association at a formal dinner turned out to be a very informal affair, with much laughter and camaraderie. But it also produced a set of fascinating questions, devised by the women themselves, for us to ask as our work with the project War Widows’ Stories gets underway.

As we discussed these questions, little moments of people’s stories were shared. The shock of being told that your partner is dead, the impact of this violent news on everyday normality, that can never again be quite normal. The fear of telling children their father is dead — how to pass on cruel news kindly. Being a victim of gossip. Being angry because you’ve not been told the truth about the death. But most of all, how to get life started again.

Many people said, “We just got on with it.” But each and every one had a different way of doing so.

Here are the questions, some direct, some provocative, many very thought provoking. Perhaps as our project continues, we will find some answers. As well as more questions… 

As a war widow, what are you supposed to say, and what would you like to say?

Is the title war widow offputting? Even the term widow? How would you like to be known? Relict? Dependent? The last three digits of your husband’s service number?

Do you feel that people are on eggshells around you? They really want to ask: “Why are you a war widow?” What happened, and how would you like to tell it?

What didn’t you get told about your husband’s death?

We are trying to get to unknown history. How do we read between the lines of given history? The official version versus the spoken story, versus reality?

What are the words and images of your inner life? What symbols fit you? What phrases stay with you? What remains unspoken?

What is an object that symbolises your experience for you?

Why do you think people see widows as a threat to other people’s relationships? Have you been seen as a threat?

Was your grief ever used as gossip?

Was there a day when your burden suddenly seemed lighter?

survived with a little help

Trying out ideas for the War Widows’ Quilt.

 

Our ladies of the War

Projects, War Widows Stories

The Union Jack Club in Central London is a quiet pivot at the centre of British history. It is the club where people connected to the armed services traditionally come to stay when they’re in the capital. These doors have admitted corporals and Queens, generals and ghurkas. When you enter, you see wooden panels carved with the names of the heroes and (rarely) heroines of a hundred-plus years of wars. Colonial wars, anti-fascist wars, Cold War, the War on Terror, civil strife in Ireland, strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan. There are paintings of men on horseback, men in helicopters, jets, tanks, camouflage and bright red cavalry tunics. The library has deep green leather seats, and around you are the books that tell of these wars, titles like The Fall of Berlin, Rat’s Tales, Raiding the Reich, or No Time to Wave Goodbye.

breakfast

But we are not here to talk about battlefields, we are here to talk about their consequences.

Lois and I are staying at this iconic club to meet the group of women who run The War Widows’ Association, women whose remarkable lives bring a different perspective to those same battlefields.

Among the medals and the honour calls, they’ve also displayed great bravery in the face of conflict — but their stories are unheard, do not exist in the museums, are not recounted in the histories. And we are very privileged to be invited to take part in the first-ever gathering of their stories. Being arthur+martha, our contribution to this wider War Widows Stories will be a collaborative quilt and poems, that complement the oral history recordings and wider research currently being made by Dr Nadine Muller.

But today is a day for hellos, getting to know faces and gather ideas to fuel this longer conversation. The occasion right now is an evening meal for the regional managers of The War Widows’ Association: the big, bustling group is full of energy, jokiness, and a vibrant camaraderie as we sit down for tea. The cliche of widowhood is somber and soft-spoken, however this evening was spent talking loudly, eating heartily, laughing loud.

And yet, as we talked, other resonances came into the conversation— flashes of sadness, anger, my own memories of growing up around soldiers, and my mother who is also a widow. And suddenly this space, that seems so certain in its carved memorials and its place in history, is full of questions. And we wonder how to speak about it…

Philip Davenport, Oct 2018

 

Lois Blackburn introducing the art making to the War Widows’ Association. Photo courtesy WWS.

arthur+martha give thanks to our supporters for this project Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, Liverpool John Moores University, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Imperial War Museums, the National Memorial Arboretum and the Heritage Lottery Fund.