Writing in Solitary

Necklace of Stars


Necklace of Stars writer Tony Shelton on writing and healing:

When my wife died after 50 years of marriage and five years of terminal decline, I resolved to rebuild my life. I moved, I joined, I volunteered, I explored, and I made new friends. I also made an effort to keep in touch with old ones and with distant family members. Then a news report emerged about a virus outbreak in an obscure city in China and the world changed. Looking back, I have always written, from student days onward and over the years I have tried short stories, even a novel, and poetry. For some years, I even wrote (amateur) music reviews and a few articles (some satirical) for professional journals. I enrolled for creative writing courses. I have researched and written about local history. In total, I have been paid about £150 for my efforts.


But now, in the eleventh month of being locked down and isolated and with almost all my other activities suspended, I have almost become a full- time writer. I sometimes used to imagine how I would cope with being imprisoned: I would ask for pen and paper and write, write, write. Now I am shut up, shut off, I am doing just that. Almost as soon as I have had breakfast, I open up the laptop and write. I scribble in a notebook, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, and ideas go in and around my head. On some days I write for 4-5 hours or more.


My writing is varied. I keep a diary of my experience under the Covid regime (now nearly 200,000 words long). I write emails, texts and WhatsApp messages to friends, new and old, both nearby and distant. I keep in touch with distant family members in the same way. And, to one old friend in the West Country, who doesn’t use email, I write and post letters. I have contributed to a University dream survey. I sometimes send in pieces to a creative writing group in Cumbria which I used to belong to. I have entered one or two competitions with no success. I also write very practical stuff as secretary and ‘scribe’ of a local charity, drafting policies and compiling an archive.


And thanks to the guidance of arthur+martha’s Necklace of Stars project, I have compiled a series of pieces on my childhood memories, some of the most rewarding writing of all.


I’ll not turn anything down if it gives me a chance to write. But I can’t write if no one is going to read it – that would be like a stand-up comic performing to an empty hall. But if a piece of writing is useful or that people might get something out of it, that is rewarding. I
like the idea of being a journeyman writer – able to turn my hand to almost anything. Writing is about communicating and is some compensation for not being able to meet and talking in a café or pub, visit people at home or entertain visitors. Writing gives me
challenges, it keeps my brain working, keeps me focussed, stops me thinking and brooding too much and passes the time like nothing else. At the moment, I have no idea what I would do without it…


Tony Shelton
February, 2021

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations.

Closing the Covid chapter

A Book of Ours

In September 2020 The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded arthur+martha emergency funding for running socially-distanced workshops, phone calls and online activities working with people who’ve experienced homelessness and vulnerable people in Manchester. This funding was for our project Quilt of Leaves, making the illuminated manuscript A BOOK OF OURS. The workshops took place throughout autumn-winter 2020, developing pages, poems and songs for a Covid Chapter in the illuminated manuscript.

A paper Covid virus finds its way into the illuminated manuscript

Alongside work on the manuscript, we developed poems/lyrics and a song sequence, describing participants’ experiences during the pandemic. Songwriter Matt Hill and Calligrapher Stephen Raw were a vital part of the team during this time, as was our volunteer Christine Johnson and the Booth Centre volunteer Sue Dean, both of whom contributed hugely.

Here is Christine, writing for our project diary to describe the tone of one of the last sessions, along with workshop photos by Sue. The theme of the session was ‘Heaven’ — whatever that might mean for each individual in the room. Christine’s description of a conversation in one of the workshops give a sense of the uncertainty and yet the power of many creative encounters at the Booth Centre:

“I asked him what was heaven to him, what did it mean to him. He said it didn’t mean anything to him, so I asked what made him feel good, or peaceful, or safe. He said Truth, so I encouraged him to write truth down. Why does truth make you feel good? Because it is/or I feel powerful. He wrote that down. It appeared that he felt more connected with the question now and seemed to enjoy this. He was however distracted by his phone in the midst of it, and did get up from his seat shortly after.

“I wondered whether this was simply the case or did I crowd his space a bit? I think though, that there was a bit more connection between us than earlier at the break when I asked him how was he finding the session? “Good”. End of conversation!

“For me, these sessions are about finding the feeling, which is the heart of connection. Beyond the mind, beyond words, excavating through the superficial layers, as far as someone is willing to go. And the sensitivity and respect to ask open questions, not pushing or controlling according to one’s own opinions or agenda. Letting go of a desired outcome and accepting and enjoying the unique results.

“What makes a person feel connected, and to what – to ourself? To ‘God’?, to another human being, to life, to our own experience of life? Each question invites you deeper.

“On the way home on the tram I was thinking about truth, or Truth with a capital T. What is Truth? Is it subjective or is there a single truth? What are other people’s relationship with the word truth? Political truth, personal truth. Over the years our life experiences, thoughts, opinions, beliefs and the peers we associate with, change. What was once true may no longer be true for us. Our educational, religious and political institutions shape us, condition us. So, what is Truth? Is it fluid, and if so, then is that really truth?

“Is there an ultimate truth? An unchanging truth ? If there is, what is that for you…?”

The BOOK OF CHANGES project is funded by the Heritage Lottery’s Emergency Fund, supporting homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the arthur+martha illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Hearing WHISPERS

Whisper to me alone

Whisper to me alone is a song and poem cycle made collaboratively during the pandemic with people who’ve experienced homelessness and with vulnerable people. Songwriter Matt Hill and Phil Davenport made many hours of phone calls with participants, gradually piecing together this material. Here, Matt writes about the experience:

Despite the limitations under lockdown this has been a project I’m really proud of. I worked over the phone with the writers, gathering their input and recording their voices. You will hear some of those voices in the finished recordings. I have come to know these voices so well and yet we’ve never met face to face.

The recordings were done at home, directly into phones, and down phone-lines. Although it wasn’t the best quality it captures the sense of isolation we were all feeling as we tried to find connection over the phone. There are other sounds here too, electronic sounds of dial tones and beeps merged with the sounds of bird song, from that remarkable period in early lockdown when the traffic stopped and the birds returned to the city.

For a project born in an urban cityscape, nature and birds are ever present in this material. We hear of the arrival of seagulls into Manchester and the mysterious disappearance of the pigeons. The reality of lives affected by homelessness and mental health challenges comes through. In times of trouble we all find our own ways to cope. Some of our writers found comfort in childhood or times of family gatherings and community.

As I struggled with my own mental health during lockdown I was able to find a strong personal connection to these songs. This song cycle give us glimpses of other lives but there is universal truth here, as we all try to adapt and shift to this new reality. Even though these are not the stories of my life, there is much here we can all find connection with. You can stream the songs on Bandcamp here.

Cover of forthcoming CD, designed by “SPD”

#WhisperToMeAlone is a cycle of pandemic poems and songs, which give tiny glimpses of homeless and vulnerable lives, in rooms, on streets, isolated in hotels… The project was devised and directed by Phil Davenport who worked with songwriter Matt Hill in collaboration with participants in Manchester. WHISPER was funded by Arts Council England and partnered with The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester. Contributors include members of the Inspiring Change Manchester group, associated with SHELTER, and MASH (a charity providing non-judgemental services to women working in the sex industry). Visual tweets for the twitter stream were designed by the poets Tom Jenks and Nathan Williams. A CD is coming soon...

Plague dreams

Necklace of Stars, poetry

As part of our Necklace of Stars project, we’ve invited participants to reflect on the world around them during the pandemic, sharing experiences of the “new normal”, including the subtle echoes in the parallel world of dreams. Here, writer Lorna Dexter discusses writing her dreams during the pandemic. Below is her prose poem (The Reconnaissance Airship), followed by digging up thistles. The poems “confront my old childhood fears of the all-seeing, all-knowing, judgmental, punishing God of my Fundamentalist Christian upbringing – fears triggered again by the Coronavirus ‘plague’.”

Lorna:

Over the years I have tried to turn some of my night-time dreams into poems, and Philip had suggested that I make a small collection of these. Maybe as a result of this encouragement, I found myself actually dreaming of writing and remembering what I had written when I woke up, crossing the boundary between waking and dreaming, between conscious and unconscious writing. Both these poems, which came within two days of each other at the start of this year, emerged in this way.

(The Reconnaissance Airship)

She was standing in the forest when the long – very long – grey, very dark grey
 airship floated silently overhead. She stood stock-still, in case there were
 movement sensors behind those mean little windows and portholes, glad she
 was wearing green. It took a long time to pass overhead, only just above the tree
 tops, and when it was gone she still didn’t move. She was thinking what she had
 in the house to drink, if this was the start of an occupation: a carton of soya
 milk, some fruit juices … Later, down in town to stock up, she found herself
 taking a photo of herself at a crossroads, looking up at the signpost with its
 street name boards – a selfie, with the identifying evidence of where she lived
 normally, where she was ‘last seen’ – just in case she ‘disappeared’ and her
 phone was the only evidence of where she lived before – before what? – before
 whatever that huge reconnaissance vehicle signified...

digging up thistles

 I walked past a familiar field today –
 a rough piece, a wedge of grass
 at the valley’s rim, fit only for grazing
 half a dozen sheep, a horse or two –

 in it, a group of men, all ages, dotted about,
 bent double, digging holes, some very deep.
 The farmer and his sons stand and wave,
 acknowledge me – and all look up,

 some long-bearded, long-gowned,
 from the local monastery, used to hard work,
 some local lads in run-down fashion gear,
 old codger neighbours in rough working clothes

 all eradicating thistles by the root, organically –
 a communal act of friendship, a joint effort
 to rid this plot, protect the whole valley
 from this pernicious weed. I walk on –

 at the field’s edge a sycamore sapling
 is opening out its new bronze leaves.

digging up thistles came ready-written, as it were. I dreamt I was writing it, pen in hand, laid out exactly like this, line for line, word for word. When I woke I thought I might not remember the words, but they came back as soon as I actually started to write them down, despite an interruption to go to the loo! Similarly with a third poem Starting the Novel, though in this case it was in prose, and I knew I was ‘starting a novel’ – not something I have ever planned to do. Both dreams seem to refer, in their different ways, to the struggle I have had in the last couple of years to confront my old childhood fears of the all-seeing, all-knowing, judgmental, punishing God of my Fundamentalist Christian upbringing – fears triggered again by the Coronavirus ‘plague’, part of the biblical prophecy of the ‘end-times’ for a wicked world – stories which I now believe to be ‘pernicious myths’, rather as thistles are pernicious weeds.

Lorna Dexter

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations. Alongside writing and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies, we invite written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness. Lorna Dexter’s dreamed poems chime with the unsettling, haunted times. The photo is by Booth Centre volunteer Sue Dean.

(Invisible) Manchester: seeing homelessness in new ways

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Invisible (Manchester) is a​ social enterprise​ that trains people affected by ​homelessness ​to become walking tour guides of Manchester. You might recently have seen their new electronic billboard project around Manchester.

“It is a community-led project which uses the city as our gallery space. What better way to address the “invisible” than making it ​visible? ​Danny, Laura and Andy, our main guides, have worked alongside the artist, John Hewitt (an illustrator who has focused on issues surrounding homelessness) to build a bridge between image and words, aiming to raise awareness of homelessness…”

The photo sequence features two lines from a poem by tour guide Danny Collins, alongside one of John Hewitt’s many drawings. Danny was a key contributor to the arthur+martha project The Homeless Library and is now a regular guide for Invisible (Manchester). His tour is a poetic exploration that transports you to the flip side of Manchester and into his own experience of homelessness. Each stop is marked with a poignant poetry piece from his time on the streets. Danny is currently working on a new book of poetry and has contributed to the arthur+martha Whisper To Me Alone pandemic project with his extraordinary lyric for the song SAME OLD SUN.

Invisible (Manchester) breaks down negative stereotypes surrounding homelessness while also providing people who have been homeless with transferable skills to expand their horizons. Visit the ​website​ for more information, or to book a tour. (Online tours currently offered.)

A winter prescription: two poems by Jaye

Necklace of Stars, poetry
Dreaming the Dream

I felt the sun beating down
As I lay on the Bondi Beach
Felt the breeze caressing me 
As I basked in the sultry heat.

I adjusted my bikini and
Pinned up my golden hair
I heard the chink of glasses
A Campari perhaps for me?

Then my carer gently said,
"Here's a cup of tea."
And I awoke to a wintery day
In the reality of the UK.


A Medical Consultation

"A gammy leg, a gooey eye
Your hair is falling out?
So what's the best that can be done
For someone just like you?
I know, I'll send you to the hardware shop
To buy some Superglue."


Jaye

These two poems by Jaye are designed to put a smile on the face, during a hard winter.

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations.

Icy pellets

Necklace of Stars, poetry

From one of the Necklace of Stars poets, for Storm Christoph:

It drizzles
It mizzles
It pours and it streams
It comes down in buckets
It fills up the streams
It gurgles in gutters
It eddies and swirls
It blocks out the landscape
From clouds it unfurls

It aims icy pellets
Down on our heads
It pounds on the roofs
Of little tin sheds

It comes down too heavy
Or comes down too little
It comes down in torrents
Or dribbles like spittle

I look out the window.
It's at it again 
When will it stop
This bloody wet rain?

Annie

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations.

Breaking News…

Necklace of Stars, Projects

DERBYSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL SHORTLISTED FOR HEARTS FOR THE ARTS AWARDS 2021

The shortlist has been announced for the National Campaign for the Arts’ (NCA) Hearts For The Arts Awards 2021. The awards celebrate the unsung heroes of Local Authorities who are championing the arts against all odds. 

Derbyshire County Council has been nominated for Best Arts Project for Necklace of Stars – an embroidery and creative writing project set up to tackle the lack of person-to-person creative engagement opportunities for housebound individuals, with arts organisation arthur+martha.

This year’s winners will be selected from the shortlist by a judging panel of key arts industry experts and practitioners, including:

Le Gateau Chocolat, Drag artiste and cabaret performer

Paul Hartnoll, musician, composer, founder member of Orbital

Adrian Lester CBE, actor and director

Petra Roberts, Cultural Development Manager, Hackney Council (2020 winners for the Windrush Generations Festival)

Samuel West, actor, director, Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts

Despite the incredible hardships faced by Local Authorities in 2020, this year’s awards have seen the NCA receive a record-breaking number of nominations, as local communities turned to the arts for solace, strength and connectivity during the pandemic. 

Nominations were received from across the UK for each of the three award categories: Best Arts Project; Best Arts Champion – Local Authority or Cultural Trust Worker; and Best Arts Champion – Councillor.

The shortlist was judged by representatives from some of this year’s partners in the awards: Culture Counts; Wales Council for Voluntary Action; Local Government Association; National Campaign for the Arts; and Voluntary Arts Wales.

Discussing Derbyshire’s nomination Hearts for the Arts Award partners said about Necklace of Stars:

“This is an inspirational project that has supported an extremely vulnerable group of individuals, made more vulnerable by COVID-19. It has clearly given participants purpose and focus, helping to reduce loneliness and mental ill health. The way the project adapted to provide one-to-one support to individuals remotely during lockdown is impressive and we were struck by the strong partnerships across a range of partners that allowed the project to expand its impact by signposting participants to other services”. 

The winners of the Hearts for the Arts Awards 2021 will be announced on Valentine’s Day, 14th February. 

The National Campaign for the Arts present the Hearts for the Arts Awards each year. The awards are delivered by the NCA, in partnership with Culture Counts; the Local Government AssociationThriveUK TheatreVoluntary Arts WalesWales Council for Voluntary Action.

For more information on the shortlisted nominees visit forthearts.org.uk/campaigns/hearts-for-the-arts/

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Notes to editors:

  • Hearts For The Arts is a National Campaign for the Arts initiativedelivered in partnership with Culture Counts; the Local Government Association; Theatre NI, Thrive NI; We Are Voluntary Arts Wales, Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
  • The National Campaign for the Arts (NCA) is a charity and independent campaigning organisation, run by a board of volunteer trustees. They campaign for more investment in the arts, to improve the lives of everyone; and they champion those who make that happen. forthearts.org.uk

A tent decorated with the sun

A Book of Ours

We would like to wish all and everyone we’ve met and worked with a happy winterfest and an even happier new year.

It’s been a strange and sometimes fearful year, but it’s also been full of the hope that comes with making art and writing poetry. Here are some images from our last workshop of the year, at The Booth Centre where the BOOK OF OURS illuminated manuscript is being made. These pages have been made by over 100 people with experience of homelessness.

Despite the difficult circumstances that many of the makers live in, their pages shimmer with colour and passion. The photos from the day, were taken mostly by volunteer Sue Dean. Among the original poems and songs, is a quote from a medieval nun called Hildegard, being carefully scribed by Roy one of our regular group members: “I will have a tent… decorated with the Sun and bright stars. Angelic glory will be in it… I will be a companion of the angels…” It’s a mysterious quote, but it sticks in the mind. A tent decorated with the sun. Perhaps it is about seeing the deeper value of people — whatever their place in society, or the world — and also finding the the treasure of our true selves.

Or to put it another way – wherever you are, may sunshine find you.

arthur+martha

The BOOK OF CHANGES project is funded by the Heritage Emergency Fund, supporting homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the arthur+martha illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

So this is Christmas

Necklace of Stars


Father Christmas sat at the table in his kitchen at his home in the North Pole.  He was despondent, worrying he would not be able to make Christmas the magical event it always is.

He turned to Mother Christmas, “Everybody thinks Christmas happens by magic.  No one realises the effort needed to make each one special.” He continued: “The Virus has severely reduced the production of toys , not helped by some elves having to self-isolate from their journeys.  I hated furloughing the elves, you saw how depressed they became without work.”

Mother Christmas nodded: “Yes dear, furloughing the elves was the hardest decision we ever made. With Elf School forced to close and students learning virtually from home, it made this year difficult to cope with. Although the elves were still able to look after the reindeers and baking of candy canes continued without interruption.”

“Then there is Rudolph,” Father Christmas exclaimed. “His red nose helps light the way when we are travelling the world, but if he is seen by others they may think he is suffering from the virus then Rudolph and the other
reindeers will be required to quarantine and the travel corridors will be closed to us. Christmas will be ruined if that happens.”


Mother Christmas quietly said: “The whole world has been suffering. There may not be as many toys but the little ones will know the struggle everyone has gone through. They will appreciate their presents even more and know the true value of Christmas. I am sure you will be allowed to travel across the sky. And no leader would want to cancel Christmas…”

Story by Jo

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations.