A-Z of Childhood

Necklace of Stars, poetry, quilts
A memory alphabet, by Tony Shelton

A for Aeroplanes. I drew hundreds, but only going from right to left.

Birds. I knew only blackbirds, sparrows, pigeons, robins on Christmas cards, and
the starlings which invaded to summer feast on next door’s overgrown cherry tree.
All the rest came much later. I was a city boy.

Class. What class are we? I asked my father as he read his Daily Telegraph. Working class,
he replied in a flash and turned to the Daily Mirror. It was good enough for me.

Death: When the old king died, I didn’t know what to feel. What was he to me? When my
father died, I didn’t know what to feel. He just never came home from hospital. I think I am
now ready to get to know my father.

11-plus. My first life hurdle. My first taste of anxiety, with the threat of failure and
condemnation to the notoriously rough Rowan Road secondary modern. And my first sweet
taste of success as I stop, halfway up the stairs, to tell my father that I have passed, and the
only memory I have of his praise.

Fire. Father should have known that stretching the Daily Telegraph across the newly laid
fire to encourage combustion was risky, since fire engines were a common sight in our road.

Games. Wednesday afternoons meant rugby, being crushed in mud at the bottom of a
heavy scrum, the acrid smell of the paint factory in the air, or cricket, suffering with the
streaming eyes of hay fever. The dread grew from Monday onwards.

Hard times. In 1947 my father and I trudged through the snow, pushing my old pram to
collect coke from the gas works, pausing on the way back for my reward, a brawn sandwich
in Sam’s Wonder Café.

Ignorance. When a tall, slim young woman called Freda came to stay with us in our
holiday caravan, I accepted it as normal until, years later, I saw the photograph of the four of
us and put two and two together: a ‘friend of your father’s’ mother would have said; if I had
asked.

Justice. I avoided Mr Bacon’s blackboard ruler, Miss Dooner’s slipper, the flying
woodwork tools of Mr Woodiwiss, the Head’s cane and the boot of blind Mr Judge but I was
once pulled up by my hair and slapped on the leg in the playground by Mrs Wilson and for a
moment, felt proud.

Knowledge. I knew things, I collected facts, swapped them, argued about them but I
never knew how to think.

Lino. We might not have had carpets but we had modernistic lino, light brown with lines
and squares, a Mondrian floor, a trendy choice of the young couple my parents must once
have been.

Mitcham Common. A paradise of long grasses, bushes, scattered trees and The Swamp,
where we waded in wellies, looking out for frogs and the boa constrictor, and became lost for
a timeless moment.

Nails: When Michael Naylor changed seats with his twin sister Anita so she could sit next
to me, she took my hand under the table and dug her sharp nails into my soft palm until she
saw the first tears. I didn’t know why. I still don’t. My first encounter with conspiracy.

Out. Out of doors, out with a friend, out on your own, looking, finding, watching, wandering,
wondering, out of contact, out of sight out of control, out of this world.

Posh Helen Bowdon lived in a posher-than-average house, had a queen voice to match
and was always picked to play the lead in the school play, until the year when the part went
to Yvonne Wilson who lived with her mum in a cottage and wore a gypsy ribbon in her hair.
Helen Bowden fled weeping, locked herself in the girls’ offices and wouldn’t come out. She
was still there when the bell rang and all the kids stood outside chanting La dee dah la dee
da, Come on out wherever you are until it was time for tea and she could creep home.

Quadratic Equations. Maths x 2 + Thursday mornings = fear + loathing.

Robin Hood. My Saturday evening Marxist hero with his band of men and own jolly sing-
along song.

Spheksophobia. I helped father dig the potatoes at the end of the garden until a painful
sting sent me crying indoors and caused a life-long fear of wasps.

Tooting. My Casablanca with its fabulous Moorish Granada and the exotic market, full of
large pieces of meat, strange things to buy and the echo of men shouting.

Underpants. Why do I have to wear pants? I asked. To stop you getting spotty, said my
father.

V-Bombers. Vulcan, Victor and Valiant roared over the air show runway, bringing father
and son closer in a communion of awe.

Winkle Pickers. At 15, I took the part of a teenager and bought impossibly pointed shoes
and yellow socks that glowed in the dark but no-one seemed to notice enough to
compensate for the pain.

X-ray Eyes. I always wanted the see-through vision of Superman but all I got was a
xylophone.

Ynot. It was an embarrassingly long time before I learned to write my name the right way
round. It now makes a memorable password element.

Zoo. Every child should remember a trip to the zoo. I don’t, though I know I was taken. I
have let my parents down.
Embroidery from The Great British Tea Ceremony, St Helens

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 – phone conversations and post. The embroideries that illustrate this blog post are images from The Great British Tea Ceremony section of the arthur+martha book THE WARM /&/ THE COLD. They were made by the Four Acres community in St Helens.

Threadwork

Necklace of Stars, poetry, quilts
Below an old tree,
among fallen leaves,
thread wraps a root
to weave a web about
life’s woodenness.
Thread reaches out,
across low hollows,
into farther woods,
to feed new bodies,
form new fruit.

Linda Goulden

I can’t imagine not wanting to write, but the pandemic silenced me for awhile. I felt so stupid, fuddled by all this – and I feared that what I wrote would be trivial. Trivial in the face of what’s happening. And I possibly still think that. But I’m writing despite it.

You’ve really helped me get started again. I wouldn’t have approached poems like this. It’s all seemed so freeing. And lately I have been able to go back to older unfinished or unsatisfactory poems and work on them too.

I’ve stopped thinking in terms of  “When this pandemic is over I will…” Last year I was travelling and thought this year I would travel more and be at more poetry readings but maybe I won’t. Maybe I won’t ever be able to travel again. I’m coming to terms with that.

It’s a funny feeling being an older person right now, after the lockdown. I see people living much more freely than I do, some recklessly. And I don’t live like that. It’s watching the world come alive and it’s not happening to me. I still need to be careful for my own health, cautious. People might think I’m over anxious, but I don’t. I’ve bought some masks and tried them on but I haven’t been anywhere I need to wear them yet.

We always did live in uncertainty, it’s just we were very good at not noticing.

You have to be conscious now, you have to be careful in this time of Covid. If you’re pretending things are normal that takes energy as well. And I feel a funny anger about the difference, about having to manage this situation, about how tiring life has become.

I feel exhaustion some days, certain days. I don’t know when they’ll arrive, or why. It is not easy to tell whether it is age, ailments, lack of fitness or the situation. I suppose if you keep yourself tense you tire yourself out. Yesterday I disappeared, I was lost to it. I wasn’t relaxing, I’d been holding myself too tight. Even meditating it took much longer to relax. Mind you, even before COVID I was trying to arrange that any busy day ‘on’ was followed by a quiet day ‘off’.

Linda

Writing takes a big chunk of my day, it’s very important to me just now. What am I writing? I’m living in the past, not the recent past which is full of grief for me, but the past of childhood. I’ve stepped beyond the grief and gone right back to something that’s relatively harmless. And going back to these memories helps me to know myself, I see aspects of the child that are in me today.

I think in snapshots, the little images that come to you when you start to dig around in the back of your mind. And the writing is a system for helping me to dig out these memories, I want to get to the core of the memory in my head. I’m very careful about how I describe them, making every word count, so the images are clear. It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing who you were as a child. These things have been in my head for decades, but they’ve been asleep. Now I’m awakening.

Tony

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 – phone conversations and post.

Channel 70

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Dream I’m still a kid
Wish I was but
You do the best you can mate
That’s what I say
You’re playing a video game
Called life
Level 8

Go round the corner from trouble &
Don’t give up’s what I say
Word of advice mate, it’s a gift:
A toy car, a cowboy gun
Bubble-blowing set
(Best thing I got for Xmas ever)
Sometimes I dream it &
Wish

Dream I’m still a kid
Wish I was, but
Living in Hotel Whatsit now
The name’s on my prescription. There
You can dream the past, go on son!
It’s telly in your head
Course I do, still dream

Of being Superman, Bionic Man
Love my dreams me
In my dreams, always no socks or shoes
In my dreams, trying to run

In my dreams
someone’s chasing & they’ll
beat you fuckin up mate
In slo-mo
In horror dreams on Channel 70, Level 8
Fall off a cliff & wake before you hit the
Deck of the deck of the deck of
Dreams
Of
Smoking sly behind bike sheds
Of school
Of being
In care.

They’re good aren’t they mate
Having them dreams?

Paul

Photo Sue Dean, 2020

This poem was dictated by Paul to Phil, at the Booth Centre 19 August 2020. The treated photograph is by Sue Dean, taken on her mobile phone. 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.

Earthbound delights

Necklace of Stars, poetry

Necklace of Stars participant Pam describes the story of her poem Sweet Space — and the positive impact of writing poems during lockdown:

Sweet Space


The Milky Way tastes of whizz bangs and pops.
Flying saucers trail streams of sherbet.
We ape cocktail sophisticates, posing
red-dipped tips of sweet cigarettes,
aimed skyward into
all sorts dreams and liquorice night.


The universe spangles with sweetness,
a kali rainbow poured into twisted
paper cones for wet finger dips.
We are freewheeling space cowgirls, licking
the chocolate edges off our wagon wheels,
dib dabbing fingers in the sherbert fountain,
bite a galaxy of hopes and dreams out of this sugar mountain.

Home safe in Grandma’s warmlit kitchen,
Grandad shows us how to lift the dumpling out of our stew,
a craggy meteor rolling in a puddle of treacle.

Pam Butler

How have I felt about the Necklace of Stars project during lockdown? A friend told me about this project combining poetry and embroidery – two of my favourite things! I was thrilled when I found there would be space for me to join. I already write and belong to an informal poetry group as well as doing a class once a fortnight. But my class had moved to Zoom and my poetry group were trying to communicate by email, which was nothing like as much fun. Every one of us wrote a Lockdown poem that month.


But then Lockdown went on. I went from being a busy, sociable, active member of my community to being a shielded ‘old person’. I became an old person, I couldn’t even do my own shopping. There was no one to talk to – and when we did meet out dog walking, once we had checked everyone was ok, there wasn’t much else to say. We were all in the same boat, nothing was happening.

So it was lovely to meet an interesting, delightful new person in Philip (even if only via the phone). It was fun to be given interesting and challenging creative tasks to do – fun being in very short supply in Lockdown. I started with a list of 8 random word-pairings and fitting them into a poem was an enjoyable word puzzle. Then I did another puzzle, the HAPPY acrostic. I filled my notebook with word lists and scribblings. It was so encouraging to talk to Philip and get a positive responsive to the poems and share a mutual enjoyment of wordplay. I’m not short of entertainment, but the tone of life was very flat so the weekly conversations were something to look forward to. It was very enlivening having something to report – when every day was so much like another – and someone to report it to.

At first I wasn’t much taken with the Milky Way idea of a poem – to be honest, neither Milky Way (too sickly) nor Mars Bar (no crunch) are sweets I enjoy and they weren’t around when I was a young child so I have no emotional attachment to them, although I do still fall for a Galaxy now and then.

I did a little bit of freewriting, trying to find a way in to the poem, then spent a whole week thinking back to my small childhood (under 10) and quickly went back in memory to the corner shop my grandma and then my aunt ran in Denholme in Yorkshire. My father was in the army and we were stationed in Germany and Malaya (as it was then) so my memories of my grandparents are few but intense. I have vivid memories of the shop – dark and full of smells from the bacon slicer and everything else from candles to shoe polish. I wasn’t allowed in when it was open, but could wander in behind the counter from the back kitchen when it was closed and the blinds were down. I got such a telling off when I tried to be helpful and polished the rank of wonderful brass weights for the scales. It was explained to me quite forcefully that I could have rubbed off the brass and got my Auntie Gladys thrown in jail for giving short measure!

Grandad in the back kitchen sitting with us and showing my brother and me how to take the dumpling
out of our stew, put it on a side plate and then pour golden syrup (which he called treacle) over it and have it for pudding – a strange, only-Grandad activity like drinking Black Beer, keeping pigeons and playing snooker. We always left the shop with a good selection of sweets and I did love kali and sherbert. We both faked being grown ups with sweet cigarettes, little cylinders of sugar paste with a red tip.

Wagon Wheels came a bit later, when we lived in Manchester and an ice cream van came every Sunday in summer into our little cul-de-sac and the whole streetful of kids would dash out and queue up. The Corona pop man came as well, but Dandelion and Burdock are much more earthbound delights.

Pam Butler, writing about the Necklace of Stars project, summer 2020

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 – phone conversations and post.

Andy says hello

poetry, Whisper to me alone
Andy’s WHISPER journal, opening pages.

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
Masked up.”
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.
Lean in
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.

Andy

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 journal by Andy

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.

The heart of the moon

Necklace of Stars, poetry

How many of us
Have stood alone
With our thoughts and feelings
And gazed into this vast expanse
We call the universe?

I have, with my aching bones and my troubled mind
And I’ve asked the question — why?
Why does the moon beckon to me
What is this force that is pulling my gaze upon it?

Its a-luminous appeal
And surface scarred by time
Its craters remind me of the moment
The asteroids struck its heart
But we still both shine.

How the stars wink at me —
Are they calling me,
playing a game,
Or simply looking down?
Maybe guiding me to better times.

I take heart when the sun starts to rise
Life itself is enriched
By its warmth and energy
It shines so bright.
Now I have the answer why.
Do you?

Neil Sessions

Everything relates to the sun and the moon, to life playing its game. Why does the moon draw us with its craters, the knocks and bangs of life? The moon is very powerful, it gives us gravity, weight, it moves the seas. The waves of emotion in ourselves, the werewolves in us comes with the moon. I’ve got bruises of the heart – they relate to the craters on the moon. The moon must’ve hurt when those asteroids struck.

Surface scarred by time, that’s my life. But I’m still shining bright. That’s come from you, that idea. Telling me to be proud of what I’m doing, these poems. Telling me to rise up, to stand alone in my individuality. My poems are the voice I’ve found, words scattered on scraps and I’ve assembled them with you. You’ve given me a precious gift and I hope to pass it on.

Actually I’m dyslexic, it’s why they called me stupid at school, but I’m qualified to write this. I’ve got the certificate, I’ve lived a life that’s battered me and I write from experience. Sometimes my mind screams at me like a teacher — why can’t you spell this properly? But what we have got to communicate as human beings is more important than spelling it correctly.

I invite people to do what it says in this poem, to take time to look at the sky, to look at the whole universe, and gaze and ask why. We are going through some terrible times and we need to take stock. I understand, I used to do it after my wife died. I carry the whole night sky in my memory, I close my eyes and I see it all. And I’m still asking it questions. Asking why, asking why.

Neil Sessions

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 – phone conversations and post.

While typing, pause to sterilise

Whisper to me alone
The new normal. Lunch, visor and poetry notes at The Booth Centre.

You’ll find the remarkable Booth Centre tucked down the back of Victoria station in Manchester, surrounded by garages, carparks, little eateries and mysterious businesses. Amongst drab surroundings it is a bustle of energy and purpose, a little sunburst. It provides extraordinarily imaginative support for the homeless community in this city. It’s welcomed arthur+martha here for over 10 years. Our Booth sessions have taken place in a hubbub of job clubs, quizzes, drama, singing, with everyone meeting together for exuberant mealtimes. It’s been a kind of home from home.

During the time of the pandemic, the Booth has quietened, but stayed busy. They’ve been supplying food parcels from their garden and providing activity packs and phones support for isolated people in lockdown. Many of the regular visitors to the centre have been scattered across the city in hostels and hotels, out on a limb. 

Now at last people are starting to come back, and creative sessions cautiously beginning again. However, the big boisterous groups have gone, instead people work at individual tables, in large, well-ventilated rooms, wearing masks and visors.

(While typing this blog at the centre, I pause to sterilise my hands from one of the many bottles available.)

Today’s is the first poetry session I’ve run here in months. I work alongside the sewing group that Bryony leads on Wednesdays. The stitchers are deep in the making process, focussed on the intricate rhythms of stitching and colour. It’s a perfect atmosphere for quiet conversation — and I work with three people, jotting down their words, to make poems. I simply ask them to describe their morning and their impression of the world right now.

The person I’m talking to becomes emotional, suddenly blurting out words, letting go some old history. He apologies to me. Normally this would be because showing your emotions is “unmanly”, but these days the apology is because he’s scared of spreading the virus. He pulls his mask tighter, continues in an even tone, hidden under the disguise.

And so here’s a tale of coming out of prison straight into the wider trap of the pandemic — a whole world under lock and key. But it’s also a world in which we can finally hear birdsong in the city…

Been let out

The virus. Me,

I was in prison and then when

I got out, it had started and

The whole structure of life

Was DIFFERENT —

Getting a prescription, getting 

HERE, haircuts

Seeing the doctor

Feeling of uncomfortableness

Of threat. And yet.

Have you

Seen the FOXES?

One was here yesterday. And the birds of the morning

When you get to hear BLACKBIRDS

Beautiful

Now the traffic is quiet.

People overcompensating

Gathering everything together:

“Get food, get supplies

That’s how we won the war!”

Inside

THE PRISON. Closed down, you were

Locked 23 hours a day

20 minutes in the yard

Volatile atmosphere, very.

Stopped all visits, all everything.

Coming out

Was the best day of my life

And then — REALITY ATTACK

Went into a shop and they stopped me

Didn’t know what they were talking about:

“Stay 2 metres back!”

Anonymous

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 our Facebook activity session, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE poetry videos. To see samples of the Booth’s online programme go to these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t60atajOgCw&t=5s

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5JJmqziR9EG1fM-hSv1-ag

Phil would like to thank Bryony from Stitched Up Co-op for welcoming him into her workshop.

Wake up to rise

Necklace of Stars

Widow


Dream, my dear wrinkly, in your lonely king-size,
Dream of using his feet to warm your own icy bones,
Put your arms round his flesh; arms, belly and thighs.
Dream of him living, his grunts, laughs and moans.
And may your dream end before you wake up to rise
From your untidy bed and the stab of him gone.

Tony

Tony: The virus makes you go into memory because the future is so uncertain. I plunge into memory and yet it’s distorted. The memories are juggled, they recede if I don’t want them, distant things seem like yesterday. A wonderful, happy day with my wife before she died. A day at the beach, seems so close and yet it’s a decade gone. I used to write for her and she used to write for me. So, to put poems on this blog is luxury. To write for someone else again...

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 – phone conversations and post. The featured image is an embroidery panel stitched by Joan B for the Necklace of Stars quilt.

Lockdown, Me

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Like a wolf
A wild dog sat in lonely lockdown
Another day goes by.
To some this is loneliness
But to me, joy.

Gives me time to reflect
Sitting here, pen in my hand
And my old Number 7
Jack Daniels, jotting down
Thoughts and
Reading aloud:

To the heavens
Ploughing down rain
To some this is hell
To me this is heaven.

So thanks to the gods
The old gods and the new
Brood of the trickster
We are the tales you’ll be told.
Another day, lockdown me
Life still rolls on
By Ragnarok set free.

Kris

Photograph Sue Dean. 2020

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of 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. The lockdown photographs of Manchester that illuminate this blog were by Sue Dean, using her favourite camera, her phone.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network. 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.

Smiley shoelaces. Photograph by Sue Dean, 2020