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.

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.

Hi all, hope you’re doing well.

A Book of Ours, Projects

Today blog for our project BOOK OF OURS, the medieval-style manuscript book, is written and illustrated with photos by the Booth Centre volunteer Sue Dean. She writes from the perspective of both a volunteer and participant.

Mondays with the arthur+martha group returned this week to the designs around the edging of the book, and to teach those who wanted to try Calligraphy. Several people wanted to continue with their partial complete designs around the edges for the book. Some expressed an interest in the beautiful designer writings of Calligraphy, while those who chose to continue their book designs were fairly quiet in concentration, asking few questions and mostly carefully bringing their imagined design to life.

We had pictures of insects, bugs and beautiful winged creatures to base our ideas on. The almost silent deep concentration was palpable. Meanwhile for those who chose the Calligraphy soon found this was much harder to master than imagined from the swooshing ease of pen strokes by the actual Calligrapher Stephen Raws. One or two mastered the basic idea and produced some excellent first attempts. For others it was much more difficult and not as expected from watching the Calligrapher write initially. Overall a quiet calm class with many happy faces at the work completed. 

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.

From our own correspondent

A Book of Ours

The workshops for BOOK OF OURS, a medieval-style manuscript book, have restarted at The Booth Centre and Back on Track, with Booth Centre volunteer Sue Dean as a roving reporter taking photos of the work and writing about the flavour of the sessions. Two of Sue’s reports, below, describe the bringing together of words, music and imagery in BOOK OF OURS.

2 November: we turn to creative drawing for the huge monastic-style decorated book, THE BOOK OF OURS. There was autumnal greenery and multicoloured leaves on each table, and inspirational prints in the style of the beautifully illustrated and uncommon books from aeons ago. There was much chatter and delight in trying something new: which initially designed in pencil meant mistakes could easily be erased. Each page had an already-completed design to work with. Some took the Autum foliage as as base for their design, others the prints dotted around the room. With soft music playing and the smell of Autum pervading the room, a gentle concentration settled as each started work on their design. Ink in various colours was offered once the designs were underway. This brought a slower steady pace as some went over the initial pencil designs with colours, and some who were designing their own piece used the inks direct It was a wonderful session with one or two lingering to complete a precise small piece before break and again before dinner… 

9 November: back to creating a song, words spoken over a beat. This week we had Christine to assist with creating beats and art through music. Singing is not allowed due to Covid as it exhales too much air into the atmosphere, despite being masked: so we chant or this week the words were spoken, very monotone, almost robotically.  Each person was given a small instrument, such as an egg shaker or mini tambourine, creating our own beats – copy the person in front and add your own and so on twice round the room. We aimed to do a ‘drop’ in the music so at a signal half the room stops then at the second signal all joined back in. We discussed journeys from drug addiction to a different life now, changes chosen, changes forced on you (Lockdown or serious accident, travel or migration). We chanted: I don’t think This world will ever change. Added our own words. Matt walked round the room while the beat swayed hypnotically and and voices chanted… 

Sue Dean

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.

I explode into a million seeds

A Book of Ours, poetry

We’re making an illuminated manuscript and songs, telling the story of homeless and vulnerable lives. In the last three weeks, volunteer Sue Dean has photographed these BOOK OF OURS workshops at the Booth Centre homeless resource. Here is Sue’s first full blog account, to accompany her pictures…

The session started very jovial, with some friendly banter and teasing about looking like bomb disposal experts with the full face clear covers. A question was asked of the group: `If we could change one thing in the world what would it be?`

Answers varied from Trump and Johnson removal to giving independence to the North, equalising wealth, eradicating homelessness and feeding Hungry Children. Peaceful protests, lobby Parliament — and my personal favourite: Educate MPs on the impact of what they’re doing to the people and to the country. Also — as added extras — look after each other, equality, community and kindness, grow your own veggies if possible or join a community allotment.

We turned our thoughts and feelings into writing, poems and songs. Concentration and soft murmurings of different languages within the class were all that could be heard. We started a clap-clap chant (singing in groups isnt allowed under Covid Rules as it pushes out more oxygen). Each person read over the beat what they had written, sometimes in their first language other than English. This was recorded and the Mandolin played in the background. The whole group feel a sense of achievement and very happy — but desperate to hear the fully produced version!

Sue Dean

Writing, performing and recording A Million Seeds. Phil recording, written pages by Masoud, Jason and Farina, the rhythm section Songwriter Matt Hill and volunteer. All photos Sue Dean.

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.

How do we get through?

A Book of Ours, poetry

How do I survive? It’s a question that everyone has to face, at some point, especially in these plagued times. But people who have experienced homelessness, and the support networks around them, give a lot of thought to it. Perhaps some of their answers will be useful to you, right now. 

This workshop at the Booth centre asked people for their survival tips. They jotted down their answers and then read them the top of a backing chanted by everyone in the room: “How do we get through?” The first suggestion is in the word “we” – you need other people to help and in return help them.

I’m looking at the poems right now, with their shopping lists of survival. First, as Mr Darwin once suggested, you need to adapt, to change. Connect to the deeper forces of life – breathe, follow your instincts, find joy in the power of life. Look after your resources (food, friends, shelter, morale). Be careful whose “truth” you listen to. And most of all, create calm inside yourself so that panic doesn’t stop you thinking clearly.

The poems for the Book of Changes are developing into chanted songs, like the old mediaeval Gregorian chants but with more than a hint of contemporary rap music mixed in. The first two weeks of making A Book of Changes have centred on people’s personal experience, formed into poems. This week we worked together as a group, bound together by the music that we made, chanting, clapping, stamping, banging on objects. Glueing us all together was songwriter Matt Hill, in the Booth for the first time since February. 

Then we discover a talented rapper in our group and so we explore finding rhythm in our spoken words…

Matt: “Covid measures mean we aren’t allowed to sing inside. So instead we head back into history to the early Middle Ages when monophonic chanting was the music of the moment. Our monotone voices chanting in unison, with no harmony or melody, suddenly seem relevant and powerful. The repetition of the phrase “How do we get through?” adds weight to this important question. Then we discover a talented rapper in our group and so we explore finding rhythm in our spoken words.”

For me, the whole session was shot through with many tiny moments of intimacy and tenderness. I was deeply moved to hear our support worker Harriet’s words, which felt like they’d been offered many times, in many desperate moments: “Just make it through the next 5 minutes. The 5 minutes after will be easier. I promise.” 

Perhaps most beautiful and mysterious of all were the instructions on survival given in Polish, Lithuanian and Finnish languages. I don’t speak any of those tongues, but the magic of the sounds seemed to suggest many meanings, many possibilities, and although we translated them to English, the words themselves hummed with a different music…

Volunteer Sue Dean took the photos and made these notes about the workshop: “An uplifting session. We started with learning to clap a basic beat. Then putting a word at the start and end of the beat, but continuing it in a round. The group enjoyed hearing a beat form from their own hands. An upturned plastic box was used for a drum, and a mandolin for the riff. We then wrote small poems or lyrics of experiences or memories. The whole group clapped and sang the basic beat while individual lyrics were recorded. The group music-making was a massive success – people still chattering about it over dinner and as they left. Shakespeare – if music be the food of love play on!”   

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.

Become your own Stargazer

A Book of Ours, poetry

Who do you reach out to in these troubled times? During the lockdowns and the isolation and the paranoia, loneliness is at an all time high. The people you care about have become precious beyond price.

Today, our workshop (12 Oct) at the Booth Centre was all about these connections. The things that affirm life when there is too much death in the air. And so we talked about the people who matter to us and the chains of connection between us, the exchange of love, of kindness, of energy.

From myself to my mother
My friends and philosophers
Writers, Gaia, God
Neologists
Positive energies
Enlightenment, direction
In the stepping stones of progression...

But this is love in times of survival, not love as a luxury…

Flower pink fingers… Anon. 2020

In other words, we were writing love poems. But this is love in times of survival, not love as a luxury or as a romantic drama. And so as to make it more universal, the loved ones were given the names of favourite flowers. A lover, a granddaughter, children, friends, ourselves, our spiritual guides, our spirit selves — they became an orchid, a rose, a pink flower, a whole garden, a lily. Which is where we came in…

Elevate the Lily
Lilies of innocence and beauty
I can see -- there is Lily now, on
My pink 
Lily-pod floating.
Follow the Lily and become your very own
Stargazer.

Poem by "K"

Volunteer Sue Dean took the photos of people’s hands as they wrote their poems during this workshop: Sue also jotted these notes:

“All were keen to get their thoughts, memories or hopes onto paper As much or as little help was gently provided, making it a very chatty session with Social Distance observed. Some came out as poems, or songs with distinct lines and chorus. Some more private for them alone. All seemed to have enjoyed the session and would be returning…”

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.

Book of Changes

A Book of Ours, poetry

When we started our mediaeval manuscript at the Booth Centre in 2019, nobody knew what was in store for the world. We knew that we wanted to make a document of the lives of people with experience of homelessness and the kind of chaos that vulnerability can bring.

But now, it seems everyone is feeling vulnerable, everyone is subject to chaos. Now our illuminated manuscript, A BOOK OF OURS, feels like a prediction. It’s not just vulnerable people who don’t know what the next day will bring, it’s every single one of us. We hide behind masks – but if we don’t we might “go under Nelson’s deck” as Jonno wrote in today’s poem.

The pandemic has of course prevented human contact of all kinds and replaced it with that nasty little pair of words “social distancing”. This has meant that for months and months arthur+martha have not been running our regular face-to-face workshops. Instead, we’ve used phone calls via our WHISPER TO ME ALONE project to reach out to people. But at last, this week we have restarted A BOOK OF OURS, with a new Covid-related chapter.

Drawing on a wealth of human experience gathered on the street, in jails, from deep in the self, from heavenly inspiration…

You never know what a day at the Booth will bring and this one was no different. An amazement of diverse stories poured onto paper. Drawing on a wealth of human experience gathered on the street, in jails, from deep in the self, from heavenly inspiration, and a certain amount of substance use… this is no run-of-the-mill writing group.

And perhaps in their uniqueness, these writers write for everyone. All the humour, courage, kindness and violence of humankind is here. It’s extraordinarily moving to witness this little gang describe their lives, often so casually and yet with so much heart. They dodge around the seeming impossibilities of their lives. In fact, Stephen (using his ever-present tablet) uses impossibility to talk about love…

Here in a room measured out in 2-metre distances our writers work, with hand cleanser at their elbows, with open windows and fans, with faces made anonymous by masks — here they inscribe themselves.

“Change can be a worry. First when it happens I feel it as a negative thing. And then, it starts to become a possibility…”

(Anonymous)

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.

King of Flowers

A Book of Ours

IMG_9270

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.

IMG_9277

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.

IMG_9261

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sing Lullaby

A Book of Ours

IMG_9427

 

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