Self-made mountains

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

Booth Centre, 5 December 2019

 

Asking for help can be the most difficult thing. It seems simple, but there’s a million reasons not to, infinite excuses.

“You’ve got to be ready to ask,” says one of our regular group who’s come through addiction and out the other side.

“It’s not easy, admitting you’re weak,” observes someone else.

“But is it really weak? Everyone needs help, it’s human,” says someone who’s just got a new flat. “I’ve been living out on the street, I needed a lifeline.”

It’s a morning of dancing around these tiny self-made mountains, delicate but terrifying.

Then in the afternoon we start with tears, as occasionally happens. The person next to me is literally shaking. Eyes dark with worry. Tears flood and emotion floods the room. Somehow these tears liberate everyone else, bring them closer to their feelings. And so we write together.

It’s a brittle atmosphere like a family argument, a storm waiting to burst. There’s sadness and anger, lightning strikes of shouting. Then between it all poems grow. People write about letting in simple pleasures. They talk about sunshine, the silliness and joy of just being. Little lines that are fought for so hard, shared and appreciated. Then shouting stops, the tears ease off, we have a strange peace. 

 

Help is too big to put in words

Naked in a big world

Myself to get off the drugs 

Help is too big to put in words

Myself to get off the drugs 

Mum and dad and me

Naked in a big world

Help is too big to put in words.

Anonymous 

I’m touched beyond words by these words. Their makers are so proud, yet embarrassed, yet delighted. There’s a shy grin.

“Maybe I’ll be back next week,” says a new member of our ongoing little club.

“Was it a bit much?” I ask another regular. He shrugs.

“It’s all part of the cake mix,” he says.

A quill under your pillow

A Book of Ours, Projects

One of the delights of each different arthur+martha project, is the chance to work with new specialists to gain new skills and inspiration, to see things with fresh eyes. For the Book of Ours project next year we will be joined by singer songwriter Matt Hill, this year we had the delight of working with Calligrapher Stephen Raw. Stephen writes about his experiences here.

Once again I have the feeling that there is something strangely transformative about calligraphy. Even complete beginners somehow grapple with the wretched pen and enjoy their results! How can you write anything when the nib is thick one way and thin the other and only goes in one direction!? (Little wonder that Mr. Biro was so successful with his wonderful invention.) And wrestling with a quill-like pen was exactly what happened in the workshop – look at the smiles on faces proudly showing the fruits of their labour.

Relevant to the ‘Book of Ours’ project is the fact that some of those novice monks copying manuscripts way back when in scriptoriums were actually illiterate. But this is perhaps no surprise when you consider that our letters are only a manipulation of four simple strokes in various combinations: a vertical, a horizontal, a curve and an angle. The rest is creative embellishment. In the workshop I was telling someone about the time in the 1980s when I lived and taught in Papua New Guinea. One day Makali, a caver, came to the art school without any ability to read and write at all. Yet, when given my drawing of text he managed to produce sublime v-cut letters in wood.

He, as Booth Centre participants do, was dealing with pure form in much the same way I might approach unfamiliar Chinese or Singalese script. Nevertheless, the question remains: why our pleasure in calligraphic script? My observation and guess is that it has something to do with the very nature of an internal contrast within a single letter. Any letter has one part that grows from fat to thin and back again in such a beautiful, gradual manner. And what is more, it’s all gratis – the ‘magic’ pen does it all. Keep it flat on the paper, keep the angle the same and hey presto – letters with inbuilt vitality and variation. No need for contortions of wrist and fingers – just get a grip and off you go. I’ll risk sounding patronising but it never ceaes to delight me when it happens. 

The resulting pages in a ‘Book of Ours’ visually speaks of such enjoyment. For sure, some of the letterforms might be wobbly or even ‘scuffed’ (no, not a technical term) but the connection between those monks and the Booth Centre writers is right there in front of us. The process of capturing language and making it visible has always been spellbinding. George Orwell, writing in 1946, said how language is ‘an instrument which we shape for our own purposes’. He wasn’t really talking about the way letters look but he was aware to the importance of fixing language with letters. Without script our lives would be confined to simply conversation or monologue. I love the story – probably apochrophal – of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, who placed a quill under his pillow at night in an attempt to learn how to write. He knew the importance of it but couldn’t be bothered to do the graft of getting frustrated with that wretched pen. Charlemagne could have learnt something from those at the Booth Centre workshop who stuck with it! 

Amicus

A Book of Ours, Projects

The last Booth Centre workshop of the summer for A Book of Ours. It’s been quite a journey, with many coming onboard. Some people have stopped by briefly and for others, they’ve travelled far and deep as they made the work. It’s an adventure into beautiful illuminated manuscripts and a journey into the self, determined by each person.

Some of these journeys have been stormy, punctuated by rage and tears. Today however, was a calm one, with a group of the regular makers finishing off pieces before the summer break.

 

A July page in the calendar was suddenly glowing with flowers.

 

November contained a memory passed on from Andy’s grandfather, returning from the First World War, one of the Pals Regiments that were so decimated.  He finished the description with the single Latin word Amicus. It means friendship.

 

Anne Marie made a series of portraits of former Prime Ministers, and a ladybird. All of them joining their rightful place in the Book of Ours, which encompasses more and more of the history of the entire world as it grows. But most importantly it contains tiny fragments of the previously unwritten history of homelessness.

 

This is the story that isn’t shared, isn’t told, is kept secret and policed with shame. Or else it’s presented as the experience of individuals, rather than the truth — its an experience that’s shared by many, many people.

 

And on another page from one of the most prolific poets I’ve ever met, wrote about forgiveness. Much of his work is about anger and regret, but this one had a gentler tone and it fitted the mood of the day. He names the poems written for this project after blues singers, who themselves were often people with the experience of homelessness. Here is a section of it, to play us out.

 

Sonny Boy Williamson the Second

 

Ain’t no time, it’s irrelevant

“Love is in my heart, know we have to part”

Been up since 2 this morning

You got no possession, ain’t got no watch

However many t-shirts, you’re always cold

I’ve got blues in my head.

 

Sleeping under the Mancunian Way, like a cave troll.

But I’m sorry. Mercy.

What’s in your eyes today

Are you in love?

Grace of God?

When you’re on the streets, wear a hoodie

However many t-shirts

It’s cold. I’m always cold.

 

All you hear is cars. A drain.

Running water.

Not religious but they tell me

I’m getting that way, growing a beard.

Not religious but I pray every morning:

“Want democracy, not hypocrisy.”

 

Anon

 

And the smell of grass. Blissful.

A Book of Ours, Projects

A Book of Ours speaks of many experiences, the many facets of being a person, whatever your background, whatever your financial situation, however frequently you’ve found yourself without a home to call your own.

Strawberries still grow in the summer. The taste of a cup of tea still reminds you of comfort. Your football team still scored. The sunshine still warms your face. And the days become seasons and the seasons flow into each other, suddenly adding up to years.

 

All of these things are commemorated in the Book of Ours. In images that dance about the page and in little lines of six words. They are the gentle maths of the ordinary. Amid the accounts of homelessness, prison, violence, catastrophe, these things are a welcome anchor, holding the pieces together. Like gravity, like love.

 

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

 

Skeletons

A Book of Ours, Projects

In the quiet and safety of the Back on Track Centre, people busily scribe and draw into the Book of Ours manuscript. It’s going through subtle permutations, each week or so it changes, like light striking a picture at a different angle. Today it seemed that the individual lines — each so carefully composed and written into the calendar pages — started speaking to each other. The passing of a human life was suddenly next to a line about the passing of seasons. The skeletons of winter trees also echoed cold, skinny human bodies. And the changes of seasons connected to changes in people’s lives, as they grew into new possibilities, after the storms had cleared. 

But the moment you’ll not see written in this book came at the end of the afternoon, when one of the scribes said, “It’s a relief to write this down. To put homelessness down on paper. To put down the weight. Get rid of the shame and just acknowledge what happened. I’m leaving lighter.”

 

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

 

 

All always learning

A Book of Ours, Projects

For our first workshop for ‘The Book of Ours’ at partner venue Back on Track, we revisited the calendar we started in the Booth Centre. These pages document significant moments in the writers’ lives. It’s a kind of group poem and like all poems it has rules. One line of the calendar is allocated to each day of the year and each line has to be six words. Woven around these words are thickets of images and colour that enrich the text and deepen the meaning.

 

Chris working on December page

It was a pleasure to show off the work we’ve done so far to a new group and even more of a pleasure to see them dive in themselves, writing a new layer of experiences. The pages of this calendar embrace delight and sadness, dark days and light. Today’s writings were jaunty. From shopping on a Saturday morning, to the joy of “dragon’s blood” raspberry sauce on an ice cream. From marking a 60th birthday (prize gift a potato peeler), to the little-celebrated drama of hailstones on a window.

 

 

Other days in the calendar touch on the harshness of homeless life. But today, we shared the charm of small things.

Sitting together, we chatted and the ideas slowly formed, words took their order. Next, the trying out of many pens to see which size and shape fitted the hand best. Then tryouts of the six word line, carefully inscribed to get the words fitting nicely into the space. Not too teeny, or scattered, not too squeezed. Then at last the commitment to the page, taking a place among the writings and drawing of all the other makers. The nervousness, the rush of excitement that comes with a finished line. Like stitches in a tapestry, the pieces slowly grow.

Afterwards, as we packed up the pages and paints and scattered writings, we asked Patrick how it had been:

 

“It’s my first time doing any of this sort of thing — enjoyed it. Art, poetry, never did it at school. At school didn’t learn much. Here, I’ve enjoyed, people don’t rush you. Stuff like this, you like to take your time. Me, I love doing it. We’re all adults, but we’re all always learning…”

 

Now is the hour, even in sun, even in shower

A Book of Ours, Projects

Booth Centre, 16th May 2019. A Book of Ours

As our group work together, we’re starting to see changes in people. For some, the workshops have allowed them to set free abilities they have kept locked away. They’re coming back week after week, building on what they find within themselves. For example, R poured herself into a long piece of writing, that faces the demons in her life. Last week she started new work, a sequence of short prose pieces that reflect on the different stages of the day, each with their rewards or challenges. These pieces are so deeply heartfelt, so honest and well-observed, that they still the whole room. Everybody listens, everything becomes quiet as she conjures with her words.

And the beauteous, gold-tinted pages of our book have given space for artist Johnathan to fly. He’s combined the energy of graffiti with the delicacy of the original illuminated manuscripts. Drenched in colour, and in affection, his warm-hearted evocation of a mood for the words inevitably brings a cluster of people who want to see the latest piece. He basks in the attention, grinning ear to ear. But he’s generous, giving tips, encouragement, or sharing page space with others who are less confident, to give them a boost.

For others, starting to make art or writing is a chance to put down a burden. Last week, one of the group wrote a piece about sleeping rough, and finding help from a surprising place. He and the others sleeping on that street were regularly attacked, beaten, even set on fire. But a local gangster decided to set up protection for them while they slept. No reason was ever given, but it was a welcome gift — safety. Once he’d written the piece, he left and hinted he’d not return. It felt like he’d said the thing he needed to and was now moving on.

For others, the writing and art exposures them to the terrible internal critic many people carry within. Opening these doors, admitting these possibilities is just too hard. I can think of one group member who’s always poised on the edge, making rough notes, not quite able to jump in. And another who’s fighting a raging war with addiction and who comes up for air some weeks, makes some art or writes, then slips under the surface again. He wasn’t with us this week, but we said hello. I worry for him, hope he’ll be back.

And for others what we make is sanctuary. One of the group said today,

“I’ve got my wild days. But here I’m chilled out and I let the quiet in.”

Roy and poem

Roy with his poem/artwork page for A Book of Ours.

arthur+martha are making an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It gathers together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, (‘A book of ours’) giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

Roy and poem:art