On the Main Street many shops
Pork butcher, greengrocer, baker
Chemist and newsagents too
Wash House, Public Baths,
Where folk went for the
Mondays, mum wheeled a pram of laundry
To the Wash House, left it
In the drying room for ironing by teatime.
Illicit children in and out
Long runs of terraces, newspaper in the window
If you couldn’t afford lace.
A Pawnbrokers was just across.
By hearsay, on Friday Father drank his wages
Mother with no money in her purse
Took a special item to borrow, with interest:
Left a radio, a pair of best boots.
Shabby and respectable.
Went to the Brownies, then Girl Guides,
I learned many things in 1940:
To make beds, First Aid, hospital corners.
Taught never to call poor people names
-- and the cooking of sausages --
Opportunities in the open air.
Lenton Infants started school
Some sans breakfast.
According to the season, songs of
A frosty morning or dancing round the mulberry.
Junior girls skipped ropes in their playground,
The boys footballing next-door.
Mr Edwards was Head -- a stalwart man for sure
Mr Beardsley’s voice boomed:
Muffled bombs. Air raid shelter days
Spent ’til we moved to newer parts
That of course is another tale, ever-different
But still with hospital corners.
A Necklace of Stars is a meditation on childhood viewed from the other end of life. Alongside poems, songs and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies, we’ve invited written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness.Here Jaye travels faraway from the pandemic, into a childhood that carries it threats under a tranquil surface. A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England,Arts Derbyshire, DCC 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.
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…
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’.”
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.
A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England,Arts Derbyshire, DCC 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.
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
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.
Hearts For The Arts is a National Campaign for the Arts initiative, delivered in partnership with Culture Counts; the Local Government Association; Theatre NI, Thrive NI; We Are Voluntary Arts Wales, Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
TheNational 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
The Here Comes the Sun quilt hangs on my studio wall, it’s nearly complete, 3 hems to be stitched, a hanging system to be devised, a bit more stitching, more colour to balance the composition. It’s now time to pause, to reflect on this unique and wonderful project, to thank everyone whose joined in and to share. It takes time for me to write, for ideas to percolate. There has been much learning, some heartache and lots of joy with this project. I’m splitting my reflections into parts, so as not to overwhelm. So here I start at the beginning.
(artist Lois Blackburn)
Bringing of people together through creativity.
Phil and I working as arthur+martha have always aimed to breakdown boundaries through the arts; to bring people together, forge a greater understanding of each other, share experiences. However previous projects have been limited to one sector of society, for example: older people, people living with dementia, people with experience of homelessness, war widows, carers… This project gave us a unique opportunity to bring everyone together, without hierarchies, without labels.
How we worked
We invited people from across the globe to make embroidery and write a short piece of poetic text for a new quilt, Here Comes the Sun. It was open to everyone, wherever people lived, whether they regularly make art, or haven’t picked up needle and thread since school, everyone was welcome.
The project researched and developed new ways of working for artist Lois Blackburn during the Covid 19 pandemic. It built on the learning from recent project War Widows’ Quilt,and current project Necklace of Stars. It looks and prepares for an uncertain future.
Lois’s first goal was to engage a cross section of people in the project, from many parts of the world and many backgrounds, then from this participant group, build a team of volunteers to stitch on behalf of those who were struggling. Lois started by spreading invites to join in the project via social media and the web, and targeting groups that have previously worked with us, such as War Widows.
The interest and take up was fast and enthusiastic. Approximately half way through the project, due to time and financial restrictions, Lois stopped promoting the project to new participants, as she didn’t have the capacity for more contributions to the project.
130 embroidery squares have been created
28 embroidery squares were made by volunteers
18 new volunteers
37 drawings/paintings/designs were made by people with experience of homelessness
11 embroideries where stitched by people with experience of homelessness/or struggling with economic hardship.
Suns, are a symbol of alchemy. It represents life, influence and strength. It symbolizes energy, power, growth, health, passion and the cycle of life in many cultures and religions throughout time. In Egyptian culture, a winged sun disc symbol stood for protection. The Egyptians also worshiped the sun god Ra. In 20th century pop culture, the sun gives superhuman strength to comic book hero Superman. Such strength allows him to protect and rescue people in danger.
Particularly important during the crisis, for many of our participants and audience members, it’s a symbol of joy and hope.
“Beautiful piece of work and I love the connotations of the sun shining again.” Julie New, Personal Recovery Coach
The sun theme of the quilt and poetry is easy for everyone to understand. Yet if can be interpreted in countless different ways. Each of our 130 embroideries are unique.
We offered people the option of embroidering someone’s name on the quilt. This raises questions about remembrance, personal and national, the idea of a Covid time capsual. It also raises questions about how we give support, grief, hope.
Liam is my 15 year old son. I have suffered badly with my mental health over the years and the lockdown has made my condition worse. He is my inspiration to keep battling on everyday. He is in year 11 and is one of the children that will not take exams, I have found that his attitude to this and everything that is thrown at him is exceptional. I am so proud of him.
I haven’t embroidered a single name on it as so many people have done so much over this period. I wanted it to be inclusive of the people who have done simple gestures which have improved my days immeasurably. Such as someone smiling reassuringly from across the road, the post people still working and bringing supplies, my colleagues who have set tasks and set up groups to inspire and entertain whilst we are furloughed. The hospital staff who did my tests despite being in the height of the pandemic.
WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the insights of other vulnerable people in Manchester —during the pandemic. Here’s WHISPER writer Anastasia:
I’m riding the waves at this very moment. It’s a Tsunami this one, but I’m not drowning. In the past I’ve hit the bottom of the ocean. This time I’m able to observe it, I am in it and at the same time outside it. Yes, I’m riding the Tsunami.
When you drown you panic, try and flap your arms and legs. But the best thing you can do is be still, stay calm. You know inside yourself that the waves will ebb and flow away, just like the clouds passing over our heads.
I see lockdown positively, it made us humans stop. Although it’s causing distress and isolation, a feeling of losing grip on reality, our whole notion of what is normal has been turned on its head – and actually that’s good. I think the positivity will continue, there are less cars for instance. Venice, New York, London, two weeks into lockdown the skies over those cities were bluer.
I’ve seen people become kinder, considerate. Customers in shops used to be demanding and rude. When I see shoppers now, they’re more appreciative, they’ve got to queue, they’ve learned patience.
It all went sci-fi. People panicked and many of us wanted to flee …
At first everyone’s reaction was panic: our personal lives and the lives of our nations, how we work, how we think, how we view things — it all went sci-fi. People panicked and many of us wanted to flee but we couldn’t because there was a lockdown and so you have to stay and face it.
But for the others, panic gradually changed into something else. Perhaps the word I’m looking for is acceptance. “I can’t flee, I’m in my house. I’m going to stop crashing about and be still in the storm. I’m just going to breathe.” Sometimes it’s all you can do, just breathe.
Then when they started lifting lockdown, the world got angry. Now they’re saying you can have some freedom, now they’ve taken all it away again. You hear the jailer come and you hear the key turn and you feel trapped.
The world is moving through a storm just like I move through my storms. People are coping. Yes, there’s been violence and despair, but also care. Support for one another gets through, like those little phone calls that mean so much between people. The world’s realised flailing and fury doesn’t work. You feel you are drowning and everything has been stripped away in the terrifying waves. But slowly, appreciation of life, of nature, of connection, is dawning. And sometimes a sense of freedom. That’s when you know you’re riding the waves.
The arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during the pandemic. The project centres on writing made during phone calls and in journal-writing, art and song, plus an embroidered quilt. The Manchester photos are by Sue Dean. Words and images from WHISPER will soon be shared on the forthcoming twitterstream https://twitter.com/whisper2mealone
This project is funded by Arts Council England and partnered with The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester.
Tony Shelton, the author of our previous blog A-Z of Childhood, describes how to write yourself out of lockdown.
An inveterate and incurable itch for writing besets many and grows old with their sick hearts.
Writing…is but a different name for conversation.
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Writing, I explained, was mainly an attempt to out argue one’s past; to present events in such a light
that lost in life as either won on paper or held to a draw.
Jules Feiffer, Ackroyd.
All these quotes (from books I have never read, I’m afraid) have some truth in them for me.
Ever since the age of six or so, when I was praised by Miss Puttock for writing a piece about my electric train set and managed to spell ‘electricity’, I have written, mainly because I had to. For most of my life writing involved essays, exam answers, official reports and memos but I even enjoyed those (well, not the exams perhaps). It was the craft that appealed to me: of finding the rights words, putting them in the right order and editing them. Creative writing began at a time when work seemed to dominate my life and I developed an itch to write the ‘novel of the century’. I started with a WEA evening class in Leeds and in the latter stages of work began to jot down ideas during dull meetings. I wrote humorous articles for professional magazines. I managed to have two stories and a few short pieces read on the radio but it wasn’t until early retirement that writing really took off. I wrote my work memoirs, to get it all out of my head. I researched a local history book which sold out and discovered the huge kick of finding people enjoyed what I had written, fan letters and requests for signings, even!
Then, when my wife and I retired to Cumbria, we both joined a U3A creative writing group and, after a year or two, I found that I liked writing poetry, really playing with words and tweaking them to fit. She did, too, and for a few years we wrote separately but together, commenting on each other’s work and enjoying it. You could say she was my audience, my muse (and I hers). Now she has gone and for three years I have been trying to regain my desire to write, to find a new motivation.
And then came the virus and the lockdown and my shielded isolation and an almost total absence of face-to-face conversation. I no longer have any of my old interest in drawing and painting, I am no good with my hands and my knees put me off long walks but my need to write is now acute and it is a need, almost an addiction. Bread and butter writing – emails, texts and so on – has been a kind of substitute and writing a diary of my life for a future archive makes me write something every day but these do not require the craft of poetry or fiction or the intensity of concentration which keeps out sad memories and self-recrimination. It does not give me that kick – of making a reader or listener amused or moved. I have never written for myself: like a stand-up comic I need an audience, one person will do. And I sometimes need another kind of kick – the motivation to write, the suggestion, the deadline, the prospect of a reaction, no matter how critical, because I still want to learn, to improve.
The Necklace of Stars project has now provided all that for me and, once again, ideas are coming into my mind demanding to be jotted down on scraps of paper and in notebooks. Guided by a tutor, I am learning again and finding new ways of writing. The project has nudged me into writing down memories of the dull but strange world of my suburban London childhood and the increasingly odd members of my family. Many new or long-forgotten memories have emerged as if called to action.
I used to imagine my grandchildren coming up to me in the garden and asking: ‘Grandad, what was school like when you were a little boy?’ or ‘Tell me again about the time when you…’ They never have done. Maybe children don’t actually do that at all, maybe it’s an advertising fantasy dreamed up to sell Werther’s Originals. So, this memory project is a kind of substitute. More important, recording childhood memories has pushed to one side the darker memories of the last few years, of my wife’s decline and death. I did write about those years and my experience of caring for her, trying to set it all to rest, to prevent all the ‘what ifs’ going round and round to no purpose.
I am now convinced that writing can be therapeutic. But it should also be enjoyable and good for one’s mental wellbeing. If possible, it should provide a positive sense of identity, helping you to think ‘I am a writer’, even if you now know you will never write the novel of the century. Writing for the project is now helping with all those things. I am sure it has certainly helped my mental health. And writing, as I am now, about childhood memories is making me feel a little more ‘interesting’, helping me value my life more. It is helping me to start to understand about how my character was formed in my early years.
Writing is once again helping me get up in the morning (well, most mornings), and, in the most basic sense, filling the time like nothing else. I have plenty of time to fill.
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: 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...
When I was a little girl I used to say, “I want to love the world better.” But it’s a job I cannot do. Sometimes I can’t even love myself.
16 years ago I got clean. I was using heroin and crack, introduced to them by an ex-partner. Even then I wrote every day, journals and diaries and books of all descriptions. Sometimes it was almost illegible. I did the cold turkey myself, writing every terrible day. My dad would say, “This is the book that will help the world, this will be how you love the world better. The story of how you healed.”
When you come off heroin, your body is all pain. You stretch and you bend and you twist, you twitch your legs, they call it Riding the Bike. Couldn’t sleep, I’d be pacing, I’d be looking at the sky. In the middle of the night I’d be looking out for that chink of light at the darkest time, just before the daybreak. When it finally came I’d think I’ve done another day, I’ve been clean.
I wrote about it every day, every detail. A whole book. Then one day I burned it all. Maybe the weight of those pages was too heavy.
Maybe you know that book too.
WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery.
Photo above: Featured embroidery, by Marylyn MacLennan for the quilt, Here Comes the Sun.
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.
While we have been working on the poems for necklace of stars, the Covid virus has kept everybody shut away in their own little worlds. For some this has been a shelter and a relief, for others a prison. This time alone, or else in small family groups, has forced people to look at themselves and think about who they are. And the question of happiness has come up over and over. When I ring up participants I very often ask how are you doing? And they want to know about me — how is it today?
Questioning happiness, contentment, the striving to find peace, is traditionally the business of poets. And so some of the pieces we’ve gathered for this lullaby project are not lullabies at all, instead they address fear. And the writers look very deeply to see if they can find peace, either in themselves or in the world around them.
And, as is the way of all things, just as peace arrives, it leaves again and we see the world in conflict once more… and the words of lullabies mean more than simply finding sleep, they mean finding harmony between ourselves:
Hush-a-bye baby, hush-a-bye
Sleep sweet to my lullaby melody
Dream of your place in the Galaxy
Safe from the chains of old slavery
May your life be filled with sweet harmony
And your fantasy never lack sanity
May you never be plagued by poverty
May you reach for the stars as your destiny…
Hush-a-bye baby, hush-a-bye.
Joan Beadsmore, embroidered stars for Necklace of Stars, quilt. June 2020
Today’s blog was written by Philip Davenport, arthur+martha.