Riding the tsunami

poetry, Whisper to me alone

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.

Anastasia

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.

Manchester umbrellas. Photo by Sue Dean

Writing in the Year of the Plague

Necklace of Stars, poetry

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.
Juvenal, Satires.

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.

Tony Shelton

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.

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.

More than a watchman for the daybreak

poetry, Projects, Whisper to me alone

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.

“A”

Drawing by Jasmine, from journal pages

 

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. 

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.

Happy?

Necklace of Stars, Projects

 

How are you coping

As we go through lockdown?

Perhaps you are lonely

Perhaps you are sad

Yet be consoled; this too shall pass.

 

Annie Carter

 

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.

 

Annie Carter

Joan B, embroidered stars

Joan Beadsmore, embroidered stars for Necklace of Stars, quilt. June 2020

 

Today’s blog was written by Philip Davenport, arthur+martha.

A Necklace of Stars, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts Derbyshire, DCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service.

 

 

Spring Greens

Necklace of Stars

“I’m still tired, but feeling positive now. I really appreciate this, the chance to write the poems. When life has been harsh to deal with, it’s helped.”

(Participant)

One of the things I have witnessed over and over again is that making art, writing poems, stitching embroidery, can help to unpick despair. Nobody really knows why, there are lots of theories. At times making a poem or an artwork is simply a distraction. It takes the mind onto other things, stops those restless thoughts chasing each other and becoming frantic.

Art can also help understanding. Writing a poem gives your thoughts new shape and perhaps allows new answers. An artwork is a representation of the world and connects you to it more deeply. Slowing yourself down to the intricate pace of an embroidery gives you time to meditate and find a richer texture in the whole of life.

“I’m feeling my way forward, using my poems as a guide.”

(Participant)

Making things not only shows the exterior world, it also reflects the inner life and makes it richer, brighter. If you can, take a little time to live with the prose poem below. It’s a celebration of trees, the wonderful, familiar friends that I often don’t give a second glance. But here they’re transformed by the poet’s eyes — into furniture, into children begging for pennies, into a swirling cloak that becomes an old coat, or into old pale bones against a winter sky. As well as trees, all the seasons of human life are in this little poem and so it helps me to appreciate my own. And for the makers of such work it is transforming too…

“I found this to be very useful. More than useful, brilliant in fact.”

(Participant)

 

Spring Greens

 

The Hollies are still wintergreen, come spring, leathery, shiny-tough, reliable as upright chairs in their utility upholstery.

Plum and cherry let the March winds take their snow and ruby blossoms from them, holding out small fingers for their fee, which came in copper verdigris and silver tarnish, well-used coins and promise of paper money for the fall.

Oak begins leafing out from nowhere, fine, fresh, lettuce-like, so young.

Sycamore sings, spreading hand spans which unfold into a summer cloak whose generous swirls conceal old mossy coat.

Beech, whose bones arched stark against the pale, cold, winter sky, now shimmers in the heat, the flesh full, lush, deliciousness.

 

Linda

 

Today’s blog was written by Philip Davenport, arthur+martha.

A Necklace of Stars, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts Derbyshire, DCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service.

 

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.

 

We learn from each other

Projects, War Widows Stories

Yesterday I had the privilege to join the Devon War Widows’ Association for a very special afternoon tea. Privilege may sound a strong way of describing it, but it feels very real. The meeting echoed others with the War Widows; a group of women who I’ve never met before, a short time describing the project, a while of quiet conversation and contemplation, then people start to open up. People share memories of their late husbands, of the drive for survival for themselves, their children. Of the mess of emotions, the hierarchy surrounding widowhood- husbands who died in conflict and those who died after as a result of conflict, campaigns for pension rights, for better recognition … and much else. And laughter to, and debates over which is the right way to make a cream tea- cream on first or jam?

Irene Wills beautiful contribution to the War Widows’ Quilt

Materials, instructions, treads and SAE for the making of the War Widows’ Quilt where handed out to everyone. And as I was starting to pack up, Irene C. who had been sitting next to me during much of the tea, leaned over and explained:

“This is the most interesting meeting I’ve ever been to. There have been things to think about, it’s made things seem real- Audrey whose 90, will have very different memories than someone younger, or those who husbands have died as a result of a conflict. It’s made me think about it in a different way, to re-evaluate how to think about war widows.

Having something to make, to do, (the quilt) makes you feel part of it- I’m proud of being a Plymouth member, but now I feel part of the wider group of war widows. We learn from each other.”

A big thank you to all the women of the Devon War Widows’ Association that made me feel so welcome and shared so much of themselves.

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.