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.

Hearing WHISPERS

Whisper to me alone

Whisper to me alone is a song and poem cycle made collaboratively during the pandemic with people who’ve experienced homelessness and with vulnerable people. Songwriter Matt Hill and Phil Davenport made many hours of phone calls with participants, gradually piecing together this material. Here, Matt writes about the experience:

Despite the limitations under lockdown this has been a project I’m really proud of. I worked over the phone with the writers, gathering their input and recording their voices. You will hear some of those voices in the finished recordings. I have come to know these voices so well and yet we’ve never met face to face.

The recordings were done at home, directly into phones, and down phone-lines. Although it wasn’t the best quality it captures the sense of isolation we were all feeling as we tried to find connection over the phone. There are other sounds here too, electronic sounds of dial tones and beeps merged with the sounds of bird song, from that remarkable period in early lockdown when the traffic stopped and the birds returned to the city.

For a project born in an urban cityscape, nature and birds are ever present in this material. We hear of the arrival of seagulls into Manchester and the mysterious disappearance of the pigeons. The reality of lives affected by homelessness and mental health challenges comes through. In times of trouble we all find our own ways to cope. Some of our writers found comfort in childhood or times of family gatherings and community.

As I struggled with my own mental health during lockdown I was able to find a strong personal connection to these songs. This song cycle give us glimpses of other lives but there is universal truth here, as we all try to adapt and shift to this new reality. Even though these are not the stories of my life, there is much here we can all find connection with. You can stream the songs on Bandcamp here.

Cover of forthcoming CD, designed by “SPD”

#WhisperToMeAlone is a cycle of pandemic poems and songs, which give tiny glimpses of homeless and vulnerable lives, in rooms, on streets, isolated in hotels… The project was devised and directed by Phil Davenport who worked with songwriter Matt Hill in collaboration with participants in Manchester. WHISPER was funded by Arts Council England and partnered with The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester. Contributors include members of the Inspiring Change Manchester group, associated with SHELTER, and MASH (a charity providing non-judgemental services to women working in the sex industry). Visual tweets for the twitter stream were designed by the poets Tom Jenks and Nathan Williams. A CD is coming soon...

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.

The feel good factor

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

Hands sanitised, masks on, socially distanced, we sat and talked, we all took small steps together out of lock-down, a lock down state of mind as much as a physical one. ‘S’ explained how nervous she’d been coming in on the bus, going into the unknown- for all of us, it was the first time in a group workshop for many months.

Phil and I have enjoyed keeping busy working since the beginning of lock down, connecting with people, finding ways to support creativity via postal packs, the phone, and on-line. Today was something different, something very special, creating work for the collaborative quilt ‘Here Comes the Sun’, part of the Whisper to Me Alone project. The host venue was Back on Track, it’s an inspirational Manchester charity that supports people who have been homeless or had mental health problems.

Our theme is the sun, a symbol of hope and re-starts, of warmth and comfort, of gift giving, as one participant described; “The feel good factor”.

A seemingly innocent and simple theme, it still leaves plenty of room for the imagination: “You don’t see dawn in the city, you don’t see sunrises, the blocks get in the way.”

Then the joy of putting our ideas onto paper started, the artistic play. I took in one of my favourite materials, oil pastels and ‘Brusho’. Brusho is a fabulous highly pigmented watercolour powder, you mixed with water, or sprinkle. The magic of creativity with your hands soon took over, creating a hushed room, heads down concentrating, the outside world disappeared.

20 fabric packs were laid out for our group to choose from. One at a time we walked with favourite paintings in hand to find the fabrics that matched the colours, texture and mood of the paintings. One of the group had experience of embroidery, the others- this was something new.

There is something beautiful about the simplest of stitches, running stitch, it’s where most of us start off when we learn to sew, it’s probably the stitch that you started with at school. When you’ve got the right needle and a rhythm going, there is something almost mediative in the repetitive nature of stitching. Then comes; choosing colours, textures, thread thickness, stitch size, pattern- when written down or spoken these creative decisions are complex, however when we make them, they are often instinctive.

The group left with their hands full of threads, fabric and paintings, and full intentions to return in a few weeks for our follow up session. Returning to share and celebrate their sun embroideries, and welcome new participants to the making of Here Comes the Sun.

Thank you so much to everyone who came along to my first group session of Here Comes the Sun, and to Back on Track, who as ever made me feel so welcome, and everything so easy for me.

Lois Blackburn

Here Comes the Sun is part of the project WHISPER TO ME ALONE. It gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Singing melodies into a mobile phone

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Songwriter Matt Hill:


For the last few weeks I’ve been writing songs from the remarkable work that has sprung from the WHISPER TO ME ALONE project. I’ve been presented with poems, spoken word pieces and other sets of beautifully-expressed words.  My job is to try and find the music in them, to tease out melody and emotion and to find my own connection to the words so I can sing them convincingly. 

As a singer and songwriter my job is all about finding connections. Songs that connect the singer and the listener. Melodies that connect the head to the heart. When I’m co-writing with people I am used to having that connection eyeball to eyeball, like I have done on previous arthur + martha projects like Moving Panorama https://arthur-martha.com/portfolio/moving-panorama/. But in a time of Covid-19 those usual connections have been severed. 

Instead I’ve had to delve deep into people’s words, looking for meaning and expression. Phil Davenport from arthur+martha, who is leading WHISPER, has been there for the creation of the words and so he’s been a valuable source of information. Phone calls have been made to speak to the writers themselves so I can find out more about their lives and the words they’ve written. 

Those phone calls have been an adventure I wasn’t prepared for. I’ve spent time singing melodies into a mobile phone with people I’ve never met. Along the way I’ve been schooled in Norse mythology, learned things I didn’t know about garden wildlife and had some wonderful nostalgic trips down memory lane to a Manchester that was free and easy and not locked down. I’ve even picked up the guitar and strummed down the phone, attempting a remote jam session. But whoever I speak to we always acknowledge just how weird and strange these days are, as we sing and laugh down a phone line, despite having never met in person. Both of us trying hard to find that connection. 

Matt Hill is a singer-songwriter and a freelance creative artist who uses songwriting as a way to connect with people.  matthillsongwriter.com The street art photograph at the top of this blog is by Sue Dean, taken on her mobile phone.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

A river crying

poetry, Whisper to me alone

My last Whisper workshop at the Booth Centre, a remarkable place which offers advice, activities and support to homeless people in Manchester. I’ve been here on Wednesday mornings for the last five weeks, making poems with people. As they take part in the arts activities, I work alongside, writing down the stories they tell me. Sometimes it’s easier for people to talk while their hands are busy with sewing, or pottery.

This week I spend time with S, who wakes up with a poem in his head pretty much every day. He told me that his grandpa was a singer and so he is used to words carrying more than every day meaning, they can also be music, love tokens, or religious texts.

For S, the Psalms from the bible are everyday reading. I’m not a religious person, but I grew up with the Old Testament and the Psalms in my ears, and their subtle rhythm runs through a lot of what I write, even now.

S told me that he often has a phrase running around his head and he’s got to write down, to quieten it. The line that he showed me is the refrain in the poem down below, the crying rivers. As we spoke, of the conversation broadened out to the world he sees around him right now. For him, the pandemic is a biblical plague, a visiting of justice.

I read the poem below to him and he said, “Exodus. It means come forth.” And so that became the title.

As I’m finishing up this blog, I’m sat in the Booth by the piano. The place has been cleaned up ready for tomorrow and there’s a quiet buzz of conversation between two of the volunteers. Someone is whistling and banging a mop bucket. Outside, the rain is droppping in biblical amounts and I wait for my moment to cycle home.

Exodus, come forth
 
First will be last
And the last first
Whatever is for you
Receive it
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
Wait for me, wait for me
 
Don’t hold onto
An argument like it’s yours
Let go
It has no worth
The lonely rivers cry to the sea.
 
I don’t think the world will ever change
There is evil, destruction
All of King Pharaoh's
plagues
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
 
Do you remember the first stars in the sky?
Remember your first step on the Earth so fair?
Say you don’t remember, but you were there.
 
Lucifer will rob you blind
Will feed you on death
The plague of frogs of locusts
Leave them behind
 
Let my people go
Let go, it has no worth
 
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
Wait for me, wait for me.

"S"
Photograph by Sue Dean, 2020

I’d like to thank Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session — and for being so encouraging of this collaboration.

The long twitter poem Whisper2meAlone will begin transmission soon; it will include excerpts of the poems and writing from the project as well as songs and hand-drawn emoticons.

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 lockdown. The project centres on journals of writing, art and song lyrics. The treated photo is by Sue Dean.

Swan-building

poetry, Whisper to me alone

When my brothers and sister and myself were little, mum would sit us round the kitchen table with bits of cardboard and paper and paints. We’d splash away together, making pictures, or building space rockets. It was her method of crowd control, it stopped us from arguing and getting into mischief. Mum would be there keeping an eye on us, while making the tea. 

They were some of the happiest times I ever experienced; a feeling of purpose and a feeling of belonging.

That memory flashed into my mind during the ICM workshop I was invited to last week. They’re a group of artists who hook up together every week to be in each other’s company while they create artworks. At the moment they meet on Zoom, because of the Covid restrictions.

The group was led by Dylan, who suggested swans as this week’s theme. (It’s important to know that Back on Track and ICM are based in the wonderful Swan Building, in Manchester.) While people drew swans, they chatted in a gently distracted way and I wrote down the sentences that jumped out, arranging the words into a poem. It was a wonderfully peaceful way of working together, full of little anecdotes and jokes and all the while the drawings came alive on paper.

Last swim of the day. Group visual poem 2020

Maybe because my own recollection of childhood was sparked, I particularly noticed people’s stories of their childhood — their encounters with swans, geese, and of course the ugly duckling story. Somehow the poem reflects the journey of the ugly duck, the journey we all make forward from childhood, trying to reach our full potential. 

After the poem was written and read back, Dylan was kind enough to make it into a visual poem of a swan, which you can see above. What you can’t see, but can only imagine, is the sweet-natured atmosphere of this group, who welcomed me into their little gang and for a while treated me as one of the family, while they made art together. 

Swan lovers. Anonymous 2020

Several organisations work together to support the art group:

Inspiring Change Manchester is a Lottery Funded Learning Programme. We work with people experiencing Multiple Disadvantages, who face barriers to accessing support and may be isolated within society. We follow a No Wrong Door approach, supporting people through a Multi-Agency Partnership that strives to be Asset Focused, Psychologically Informed and Person Centred. We are working to create System Change to tackle inequalities and improve people’s experiences in accessing the support they need.

Dylan Gwylim represented Self Help Services who are the partner providing the mental health element of the ICM project https://www.selfhelpservices.org.uk/

Paul Crudgington represented Back on Track www.backontrackmanchester.org.uk Several Back on Track learners have been involved with WHISPER TO ME ALONE.

MASH is a charity providing a range of confidential and non-judgemental services to women working in the sex industry in Greater Manchester. 

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 lockdown. The project centres on journals of writing, art and song lyrics.

Last swim of the day. Anonymous 2020