Today’s sessions at the Booth Centre were both popular and the big, bustling groups added more to the ever-growing Book of Ours.
On days like these, the little details can easily get lost in the busyness. And it’s these little, intimate details that are in fact the key to this book. If you look at almost any page you’ll find self-revealing moments of extraordinary power and poignancy. Here is someone writing of their spirituality, a little description of a personal saint, over there is a gloriously colourful autumn leaf, with the words, “On the quiet, I’ve always September” nearby. Here is the date of someone becoming homeless, and over there a recent marriage proposal. Here is love, there is abuse.
To sit with people as they make these tiny worlds and talk about them is moving beyond words. We come along to these sessions as anything but “teachers” — quite the reverse. Over and over again, we learn.
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, with people who have experienced homelessness — at the Booth Centre in Manchester and other support centres. 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.
The making of the Book of Ours is a favourite moment of the week. On Wednesday we were based at Back on Track It is impossible to predict what will happen next. Some days, like today, it brings together people in extraordinary closeness and kindness. Other days, the gates of mayhem open, letting anger and despair pour through — and we work to stay afloat.
We are helping to document the lives of people who are up against it, people who’ve experienced homelessness, supporting them as they filter their experiences through artwork and poems. The book starts with a calendar, a whole year with six words dedicated to describing each day. The days that people write and draw about often delight in life, particularly times of new growth. The days that children were born, the flowers and budding trees that mark the start of Springtime, times of recovery — and always the great joy of sunshine. But they also talk of deaths, of times spent living on the streets, of addiction, of violence, of incarceration.
Today’s was a day for Springtime. The gentle pleasures of a garden being jump started by daffodils, the trees returning to life like old friends. A grandfather busying among the flowers. It was a quiet session, punctuated by people making little affirmations of happiness. Two of the group members said they were surprised by how energising the work was, how it brought pleasure rather than tiredness. And listening to them was, in turn, a pleasure in itself.
Sue working on the September page of ‘A Book of Ours’.
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre 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.
Each week, a handful more images and more words. This isn’t fast work, it needs to be slow and intricate. If you contribute to this book, you sometimes need to dive in deep and take time to look inside yourself, to record carefully and then report back. Or perhaps it’s a gentle meander, like going for a pleasant walk, but still it takes time.
Every page is wreathed in flowers, trees, the detail of many tiny worlds. Every written line has been hard-won, too. The experiences they record are often hard — and then reshaping them as a poem or prose also takes hard thought.
Making this work is not only an act of self-expression, it brings relaxation, companionship, laughter, empathy too. These are all words I’ve heard used today, as people describe the process of making. Here are some snapshots from the day, in both photos and words.
In the morning, one of our “regulars” at The Booth Centre was making a piece for a friend who’s just died. The funeral was in the afternoon. We talked about Scottish James and gradually a piece was written for him, which will be inscribed into the Book of Ours. As he wrote, his face was shadowed and he took many pauses to reflect, silently. Once we’d done, he shook my hand and gave a brisk nod.
“Nice,” he said.
One of the artists hadn’t been in for a while, due to personal circumstances. He grinned from ear to ear when he came in the room. We told him he’d been missed, we’d been concerned.
“I’m here for the full day,” he said. “I’ve missed you. I’ve missed this.”
He sat down, picked up a pen and got to work, drawing as if his life depended on it. The colours that erupt on his pages are dazzling, gorgeous, sunshiney. In between working he told us about being bounced between accommodation, falling through gaps in the system, struggling to find space for his life to continue.
“I don’t know how I manage to keep positive,” he said. “But somehow, I do.”
A final snapshot. Two of the writers involved today had to go early, for various unavoidable reasons. Both of them complained bitterly as they left. They didn’t want to leave, it was being forced on them, too soon. Like waking up too early, from a dream that hasn’t finished yet.
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…”
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 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.
I work from my heart and soul. That’s why I get so tired, I put everything in.
Everyone has their own reasons for joining in and for leaving. Some people get worn out by the afternoon. Some of them have been up drinking since daft o’clock.
The arthur+martha sessions are different. They’re very constructive, with lots of different things happening at once – poems, drawing, writing, calligraphy, a wide variety. Like us.
A couple of observations about yesterdays session at the Booth Centre from Johnathan and project worker Karen.
I always knew it would be therapeutic, but it’s my first experience of actually doing it, and I’m loving it. I didn’t want it to stop today, it was so relaxing. Im getting to know people in a different way, you can really talk with people, it’s lovely and relaxing.
It will be good, I know it. People just need to turn up and fill the book. They are the big idea.
Karen, project worker at The Booth Centre.
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. 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.
There are no ordinary days at the Booth Centre, the homeless day centre where our workshops are currently based. Within the space of one day, or even one hour, there might be laughter, sadness, fury, tears, joy—and today was no different. This was the fourth workshop of a major new project, making an illuminated manuscript with people who’ve experienced homelessnes, a book that will include over 100 makers and stand as a testament of ignored, misunderstood lives.
Many people who join in with our sessions are at an extreme, a point where life has spiralled, and emotions are bubbling close to the surface. Sometimes it’s possible for that emotion to fuel artmaking or writing, which in turn allows self-exploration, or lets people reach out to others. But making such work can be gruelling, there needs to be help at hand so that the journey has an ending. Today, it felt as though some people were walking along the very edge of themselves, trying to find a way through darkness. For others, it was possible to put trouble aside and welcome brightness.
The cliche of homelessness is that it’s a drab, black and white world, a gritty documentary with a downbeat ending. But in the artwork and writing for this project we’ve looked for inspiration to colourfilled medieval illuminated manuscripts. And in response people have identified the technicolour in their lives, saturated them with golds and greens and reds, as well as seeing the shadows. One piece of writing from the morning workshop starts with,“A sunny and warm-full day…”In another we meet,“the darkness of me.”
But today was also remarkable for another reason. In the afternoon we made out first research visit with the group to John Rylands Library to see some original medieval manuscripts firsthand. These handmade books are one-offs, hundreds of years old. To be allowed this close is a rare chance to really encounter books that are artworks of amazing power.
Our guide was the friendly and immensely knowledgeable John Hodgson, who is Joint Head of Special Collections. As he led us to the Victorian interior, John paused briefly and in that moment the booming traffic, and seemingly time itself, dropped away. A tremendous sense of peace wrapped around us. We went forward into this amazing public treasure house, marvelling at the carved pillars, the statues,“the knowledge,”as G said. He took us around the building first of all, which is an architectural beauty of pink sandstone, full to the ceilings with vast bookcases containing vast books.
And then to the books. Nobody quite expected what happened next. As John slowly, slowly, leafed through a 500 year old medieval Book of Hours, the group hushed. The pages were iridescent with blues and reds, and burnished gold. We looked closely, saw the writing of people hundreds of years dead and yet who still spoke to us through these pages. I noticed that two of the people in the group were quietly crying. Still the pages turned, the Hours of the Virgin, which celebrates each part of each and every day, The Offices of the Dead, a section of commemoration. The intense colours burned with a passion for living, for finding the deepest joys in life, and sharing them, and for acknowledging grief and pain too.
I suddenly needed to sit down, found I was breathing too fast, I’d become dizzy. L wiped his streaming face and beamed the broadest smile I think I’ve ever seen on him. Chris, who’d gently joked with John through the tour, stopped the wisecracking and simply repeated over and over,“Its lovely though, innit? Just lovely.”
We sat and had a coffee together afterward and quietly went our separate ways. I waved to the guys across the street as they disappeared into the bustling city.
Thanks to everyone at John Rylands Library, especially for John for taking such great care of us all, sharing a glimpse of the amazing collection and helping to inspire our project.
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. 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.