A quill under your pillow

A Book of Ours, Projects

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Classics

A Book of Ours, Projects

“Script writers would love to sit around this table, with so many stories to hear. There is no need for us to regurgitate another Hollywood “classic”. Everybody makes a bit of this. There are so many tales brought to this table that are of the now. There’s modern classics here.”

Matthew

James. JPG

 

The Book of Ours is a beautiful, decorative text that talks about homelessness. It is a story made by many storytellers, and it challenges just as it charms. It’s not a straightforward telling of straightforward history, it’s a poetic journey that is expressed through art, as well as language. The stories it tells are memories of childhood, days of wonder, of joy, and they are heard and made in kindness. But they are also at times brutal and shockingly sad.

Today, the storytellers described living conditions in hostels in Poland, the pleasure of being a pagan, fatherhood, the grind of alcoholism and the delight of sunshine on a cold day.

Downstairs as we worked, people packed in the warm rooms of the Booth Centre at mealtimes. The temperature is dropping, especially at night and folk living on the street struggle to stay warm. But  a cliche of homelessness is sleeping rough, whereas the reality is that there are many kinds of homelessness. There are thousands of people sofa surfing, sleeping in cars, staying with a succession of friends. There are also many people coming to eat at homeless shelters because they’re on zero hours contracts and money is too tight to mention. It’s often a secret. Perhaps your friend or family member is experiencing a life like this, perhaps you are.

It’s not a simple picture and the the means we’ve used are not simple either. There are many stories here, many hands have drawn and scribed. All play their part in the telling — and all are welcome, for without them we would be lesser.

 

The Killing floor- Matins

 

With thanks to everyone at The Booth Centre, and to all the National Lottery players and theHeritage Lottery Fund.

 

 

The Angel & the Saint

A Book of Ours, Projects

Yesterday we were listing our own personal saints, the forces of goodness in our lives. The ones who come to the rescue.

 

“Walking through a burning door, without a care.”

(Anon)

Mathew, angel and the saint

 

This new section in the Book of Ours, titled the Suffrages, is made up of short poems describe the special qualities of the “Saints”, the people who bring positivity into our lives. They aren’t necessarily official holy people, as acknowledged by churches or religions, they’re simply the good guys in our lives who we want to acknowledge. They might be a friend, a teacher, a grandparent, a work colleague, a random stranger, but they have touched and transformed us, with wisdom, help of all sorts, kindness, or simply by being there.

In medieval times, the saints were written about in eight line verses called Triolets  and we’ve revisited this sort of poem to make lines that conjure up personal roll calls of saints. We’ve also used the more modern four line Clerihew poem form. In the old Book of Hours, the words of the Suffrages were accompanied by imagery, often showing the Saint in question at the time of martyrdom. The verses recounted the saints’ special qualities, their holy powers which could be called upon with the right prayers. In a way, saints were medieval superheroes and these particular pages of the Book of Hours were like kids’ bubblegum cards, which give a picture of your favourite hero/heroine and list their superpowers.

 

The poems today described parents, workmates, friends and the occasional superstar (Saint Jimi Hendrix).

 

The Book of Ours changes in front of our eyes, week to week. The first and largest section, the Calendar, is nearly complete. Not only is it a day by day account of the whole year, describing significant moments for each day, it is also a poem in itself. A poem that jumps meaning from line to line, because it’s written by many different authors. Sometimes defying logic, driven instead by intuition and luck, the story it tells rolls many experiences together. It is a rich patchwork of diverse lives, dark and light, kind and cruel, illuminated by angels and saints.

Lawrence, Joy

This workshop was part of the project A Book of Ours, creating an illuminated manuscript with people who have experienced homelessness or at risk of.  Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund
The Booth Centre is here to bring about positive change in the lives of people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness, to help them plan for and realise a better future.