Listening for pleasure

A Book of Ours, Projects

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

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.

 

Slow rollercoaster

A Book of Ours, Projects

The Book of Ours is growing into itself.

 

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.

Bella and Chris @boothcentre

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.

Andy @BoothCentre

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.

 

It is the morning, the mourning

In the morning. Mourning. It’s sad,

The word we use to start

Every day is a word for

Death. Get on the rollercoaster.

It is the morning, the mourning.

 

Group poem

 

April

 

All always learning

A Book of Ours, Projects

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…”

 

Now is the hour, even in sun, even in shower

A Book of Ours, Projects

Booth Centre, 16th May 2019. A Book of Ours

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 and poem

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.

Roy and poem:art

A book of ours

A Book of Ours, Projects

The first day of a new project brings many questions to the table. And this one was no different. We are making an illuminated manuscript with people at the Booth Centre, following on from our project The Homeless Library, which was the first history of British homelessness. It gave first hand accounts of peoples life journeys, often pivoting around homelessness, illustrated with poems and artworks and inscribed into handmade books.

 

 

This new project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript. 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, clumped together simply as homeless when they are so much more.

First job of the day was to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends. We worked at the booth centre for 10 years on and off, and some faces were very familiar. Laurence, with a twinkle, said, Everything gets put to one side for arthur+martha. Joan gave us both a hug. Danny ditto. As we sat down to work, Id the feeling that there was nowhere else to be sitting in the world that bettered this.

 

 

In todays workshop, we made a timeline of significant day and people wrote short 24-word descriptions of their chosen days. (There are, after all, 24 hours in a day.) We also did a little experimenting with calligraphy pens, with colours, with paper and with page layouts. Some powerful work was made, beautiful miniature narratives and playful page compositions. 

 

 

But some of the most important work was to ask questions. We are using mediaeval manuscripts as the basis for our book. These are the Books of Hours that celebrated the Christian calendar. So how do we adapt this template for our purposes? For instance, the medieval calendars were often written in black, red, blue and gold, with a particular meaning assigned to each colour. But what meanings did our group associate with these colours? Is red a colour of love, or a symbol of blood? Is black grief, or power, or…? And gold  is it the colour of money, or something less earthbound?

 

 

 

And as we talked, the shape of this book of ours slowly began to emerge…

With thanks to everyone at The Booth Centre for their warm welcome, the support of Lottery players and the Heritage Lottery Fund.