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…”
Something about today made it a quiet one at the Booth Centre, the frantic buzz of the last couple of weeks had quietened. It was a gentle, reflective atmosphere upstairs in the art space too. We sat at a table with at most eight people gathered around it at any one time. Moments like these are ideal for exploring the deeper layers in ourselves, for seeing what’s there, and perhaps for sharing.
Today’s workshop was poetry only. Most of our working days are a mixture of art and writing, but this one was expressed in pens and paper and ideas. Which brought out a different quality in people; using language rather than gesture, vocabulary rather than colour. It also brought with it intimacy. We talked about things that slide under the surface of the everyday to remain hidden. We wrote about loss and about the losing of things we’d like to see the back of. And as we talked, we wrote. A group piece, extracted here. And individual poems too. Six line poems, six words per line. Enough limitation to bring focus, enough looseness to let it flow.
In the lunch break I met someone who’s often worked with us in the past. Bandaged up to the elbows on both arms, cheeks puffy and bruised. This familiar face grinned at me when I to join in the writing, “Can’t mate. I’m hoping I’ve got a place in rehab today. But thanks for asking.”
I said I hoped the place came up, that it all worked out. Bandaged arms, pyjama trousers, bruised cheeks. I’ve thought about that short encounter the rest of this afternoon. About that smile. It was as if I was a messenger from a far off world that’s thought of fondly, but currently unreachable.
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.
We are slowly building a big, big book. It is a book made by many hands, telling many people’s stories. We go slowly. Some of the pages in this book have taken weeks, they’ve been made painstakingly, built up in layers. Others have been made in a burning hurry, with the urge to say driving them onward.
When this book is finally shared, even if you were to see the pages themselves and the fantastic detail they contain, I wonder if you or I would be able to understand the enormous effort needed to make them. The giant leap required to jump over a mountain of self-doubt, self-hate, distrust, trauma. And although Lois and I witness the moment, we can only observe from outside. Perhaps nobody can fully understand these pages, except the makers. They’ve survived experiences that are seared into memory so deeply that retelling them means reliving them.
But from such things we are delighted to see something joyous emerge. There’s deep delight in this Book of Ours, it shines out from every page. We constantly refer to medieval illuminated manuscripts, their colours, patterns, illustrations, calligraphy and layered meaning. Inspired by these 500 year old books, ours share an abundance of flowers, pouring colour from the pages. There are dancing trees, there are birds stretching out into the big freedom of the skies. There are poems that celebrate simply being here, simply waking up alive and breathing. There are poems that conjure angels standing guard around all our souls, held in a bubble of love.
Detail of May calendar page
Today we were in a fever of making. So many poems that I’m dizzy with the words, chock full of the stories and the conjuring spells of hope and sadness. Today we were also at times rocked by outbursts of anger and of grief. People are letting out their demons and putting them on the paper. It’s a shock to hear someone scream out a gutfull of sorrow, a shock to hear a story of a human burning alive. To be told, by someone weeping with desperation,
“I used to cry into my pillow, now I don’t have a pillow to cry on.”
But from such things, also:
“It’s 5:30 I have been awoken by the sun shining and birds singing, thinking about my possibilities…”
Craig holding his August page (work in progress)
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, 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.
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 people’s 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, I’d the feeling that there was nowhere else to be sitting in the world that bettered this.
In today’s 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…
THE WARM /&/ THE COLD is an illustrated poetry book by many authors. Hundreds of marginalized people have collaborated to makepoems, artworks, and quilts, ceramics – all adorned with their life stories. Arts organisation arthur+martha have worked for several years with diverse communities in North West England: an alternative history of British life, insider stories that find nothing new in austerity, but have plenty of survival tips.
Artist Lois Blackburn: “Sometimes you’ve just got to pin your heart on your sleeve and say who you really are. We’ve been privileged to share these moments with the people who’ve contributed, its history told with inside knowledge. On some days this project has been heartbreaking, but many times it has also been a joy.”
Embroidered into quilts, written onto tourist postcards, made into tattoo designs, and ceramics designs, and printed as posters, these poetic testimonies stretch outside the usual arena of literature, to include people whose words and very existence are often unrecorded and ignored.
Poet Philip Davenport: “Our work follows an ancient tradition of passing on people’s history through poems, songs, artworks and stitch. It also continues the work of people like Ewan McColl and Charles Reznikov, who shared people’s words in the form of poems and songs, as a form of protest. The launch coincides with our 11th birthday as an organisation — and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the moment.”
1) This event is part of Manchester Histories Festival 2018, the 5th edition of the Greater Manchester-wide biennial festival with the theme protest, democracy, and freedom of speech. Delivered by Manchester Histories the 2018 Festival will offer a long-weekender of music, film, debate, talks, performance, walking tours, arts and more. Visit http://www.manchesterhistories.co.uk
2) The Booth Centre brings about positive change in the lives of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and helps them plan for and realise a better future. They do this by providing advice to find accommodation, education, training and help to secure employment, free healthy meals, support in tackling issues with health and addiction, and creative activities to boost confidence and self esteem. The Booth Centre is an independent, registered charity (no. 1062674)