King of Flowers

A Book of Ours

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Today we were visited by Professor Jeffrey Robinson from Glasgow University, who came bearing questions – and that of course leads us to question ourselves. What is this stuff we are making…?

A BOOK OF OURS is an in-between thing, constructed of artwork, poetry and music. And yet it is only itself when all of these come together.

The original books of hours in medieval times were also multipurpose. They were used as a text for prayers, a manuscript for singing from, and a spiritual guide that depicted visions of the important saints, angels and devils to dodge or make friends with. Such a book would be left open on an altar for marking out the whole day in churches, abbeys, monasteries, and in palaces. 

Because we have decided to copy the format of the old books of hours, it makes sense that we also have images, words and music in our book. But there are other reasons too.

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Some of the makers are most confident telling their story through words. Others struggle with literacy and are more comfortable representing their lives on a page through images. For others again, it’s the combination of word and image that is crucial, both together. And now we are working with songwriter Matt Hill, the music is yet another means of reaching out…

Combining sound, colour, and verbal description, gives a huge range of expression — and that’s what you need if you’re trying to capture the essence of you. Particularly to describe your inner visions, perhaps when under the influence of substances, or when the emotions that drive your life are waves so colossal that they can only be shown by overloading all systems of communication.

Or simply to inscribe joy, as a flower.

The faces of strange hauntings fill the medieval books of hours and the imagination of the whole medieval world. Call them devils or angels, gargoyles, fairies or bogeymen, they are most definitely around. Perhaps they are forever part of human experience whatever name you give them.  They peep out of the page corners from old manuscripts, they’re in paintings too, and in churches, as carvings or sculptures. These photos that I took in Saint Laurence’s in Ludlow show the carved wooden seats for the choir. There you’ll find mermaids, witches, owls, even the pagan Green man. He peers at you curiously, as if you’re the mystery. And from his mouth comes new growth, a poem written in leaves.

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Sing Lullaby

A Book of Ours

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Brother James, Brother James
I am you, I am you
Roof and food and family, roof and food and family
I need you, I need you.

Brother Ladbrokes, bother lad brokes
Stop robbing me, stop robbing me
I have a got an acca, give you a smacka
Then I win, no cheating.

The Frere Jacques Variations

 

We returned to the Booth Centre today for our last big run of workshops on the Book of Ours project.

Over the last year, this blog has documented our slow but steady progress as we’ve made an illuminated manuscript together, a book designed to outlast all our lifetimes. It’s been a dream project for Lois and I, and one that’s brought delight and sometimes shared sadness, as our scribes and artists — many of whom have lived experience of homelessness — make this work.

Several of the most famous medieval illuminated manuscripts contain musical scores. Today we brought music into our workshops for the first time with singer and songwriter Matt Hill, who fitted melodies to some of the poetry from last year — and invites new songwriting.

Singing together can be a joyous thing. It can also be challenging to those of us who don’t have an easy relationship with pitch, following a rhythm or remembering a melody. Added to that is the embarrassment about singing that many people carry from their schooldays. And yet it was by singing a children’s song that we began to open up.

Brother Stephen, Brother Stephen / Where are you, where are you? Hair like copper wires, hair like copper wires / Where are you? Your eyes were blue… Matt delicately built the confidence of the group, bringing everyone who wanted to join us into the ring of music and charming songs from us — some moving, some humorous but all of them made together, out of our own voices. One instrument made of many people.

Esme, Esme, Esme, Esme
I love you, I love you.
You are my sister, you are my sister
You my all, you my all.

Love and peace, love and peace
Here to stay, here to stay
Everybody’s laughter and forever after
God I pray, here to stay.

Matt made it look easy but there’s a lot juggling required to bring together a group of people with complex needs, energies, backgrounds, states of intoxication, states of mental health.

So we played music — and it felt like play, not work. Songs flowed, rapidly finding their form. For instance, The Frère Jacques Variations. From being a distant childhood memory, it refocused into a song about memory, connection, and a picture of our city now, the lives it contains and the earth of Manchester itself.

In the afternoon the session quietened as they often do, became more meditative, more inward. Still the songs came, but this time more as individual statements. One of the most powerful lyrics was a simple, heartfelt goodbye to someone. It was written with tears as accompaniment this time, rather than Matt’s guitar. After it was done, the writer looked me full in the face for the first time that day and said. “I feel lighter.” If nothing else had happened that day, it would’ve been worth being there, for that moment alone.

Sister City, Sister City
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?
Underneath the concrete, underneath the concrete
Is the earth, is the earth.

Brother-sister, brother-sister
We need you, you need us
To get us through this, to get us through this
You need us, we need you.

The Frere Jacques Variations
With contributions from James, Keith, Lawrence, Flora, Debbie, Gary and Mo

Self-made mountains

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

Booth Centre, 5 December 2019

 

Asking for help can be the most difficult thing. It seems simple, but there’s a million reasons not to, infinite excuses.

“You’ve got to be ready to ask,” says one of our regular group who’s come through addiction and out the other side.

“It’s not easy, admitting you’re weak,” observes someone else.

“But is it really weak? Everyone needs help, it’s human,” says someone who’s just got a new flat. “I’ve been living out on the street, I needed a lifeline.”

It’s a morning of dancing around these tiny self-made mountains, delicate but terrifying.

Then in the afternoon we start with tears, as occasionally happens. The person next to me is literally shaking. Eyes dark with worry. Tears flood and emotion floods the room. Somehow these tears liberate everyone else, bring them closer to their feelings. And so we write together.

It’s a brittle atmosphere like a family argument, a storm waiting to burst. There’s sadness and anger, lightning strikes of shouting. Then between it all poems grow. People write about letting in simple pleasures. They talk about sunshine, the silliness and joy of just being. Little lines that are fought for so hard, shared and appreciated. Then shouting stops, the tears ease off, we have a strange peace. 

 

Help is too big to put in words

Naked in a big world

Myself to get off the drugs 

Help is too big to put in words

Myself to get off the drugs 

Mum and dad and me

Naked in a big world

Help is too big to put in words.

Anonymous 

I’m touched beyond words by these words. Their makers are so proud, yet embarrassed, yet delighted. There’s a shy grin.

“Maybe I’ll be back next week,” says a new member of our ongoing little club.

“Was it a bit much?” I ask another regular. He shrugs.

“It’s all part of the cake mix,” he says.

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

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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 the Heritage 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.

Press Release

Projects, quilts, War Widows Stories

War Widows’ Quilt Commemorates the Lives and Loves of War’s Forgotten Women

From 7–11 November 2019, The Queen’s House, Greenwich, will host the first ever exhibition of the War Widows’ Quilt. Made from armed forces shirts by over ninety war widows and their family members, this beautiful and moving piece of art tells many individual stories of love, loss, and grief while also shining a light on the ongoing history of war widowhood in the UK.

War Widows' Quilt test

 

The quilt, made in collaboration with arts company arthur+martha, is part of the War Widows’ Stories project, led by Dr Nadine Muller (Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University) and the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain (WWA).

 

Commenting on the forthcoming exhibition, Dr Muller said:

 

“We started work on the quilt exactly a year ago in this very same venue, and nobody could have predicted then what an impactful piece of art this would become. The War Widows’ Quilt tells so many moving stories, shares so many cherished memories, and expresses so much grief as well as hope. It is a magnificent, important memorial.”

 

Theresa Davidson, whose husband served in the Scots Guards and died in the Falklands in 1982, commented:

 

“I feel such pride and real honour to share my love and grief. The love, grief, loss, and pain never leaves you. It is my own personal war!”

 

Another war widow, Angela Evans, reflected on the profound effect that contributing to the quilt had on her:

 

“It’s from the heart. One day you have everything, then the next day you’ve got nothing. Somehow it helps to say something, to express it out loud.”

 

McMenemy Alberta

 

Lead artist Lois Blackburn (arthur+martha) reflects on her work on the quilt:

 

“Sewing together the pieces into a final quilt felt a giant responsibility, but one for which I remain very grateful. I selected fabrics that had been worn by the armed forces. I carefully took apart fifty military shirts to make patches and chose a patchwork technique that deliberately echoes the quilts made by British servicemen during the Crimean War.”

 

Mrs Mary Moreland, WWA Chair, highlights the importance of this project for the Association, its members, and the wider war widows community:

 

“The quilt and the project help the Association raise awareness of the challenges war widows face every day. Our voices are sadly still absent from most public institutions, including museums. We cannot tell the stories of war without the stories of those left behind.”

 

The quilt helps address a significant gap in the public histories of war, says Sue Prichard, Senior Curator (Arts) at Royal Museums Greenwich:

 

“The Queen’s House has long been the site of female power and patronage. As such we actively seek opportunities to reveal the untold female narratives inherent in our collections. It is therefore wholly appropriate that we take this opportunity to commemorate the experiences of contemporary women within the wider context of conflict on land and at sea”.

 

The exhibition will be marked with a special celebration event at The Queen’s House on Friday, 8 November, 5–8PM. On Saturday, 9 November, artists Lois Blackburn and Phil Davenport will be hosting drop in embroidery sessions and guidance to the quilt.

War Widows’ Stories is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, Arts Council England, the British Academy, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and it is run in partnership with Royal Museums Greenwich, the National Memorial Arboretum, and Imperial War Museums.

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A quilt of unending love

Projects, War Widows Stories

We are delighted that the War Widows Quilt will make its public debut at the Queen’s House, Royal Museums Greenwich 7-11 November, for Remembrance weekend. Over 90 war widows from across Britain have made the quilt, honouring the untold history of war widows. The quilt will be on exhibition all weekend.

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“An amazing project, a piece of history for all, for the present and the future. A quilt of unending love, pain and grief. A quilt of great honour, a true work of art.”

Theresa Davidson (contributor and war widow)

 

The quilt, made in collaboration with arthur+martha, is part of the War Widows’ Stories project, led by Dr Nadine Muller (Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University) and the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain (WWA). Lois led the quiltmaking, Phil oversaw the writing. 

Using embroidery, poetry and repurposed uniforms, this is a deeply-emotional artwork. Behind the squares in the quilt and each poem are stories of grief and new beginning. All the women involved tell their stories on their own terms and in their own words:

 

”I found it very emotive doing the stitching, to sew those dates, to acknowledge them so publicly.  It was a stark reality, physically sewing. The years might pass, but the pain never goes away.”

Shirley Dodd Clark (contributor and war widow)

 

The quilt is stitched with poems, names and significant dates. Pockets contain hidden lives. Inside are writings, photos, newspaper cuttings, memories. Some are sewn shut, others can be opened.  

 

Thomas Kate, Inside

 

“The things we felt but never ever had the chance to say”  

Brenda Hillman (contributor and war widow)

 

The War Widows’ Quilt helps to break the deafening silence that has surrounded the experience of war widows for too long. But loss is universal. Made by and for war widows, this is a quilt that will bring comfort to anyone who has experienced grief. It is ultimately about all of us…

 

“Sewing my square gave me a strange sort of peace. I could think about how (my husband) died while I stitched so the sewing was giving me a control. It’s hard to explain but it worked for me.”

Lauran Hamilton (contributor and war widow)

 

Hamilton Lauran p1.

Part 1. Lauran Hamilton

 

The launch and celebration of the War Widows’ Quilt will be at Queen’s House, Ground Floor, Great Hall. 5pm-8pm all welcome. This event allows you to hear about the lives of war widows in their own words and to see the quilt. The War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, is a group that exists to improve the conditions of War Widows and their dependants in Great Britain. 

 

 

The War Widows’ Stories  was supported by Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and Liverpool John Moores University. It was run in partnership with Royal Museums Greenwich. We are especially indebted to the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain.