They bid me take my place amongst them in the Halls of Valhalla

A Book of Ours, Projects

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It’s a strange thing, how joyful it is to be a maker. Even when what you’re making is about sadness, or pain, often joy pops up in the mix like a spring flower. Unexpected and yet just at the right time. Perhaps it’s what gets us through.

Today we worked on the Office of the Dead for the illuminated manuscript A BOOK OF OURS. This section of our handmade book contains a long poem about grief authored by many, including some of the people in this group.

At the top of this blog Kris is designing a page of runes, an original translation he’s made from the Viking phrase, “They bid me take my place amongst them in the Halls of Valhalla.” It’s what Vikings would say before they die, apparently. As he worked away on this piece, he joked with his neighbours, chatted to me about favourite reading (Nietzsche, Marcus Aurelius) and drank coke, all done with gusto. 

Crucially, he also worked with Stephen Raw our resident calligrapher, building his already significant design skills. Stephen helped him push the design itself, but also think about his posture, how he places items around him to aid working effectively, and how to use the materials in his hands with awareness: “The ink should do the work, not you. Let it fill the spaces between your movements. Breathe with it…”

Making art is a glorious distraction, that’s for sure. It’s also a good icebreaker, joining people together who sometimes have got frozen into solitude or depression. There are lots of theories about why art is therapeutic. The ancient Greeks scratched their heads over it, particularly Aristotle in his Poetics. Perhaps making art, or simply taking it in as an audience, really can lighten the load as Aristotle said — the bad stuff is carried away with a cathartic moment. The beautiful truth is that nobody knows.

Alongside the lettering, poems were being written with the same gusto. We’ve decided to write celebrations of the seven deadly sins for the next section of A BOOK OF OURS. The poems are of course a play on the word seven — they must contain seven lines and 49 words. Here’s one by Shannah, which began as a little joke about the deliciousness of not getting out of bed and gradually grew into a deeper questioning of why we rush life away, and how to join it without losing yourself — especially if you’re actually a sloth, not a person.

 

Sloth

Dawn to dusk I lay in my nest prepared for comfort

Smiling and letting all things be

Happily and sleepily, see the world pass by me

Having the dragging yawning time of my expected life. Slowly

One makes sense of what one could contribute

To the fast-paced world.

Unsuspecting of the human being.

Shannah

 

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In the corner, Lawrence and our new volunteer Gary busied on another poem celebrating Greed, pulling lettering ideas from the ancient Book of Kells. Heads together, they worked slowly and patiently, in a concentration broken occasionally by cackles over a particularly good pun. 

Bringing together art and writing in this project, we deliberately blur the edge between what’s a poem and what’s art. As Lawrence said, “I want to draw the writing. I want the letters to make the shape of what I’m thinking.”

In the sunshine of this January morning, as we broke the rules, there was a cheery camaraderie. It was a playground, not a schoolroom and within it, for awhile, we were ourselves. At least on paper.

 

Chris

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.

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! 

The world turns for a reason

A Book of Ours, Projects

“How do you write a book like this? Base it on yourself. As though you’re telling a story of yourself. The sadness is part of reality, and we’ve written about that and the joy and the grief. It can be hard, but life goes around. You can’t be negative forever. We can console one another, we can talk about it. It’s sad to go through hardship alone. We’ve put all that in a book for everyone. I feel proud, very proud, in fact.”

Joan

august detail

Today was a time for reflection. We’ve been working months on our illuminated manuscript, rarely taking time to stop and discuss what it is we’ve made. We have worked pell-mell, often with great emotional intensity. There have been tears, anger, delight, and behind them the ever-present shadows of street life,  the substances and the violence hovering in our periphery.

A BOOK OF OURS documents all these things, is fuelled by them and reflects on them too.

 

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“This book, here you have the world at your fingertips. No one will love or understand you better, it’s all here. How time goes slow and fast. How it ruins you. Damaged in every bloody way, look at the state of us.”

Chris

Sometimes chaos has been snapping around our heels, sometimes its been a breeze. And the days we gather together are spent making these precious pages that are diaries of homelessness.

“It’s life, get in the real world. It’s reality. The calendar, the days we’ve spent and how we spend them. How we connect to the cycles of the seasons, the planets. The old pagan calendar was lunar, they thought about time differently, maybe they lived it differently. Look at the wars now, the movement of people across the globe. Syria, then before that the world wars. And before that and before that. People have always been on the move, people have always struggled, we are just the same.”

Keith

Colin and Lawrence

Colin and Lawrence

 

The world turns for a reason

The big answer to life’s a circle

Clocks go around, the moon is round

Circle of drugs, of mental health

The old cavemen having a fight

And the circle of homelessness itself

Rough sleep. Shelter. Outside once more.

You break it and start again

You can turn things around better

Have to go through the rigmarole

Get a flat, mess up. Repeat.

The seasons bring us round again.

A wedding ring is a circle

We are satellites, stars surround us

Don’t have to be stuck in circles

Find a way of changing our course.

Joan Campbell and Keith the Bard

 

 

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.

The thickness of time

A Book of Ours, Projects

 Book of Ours

 

One of our makers was worried about having to rush his artwork. He was working on two pages of intricate text. I said, This isnt a job you do in a couple of hours, you might take weeks. And weve got weeks.

He grinned, Good, I like a bit of a ponder. So its the long haul is it?

 

Weve been working slowly, steadily, for several months now and our relationship to the book is changing. At first we were worried where was it taking us, this weird journey that follows the steps of medieval makers. And then there was a period when we got tripped up by details. Was this colour right? Was that bit of handwriting too illegible, or too neat? 

 

As we continued with the book, week by week, weve learnt to trust the process. Every time we sit around this table in the Booth Centre, more remarkable pages are made. Each page is its own little world, it has a particular emotional gravity, has its own atmosphere, its own residents. Some of the pages are sweet or funny, some of them are the kind of waking nightmares youd never want to live through. Some warm your heart, or break it.

 

Time changes when you read these pages, enter these worlds of word and image.

 

Theres the weight of the experiences of homelessness that the pages describe. But theres also the sense of replaying an ancient set of rituals, the human act of marking our place in the world. Then there is the slowness of the actions required to construct the pages. This stuff cant happen fast, it often takes days to make a page, the intricate decoration, the careful script. There might be several writers or artists involved, their contributions layering a thickness of time.

 

And the pages mark transitions in our own lives too. Many of the original group who we started with at The Booth Centre have moved on. Sadly one of our regular contributors died a week ago and the texture of that experience is another mark in A BOOK OF OURS. Now we know that whenever we open the book, were also opening up the memory of a lost friend.

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.

 

The bluebird of joy

A Book of Ours, Projects

One of the most interesting conversations I have had about joy came from talking to somebody about anger. We have been making work about joy that morning and he entered into it with delight. Then he had the phone call. Everything changed after the phone call. He was seething, he was fuming, he wanted to go to war. And then we talked about the possibility of holding two emotions at the same time, about how happy he had been earlier in the morning. And what a contrast those two things were, both in the same person. And we started to think about whether joy was destroyed by anger, or could coexist with it.

 

This week at the Booth Centre the poetry is built up from that foundation. How do you protect your joy from the assaults of the world? Or, as Mathew put it, when describing how to survive insults: It’s water off a motherf***ing ducks back. Quack quack.

 

And then we came to the question of how long joy can last. Can it be prolonged? And Joan suddenly talked about trying to catch the snow when you are a child. That image filled my head, The dancing snowflakes and the swirling kid and the upheld hands and the breathless anticipation. Joan took the idea and gently placed that it into this:

 

Into my heart

 

Joy is like making a snowman.

Seeing the faces of our children

As we make a snowman together.

Choices like love, trying to hold on

To snow as long as we can.

When angry, Id rather hit a wall.

Kiss and make up, bring joy back.

 

Joan

 

In the afternoon we were joined by Andrei. He wrote three pages of questions to ask Joy. We selected some of them to make this poem but as he said he couldve kept going and going and going. Its a big subject, joy and the lack of it.

 

What is it. Euphoria, happiness  is it?

The Government doesnt know what happiness is.

Can there be a joyous skyscraper?

Joy is not my fault or yours.

Is recording joyfulness a thing of joy?

Is there violent joy? A stomping yes!

And have you ever seen a bluebird?

 

Andre

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.

Part of something beautiful

A Book of Ours, Projects

“I’ve turned something nightmare-ish into something else. That experience of being homeless, which I’ve never talked about. A lot of my friends didn’t know it was happening. But now those memories have become part of something beautiful. At first after the workshop I felt emotional, then over the week the feeling changed and I thought, “Wow!”

The workshops, making the illuminated manuscript, have been the favourite thing I’ve done here at Back on Track. For me they’ve meant more than anything else, they’ve put me in touch with my own history. These memories stirred up and made new.”

 (Anonymous)

 

The manuscript making workshops at Back on Track have been a delight and a quiet haven for making. Every week our little gang of participants has gathered to painstakingly add the next words, the next artwork. Each page carries the imprint of hours of concentration. These tiny six-word inscriptions are often thought over long and hard. And then the writing is itself an exploration. For some, writing is done without hesitation, a skill completely taken for granted. But for others in the group, the act of writing is a challenge that needs to be met and overcome. The minute incidents on the page, the slips, the smudges, the shaky lines, show the struggles.

 

“I’ve never written like this before. Never had the time, or had these great pens. I like choosing the colours and then I get started. I take it slowly, slowly and the words come. Look at me now, I’ve learned from it. Better now than I’ve ever been.”

Patrick

 

Many of the pages contain the work of several people, layered together. Their words sometimes connect up, to make unexpected and moving narratives. A celebration of autumn leaves falling leads into the death of a beloved father. An account of being homeless, living in a car, leads into a line about the seasons being on the move. 

The artworks are especially enriched by collaboration, weaving of colour and image and symbol. Today in our last session, a small insect was drawn onto a panel of gold and fruit made awhile ago. It was the tiny missing element that made the whole page come alive. A careful use of muted red brought the black and grey of a winter’s page into sharp relief.

Jan detail

As we’ve worked on the Book of Ours, people have found their preferred method and style. And they’ve brought their own ideas. A knowledge of Viking history, a church oriented childhood, a feel for colour, an eye for design. And as we’ve seen above, the experience of being homeless. All these things have been brought to the Book of Ours and it is richer for it. And we’re grateful.

Today was the last workshop at Back on Track for this term. It’s been a pleasure and we are already looking forward to the next.

 

Would I change anything? No, it’s been alright, in fact it’s been really good. When you’re here for the next workshops, I’ll be here too.”

 Chris

Chris

 

Workshops took place at the Booth Centre day centre supporting people who are, or have been homeless, and Back on Track; a charity that supports people who are going through recovery or rehabilitation, having been through problems including homelessness and mental health. Partners: The Booth Centre, Back on Track, John Rylands Library, the British Library, Glasgow University and Abbey St Hildegard, Germany. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

July- Lawrence