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 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.

The Joy Division

A Book of Ours, Projects

As I get near to the Booth Centre, the morning shift are walking there for breakfast. I see familiar faces as I’m cycling along. I join the hustle bustle in the canteen for a catch-up chat with Paul and a rapid cup of tea. Five minutes later upstairs, Lois and I are pushing tables around the art room, taking out the work from previous sessions, getting ready for the first workshop of the autumn season.

Kate comes busying past, smiles. “Hooray! It’s the arthur+martha time of year. We’ve missed you.”

The beautiful pages are spread out on the table again, it’s weeks since I’ve seen them. And I’m suddenly amazed. These fragile marks on fragile paper — the colours shiver with intensity, the words weave their charms and tell of their sadnesses.

 

Sarah Joan

 

And then Sarah is in the room again, and Lawrence, and here’s Keith and here’s Chris, then more familiar and new people. Smiles are exchanged, there are hugs, some handshakes. Here we are, the team is here. People’s faces expectant, a bit giggly, slightly nervous. Once more we will lose ourselves in inks and pencils, stories and poems, we will dive deep into our lives, into our memories — these are the materials that make A BOOK OF OURS.

Today we’re starting a new section, titled simply The Joys. It’s a catalogue of the things that bring us pleasure, the great big life-changing moments, and the little cherries on top. As people begin working, they apply colours or write with relish.

 

Lawrence

 

There is also continuation of what’s already been started. Some of the pages take many hours of delicate work. Gary’s piece shimmers with hundred of tiny coloured dots, like a pointillist painting. It’s the August page from the calendar and the the dots evoke bright swirls of summer flowers, light on water, the dazzle that comes from looking into the sun. Gary smiles to himself as he works, a private joy.

 

Gary

And the final days of December are slowly being shaded in twilight colours on the last page of the calendar. Night clouds drift through the words, a little winter spirit grins, a line of pine trees melt into purple dusk. Mathew has put hours into this page, a labour of love. As he paints new layers, I notice people drift over quietly to peep at what he’s making.

And the writers get busy, listing their joys. This project is inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts; in those times, the number seven was considered to be a bringer of good things. Therefore this section is based around a group poem totalling seven verses, seven lines per verse, seven words per line. Here’s a verse with several authors:

Joy? Oh, you wouldn’t want to know

June joy, you’re the furthest from winter

Jeux (it’s French!) sit down with me

Mon deliciuex ami, do what you enjoy

Sun brings a good outlook on your mood

Togetherness, warm and loving. Jubilant feeling

You want to give love, bring singing.

As we work, I notice many little signs of acknowledgement and affection between people. The human need to belong holds us together — for awhile, we’re the department of joy. But as C observes, “This Joy stuff, it’s hard for people here to describe, yeah?” He looks at me hard. “Homeless people, they’ve not tasted much joy. You’re asking a lot, you know that?”

And within the poems there is often a mirror side, into troubled hearts. As we finish up, I read Chris’s poem, a witty little recollection of one of his favourite bands. But his final line jolts me, “Joy Division — last exit for the lost…”

 

A BOOK OF OURS is supported by the HLF. Our hope is that this project helps to show the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. 

Amicus

A Book of Ours, Projects

The last Booth Centre workshop of the summer for A Book of Ours. It’s been quite a journey, with many coming onboard. Some people have stopped by briefly and for others, they’ve travelled far and deep as they made the work. It’s an adventure into beautiful illuminated manuscripts and a journey into the self, determined by each person.

Some of these journeys have been stormy, punctuated by rage and tears. Today however, was a calm one, with a group of the regular makers finishing off pieces before the summer break.

 

A July page in the calendar was suddenly glowing with flowers.

 

November contained a memory passed on from Andy’s grandfather, returning from the First World War, one of the Pals Regiments that were so decimated.  He finished the description with the single Latin word Amicus. It means friendship.

 

Anne Marie made a series of portraits of former Prime Ministers, and a ladybird. All of them joining their rightful place in the Book of Ours, which encompasses more and more of the history of the entire world as it grows. But most importantly it contains tiny fragments of the previously unwritten history of homelessness.

 

This is the story that isn’t shared, isn’t told, is kept secret and policed with shame. Or else it’s presented as the experience of individuals, rather than the truth — its an experience that’s shared by many, many people.

 

And on another page from one of the most prolific poets I’ve ever met, wrote about forgiveness. Much of his work is about anger and regret, but this one had a gentler tone and it fitted the mood of the day. He names the poems written for this project after blues singers, who themselves were often people with the experience of homelessness. Here is a section of it, to play us out.

 

Sonny Boy Williamson the Second

 

Ain’t no time, it’s irrelevant

“Love is in my heart, know we have to part”

Been up since 2 this morning

You got no possession, ain’t got no watch

However many t-shirts, you’re always cold

I’ve got blues in my head.

 

Sleeping under the Mancunian Way, like a cave troll.

But I’m sorry. Mercy.

What’s in your eyes today

Are you in love?

Grace of God?

When you’re on the streets, wear a hoodie

However many t-shirts

It’s cold. I’m always cold.

 

All you hear is cars. A drain.

Running water.

Not religious but they tell me

I’m getting that way, growing a beard.

Not religious but I pray every morning:

“Want democracy, not hypocrisy.”

 

Anon

 

And the smell of grass. Blissful.

A Book of Ours, Projects

A Book of Ours speaks of many experiences, the many facets of being a person, whatever your background, whatever your financial situation, however frequently you’ve found yourself without a home to call your own.

Strawberries still grow in the summer. The taste of a cup of tea still reminds you of comfort. Your football team still scored. The sunshine still warms your face. And the days become seasons and the seasons flow into each other, suddenly adding up to years.

 

All of these things are commemorated in the Book of Ours. In images that dance about the page and in little lines of six words. They are the gentle maths of the ordinary. Amid the accounts of homelessness, prison, violence, catastrophe, these things are a welcome anchor, holding the pieces together. Like gravity, like love.

 

This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre and other support centres in Manchester. 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.

 

Skeletons

A Book of Ours, Projects

In the quiet and safety of the Back on Track Centre, people busily scribe and draw into the Book of Ours manuscript. It’s going through subtle permutations, each week or so it changes, like light striking a picture at a different angle. Today it seemed that the individual lines — each so carefully composed and written into the calendar pages — started speaking to each other. The passing of a human life was suddenly next to a line about the passing of seasons. The skeletons of winter trees also echoed cold, skinny human bodies. And the changes of seasons connected to changes in people’s lives, as they grew into new possibilities, after the storms had cleared. 

But the moment you’ll not see written in this book came at the end of the afternoon, when one of the scribes said, “It’s a relief to write this down. To put homelessness down on paper. To put down the weight. Get rid of the shame and just acknowledge what happened. I’m leaving lighter.”

 

This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre and other 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.