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.

 

lightbox

 

“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.

 

A baby’s first breath

A Book of Ours, Projects

On arrival at The Booth Centre today, I was told the terribly sad news that one of the regular members of our group had died. He was someone who over the couple of months has become a very important member of the group, supportive of other people, and opening up himself, poetically and emotionally. His death has floored me and many other people.

Tragically it isn’t the first time one of our regular members has died, and won’t be the last. The average age of death of homeless people is 44 for men, compared with 42 for women.

Where do you go with news of a death?  A pause for grieving, for tears, time for reflection…   and today we brought the gift of making, of drawing, of creating. Whatever you call it:   the joy of creation, a distraction, or therapy, mindfulness, or play- is un-important, with our art making materials to hand, we gave people a gift.

Peggy and Stephen

And I received a gift in return.  The delight of witnessing one of the group, who has great difficulties reading and writing, spending time forming a single M on the page, watching them grow with pride- then going on to copy out the whole poem- before my eyes they grew in confidence. A new member to the group with the encouragement of our guest tutor Stephen Raw (a specialist in the art of calligraphy) discovering a gift for creating original letter designs, he left the group beaming, repeating he will be back next week. Joan a regular member of the group was supported by Stephen to write out one of her poems, during the afternoon she quietly, practiced her letter forms, concentrating, disappearing into the words- she discovered a natural gift.

joan, joy poem

Having Stephen join the group brought a greater understanding of the beautiful medieval illuminated manuscripts, of the skills and art of those books,  we looked again at the pages, with a tiny bit more of an understanding of what lay behind making of them.

And the colours leapt around the room. Letter forms in shocking pink, vivid red, Virgin Mother Blue, writing out lines from the Joy poems. To finish today, a poem describing Joy from C, who will be sorely missed.

 

Happiness in oneself and welfare of others

Being able to live a life of my choosing

A good book and warm place to read

Having my family around me to share

Keeping very fit and healthy through life

Remembering all the times of pure ecstatic rapture

By becoming someone who I personally aspire to.

 

Peggy

Thanks to Stephen Raw for your guidance, support and inspiration today. 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.

 

Beneficent

A Book of Ours, Projects

Sitting in the upstairs artspace at The Booth Centre. One of our regulars is beside me writing, practicing his calligraphy.

“Therapy, isn’t it. It slows everything down. Got a bit of space to think.”

He’s working through alphabets, letting the letters form and as they do, thoughts arrive. He talks about his life, relationships. Talks about grief and recovery, the ritual of making letters marking time to the words he speaks.

There’s a gentle murmur of chat around the table in response. People have entered the making space, the place where imagination runs ahead of us, like a guide using only intuition.  

lorraine

On the other side of me, L is drawing a forest scene at the bottom of one of the calendar pages. Deer and a stork, in gold paint, behind them is a moon rising, up into the sky of the page. L speaks gently, almost timorously, she is into the artwork fully and deeply.

Working in the corner of the table is an old friend, someone we worked with 10 years ago in the old Booth Centre which was in the basement of the Cathedral. It was a small crowded room where we ran the sessions and everyone who was there remembers the crush and the bustle with affection. He’s working quietly right now, on a page that introduce The Joys, our latest chapter of the book.

The Joys

 

It’s a page of flowers, free floating clouds of watercolours. They sing on the page, speaking of the summertime. He smiles at me, “Think we’ve met before but I can’t remember so good these days. Bit too much of that.”

He mimes drinking a beer.

A new person joins the group. They’re worried about the creative writing, worried about everything. “Joy isn’t really my thing at the moment, I’m living in fear. Living in Dystopia, isn’t it. Out there.”

He nods at the world outside the window, like acknowledging an enemy. We talk a little and suddenly he says, “Beneficence! Someone said that word to me the other day. It’s a beauty isn’t it? It’s what doctors are sworn to when they take the Hippocratic Oath, the commitment to healing and never doing damage.”

 

He asks for paper and a pen.

“Maybe I can write something after all. Just a few notes…”

Feburary

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.