Closing the Covid chapter

A Book of Ours

In September 2020 The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded arthur+martha emergency funding for running socially-distanced workshops, phone calls and online activities working with people who’ve experienced homelessness and vulnerable people in Manchester. This funding was for our project Quilt of Leaves, making the illuminated manuscript A BOOK OF OURS. The workshops took place throughout autumn-winter 2020, developing pages, poems and songs for a Covid Chapter in the illuminated manuscript.

A paper Covid virus finds its way into the illuminated manuscript

Alongside work on the manuscript, we developed poems/lyrics and a song sequence, describing participants’ experiences during the pandemic. Songwriter Matt Hill and Calligrapher Stephen Raw were a vital part of the team during this time, as was our volunteer Christine Johnson and the Booth Centre volunteer Sue Dean, both of whom contributed hugely.

Here is Christine, writing for our project diary to describe the tone of one of the last sessions, along with workshop photos by Sue. The theme of the session was ‘Heaven’ — whatever that might mean for each individual in the room. Christine’s description of a conversation in one of the workshops give a sense of the uncertainty and yet the power of many creative encounters at the Booth Centre:

“I asked him what was heaven to him, what did it mean to him. He said it didn’t mean anything to him, so I asked what made him feel good, or peaceful, or safe. He said Truth, so I encouraged him to write truth down. Why does truth make you feel good? Because it is/or I feel powerful. He wrote that down. It appeared that he felt more connected with the question now and seemed to enjoy this. He was however distracted by his phone in the midst of it, and did get up from his seat shortly after.

“I wondered whether this was simply the case or did I crowd his space a bit? I think though, that there was a bit more connection between us than earlier at the break when I asked him how was he finding the session? “Good”. End of conversation!

“For me, these sessions are about finding the feeling, which is the heart of connection. Beyond the mind, beyond words, excavating through the superficial layers, as far as someone is willing to go. And the sensitivity and respect to ask open questions, not pushing or controlling according to one’s own opinions or agenda. Letting go of a desired outcome and accepting and enjoying the unique results.

“What makes a person feel connected, and to what – to ourself? To ‘God’?, to another human being, to life, to our own experience of life? Each question invites you deeper.

“On the way home on the tram I was thinking about truth, or Truth with a capital T. What is Truth? Is it subjective or is there a single truth? What are other people’s relationship with the word truth? Political truth, personal truth. Over the years our life experiences, thoughts, opinions, beliefs and the peers we associate with, change. What was once true may no longer be true for us. Our educational, religious and political institutions shape us, condition us. So, what is Truth? Is it fluid, and if so, then is that really truth?

“Is there an ultimate truth? An unchanging truth ? If there is, what is that for you…?”

The BOOK OF CHANGES project is funded by the Heritage Lottery’s Emergency Fund, supporting homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the arthur+martha illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Hearing WHISPERS

Whisper to me alone

Whisper to me alone is a song and poem cycle made collaboratively during the pandemic with people who’ve experienced homelessness and with vulnerable people. Songwriter Matt Hill and Phil Davenport made many hours of phone calls with participants, gradually piecing together this material. Here, Matt writes about the experience:

Despite the limitations under lockdown this has been a project I’m really proud of. I worked over the phone with the writers, gathering their input and recording their voices. You will hear some of those voices in the finished recordings. I have come to know these voices so well and yet we’ve never met face to face.

The recordings were done at home, directly into phones, and down phone-lines. Although it wasn’t the best quality it captures the sense of isolation we were all feeling as we tried to find connection over the phone. There are other sounds here too, electronic sounds of dial tones and beeps merged with the sounds of bird song, from that remarkable period in early lockdown when the traffic stopped and the birds returned to the city.

For a project born in an urban cityscape, nature and birds are ever present in this material. We hear of the arrival of seagulls into Manchester and the mysterious disappearance of the pigeons. The reality of lives affected by homelessness and mental health challenges comes through. In times of trouble we all find our own ways to cope. Some of our writers found comfort in childhood or times of family gatherings and community.

As I struggled with my own mental health during lockdown I was able to find a strong personal connection to these songs. This song cycle give us glimpses of other lives but there is universal truth here, as we all try to adapt and shift to this new reality. Even though these are not the stories of my life, there is much here we can all find connection with. You can stream the songs on Bandcamp here.

Cover of forthcoming CD, designed by “SPD”

#WhisperToMeAlone is a cycle of pandemic poems and songs, which give tiny glimpses of homeless and vulnerable lives, in rooms, on streets, isolated in hotels… The project was devised and directed by Phil Davenport who worked with songwriter Matt Hill in collaboration with participants in Manchester. WHISPER was funded by Arts Council England and partnered with The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester. Contributors include members of the Inspiring Change Manchester group, associated with SHELTER, and MASH (a charity providing non-judgemental services to women working in the sex industry). Visual tweets for the twitter stream were designed by the poets Tom Jenks and Nathan Williams. A CD is coming soon...

(Invisible) Manchester: seeing homelessness in new ways

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Invisible (Manchester) is a​ social enterprise​ that trains people affected by ​homelessness ​to become walking tour guides of Manchester. You might recently have seen their new electronic billboard project around Manchester.

“It is a community-led project which uses the city as our gallery space. What better way to address the “invisible” than making it ​visible? ​Danny, Laura and Andy, our main guides, have worked alongside the artist, John Hewitt (an illustrator who has focused on issues surrounding homelessness) to build a bridge between image and words, aiming to raise awareness of homelessness…”

The photo sequence features two lines from a poem by tour guide Danny Collins, alongside one of John Hewitt’s many drawings. Danny was a key contributor to the arthur+martha project The Homeless Library and is now a regular guide for Invisible (Manchester). His tour is a poetic exploration that transports you to the flip side of Manchester and into his own experience of homelessness. Each stop is marked with a poignant poetry piece from his time on the streets. Danny is currently working on a new book of poetry and has contributed to the arthur+martha Whisper To Me Alone pandemic project with his extraordinary lyric for the song SAME OLD SUN.

Invisible (Manchester) breaks down negative stereotypes surrounding homelessness while also providing people who have been homeless with transferable skills to expand their horizons. Visit the ​website​ for more information, or to book a tour. (Online tours currently offered.)

Book of Changes

A Book of Ours, poetry

When we started our mediaeval manuscript at the Booth Centre in 2019, nobody knew what was in store for the world. We knew that we wanted to make a document of the lives of people with experience of homelessness and the kind of chaos that vulnerability can bring.

But now, it seems everyone is feeling vulnerable, everyone is subject to chaos. Now our illuminated manuscript, A BOOK OF OURS, feels like a prediction. It’s not just vulnerable people who don’t know what the next day will bring, it’s every single one of us. We hide behind masks – but if we don’t we might “go under Nelson’s deck” as Jonno wrote in today’s poem.

The pandemic has of course prevented human contact of all kinds and replaced it with that nasty little pair of words “social distancing”. This has meant that for months and months arthur+martha have not been running our regular face-to-face workshops. Instead, we’ve used phone calls via our WHISPER TO ME ALONE project to reach out to people. But at last, this week we have restarted A BOOK OF OURS, with a new Covid-related chapter.

Drawing on a wealth of human experience gathered on the street, in jails, from deep in the self, from heavenly inspiration…

You never know what a day at the Booth will bring and this one was no different. An amazement of diverse stories poured onto paper. Drawing on a wealth of human experience gathered on the street, in jails, from deep in the self, from heavenly inspiration, and a certain amount of substance use… this is no run-of-the-mill writing group.

And perhaps in their uniqueness, these writers write for everyone. All the humour, courage, kindness and violence of humankind is here. It’s extraordinarily moving to witness this little gang describe their lives, often so casually and yet with so much heart. They dodge around the seeming impossibilities of their lives. In fact, Stephen (using his ever-present tablet) uses impossibility to talk about love…

Here in a room measured out in 2-metre distances our writers work, with hand cleanser at their elbows, with open windows and fans, with faces made anonymous by masks — here they inscribe themselves.

“Change can be a worry. First when it happens I feel it as a negative thing. And then, it starts to become a possibility…”

(Anonymous)

The BOOK OF CHANGES project is funded by the Heritage Emergency Fund, supporting homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the arthur+martha illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Life going through the cosmos

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

As sometimes happens in a workshop, todays was a game of two halves. Before the break, a couple of the participants where distracted, sat on the edges of the room, engaged in their own thoughts, and their own troubles. But after the tea break, gradually the atmosphere changed, as the art worker said;

If you leave out clay for long enough, people will pick it up and start making…

Some new people joined the group, and gradually everyone around the room fell into peaceful activity.

Karen Bowen, Project Worker at the Booth

Alongside the clay making workshop, my table of art materials and examples of embroidered suns. Karen, a Project Worker at the Booth Centre, took 5 or so precious minutes to sit and paint, explaining she hadn’t had a chance to create anything for so long, and how wonderful it was to sit and paint. Her work was immediate, energetic and joyful. She took a pack of embroidery materials away, with full intentions to stitch a sun tonight.

For others the process was a slower, more thoughtful one. ‘H’ had gone away after last weeks session with paper, themes and a head full of ideas. Today he arrived with pages of photocopies, the starting of designs of complexity, humour and thoughtfulness. The first thing he showed me was the beautifully written ‘Here Comes the Sun?’ he explained; “It’s the question mark that’s important.” ‘H’s work is never simple, there are always ideas of complexity behind them.

That question mark is so important in these times. Today listening into conversations around the room, I noticed more the undercurrent of unease, a sense of frustration, of mistrust of the government. Conspiracy theories abound. Thankfully the creativity also offered a sense of calm, release, distraction and purpose.

‘H’ design for Here Comes the Sun. ‘There was a science fiction film from the 70s, Demon Seed, the Alien’s DNA- Life going through the Cosmos

I come home tonight with a new collection of wonderful designs to be interpreted in stitch by our volunteers.

‘H’, “The old circular sun is out of date now, we need a new sun, with shapes we are not used to, for The Uncertain Future.

Thanks to everyone at the Booth, and thanks so much to Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session.

It’s not to late for you to join in with the project, our deadline for embroidered suns is 30th October. More details here. https://arthur-martha.com/portfolio/here-comes-the-sun/

Lois Blackburn.

Here Comes the Sun, is part of arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during lockdown. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Sun is shining in Manchester

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

It’s been over 1/2 a year since my last visit to The Booth Centre in Manchester. So much is different, so much the same. The same friendly welcome on arrival, but with temperature checks and contact tracing, and due to current guidance, much fewer people in the centre. The staff and volunteers are well organised, everywhere is sparkly clean, the atmosphere calm and purposeful.

My two workshop visits are to create art and poetry for Here Comes the Sun, quilt, part of the Whisper to Me Alone, project. On a large table, I display a small selection of the 90 embroidered suns that have been made for the quilt, fabric packs and art materials. We’re trying new ways of working with the Sun quilt, a face-to-face and remote working, learning much as we go. One of the beauty’s of the project is how immediate it is to understand- the sun is symbol that is familiar in every culture, it’s approachable and accessible to everyone. The subject matter can be treated as light as a feather, or analysed in depth.

Roy (pictured above) approached his embroidery with his usual gusto, his resulting painting is rich and complex, he’s going create a stitched version next week.

One of the embroideries I brought in to show to the group was designed by Sue Dean, who in happy coincidence was there in the centre. She had previously created a series of sun paintings, which had been stitched by volunteers. She had seen a photo of the finished embroidery, but not the embroidery in the flesh, her absolute delight in seeing the embroidered version was obvious.

For some of our group, there isn’t a safe place to go home to and sew, so their paintings and materials are stored for next week. Others leave with packs of materials, creative ideas and promises to return next week.

And I leave with a belly full of good lunch, and a sense of relief, hope and optimism. It’s the Booth Centre way.

Thanks so much to Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session. I look forward to hearing more about her work with the fantastic Venture Arts next week.

Lois Blackburn.

Here Comes the Sun, is part of arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during lockdown. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

The feel good factor

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

Hands sanitised, masks on, socially distanced, we sat and talked, we all took small steps together out of lock-down, a lock down state of mind as much as a physical one. ‘S’ explained how nervous she’d been coming in on the bus, going into the unknown- for all of us, it was the first time in a group workshop for many months.

Phil and I have enjoyed keeping busy working since the beginning of lock down, connecting with people, finding ways to support creativity via postal packs, the phone, and on-line. Today was something different, something very special, creating work for the collaborative quilt ‘Here Comes the Sun’, part of the Whisper to Me Alone project. The host venue was Back on Track, it’s an inspirational Manchester charity that supports people who have been homeless or had mental health problems.

Our theme is the sun, a symbol of hope and re-starts, of warmth and comfort, of gift giving, as one participant described; “The feel good factor”.

A seemingly innocent and simple theme, it still leaves plenty of room for the imagination: “You don’t see dawn in the city, you don’t see sunrises, the blocks get in the way.”

Then the joy of putting our ideas onto paper started, the artistic play. I took in one of my favourite materials, oil pastels and ‘Brusho’. Brusho is a fabulous highly pigmented watercolour powder, you mixed with water, or sprinkle. The magic of creativity with your hands soon took over, creating a hushed room, heads down concentrating, the outside world disappeared.

20 fabric packs were laid out for our group to choose from. One at a time we walked with favourite paintings in hand to find the fabrics that matched the colours, texture and mood of the paintings. One of the group had experience of embroidery, the others- this was something new.

There is something beautiful about the simplest of stitches, running stitch, it’s where most of us start off when we learn to sew, it’s probably the stitch that you started with at school. When you’ve got the right needle and a rhythm going, there is something almost mediative in the repetitive nature of stitching. Then comes; choosing colours, textures, thread thickness, stitch size, pattern- when written down or spoken these creative decisions are complex, however when we make them, they are often instinctive.

The group left with their hands full of threads, fabric and paintings, and full intentions to return in a few weeks for our follow up session. Returning to share and celebrate their sun embroideries, and welcome new participants to the making of Here Comes the Sun.

Thank you so much to everyone who came along to my first group session of Here Comes the Sun, and to Back on Track, who as ever made me feel so welcome, and everything so easy for me.

Lois Blackburn

Here Comes the Sun is part of the project WHISPER TO ME ALONE. It gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Lockdown, Me

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Like a wolf
A wild dog sat in lonely lockdown
Another day goes by.
To some this is loneliness
But to me, joy.

Gives me time to reflect
Sitting here, pen in my hand
And my old Number 7
Jack Daniels, jotting down
Thoughts and
Reading aloud:

To the heavens
Ploughing down rain
To some this is hell
To me this is heaven.

So thanks to the gods
The old gods and the new
Brood of the trickster
We are the tales you’ll be told.
Another day, lockdown me
Life still rolls on
By Ragnarok set free.

Kris

Photograph Sue Dean. 2020

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The lockdown photographs of Manchester that illuminate this blog were by Sue Dean, using her favourite camera, her phone.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network. During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

Smiley shoelaces. Photograph by Sue Dean, 2020

More than a watchman for the daybreak

poetry, Projects, Whisper to me alone

When I was a little girl I used to say, “I want to love the world better.” But it’s a job I cannot do. Sometimes I can’t even love myself.

16 years ago I got clean. I was using heroin and crack, introduced to them by an ex-partner. Even then I wrote every day, journals and diaries and books of all descriptions. Sometimes it was almost illegible. I did the cold turkey myself, writing every terrible day. My dad would say, “This is the book that will help the world, this will be how you love the world better. The story of how you healed.”

When you come off heroin, your body is all pain. You stretch and you bend and you twist, you twitch your legs, they call it Riding the Bike. Couldn’t sleep, I’d be pacing, I’d be looking at the sky. In the middle of the night I’d be looking out for that chink of light at the darkest time, just before the daybreak. When it finally came I’d think I’ve done another day, I’ve been clean.

I wrote about it every day, every detail. A whole book. Then one day I burned it all. Maybe the weight of those pages was too heavy.

Maybe you know that book too.

“A”

Drawing by Jasmine, from journal pages

 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery.

Photo above: Featured embroidery, by Marylyn MacLennan for the quilt, Here Comes the Sun. 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.