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.

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

Hello to love

A Book of Ours, Projects

Stephen Raw was our expert guide today, leading us into the complex mystery that is calligraphy, particularly the discipline of the medieval script.

 

“It’s the curse of making the word visible,” as he says cheerfully. “How do we see our thoughts? What colour and what shape? And how do we get that onto paper? That’s where it takes the time…”

 

All of the group plunged into that inky ocean to make their pages of calligraphy. Like learner swimmers, they started cautiously but were soon splashing about, making a glorious mess and making beauty, often on the same page.

 

caligraphy practice

 

Chris developing his Viking runes, stretching out across the page. T at first wrestling with the lettering, and then tracing and retracing, selecting the best letters, seeing the page transforming to her touch. M working long and hard at the correct order of setting each letter down in the right proportions — and then suddenly a phrase has landed in the middle of its page, scripted so beautifully it’s a poem in its own right. Hello to love.

 

Chris

But today contained other kinds of writing too. For one of the other group members it was an opportunity to write about experiences of homelessness, to write at high speed, with a simple biro. To put those experiences down on paper, and to consider them for the first time. Sometimes putting experiences down on paper can be like putting down a heavy weight. Afterwards comes relief. The memories are part of this project too and in due course they’ll find their expression somewhere in the pages of the illuminated manuscript A BOOK OF OURS.

Slowness is the beauty and the curse of getting words down on a piece of paper. We speak very quickly, and think even more rapidly. Writing down those words is a long process, which can be slow, frustrating, exhausting. But that’s also the beauty — working and thinking in slowmotion. There is time to enjoy each stroke of each letter, the choice of colour, the density of the ink, the music and meaning of each sentence, each word. And perhaps with this, comes more understanding.

Lawrence looked up from his paper, hands blotted with ink.

“I love all this,” he said.

 

 

With thanks to everyone at Back on Track and to all the National Lottery players and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

I am your fan

A Book of Ours, Projects

Hello dude

Hei hvordan har du det

Hello anyone

With a kind heart

Hello peace of mind and good times

Babies, opportunities

Hello Mother Earth

May I be your son?

Hello to a job with decent money

Hello Hong Kong

Hello children

With my family, I dance in the rain.

 

Who do you treasure? Who are the people who’ve made a mark on your life — and what is that mark? Can you find their traces in the things that you believe now, the things that you have said and done? Last week at Back on Track, people wrote a poem about hellos and goodbyes. Some of lines are commemorate the dead, others commemorate significant farewells. It also welcomes in the new, opens a window to the living.

 At the top and tail of this blog entry are extracts from the poem Ballad No. 4. It’s a long collaborative poem for The Office of the Dead, the last section of A BOOK OF OURS. It is a response to Ballad IV by the medieval poet Christine de Pizan — a poem that’s a list of farewells. Every few weeks we come back to this poem and add some names. Sadly some of them are recent names, claimed by drugs and street life.

Alongside poetry making was art making. Lawrence, a longstanding member of the group, arrived early and was working on his page before we had even had a chance to unpack all the art and poetry equipment. His latest page is taking shape, he’s been adding colour to his page, flashes of gold,  the luminosity of the inks, it’s reminiscent of stained glass windows. As the session went on, we observed Lawrence going through many emotions; frustration as a colour smudges, delight and pride when the artwork develops. The design of the page is directly inspired by the medieval manuscripts we have been studying, but with Lawrence adds twist of humour, his own story, his way of looking at the world, a boldness of ink and pencil.

Chris was working on his calligraphy skills, also riding a roller coaster of learning, of emotions. The members of the group are finding new skills, surprising themselves, the Book of Ours is truly a thing of delight.

Lawrence

The rest of the morning was spent making triolets, painting portraits with words — portraits of people we care about, people who will stay with us forever even if they’ve gone.

It was only the second time this group has worked together and it was already an day rich in making connections and making art. As we work, the group are starting to bond, to trust one another. And as they do so they’ll encourage each another to go deeper, to be more daring, to expose the heart.

 

Farewell Dreadlocks

“Farvel, friend.”

Farewell Man City,

Away matches, blue moon

Farewell Davs, fair friendship

Farewell cheekiness, smile and aura

Farewell graceful dewdrop

Farewell Sean B, dodging the dream police

Snows of yesteryear

Lead you to sleep

Farewell to arms, put down your axe

The music’s over, let your plectrum rest

Wave bye bye to

Wounded fingers

Farewell to my sister

I remember

Her smile. Where is she now

Whose beauty was more than ours?

my guardian angels

 

 

Phil and Lois

 

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! 

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

James. JPG

 

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.

The gold cog of the clock

A Book of Ours, Projects

As we move through the year, we are getting toward the end of the Calendar which starts A BOOK OF OURS. It’s a long poem written and decorated by many people. Each line is six words long, with the six words the line must tell the story of a significant day of the year. Some people have written about birthdays, funerals, weddings, other people have celebrated the tiny triumphs of the every day. The beginning of the football season in the August bank holiday, the pleasures of ice cream, or flowers, or watching leaves fall in autumn. Or watching a winter sunset, the sun like a golden mechanism.

Woven into the poem are nods to history (the vikings, Julius Caesar, pagan ceremonies) and to the ways we mark the passing of time. The patterns we see in our lives. The cycles and the circles of being alive. And the cycles of homelessness too, the days spent living in permanent turmoil. The punishing life, the moments of escape, the dark angels of addiction.

 

Friends of darkness

Gather round me

Even in my best of times

They gather round

These demons of mine.

 

Lawrence McGill

 

Virgin mary.jpg 

It was one of our productive days, with rapid progress being through the to-do list. Several people talked about being sleep-deprived, pushed to the point where putting words together was simply too difficult. And yet, somehow, the whole room galvanised when the familiar illuminated pages came out and once again our artists and writers dived deep in the midst of making, forgetful of all else. When I said goodbye to Chris he was grinning with delight, even though he had dark smudges of exhaustion under his eyes.

 

“Bang on!” He said triumphantly. “We nailed it. Perfect we were. The collective is in operation.”

 

Chris2.jpg

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.