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 theHeritage 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.

 

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.