King of Flowers

A Book of Ours

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Today we were visited by Professor Jeffrey Robinson from Glasgow University, who came bearing questions – and that of course leads us to question ourselves. What is this stuff we are making…?

A BOOK OF OURS is an in-between thing, constructed of artwork, poetry and music. And yet it is only itself when all of these come together.

The original books of hours in medieval times were also multipurpose. They were used as a text for prayers, a manuscript for singing from, and a spiritual guide that depicted visions of the important saints, angels and devils to dodge or make friends with. Such a book would be left open on an altar for marking out the whole day in churches, abbeys, monasteries, and in palaces. 

Because we have decided to copy the format of the old books of hours, it makes sense that we also have images, words and music in our book. But there are other reasons too.

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Some of the makers are most confident telling their story through words. Others struggle with literacy and are more comfortable representing their lives on a page through images. For others again, it’s the combination of word and image that is crucial, both together. And now we are working with songwriter Matt Hill, the music is yet another means of reaching out…

Combining sound, colour, and verbal description, gives a huge range of expression — and that’s what you need if you’re trying to capture the essence of you. Particularly to describe your inner visions, perhaps when under the influence of substances, or when the emotions that drive your life are waves so colossal that they can only be shown by overloading all systems of communication.

Or simply to inscribe joy, as a flower.

The faces of strange hauntings fill the medieval books of hours and the imagination of the whole medieval world. Call them devils or angels, gargoyles, fairies or bogeymen, they are most definitely around. Perhaps they are forever part of human experience whatever name you give them.  They peep out of the page corners from old manuscripts, they’re in paintings too, and in churches, as carvings or sculptures. These photos that I took in Saint Laurence’s in Ludlow show the carved wooden seats for the choir. There you’ll find mermaids, witches, owls, even the pagan Green man. He peers at you curiously, as if you’re the mystery. And from his mouth comes new growth, a poem written in leaves.

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Sing Lullaby

A Book of Ours

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Brother James, Brother James
I am you, I am you
Roof and food and family, roof and food and family
I need you, I need you.

Brother Ladbrokes, bother lad brokes
Stop robbing me, stop robbing me
I have a got an acca, give you a smacka
Then I win, no cheating.

The Frere Jacques Variations

 

We returned to the Booth Centre today for our last big run of workshops on the Book of Ours project.

Over the last year, this blog has documented our slow but steady progress as we’ve made an illuminated manuscript together, a book designed to outlast all our lifetimes. It’s been a dream project for Lois and I, and one that’s brought delight and sometimes shared sadness, as our scribes and artists — many of whom have lived experience of homelessness — make this work.

Several of the most famous medieval illuminated manuscripts contain musical scores. Today we brought music into our workshops for the first time with singer and songwriter Matt Hill, who fitted melodies to some of the poetry from last year — and invites new songwriting.

Singing together can be a joyous thing. It can also be challenging to those of us who don’t have an easy relationship with pitch, following a rhythm or remembering a melody. Added to that is the embarrassment about singing that many people carry from their schooldays. And yet it was by singing a children’s song that we began to open up.

Brother Stephen, Brother Stephen / Where are you, where are you? Hair like copper wires, hair like copper wires / Where are you? Your eyes were blue… Matt delicately built the confidence of the group, bringing everyone who wanted to join us into the ring of music and charming songs from us — some moving, some humorous but all of them made together, out of our own voices. One instrument made of many people.

Esme, Esme, Esme, Esme
I love you, I love you.
You are my sister, you are my sister
You my all, you my all.

Love and peace, love and peace
Here to stay, here to stay
Everybody’s laughter and forever after
God I pray, here to stay.

Matt made it look easy but there’s a lot juggling required to bring together a group of people with complex needs, energies, backgrounds, states of intoxication, states of mental health.

So we played music — and it felt like play, not work. Songs flowed, rapidly finding their form. For instance, The Frère Jacques Variations. From being a distant childhood memory, it refocused into a song about memory, connection, and a picture of our city now, the lives it contains and the earth of Manchester itself.

In the afternoon the session quietened as they often do, became more meditative, more inward. Still the songs came, but this time more as individual statements. One of the most powerful lyrics was a simple, heartfelt goodbye to someone. It was written with tears as accompaniment this time, rather than Matt’s guitar. After it was done, the writer looked me full in the face for the first time that day and said. “I feel lighter.” If nothing else had happened that day, it would’ve been worth being there, for that moment alone.

Sister City, Sister City
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?
Underneath the concrete, underneath the concrete
Is the earth, is the earth.

Brother-sister, brother-sister
We need you, you need us
To get us through this, to get us through this
You need us, we need you.

The Frere Jacques Variations
With contributions from James, Keith, Lawrence, Flora, Debbie, Gary and Mo

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.

 

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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

 

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

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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.