The kindness of gangsters

A Book of Ours, Projects

Our project a Book of Ours at the Booth Centre is a kind of seismograph, measuring tremors. Some workshops are stable and we make work in tranquillity, others bring earthquakes. Today we started with the earthquakes. We had someone screaming out their anguish at the top of their voice. We had verbal aggression. We had tears, of course. We heard a heartbreak from everyone there, or so it felt.

But we also witnessed many small victories and it’s those I want to honour. The slow determination of people beaten down by violence, addiction, depression, fear — and yet still they bring themselves here to focus on these fragile pages. And, more and more, they listen to each other, help each other through the bad moments.

As I write this now, after the latest session, I can still see one particular person, who until last week was living on the streets, beset with drugs and mental health difficulties, with their face full of peace as they paints. Their page is a rich weave of colour, image, writing. Each element is part of a little world, into which they dive, and into which they invites us. This page is one of the most fought-over spaces I’ve ever seen. Some weeks they manage to join us, to work on it more. Other weeks they’re missing in action. To have them with us today was not just a personal win for them, but the winning out of hope over despair, art over violence, living over ending. We keep score of such things.

Today we also had a return visit from one of our occasional group members. Many of his stories of street living are too harsh for him write, just the telling leaves him shaking. But he did make the poem below, that gives the title to this blog post. It’s about the arrival of hope, just when you think all is lost. And how the cavalry sometimes arrives from unexpected places.

When he’d finished working on the poem, he was insistent it acknowledged not just himself, but also the other seven people sleeping out on that street that night. He checked it over, nodded his approval. “It’s my tale,” he said. “It’s good.”

 

 

The Kindness of Gangsters

 

Faces.

Simple fact: you’re lying there, pavement

Looking up, watching faces.

Tales of good to evil to evil to good.

The Gangsters of London

Heard our tales.

The Door Boss of London and his boys

They were giving out fish and chips

Pulling up in the flash car, giving positivity

From a 4 by 4.

Giving money, maybe felt guilty, listening to the

Tales of people sleeping on Russel Street

Tales of good to evil to evil to good

Babies born in doorways.

 

Me, I’m

Not just telling the tale, I’m living it

Whilst looking up at the stars — and tell me

What are they looking at?

These walls are recorders for history

The girl selling oranges got stabbed

And the baby’s brought to rest.

Faces,

I’m looking up

Every person is a face, has a heart.

The Gangster of London

Maybe was homeless himself

Tales of good to evil to evil to good

The Door Boss of London

Came in his car. Put his boys out

To look after us, to give. Love.

 

Anonymous

(This tale could be told by any of the seven men sleeping on Russel Street that night)

Karen

Karen

arthur+martha are making an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It gathers together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, (‘A book of ours’) giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

Now is the hour, even in sun, even in shower

A Book of Ours, Projects

Booth Centre, 16th May 2019. A Book of Ours

As our group work together, we’re starting to see changes in people. For some, the workshops have allowed them to set free abilities they have kept locked away. They’re coming back week after week, building on what they find within themselves. For example, R poured herself into a long piece of writing, that faces the demons in her life. Last week she started new work, a sequence of short prose pieces that reflect on the different stages of the day, each with their rewards or challenges. These pieces are so deeply heartfelt, so honest and well-observed, that they still the whole room. Everybody listens, everything becomes quiet as she conjures with her words.

And the beauteous, gold-tinted pages of our book have given space for artist Johnathan to fly. He’s combined the energy of graffiti with the delicacy of the original illuminated manuscripts. Drenched in colour, and in affection, his warm-hearted evocation of a mood for the words inevitably brings a cluster of people who want to see the latest piece. He basks in the attention, grinning ear to ear. But he’s generous, giving tips, encouragement, or sharing page space with others who are less confident, to give them a boost.

Chris

Chris with his poem, The Killing Floor, Matin’s

For others, starting to make art or writing is a chance to put down a burden. Last week, one of the group wrote a piece about sleeping rough, and finding help from a surprising place. He and the others sleeping on that street were regularly attacked, beaten, even set on fire. But a local gangster decided to set up protection for them while they slept. No reason was ever given, but it was a welcome gift — safety. Once he’d written the piece, he left and hinted he’d not return. It felt like he’d said the thing he needed to and was now moving on.

For others, the writing and art exposures them to the terrible internal critic many people carry within. Opening these doors, admitting these possibilities is just too hard. I can think of one group member who’s always poised on the edge, making rough notes, not quite able to jump in. And another who’s fighting a raging war with addiction and who comes up for air some weeks, makes some art or writes, then slips under the surface again. He wasn’t with us this week, but we said hello. I worry for him, hope he’ll be back.

And for others what we make is sanctuary. One of the group said today,

“I’ve got my wild days. But here I’m chilled out and I let the quiet in.”

Roy and poem

Roy with his poem/artwork page for A Book of Ours.

arthur+martha are making an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It gathers together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, (‘A book of ours’) giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

Roy and poem:art

A swallow over his heart

Projects, War Widows Stories

Lois and I are currently working on the quilt and poetry for War Widows’ Stories and wanted to share some of our thoughts and writing from the wonderful session in Edinburgh with the War Widows’ Association

 

A swallow over his heart

With a scroll engraved with

My name, when he was 18.

 

Kathleen Cahillane

 

Kathleen Cahillane signature

Kathleen Cahillane

 

The Edinburgh group workshop for the War Widows quilt and poetry was a subtle sharing.

Twenty people sat around the table, bringing a mixture of expectation, grief, anxiety and excitement. It’s a strange thing to ask people to look at one of the most painful things they’ve ever experienced and turn it into a piece of creative work. A big ask, as they say. In this workshop we invited a group of War Widows to write and embroider about widowhood.

The intention was that they’d make work about the things that keep them going, the survival strategies. As it happened, many brought the rawness of loss to their writing and their artwork. They’d decided to dive in deep, even before they arrived. I was between two women, both of whom had lost husbands in Northern Ireland, both of whom had already written down some ideas about how to explain this terrible mystery in their lives, to others and perhaps to themselves.

The writing they made was very direct, giving dates of death and looking at what had happened square on. But events like these aren’t so simply explained. The echoes continue and continue. A child looks like their missing father. A particular day is loaded with dread. The absence is huge, too big to deal with all at once. The need to carry on for family is paramount, grief gets brushed to one side and stays unhealed…

As people worked, there was a gentle hubbub of conversation. They settled into the rhythm of the sewing and writing and shared experiences with their neighbours. Little stories of details that had been forgotten started to emerge. A camping trip, a tattoo, two children on their father’s shoulders.

It’s often with little things that the big things are said:

 

Farmer

 

A hard worker, carrying

Two little boys and a lamb

In his hood.

Loved and being loved and

Along came our son, our hope.

 

I courted a B Special

I married a UDR soldier.

He died Royal Irish

Loved and being loved.

The Lord watches over our

 

Going out and

Coming in. In my beehive hair

I had no idea.

Loved and being loved and

Along came our son, our future.

 

Joan

 

joan B pocket

Joan’s pocket, embroidered by Lois

 

 

The tales what happened to me

A Book of Ours, Projects

We are slowly building a big, big book. It is a book made by many hands, telling many people’s stories. We go slowly. Some of the pages in this book have taken weeks, they’ve been made painstakingly, built up in layers. Others have been made in a burning hurry, with the urge to say driving them onward.

 

When this book is finally shared, even if you were to see the pages themselves and the fantastic detail they contain, I wonder if you or I would be able to understand the enormous effort needed to make them. The giant leap required to jump over a mountain of self-doubt, self-hate, distrust, trauma. And although Lois and I witness the moment, we can only observe from outside. Perhaps nobody can fully understand these pages, except the makers. They’ve survived experiences that are seared into memory so deeply that retelling them means reliving them.

 

Roy writing

Roy

 

But from such things we are delighted to see something joyous emerge. There’s deep delight in this Book of Ours, it shines out from every page. We constantly refer to medieval illuminated manuscripts, their colours, patterns, illustrations, calligraphy and layered meaning. Inspired by these 500 year old books, ours share an abundance of flowers, pouring colour from the pages. There are dancing trees, there are birds stretching out into the big freedom of the skies. There are poems that celebrate simply being here, simply waking up alive and breathing. There are poems that conjure angels standing guard around all our souls, held in a bubble of love.

May flower.jpg

Detail of May calendar page

Today we were in a fever of making. So many poems that I’m dizzy with the words, chock full of the stories and the conjuring spells of hope and sadness. Today we were also at times rocked by outbursts of anger and of grief. People are letting out their demons and putting them on the paper. It’s a shock to hear someone scream out a gutfull of sorrow, a shock to hear a story of a human burning alive. To be told, by someone weeping with desperation,

“I used to cry into my pillow, now I don’t have a pillow to cry on.”

But from such things, also:

“It’s 5:30 I have been awoken by the sun shining and birds singing, thinking about my possibilities…”

 (Robyn, Prime)

Craig- August page

Craig holding his August page (work in progress)

arthur+martha are making an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It gathers together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

Lawrence and page of book

Lawrence, with his poem/artwork Vespers