STREET ART PHOTO BY SUE DEAN

A pandemic epic

poetry, Whisper to me alone

#WhisperToMeAlone is a twitter stream of pandemic poems and songs, which give tiny glimpses of homeless and vulnerable lives, in rooms, on streets, isolated in hotels…

Phil Davenport and songwriter Matt Hill have worked with homeless and vulnerable people since May, to make the WHISPER poems and songs, over the course of many phone calls. The songs include recordings of phone calls, impromtu performances and snatched conversations.

“These conversations have gradually turned into a wide ranging poem of many voices, many experiences combining into a remarkable song cycle. All of WHISPER is full of life, full of humour and determination, in the face of this disease. And it’s inspiring, it’ll give any reader or listener the strength to keep on and learn from what’s happening around us. Sometimes life’s biggest lessons come from unusual teachers.” (Phil Davenport)

(Main image – Manchester street art, photographed by Sue Dean)

The project will be tweeted on 15 October and exhibited at Bury Art Museum next year, alongside an an embroidered quilt stitched with participants’ words HERE COMES THE SUN.

Poems, art and songs from WHISPER TO ME ALONE will be tweeted daily at from 15 October onward at https://twitter.com/whisper2mealone

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is funded by Arts Council England and partnered with The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester. Photography throughout the twitter poem is by Sue Dean. Other 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 were designed by the poets Tom Jenks and Nathan Williams.

Philip Davenport is a poet who co-directs the arthur+martha organisation with artist Lois Blackburn. For the last decade they’ve collaborated with Manchester’s homeless community. During the pandemic WHISPER TO ME ALONE has resulted in poems, songs and an embroidered quilt. Matt Hill is a songwriter who explores people’s experiences to co-write songs — with prisoners, asylum seekers, people experiencing homelessness, and others.

With royal approval…

Necklace of Stars, poetry

“As patron of the Queens Nursing Institute, Her Majesty thanks you so much for your poignant verses…”

(Letter from the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting Philippa DePass)

We are delighted that Necklace of Stars poet Neil Sessions has been commended by Buckingham Palace for his poem giving tribute to NHS nurses during the pandemic. It was the first poem he read to Phil in their first Necklace of Stars phone conversations – and now his work bears the seal of royal approval. Phil’s notes from the cheery conversation give a flavour of Neil’s mood: “Royal consent! But I’m not going to be big headed about it. I’m biting my lip as I tell you…”

NHS nurses

I call you little angels
That shone so bright
As you stood by your patients
On those warm summer nights

Words have no meaning
As life was slipping by
But there was love and compassion
As the nights whispered by

May each nurse remember
How they helped them
Slip into that heavenly night
With their last breath we all say good night.

This is why you carry a halo
So you can shine some more
To help all the sick people
That need your love and warmth.

Thank you
God bless you all.

Neil Sessions
Example of a Royal Seal, from the previous Elizabeth.

“I’m very uplifted to be acknowledged by the Queen for this poem, it’s a big honour. The poem has appeared in newspapers and magazines and online and all sorts. It is my way of thanking the nurses who look after us all. They bring you into the world and it’s often a nurse who holds your hand when you finally say goodbye. Many people who’ve had Covid describe the nurses as angels. This poem is meant for the nurses who don’t hear the NHS clapping or words of thanks – because they’re still too busy working. It’s passing on appreciation, from the heart. I’ve put a lot of heart into my poems because I’ve needed to, its my way of finding release and of reaching out to people.”

Neil

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – phone conversations and post.

Writing in the Year of the Plague

Necklace of Stars, poetry

Tony Shelton, the author of our previous blog A-Z of Childhood, describes how to write yourself out of lockdown.

An inveterate and incurable itch for writing besets many and grows old with their sick hearts.
Juvenal, Satires.

Writing…is but a different name for conversation. 
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Writing, I explained, was mainly an attempt to out argue one’s past; to present events in such a light
that lost in life as either won on paper or held to a draw. 
Jules Feiffer, Ackroyd.

All these quotes (from books I have never read, I’m afraid) have some truth in them for me.


Ever since the age of six or so, when I was praised by Miss Puttock for writing a piece about my electric train set and managed to spell ‘electricity’, I have written, mainly because I had to. For most of my life writing involved essays, exam answers, official reports and memos but I even enjoyed those (well, not the exams perhaps). It was the craft that appealed to me: of finding the rights words, putting them in the right order and editing them. Creative writing began at a time when work seemed to dominate my life and I developed an itch to write the ‘novel of the century’. I started with a WEA evening class in Leeds and in the latter stages of work began to jot down ideas during dull meetings. I wrote humorous articles for professional magazines. I managed to have two stories and a few short pieces read on the radio but it wasn’t until early retirement that writing really took off. I wrote my work memoirs, to get it all out of my head. I researched a local history book which sold out and discovered the huge kick of finding people enjoyed what I had written, fan letters and requests for signings, even!


Then, when my wife and I retired to Cumbria, we both joined a U3A creative writing group and, after a year or two, I found that I liked writing poetry, really playing with words and tweaking them to fit. She did, too, and for a few years we wrote separately but together, commenting on each other’s work and enjoying it. You could say she was my audience, my muse (and I hers). Now she has gone and for three years I have been trying to regain my
desire to write, to find a new motivation.


And then came the virus and the lockdown and my shielded isolation and an almost total absence of face-to-face conversation. I no longer have any of my old interest in drawing and painting, I am no good with my hands and my knees put me off long walks but my need to write is now acute and it is a need, almost an addiction. Bread and butter writing – emails, texts and so on – has been a kind of substitute and writing a diary of my life for a future
archive makes me write something every day but these do not require the craft of poetry or fiction or the intensity of concentration which keeps out sad memories and self-recrimination. It does not give me that kick – of making a reader or listener amused or moved. I have never written for myself: like a stand-up comic I need an audience, one person will do. And I sometimes need another kind of kick – the motivation to write, the suggestion, the deadline, the prospect of a reaction, no matter how critical, because I still want to learn, to improve.


The Necklace of Stars project has now provided all that for me and, once again, ideas are coming into my mind demanding to be jotted down on scraps of paper and in notebooks. Guided by a tutor, I am learning again and finding new ways of writing. The project has nudged me into writing down memories of the dull but strange world of my suburban London childhood and the increasingly odd members of my family. Many new or long-forgotten memories have emerged as if called to action.

I used to imagine my grandchildren coming up to me in the garden and asking: ‘Grandad, what was school like when you were a little boy?’ or ‘Tell me again about the time when you…’ They never have done. Maybe children don’t actually do that at all, maybe it’s an advertising fantasy dreamed up to sell Werther’s Originals. So, this memory project is a kind of substitute. More important, recording childhood memories has pushed to one side the darker memories of the last few years, of my wife’s decline and death. I did write about those years and my experience of caring for her, trying to set it all to rest, to prevent all the ‘what ifs’ going round and round to no purpose.


I am now convinced that writing can be therapeutic. But it should also be enjoyable and good for one’s mental wellbeing. If possible, it should provide a positive sense of identity, helping you to think ‘I am a writer’, even if you now know you will never write the novel of the century. Writing for the project is now helping with all those things. I am sure it has certainly helped my mental health. And writing, as I am now, about childhood memories is making me feel a little more ‘interesting’, helping me value my life more. It is helping me to start to understand about how my character was formed in my early years.

Writing is once again helping me get up in the morning (well, most mornings), and, in the most basic sense, filling the time like nothing else. I have plenty of time to fill.

Tony Shelton

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – phone conversations and post.

Channel 70

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Dream I’m still a kid
Wish I was but
You do the best you can mate
That’s what I say
You’re playing a video game
Called life
Level 8

Go round the corner from trouble &
Don’t give up’s what I say
Word of advice mate, it’s a gift:
A toy car, a cowboy gun
Bubble-blowing set
(Best thing I got for Xmas ever)
Sometimes I dream it &
Wish

Dream I’m still a kid
Wish I was, but
Living in Hotel Whatsit now
The name’s on my prescription. There
You can dream the past, go on son!
It’s telly in your head
Course I do, still dream

Of being Superman, Bionic Man
Love my dreams me
In my dreams, always no socks or shoes
In my dreams, trying to run

In my dreams
someone’s chasing & they’ll
beat you fuckin up mate
In slo-mo
In horror dreams on Channel 70, Level 8
Fall off a cliff & wake before you hit the
Deck of the deck of the deck of
Dreams
Of
Smoking sly behind bike sheds
Of school
Of being
In care.

They’re good aren’t they mate
Having them dreams?

Paul

Photo Sue Dean, 2020

This poem was dictated by Paul to Phil, at the Booth Centre 19 August 2020. The treated photograph is by Sue Dean, taken on her mobile phone. 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, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

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.

Earthbound delights

Necklace of Stars, poetry

Necklace of Stars participant Pam describes the story of her poem Sweet Space — and the positive impact of writing poems during lockdown:

Sweet Space


The Milky Way tastes of whizz bangs and pops.
Flying saucers trail streams of sherbet.
We ape cocktail sophisticates, posing
red-dipped tips of sweet cigarettes,
aimed skyward into
all sorts dreams and liquorice night.


The universe spangles with sweetness,
a kali rainbow poured into twisted
paper cones for wet finger dips.
We are freewheeling space cowgirls, licking
the chocolate edges off our wagon wheels,
dib dabbing fingers in the sherbert fountain,
bite a galaxy of hopes and dreams out of this sugar mountain.

Home safe in Grandma’s warmlit kitchen,
Grandad shows us how to lift the dumpling out of our stew,
a craggy meteor rolling in a puddle of treacle.

Pam Butler

How have I felt about the Necklace of Stars project during lockdown? A friend told me about this project combining poetry and embroidery – two of my favourite things! I was thrilled when I found there would be space for me to join. I already write and belong to an informal poetry group as well as doing a class once a fortnight. But my class had moved to Zoom and my poetry group were trying to communicate by email, which was nothing like as much fun. Every one of us wrote a Lockdown poem that month.


But then Lockdown went on. I went from being a busy, sociable, active member of my community to being a shielded ‘old person’. I became an old person, I couldn’t even do my own shopping. There was no one to talk to – and when we did meet out dog walking, once we had checked everyone was ok, there wasn’t much else to say. We were all in the same boat, nothing was happening.

So it was lovely to meet an interesting, delightful new person in Philip (even if only via the phone). It was fun to be given interesting and challenging creative tasks to do – fun being in very short supply in Lockdown. I started with a list of 8 random word-pairings and fitting them into a poem was an enjoyable word puzzle. Then I did another puzzle, the HAPPY acrostic. I filled my notebook with word lists and scribblings. It was so encouraging to talk to Philip and get a positive responsive to the poems and share a mutual enjoyment of wordplay. I’m not short of entertainment, but the tone of life was very flat so the weekly conversations were something to look forward to. It was very enlivening having something to report – when every day was so much like another – and someone to report it to.

At first I wasn’t much taken with the Milky Way idea of a poem – to be honest, neither Milky Way (too sickly) nor Mars Bar (no crunch) are sweets I enjoy and they weren’t around when I was a young child so I have no emotional attachment to them, although I do still fall for a Galaxy now and then.

I did a little bit of freewriting, trying to find a way in to the poem, then spent a whole week thinking back to my small childhood (under 10) and quickly went back in memory to the corner shop my grandma and then my aunt ran in Denholme in Yorkshire. My father was in the army and we were stationed in Germany and Malaya (as it was then) so my memories of my grandparents are few but intense. I have vivid memories of the shop – dark and full of smells from the bacon slicer and everything else from candles to shoe polish. I wasn’t allowed in when it was open, but could wander in behind the counter from the back kitchen when it was closed and the blinds were down. I got such a telling off when I tried to be helpful and polished the rank of wonderful brass weights for the scales. It was explained to me quite forcefully that I could have rubbed off the brass and got my Auntie Gladys thrown in jail for giving short measure!

Grandad in the back kitchen sitting with us and showing my brother and me how to take the dumpling
out of our stew, put it on a side plate and then pour golden syrup (which he called treacle) over it and have it for pudding – a strange, only-Grandad activity like drinking Black Beer, keeping pigeons and playing snooker. We always left the shop with a good selection of sweets and I did love kali and sherbert. We both faked being grown ups with sweet cigarettes, little cylinders of sugar paste with a red tip.

Wagon Wheels came a bit later, when we lived in Manchester and an ice cream van came every Sunday in summer into our little cul-de-sac and the whole streetful of kids would dash out and queue up. The Corona pop man came as well, but Dandelion and Burdock are much more earthbound delights.

Pam Butler, writing about the Necklace of Stars project, summer 2020

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – phone conversations and post.

Social dancing

Whisper to me alone
Social Dancing. Photograph by Sue Dean

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.

Phil writes:

The isolation that has come with lockdown has forced many of us to look at ourselves and try to understand some of our dilemmas. It’s brought the good and it’s brought the bad. For some it has felt like a prison sentence. For other people it’s been a kind of opportunity. Anastasia points this out:

“I’ve had the chance to slow down, to quieten all the noise around me. To still the voices of busyness and make myself be calm. I’ve been thinking a little bit zen these days. Taking time to exist. It’s a choice isn’t it, what you do with this moment. Maybe I’ll learn from it.”

The writing and art is part of this process, it can be a tool for holding those reflections, so they don’t just melt away but are kept and thought about. Making a poem now is like no other time in people’s lives. We’re also experimenting with making poems over the phone, the author speaking lines down to the scribe (myself) and an edit agreed by reading it back.

It’s a whole different time
It’ll be unique in the telling
A different way of looking
We’re thinking the new thinking.

Anonymous

July 13. Photograph by Sue Dean

In reflecting the world through writing and art, we look at it more closely. This can be a celebration as well as a reckoning:

The birds tweeting
The squirrels hanging out — see!
Small bird, one of the tiny ones
The owl’s fascination
The great grey bird on the canal
Encounter in the kitchen, a Queen Bee
(Got to be careful with that one)
The squirrels drop round our way
For nuts and
Since we’ve kept our distance
We’re not so close to each other
But then. I look again and
There’s a hedgehog.

Alan

And in making things, we also make ourselves.

“I’ve loved having this writing and art, it’s keeping me going. It gets stuff out of my head onto paper. The art process helps. And when I lose making art, it feels like I lose myself some days. I hang onto me through the images and the writings. It’s all you’ve got sometimes…”

Anonymous

Selfie with mask. Adapted photograph by Sue Dean

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.

Tantrum in Tesco’s

Necklace of Stars

There have been many, many limitations to everyday life during the Covid pandemic. The isolation, the reduced services, the shutting down of shared spaces. But one limitation that doesn’t get discussed so much is the limitation on being able to protest. Here our Necklace of Stars writer Jo makes a protest against invisibility. This is one of a series of pieces by Jo that explore ideas of rebellion. By writing and sharing them, the protest has happened – in you the reader’s mind!

August 1st, the big day is finally here.  She peers into the mirror asking
the reflection if they are sure they really want to do this?  The reflection
answers “Yes and don’t be chicken.”


The door opens, a deep breath taken and with the first step a new phase
commences. Its 20 weeks since her last venture out and everything
even more beautiful than before.


She reaches her destination and sees a lengthy queue and waits
patiently to enter the supermarket.  Her turn comes; she takes the cart
and walks through the entrance, her heart pounding.  Her inner self is
telling her “do it”  “go on do it” and with the final push she throws herself
on the floor and starts to scream and yell.  


Workers and fellow shoppers watch but no one knows what to do.   The
yelling continues, her hands and feet banging the floor.  The manager
arrives and enquires what the matter is and offers help.   She replies
“Nothing, I just wanted to be noticed by someone, the last 20 weeks I
have been forgotten and I just wanted to be noticed”.   She stands
up and makes her way to the checkout, feeling so much better knowing
she has returned to the outside world and made an entrance no one will
forget at Tesco’s.

Jo

Today’s blog comentary was written by Philip Davenport, arthur+martha. The short story Tantrum at Tesco’s is by Jo, from her series of written rebellions.

A Necklace of Stars, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts Derbyshire, DCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service.