There are no ordinary days at the Booth Centre, the homeless day centre where our workshops are currently based. Within the space of one day, or even one hour, there might be laughter, sadness, fury, tears, joy — and today was no different. This was the fourth workshop of a major new project, making an illuminated manuscript with people who’ve experienced homelessnes, a book that will include over 100 makers and stand as a testament of ignored, misunderstood lives.
Many people who join in with our sessions are at an extreme, a point where life has spiralled, and emotions are bubbling close to the surface. Sometimes it’s possible for that emotion to fuel artmaking or writing, which in turn allows self-exploration, or lets people reach out to others. But making such work can be gruelling, there needs to be help at hand so that the journey has an ending. Today, it felt as though some people were walking along the very edge of themselves, trying to find a way through darkness. For others, it was possible to put trouble aside and welcome brightness.
The cliche of homelessness is that it’s a drab, black and white world, a gritty documentary with a downbeat ending. But in the artwork and writing for this project we’ve looked for inspiration to colourfilled medieval illuminated manuscripts. And in response people have identified the technicolour in their lives, saturated them with golds and greens and reds, as well as seeing the shadows. One piece of writing from the morning workshop starts with, “A sunny and warm-full day…” In another we meet, “the darkness of me.”
But today was also remarkable for another reason. In the afternoon we made out first research visit with the group to John Rylands Library to see some original medieval manuscripts firsthand. These handmade books are one-offs, hundreds of years old. To be allowed this close is a rare chance to really encounter books that are artworks of amazing power.
Our guide was the friendly and immensely knowledgeable John Hodgson, who is Joint Head of Special Collections. As he led us to the Victorian interior, John paused briefly and in that moment the booming traffic, and seemingly time itself, dropped away. A tremendous sense of peace wrapped around us. We went forward into this amazing public treasure house, marvelling at the carved pillars, the statues, “the knowledge,” as G said. He took us around the building first of all, which is an architectural beauty of pink sandstone, full to the ceilings with vast bookcases containing vast books.
And then to the books. Nobody quite expected what happened next. As John slowly, slowly, leafed through a 500 year old medieval Book of Hours, the group hushed. The pages were iridescent with blues and reds, and burnished gold. We looked closely, saw the writing of people hundreds of years dead and yet who still spoke to us through these pages. I noticed that two of the people in the group were quietly crying. Still the pages turned, the Hours of the Virgin, which celebrates each part of each and every day, The Offices of the Dead, a section of commemoration. The intense colours burned with a passion for living, for finding the deepest joys in life, and sharing them, and for acknowledging grief and pain too.
I suddenly needed to sit down, found I was breathing too fast, I’d become dizzy. L wiped his streaming face and beamed the broadest smile I think I’ve ever seen on him. Chris, who’d gently joked with John through the tour, stopped the wisecracking and simply repeated over and over, “Its lovely though, innit? Just lovely.”
We sat and had a coffee together afterward and quietly went our separate ways. I waved to the guys across the street as they disappeared into the bustling city.
Thanks to everyone at John Rylands Library, especially for John for taking such great care of us all, sharing a glimpse of the amazing collection and helping to inspire our project.
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather 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.