On a day of sorrow

Necklace of Stars

Making poems by phone during the pandemic

Phil Davenport

“I think it’s helped me deal with lockdown. It’s helped me sound out what I’m thinking. I’ve been chasing a little flicker of understanding. Trying to think and digest and let it filter in. Or else you drown in your own thoughts, don’t you? If you’re left alone with them too long.” M, participant quote

Necklace of Stars was a project designed to reach out to isolated older people in Derbyshire, with home visits to make poems and art. But when the pandemic started at the same time the project launched, the whole thing was at risk of being cancelled. It took a few deep gulps to move the project from face-to-face workshops to working over the phones. Now the home visits wouldn’t occur — but would phone workshops be anything like a substitute, for participants and for me? 

With poems, we question, reflect and reconstruct ourselves. They’re an internal communication, with the self. They are also a messenger sent out to the world to say “I am here”. They tell stories, histories, fantasies, truths and lies; poems can strip away illusions, or pile up mysteries— sometimes all in the same verse. Poems have been around a long time, for good reason, however they’re usually considered to be a luxury. In lockdown, poems became part of the rescue package. 

Being alone is not a bad thing per se — it’s only by spending periods diving into your internal world that you’ll find space to hear yourself and find time for that voice, once formed, to be articulated. Spare time was forced on us in 2020, so this was a great opportunity to write. Learning to write is partly about learning the art of solitude. To make things that require time and repay it with depth and resonance. In this way, perhaps the pandemic could be turned to advantage? 

The Necklace of Stars theme of childhood lullabies, stories and the night sky was a great stimulus for some of the writers:

“There is an aura off the starlight, it’s very powerful. It draws us to it, gives us peace and makes us feel our place. Now I’ve got the time I’m coming back to those questions. Instead of taking life for granted, I’m exploring it. Opening my eyes to the starlight. If you can’t see it, you can’t write a poem about it.” N, participant quote

But other people wanted a different kind of space. They needed to address what was going on in the world immediately around them and in their own heads: 

“Stories come into my head. All the different ways people have reacted to this time of isolation and shielding. Each of us has a different idea of how we can react to now and how we can rebel. I’m trying to write about how this situation affects each and every one of us. This project is about the stars leading us out of despair. Demonstrate or rebel, and then everyone knows you still exist.”

J, participant quote

The workshops were often customised to people’s individual needs and if possible I tried to build in progression and a sense of challenge. For some people talking and writing became a way to unburden, and a way to make sense of Covid. But the deal was struck that some of the work had to be frivolous and jokes were a necessity.

Being solitary meant that some aspects of life were magnified. Older people often carry grief, for lost partners and friends, and part of travelling into memory meant encountering these presences. But in the case of T as with several others, we then moved onto the memories of childhood for a minute exploration of that part of life.

“The virus makes you go into memory because the future is so uncertain... Writing takes a big chunk of my day, it’s very important to me just now. What am I writing? I’m living in the past, not the recent past which is full of grief for me, but the past of childhood. I’ve stepped beyond the grief and gone right back to something that’s relatively harmless. And going back to these memories helps me to know myself, I see aspects of the child that are in me today.”

T, participant quote

Out of these encounters came a wealth of deeply-felt writing. If you go to the arthur+martha blog you’ll find poems and testimonies there; a mirror of the moment. The emotional intensity of the work was part of the intensity of this time and it made the writing shine. It was wonderfully uplifting to witness people alchemising something bright out of this dark moment. Some poems were modest little meditations on the garden, the neighbourhood, yet they were a big refuge. Here, seen on a local river:

Such a little duck,

holding her own in that strong current,

such determination to rid herself

of whatever was troubling her –

mud, weed, algae, parasites 

Minutes went by – then suddenly she stopped,

stood upright, shook off the last drops

from her feathers in a shower of light…

leaving a clearer space in my mind and eyes.

(From On a day of Sorrow, Lorna Dexter)

When I finally stopped in Spring 2021, I felt like I’d run a marathon — exhausted but also with a sense of achievement. In a grim year of lockdowns, fear and loneliness, this small glimmer showed itself. There’s a detailed evaluation of Necklace of Stars by researchers from Nottingham University and this independent evaluation showed that people benefitted from the calls. So did I — in this time of the plague, I was able to be useful, by means of (of all things) poetry.

This is a shortened version of an essay (also used for a case study) written by Phil Davenport for the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance www.culturehealthandwellbeing.org.uk

A Necklace of Stars is a meditation on childhood viewed from the other end of life. Alongside poems, songs and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies, we’ve invited written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness. 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 – post and phone conversations.

Midnight Musing

Necklace of Stars, poetry

So, Mr Moon, how are things tonight
As you flood my room with your cold, bright light?
How are things looking in Somalia and Peru?
If you could change our world, what would you do?

Would you feed the hungry children and enrich the poor?
Would you banish the wolf from humanity's door?
Would you fix all the damage we have done to each other
To sibling and rival, father and mother?

Would you fill us with love instead of with hate
Would you help if you could, or leave that to fate?
What of rainforests, the earth and the rivers?
We've so many takers, with very few givers.

As you gaze down below on your silent stay
Do you glean any wisdom to brighten our way?
Or do you simply sail on, in a cold display
Oblivious to all, as we wait for our day?

Annie

A Necklace of Stars is a meditation on childhood, viewed from the other end of life. Older people have made poems, songs and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies for the “Necklace”; we’ve also invited written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness. Here Annie revisits the Man in the Moon of childhood, to ask some difficult questions. 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 – post and phone conversations.

Spirit of the wind

Necklace of Stars, poetry
My ribs whistle
In that winter wind
And my bones groan 
Like the oak 
That stands firm by my feet

Aching in its limbs
As the storm passes by
The old tree creaks
As its neighbours rub side to side.

My lips cracking
Like bark around the trees
Oh this weather
Is not kind to you and me.

The strong, cold breeze
Searches our souls
Embracing us in endings
As we all grow old

The telephone wires
Hum their ghostly tune
A lullaby for this night
That will be over soon

My eyes are watering
Tears roll down my cheeks
I yearn 
For a good night’s sleep.

But there is hope
A light close by
My wife coming to me
Wants to be by my side.

How my heart and soul are lifted
As she kisses my brow:
“Come my dear
So we may shelter
From this windy, wintry howl.”

Neil

A Necklace of Stars is a meditation on childhood, viewed from the other end of life. Older people have made poems, songs and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies for the “Necklace”; we’ve also invited written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness. Here Neil writes a kind of anti-lullaby, with the wind singing to him and the ghosts of memory for company. 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 – post and phone conversations.

Suburbia 1940

Necklace of Stars, poetry
On the Main Street many shops
Pork butcher, greengrocer, baker
Chemist and newsagents too
Wash House, Public Baths,
Where folk went for the 
Weekend scrub.

Mondays, mum wheeled a pram of laundry
To the Wash House, left it
In the drying room for ironing by teatime.
Illicit children in and out 
Long runs of terraces, newspaper in the window 
If you couldn’t afford lace.

A Pawnbrokers was just across.
By hearsay, on Friday Father drank his wages
Mother with no money in her purse
Took a special item to borrow, with interest:
Left a radio, a pair of best boots.
Shabby and respectable. 

Went to the Brownies, then Girl Guides,
I learned many things in 1940:
To make beds, First Aid, hospital corners. 
Taught never to call poor people names 
-- and the cooking of sausages --
Opportunities in the open air. 

Lenton Infants started school
Some sans breakfast.
According to the season, songs of
A frosty morning or dancing round the mulberry.
Junior girls skipped ropes in their playground,
The boys footballing next-door. 

Mr Edwards was Head -- a stalwart man for sure
Mr Beardsley’s voice boomed:
Muffled bombs. Air raid shelter days  
Spent ’til we moved to newer parts
That of course is another tale, ever-different
But still with hospital corners.

Jaye

A Necklace of Stars is a meditation on childhood viewed from the other end of life. Alongside poems, songs and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies, we’ve invited written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness. Here Jaye travels faraway from the pandemic, into a childhood that carries it threats under a tranquil surface. 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 – post and phone conversations.

WAKE WITH THE SUN IN MY MOUTH. The big book launches at Manchester Cathedral.

A Book of Ours

A BOOK OF OURS is finally in the world, you can visit it in person at Manchester Cathedral for the next 6 months until March 2022, before it goes onto John Rylands Library for its place in their permanent collection — and in history. Because this is a big, big book containing many lives in an untold history: the story of British homelessness.

Manchester Cathedral, 14 October 2021. From top left: Chris Keane, Christine Johnson, Philip Davenport and Lawrence McGill, Calligrapher Stephen Raw (in green) sharing the book with audience members, artist Lois Blackburn showing a golden page from A BOOK OF OURS.

“This book, here you have our world at your fingertips. Damaged in every bloody way, look at the state of us. We are terrible and we are beautiful.” Chris Keane

On 14 October A BOOK OF OURS was launched with readings, singings and an official welcome of the manuscript into the Cathedral by Canon David Holgate, who also blessed the book for good measure!

The experience of homelessness is usually shared quietly, person to person, through private conversations that disappear into the air. And as a rule, these experiences go no further. In A BOOK OF OURS, such quiet conversations have finally been recorded on a page, using the exact words of the tellers. And not just recorded. Here they are given rich colours, decorated in gold, and most importantly of all they have been given time — time to be heard, time to arrive on the page, time to be witnessed for their own beauty.

While the world was going into lockdown it was a great antidote knowing that poems were still being written, songs were still being sung over the phone and artworks being made — those little conversations were still happening. This book is constructed with paper and ink, yes, but really its materials are memories and hopes, jokes, worries, grief, joys, the things that make us alive.

WAKE EVERY MORNING CAN’T BLOODY MOVE

Wake in the darkness of me

Wake with the sun in my mouth.

A BOOK OF OURS Calendar, lines from October.

We’d like to thank all who came to the Cathedral on 14 October for such a big-hearted reception to A BOOK OF OURS. The performers Chris Keane, Lawrence McGill, Andy Crossley, Joan and Christine Johnson all shone brightly, illuminating the pages with deep feeling. Thanks is due to all the makers. Thanks also to the Booth Centre and Back on Track for their extraordinary help for nearly three years, and for the support from the Cathedral and John Rylands Library where A BOOK OF OURS, a book of homelessness, will have its permanent home.

Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We wish to acknowledge the unswerving commitment and belief of the Heritage Lottery Fund and all National Lottery Players for making this piece of homeless heritage possible during difficult times.

The launch was reviewed in The Meteor online news co-operative here and a short video documenting the event is here.

Binding A BOOK OF OURS – by Mark Furness

A Book of Ours

Bookbinder Mark Furness describes making 100 loose pages into a book that medieval monks would have recognised…

We are delighted that A BOOK OF OURS has been finished and now has a handsome leather cover, designed to last for centuries. It will have its final home in John Rylands Library, alongside neighbouring manuscripts that are hundreds of years old. A BOOK OF OURS contains a history that has not previously made it into official records — the histories and experiences of people who’ve experienced homelessness.

Mark Furness: Books of Hours were often personalised small books, lavishly decorated and bound, devotion equating to the wealth the owner spent in the books creation.  Popular in Medieval times when book production was generally located in monasteries and centres of power, the most robust method of binding was of a Gothic structure. Inspired by such works in the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, I was asked to bind the pages in a form appropriate to that inspiration.

Fully sewn and bound in leather with wooden boards to control the strong but restless parchment that was used for the pages, it seemed the most appropriate structure to use in binding A Book of Ours.  Not only for the historical simpatico but the larger format of the pages would benefit from a binding that is so strong. The main hurdle was taking the individual pages of the project and making them sewable. The solution is a guard book structure; strips of paper are added to the edge of each page, they are folded, providing the folded edge to sew through and the excess paper compensating slightly for the overlap of page and strip.

Creating the Guards

The paper stock used for the manuscript was a combination of 130-190 gsm paper, written and decorated with a variety of paints and inks.  The paper is fairly rigid, which is fine, but for a book the pages need to flex; when the book opens the pages need to rise up from the spine, to splay and lay flat. The guards were constructed from 90gsm Fabriano Ingress paper, a fine quality paper with strength and great flexibility, of an off-white/beige colour. In this arrangement the sewing passes through four layers of paper in the guard, a good amount of paper to sew through that allows the sections to sit close together and not have the sewing span large gaps. Guards are attached to the verso (backside) of the pages.  No decoration is obscured and the when the pages are opened it won’t pull against the adhesion between guard and page.

Each page is glued in sequence, the setting of the first page in the section guiding the addition of each subsequent page. From 100 pages this made 25 sections, each section took about 15-20 mins to set as it had to be done precisely, but even with such precision the sections will be variable in their height. The guards are trimmed to match the page edges. All the sections were placed on the sewing frame and sewing cords placed evenly spaced along the spine of the manuscript.

Covering the Book

Being such a large book, finding a piece of leather large enough to easily cover the book meant it would have to be calf leather.  A Gambetta skin in gold was ordered from Harmatan, split to a thickness of about 0.9mm.  The covering leather works best when the spine of the leather runs along the spine of the book. The leather is cut to size and the edges and areas of overlap from the turn-ins on the spine are pared thinner. 

The spine of the book is lined with paper to even out the surface and give the leather a clear surface to adhere to.  It is then ready to apply the leather to the book.  Being such a large book the process of covering was difficult with just one person, taking pictures during the process was limited. With the book complete the title panel supplied was pasted into the recessed panel. A label in gold foil on tan leather was added to the spine: A BOOK OF OURS.

Timings

Preparation of sections – 9 hours

Sewing – 7 hours

Board preparation and attachment – 6 hours

Leather preparation and covering – 4 hours

Finishing – 4 hours

Total binding time – 30 hours

Original page from A BOOK OF OURS

With thanks to all National Lottery Players and the National Lottery Heritage Fund who made this project possible.

We tell it with a big heart

A Book of Ours

A BOOK OF OURS illuminated manuscript, made by people who’ve experienced homelessness and other vulnerable people in Manchester, is currently being exhibited at Bury Art Museum. On 9 July a group of the makers (and others) from the Booth Centre and Back on Track came to see the exhibition. A selection of 20 pages is on the walls and in cabinets — only a fraction of the whole number of pages which will be bound into the book. Here below are photos from the day, plus some of the group’s comments:

“When you look at this work, you don’t see the circumstances of the people. You don’t see how they were living or how they was suffering when they made these pages. You’ve got to look deep inside these pictures and these words. Then you get the true story of what is being told here, it is told as it is, it is the truth. I have witnessed it. There is a fearful judgement put on people when they live homeless. But these pages don’t say it’s good or say it’s bad, they just say it exists. They are stories deserving the telling.”

Above: Roy, Kayleigh and (in bottom right photo) Shannah, Bury Art Museum July 2020

“I don’t read so well, it takes me a while. It’s brilliant to have the pictures as well as the words, then I can guess bits of what’s going on. The colours dance for me. Now I did get that poem about Dolly Parton, I love her songs, she comes on like a joke but she sings the saddest songs. I’m looking at this one here and I can read all these words myself. They speak to me about suicide. This is how it is when there is no road left to go. Looking at that page made me feel something, to be honest it made me feel terrible. But then two pages along down is this one about hope. The one about the Satellites coming. I like hope coming in at the end. It’s part one and part two of a story. That’s how it seems to me.” Anonymous

From Office of the Dead, A BOOK OF OURS
From The Joys, A BOOK OF OURS

“Phil, it looks great. You know that and I know that and now everyone else can see it. I’ve come a long way to see our story on the wall. All the gang here, we look like bankrobbers with our masks on. Makes me smile, we look so dodgy. And the gang has done great, every single one of us. We made it together, the Collective. Here we are together again, I’d like to have a picture but they’d probably arrest me. Wouldn’t be the first time.” Chris

“It makes you feel good at the time when you’re doing the art, you get lost in it. And then when you see it again, like this. I don’t have the words. And other people’s work too, all those people from the day centres. It can be a lonely world out there — when you’re really out in it, when you live outside. Sometimes, times like this, you’re not so alone.” Anonymous

From The Joys, A BOOK OF OURS

“People never knew about us. Never knew it was there did they, this story of ours? It was written by a bunch of down and out pissheads, as people call us. Bums, to put it mildly. But I been round this gallery today and we’re in there too now — and we are just as good. With the top artists and sculptors. We tell it with a big heart. A bunch of down and outs is what you get called. The harsh judgements. And sometimes we judge ourselves even harder. When you’ve lived this life, you don’t feel always good about yourself. Know what I’m saying? But here — you do feel good. When you ask me is telling this story worthwhile, I don’t even hesitate. Of course it is, of course it is!” Roy

A BOOK OF OURS, Bury Art Museum

Gallery photography by Julia Grime. Page close-ups, Lois Blackburn.

People who have experienced homelessness, and other vulnerable people, have made a medieval-style illuminated manuscript A BOOK OF OURS describing their lives, hopes and dreams in a 2-year project in Manchester, which had its public debut at Bury Art Museum in May and runs until July 2021.

This arthur+martha project took place at the Booth Centre, Back on Track and other support centres in Manchester, along with virtual workshops with (Invisible) Manchester and Inspiring Change Manchester. Much of this work has been inscribed into the illuminated manuscript, and many extra pieces are to be found here on our blog and as songs in a forthcoming CD. The book pages and songs were made collaboratively by people with lived experience of homelessness and other vulnerable people 2019-21.

Supported by Heritage Lottery Fund

Jakir and Phil, pondering

The Umpire of Heaven

A Book of Ours, poetry

Richard writes about a day in heaven, for our project A BOOK OF OURS. His heaven is simply a day spent with his father, watching cricket on the TV – and yet the affection with which he describes this day makes it so much more than “ordinary”…

Umpire

Sat there, my dad watching telly
His favourite commentator
Reporting the cricket. And dad
Big smirk on his face
Engrossed in the match
But he wasn’t the only one —

We were all there
And England was back in the game.
One of the boys hit it for 6
You can tell by the sound of the 
Ball on the bat
It was going for 6
A perfect moment. Heaven.

My dad doing the hand-signals
Signal for 6, signal for 4
Signals for “Out”, for “Wide”
In cricket, he knows it all.
And he’s got a sense of humour
Takes the mickey out of me, I tell him:
“One day you’ll talk sense.”

Football I’ve studied 20 years.
Learned — big teams are always beatable
If you play like a team without fear.
Get knocked down, make your comeback
Everyone’s got to struggle. Me, I’ve
Had my dips and in the biggest 
I lost everything. It caused me to rediscover 
Myself. My progress now is more and more —

And my dad is having a cuppa, eating sandwiches 
Sat there talking cricket, he’s got me intrigued.
Biggest smile on my face —
A family outing round the telly.

Richard

People who have experienced homelessness, and other vulnerable people, have made a medieval-style illuminated manuscript A BOOK OF OURS describing their lives, hopes and dreams in a 2-year project in Manchester, which had its public debut at Bury Art Museum in May and runs until July 2021.

This arthur+martha project took place at the Booth Centre, Back on Track and other support centres in Manchester, along with virtual workshops with (Invisible) Manchester and Inspiring Change Manchester. Much of this work has been inscribed into the illuminated manuscript, and many extra pieces are to be found here on our blog. The book pages and songs were made collaboratively by people with lived experience of homelessness and other vulnerable people 2019-21.

Supported by Heritage Lottery Fund

Star Travellers

Necklace of Stars, poetry

From Jackie, one of the writers on the Necklace of Stars project, a journey deep into the sky and into the deep past.

Oh how the stars have shaped our lives
We gaze upon history.
See -

Great ancient cultures were born 
Of their worship
Of celestial ancestors

Rediscovered over generations
To be themselves revered as epic
Monuments of lost civilisations.

We gaze upon the same 
Wondrous interstellar light show 
As did the 

Pharaohs, Aztecs, Maya; we gaze upon history
As we strive to join our brethren
The sky gods.

Jackie

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 – post and phone conversations. Alongside writing and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies, we invite written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness.

Starshine

Necklace of Stars, poetry

From TS, one of the writers on the Necklace of Stars project, an imagining of who wears the necklace. And who is watching...

A necklace of stars sparkles, 
Gracefully around the neck  
Of this cosmological goddess 
Holding her supreme position 
In the firmament; she reigns 
Over her subjects
As they move, almost indiscernibly 
Across the skies.  

The goddess moves her elegant hand 
Across the glittering jewels 
Adorning her throat 
Realigning them to create 
The most favourable conditions 
For earthly followers who scrutinise 
Every change and charm.
Step by step, she strokes each precious piece 
Until the ultimate arrangement arrives.

TS

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 – post and phone conversations. Alongside writing and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies, we invite written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness.