My mind is slowly opening

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

James. JPG

12 December. The Booth Centre.

Today’s session in the Book of Ours project was not only our last one of the year, it was also the last time we will be in the Booth Centre until February. And happily it was a wonderful, productive day, full of concentration and gentle good humour. 

We’ve been researching the Suffrages, books of saints in the medieval books of hours, and rewriting them for this project. People have looked at medieval poems and then written about now — about people who have come to their help. Some of the poems describe personal encounters, others are about being inspired by an icon. It’s an instance of how engaging with heritage can help us to know ourselves. We now have the Saints Mike Tyson and Jimi Hendrix among our number. 

 

Born on Boxing Day

 

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Power and agility unchains your liberty 

Mike Tyson to some, to others Iron Mike

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Undisputed the world is yours truly

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Power and agility unchains your liberty.

 

Anonymous 

 

This suffrage for Mike Tyson is not only about boxing, it touches on racism and personal pride, on not compromising your inner self, on agility and danger. The piece is a triolet, a song-like poem form based on the older medieval rondel. Then in the afternoon the writer began transcribing the poem into the page setup designed for our saints, which is also based on medieval originals. And so he became an artist too.

Another of our writers described a woman who helped him at his most desperate. “It was my worst time. I was literally in a ditch, out of my head on substances. And she helped me, fed me for days, bathed me, got me on my feet again, ready to face the world once more. I’ll never forget, it’s moment that I always carry with me, how she helped a complete stranger. Me.”

He transcribed the poem onto the page and then began to illustrate it. He met himself again, in that moment. Saw it in the third person and was shaken, left deeply affected. And joyous too:

“I found arthur+martha to be an amazing experience. It is the first time I have expressed my emotions — it evoked profound feelings that I consider positive and a different outlet than that I would usually take to deal with my issues.”

Anonymous

As I left the Booth Centre today, our session support worker Louise told me that one of the participants had said, after making work with us, “My mind is slowly opening.”

It gave me the image of a flower opening, despite the rainfall, despite the desperation many homeless people experience, despite everything. 

And then my last encounter was with a person who told me, “I’m buzzing, I’m buzzing. I’ve just been given accommodation. I won’t have to sleep out tonight.” Gesturing at the downpour and the puddles. “Know what I mean?”

In fact, in some ways, it was a perfect day. 

Self-made mountains

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

Booth Centre, 5 December 2019

 

Asking for help can be the most difficult thing. It seems simple, but there’s a million reasons not to, infinite excuses.

“You’ve got to be ready to ask,” says one of our regular group who’s come through addiction and out the other side.

“It’s not easy, admitting you’re weak,” observes someone else.

“But is it really weak? Everyone needs help, it’s human,” says someone who’s just got a new flat. “I’ve been living out on the street, I needed a lifeline.”

It’s a morning of dancing around these tiny self-made mountains, delicate but terrifying.

Then in the afternoon we start with tears, as occasionally happens. The person next to me is literally shaking. Eyes dark with worry. Tears flood and emotion floods the room. Somehow these tears liberate everyone else, bring them closer to their feelings. And so we write together.

It’s a brittle atmosphere like a family argument, a storm waiting to burst. There’s sadness and anger, lightning strikes of shouting. Then between it all poems grow. People write about letting in simple pleasures. They talk about sunshine, the silliness and joy of just being. Little lines that are fought for so hard, shared and appreciated. Then shouting stops, the tears ease off, we have a strange peace. 

 

Help is too big to put in words

Naked in a big world

Myself to get off the drugs 

Help is too big to put in words

Myself to get off the drugs 

Mum and dad and me

Naked in a big world

Help is too big to put in words.

Anonymous 

I’m touched beyond words by these words. Their makers are so proud, yet embarrassed, yet delighted. There’s a shy grin.

“Maybe I’ll be back next week,” says a new member of our ongoing little club.

“Was it a bit much?” I ask another regular. He shrugs.

“It’s all part of the cake mix,” he says.

A quill under your pillow

A Book of Ours, Projects

One of the delights of each different arthur+martha project, is the chance to work with new specialists to gain new skills and inspiration, to see things with fresh eyes. For the Book of Ours project next year we will be joined by singer songwriter Matt Hill, this year we had the delight of working with Calligrapher Stephen Raw. Stephen writes about his experiences here.

Once again I have the feeling that there is something strangely transformative about calligraphy. Even complete beginners somehow grapple with the wretched pen and enjoy their results! How can you write anything when the nib is thick one way and thin the other and only goes in one direction!? (Little wonder that Mr. Biro was so successful with his wonderful invention.) And wrestling with a quill-like pen was exactly what happened in the workshop – look at the smiles on faces proudly showing the fruits of their labour.

Relevant to the ‘Book of Ours’ project is the fact that some of those novice monks copying manuscripts way back when in scriptoriums were actually illiterate. But this is perhaps no surprise when you consider that our letters are only a manipulation of four simple strokes in various combinations: a vertical, a horizontal, a curve and an angle. The rest is creative embellishment. In the workshop I was telling someone about the time in the 1980s when I lived and taught in Papua New Guinea. One day Makali, a caver, came to the art school without any ability to read and write at all. Yet, when given my drawing of text he managed to produce sublime v-cut letters in wood.

He, as Booth Centre participants do, was dealing with pure form in much the same way I might approach unfamiliar Chinese or Singalese script. Nevertheless, the question remains: why our pleasure in calligraphic script? My observation and guess is that it has something to do with the very nature of an internal contrast within a single letter. Any letter has one part that grows from fat to thin and back again in such a beautiful, gradual manner. And what is more, it’s all gratis – the ‘magic’ pen does it all. Keep it flat on the paper, keep the angle the same and hey presto – letters with inbuilt vitality and variation. No need for contortions of wrist and fingers – just get a grip and off you go. I’ll risk sounding patronising but it never ceaes to delight me when it happens. 

The resulting pages in a ‘Book of Ours’ visually speaks of such enjoyment. For sure, some of the letterforms might be wobbly or even ‘scuffed’ (no, not a technical term) but the connection between those monks and the Booth Centre writers is right there in front of us. The process of capturing language and making it visible has always been spellbinding. George Orwell, writing in 1946, said how language is ‘an instrument which we shape for our own purposes’. He wasn’t really talking about the way letters look but he was aware to the importance of fixing language with letters. Without script our lives would be confined to simply conversation or monologue. I love the story – probably apochrophal – of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, who placed a quill under his pillow at night in an attempt to learn how to write. He knew the importance of it but couldn’t be bothered to do the graft of getting frustrated with that wretched pen. Charlemagne could have learnt something from those at the Booth Centre workshop who stuck with it! 

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

James. JPG

 

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.

The gold cog of the clock

A Book of Ours, Projects

As we move through the year, we are getting toward the end of the Calendar which starts A BOOK OF OURS. It’s a long poem written and decorated by many people. Each line is six words long, with the six words the line must tell the story of a significant day of the year. Some people have written about birthdays, funerals, weddings, other people have celebrated the tiny triumphs of the every day. The beginning of the football season in the August bank holiday, the pleasures of ice cream, or flowers, or watching leaves fall in autumn. Or watching a winter sunset, the sun like a golden mechanism.

Woven into the poem are nods to history (the vikings, Julius Caesar, pagan ceremonies) and to the ways we mark the passing of time. The patterns we see in our lives. The cycles and the circles of being alive. And the cycles of homelessness too, the days spent living in permanent turmoil. The punishing life, the moments of escape, the dark angels of addiction.

 

Friends of darkness

Gather round me

Even in my best of times

They gather round

These demons of mine.

 

Lawrence McGill

 

Virgin mary.jpg 

It was one of our productive days, with rapid progress being through the to-do list. Several people talked about being sleep-deprived, pushed to the point where putting words together was simply too difficult. And yet, somehow, the whole room galvanised when the familiar illuminated pages came out and once again our artists and writers dived deep in the midst of making, forgetful of all else. When I said goodbye to Chris he was grinning with delight, even though he had dark smudges of exhaustion under his eyes.

 

“Bang on!” He said triumphantly. “We nailed it. Perfect we were. The collective is in operation.”

 

Chris2.jpg

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.

The world turns for a reason

A Book of Ours, Projects

“How do you write a book like this? Base it on yourself. As though you’re telling a story of yourself. The sadness is part of reality, and we’ve written about that and the joy and the grief. It can be hard, but life goes around. You can’t be negative forever. We can console one another, we can talk about it. It’s sad to go through hardship alone. We’ve put all that in a book for everyone. I feel proud, very proud, in fact.”

Joan

august detail

Today was a time for reflection. We’ve been working months on our illuminated manuscript, rarely taking time to stop and discuss what it is we’ve made. We have worked pell-mell, often with great emotional intensity. There have been tears, anger, delight, and behind them the ever-present shadows of street life,  the substances and the violence hovering in our periphery.

A BOOK OF OURS documents all these things, is fuelled by them and reflects on them too.

 

lightbox

 

“This book, here you have the world at your fingertips. No one will love or understand you better, it’s all here. How time goes slow and fast. How it ruins you. Damaged in every bloody way, look at the state of us.”

Chris

Sometimes chaos has been snapping around our heels, sometimes its been a breeze. And the days we gather together are spent making these precious pages that are diaries of homelessness.

“It’s life, get in the real world. It’s reality. The calendar, the days we’ve spent and how we spend them. How we connect to the cycles of the seasons, the planets. The old pagan calendar was lunar, they thought about time differently, maybe they lived it differently. Look at the wars now, the movement of people across the globe. Syria, then before that the world wars. And before that and before that. People have always been on the move, people have always struggled, we are just the same.”

Keith

Colin and Lawrence

Colin and Lawrence

 

The world turns for a reason

The big answer to life’s a circle

Clocks go around, the moon is round

Circle of drugs, of mental health

The old cavemen having a fight

And the circle of homelessness itself

Rough sleep. Shelter. Outside once more.

You break it and start again

You can turn things around better

Have to go through the rigmarole

Get a flat, mess up. Repeat.

The seasons bring us round again.

A wedding ring is a circle

We are satellites, stars surround us

Don’t have to be stuck in circles

Find a way of changing our course.

Joan Campbell and Keith the Bard

 

 

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.