In the quiet and safety of the Back on Track Centre, people busily scribe and draw into the Book of Ours manuscript. It’s going through subtle permutations, each week or so it changes, like light striking a picture at a different angle. Today it seemed that the individual lines — each so carefully composed and written into the calendar pages — started speaking to each other. The passing of a human life was suddenly next to a line about the passing of seasons. The skeletons of winter trees also echoed cold, skinny human bodies. And the changes of seasons connected to changes in people’s lives, as they grew into new possibilities, after the storms had cleared.
But the moment you’ll not see written in this book came at the end of the afternoon, when one of the scribes said, “It’s a relief to write this down. To put homelessness down on paper. To put down the weight. Get rid of the shame and just acknowledge what happened. I’m leaving lighter.”
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre and other support centres in Manchester. 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.
We were working at the National Memorial Arboretum, on a table loaded with quilt squares and art materials and the paraphernalia of writing. Outside the rain deluged, sending showers of droplets through thickets of trees.
Today’s workshop brought a remarkable little gang of people. Out of the awful situation of being widowed and grief, friendship has come — an amazing friendship between them. They wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for shared disaster. The bond that they have is evidently special. When we met they were joking with each other, gently poking fun. But when they worked they were in earnest and they encouraged one another to open up and then shared their feelings and supported each other. A lot of friendships never get to that stage, walking with one another through the darkest times in order to get to the light. The gift that out of something terrible something special has come.
One woman had worked with us before and it was she who brought her two compadres. She brought them because they were her friends and she felt it might help them. And so we pitched into talking and making poems and making art and talking again. This was a conversation about loss that went very deep — you could see the pain on their faces as they discussed it. But they had hope, they trusted and understood one another, encouraged each other to experience the sadness, because it leads to release.
And then, gently, came tears.
It is always a matter of great delicacy when somebody cries in a workshop with us. Not because crying is in anyway wrong, in fact sometimes we welcome it. But it is also a sign that things are connecting very deeply, there’s a big upswell of emotion. This needs to be respected and acknowledged but not always discussed. Sometimes when there are tears, a little quiet is what’s needed next.
When she went outside for a breath of fresh air, her friend said, “She needed a cry and now she needs time alone.”
And she nodded to herself, as if recognising this fact in her own experience. Allowing space to grieve, rather than shutting it down.
Between working with our participants, we talked with interested and engaged members of the public. Many, many people came up to our little table to have a look and also to talk. They were full of compliments for the work and for the bravery of the women who made it. We are told that there were 600 visitors that morning, many of them passed by our table, many of them looked and listened — and shared their own stories, of times when they too were swimming amongst the wreckage.
For our first workshop for ‘The Book of Ours’ at partner venue Back on Track, we revisited the calendar we started in the Booth Centre. These pages document significant moments in the writers’ lives. It’s a kind of group poem and like all poems it has rules. One line of the calendar is allocated to each day of the year and each line has to be six words. Woven around these words are thickets of images and colour that enrich the text and deepen the meaning.
Chris working on December page
It was a pleasure to show off the work we’ve done so far to a new group and even more of a pleasure to see them dive in themselves, writing a new layer of experiences. The pages of this calendar embrace delight and sadness, dark days and light. Today’s writings were jaunty. From shopping on a Saturday morning, to the joy of “dragon’s blood” raspberry sauce on an ice cream. From marking a 60th birthday (prize gift a potato peeler), to the little-celebrated drama of hailstones on a window.
Other days in the calendar touch on the harshness of homeless life. But today, we shared the charm of small things.
Sitting together, we chatted and the ideas slowly formed, words took their order. Next, the trying out of many pens to see which size and shape fitted the hand best. Then tryouts of the six word line, carefully inscribed to get the words fitting nicely into the space. Not too teeny, or scattered, not too squeezed. Then at last the commitment to the page, taking a place among the writings and drawing of all the other makers. The nervousness, the rush of excitement that comes with a finished line. Like stitches in a tapestry, the pieces slowly grow.
Afterwards, as we packed up the pages and paints and scattered writings, we asked Patrick how it had been:
“It’s my first time doing any of this sort of thing — enjoyed it. Art, poetry, never did it at school. At school didn’t learn much. Here, I’ve enjoyed, people don’t rush you. Stuff like this, you like to take your time. Me, I love doing it. We’re all adults, but we’re all always learning…”
I work from my heart and soul. That’s why I get so tired, I put everything in.
Everyone has their own reasons for joining in and for leaving. Some people get worn out by the afternoon. Some of them have been up drinking since daft o’clock.
The arthur+martha sessions are different. They’re very constructive, with lots of different things happening at once – poems, drawing, writing, calligraphy, a wide variety. Like us.
A couple of observations about yesterdays session at the Booth Centre from Johnathan and project worker Karen.
I always knew it would be therapeutic, but it’s my first experience of actually doing it, and I’m loving it. I didn’t want it to stop today, it was so relaxing. Im getting to know people in a different way, you can really talk with people, it’s lovely and relaxing.
It will be good, I know it. People just need to turn up and fill the book. They are the big idea.
Karen, project worker at The Booth Centre.
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.
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.
Today was our second day into our new project ‘A Book of Ours’, making an illuminated manuscript with people who’ve experienced homelessness.
Not only are we trying to make an artwork, we are also constructing an atmosphere that people can relax in and learn to trust. It’s impossible to let your imagination play if you don’t feel safe, or sense you’re unwelcome, or being judged. People living on the streets or in hostels often tell us that a quiet space that’s safe is a rare luxury amongst the mayhem, violence, stress. One of the pleasures of this session was to see people dancing away in their imaginations, in the company of others.
The morning session was boisterous and loud, an energy blast. We invited people to make short poetic pieces about their red letter days. Days when time went fast, or slow. G wrote a typical day in a prison cell, the sounds, smells, the boredom and fear. R described the loss of a relative, a long, slow, sad day. C wrote about the amazement of seeing an eclipse, as a child (a little excerpt from that is the title of this blog). Someone else described urinating in the church font, as revenge against a bullying priest. For someone else again, today was his red letter day, his first day in the Booth Centre, a day full of relief but also trepidation. These descriptions were boiled down to a few words and will be written into the calendar framework that we are devising for the first section of this ambitious book.
The theme is time and how we value certain moments of it. Or don’t value them. Here’s a Brilliant Job day, in precisely 12 words: “Started work, didn’t realise my day was over til someone told me.” Rachel
Alongside the writing, pages of sumptuous lettering were appearing as the makers became immersed in their work. Suddenly, the paper was transformed into colour and glorious flowing lines. When we came back after lunch we were surprised and delighted to find that many of the morning group had returned. People had got a good meal inside themselves and this helped fuel them into the afternoon. Here’s our support worker Karen again:
“Can be a full stomach makes the difference. People having lunch and coming back up to do more — doing full day…I spoke to a few people while they were in the workshop. All seemed to really, thoroughly enjoy it. The fact people came back from lunch, after working all morning is unusual, important. It’s a nice space to build up rapport. People get to know parts of themselves and share in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily share downstairs.”
One of our guides on this project is the poet William Blake, his extraordinary visions were recorded in poems and artwork. His kindred spirit in our group is Lawrence whose wondrous outpouring of word/image brings delight to us all, despite his occasional grumpiness. Once again Laurence took flight — up into the colour and light — and others followed him in a swirl of colour and poetry and (always) humour.
As we came to the end, the group gently broke apart, saying their goodbyes, shaking hands, grinning shyly at each other. Then went downstairs and back into it all. We’ll leave the final word to Karen:
“It can get manic in the Booth and I came upstairs into this session and immediately felt the vibe. It was just so settled. People getting into it. And me? — I absolutely loved it.”
This new arthur+martha project is the construction 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.
The first day of a new project brings many questions to the table. And this one was no different. We are making an illuminated manuscript with people at the Booth Centre, following on from our project The Homeless Library, which was the first history of British homelessness. It gave first hand accounts of people’s life journeys, often pivoting around homelessness, illustrated with poems and artworks and inscribed into handmade books.
This new project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript. 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, clumped together simply as“homeless”when they are so much more.
First job of the day was to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends. We worked at the booth centre for 10 years on and off, and some faces were very familiar. Laurence, with a twinkle, said,“Everything gets put to one side for arthur+martha.”Joan gave us both a hug. Danny ditto. As we sat down to work, I’d the feeling that there was nowhere else to be sitting in the world that bettered this.
In today’s workshop, we made a timeline of significant day and people wrote short 24-word descriptions of their chosen days. (There are, after all, 24 hours in a day.) We also did a little experimenting with calligraphy pens, with colours, with paper and with page layouts. Some powerful work was made, beautiful miniature narratives and playful page compositions.
But some of the most important work was to ask questions. We are using mediaeval manuscripts as the basis for our book. These are the Books of Hours that celebrated the Christian calendar. So how do we adapt this template for our purposes? For instance, the medieval calendars were often written in black, red, blue and gold, with a particular meaning assigned to each colour. But what meanings did our group associate with these colours? Is red a colour of love, or a symbol of blood? Is black grief, or power, or…? And gold—is it the colour of money, or something less earthbound?
And as we talked, the shape of this book of ours slowly began to emerge…