Bright mornings start with darkness

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

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“X was sleeping rough last night, came in here soaking and shivering. You can’t solve all of people’s life problems but you can give them a chance for just being. Just sitting and being. That’s what I saw him do today in the workshop, he was writing a poem, but also sitting quietly with his thoughts. Looking around a little, listening. Being a person.”

(Karen, Project Worker at The Booth Centre)

 

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These images are pages from a book made by people who have experienced homelessness, and/or had mental health problems. A BOOK OF OURS holds within it life events, celebrations and memorials, wishes, prayers and curses. Dreams.

The style of the book is based on medieval manuscripts known as Books of Hours. The first section is the calendar, other sections include the prayer cycle Hours of the Virgin and the memorial Office of the Dead.

 

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Over the last six months the Book of Ours project has grown into a wide-ranging exploration of history, of self, of what it means to be heard — and what it means to be ignored. It is a statement to say, “we are here.”

“The workshops, making the illuminated manuscript, have been the favourite thing I’ve done here at Back on Track. For me they’ve meant more than anything else, they’ve put me in touch with my own history. These memories stirred up and made new.”

(Anonymous)

 

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May calender page

We chose medieval manuscripts to give us a form, and to inspire us because they’re among the first history books, and this is the beginning of homeless history in a written form. Medieval manuscripts were the property of influential people, decorated with rich colours and goldlettering. We want to give this history the same treatment, make it the kind of book you can’t ignore. It’s a next step on from our history of British homelessness The Homeless Library in 2016 and links to projects such as The Museum of Homelessness.

The calendar pages are intricate tellings of the significant life events of nearly 100 people, intertwined with imagery and symbolism. It is a catalogue of tiny events, at first glance. Every day is a line of six words; read together they make a year-long poem that is a multi-voiced telling of the lives of groups. It is plum-full of the little things that make life rich with human encounters. Birthdays, weddings, the birth of children, falling in love. It also tells the story of sadder life events: bereavement, illness, addiction, violence. And yes, people commemorate the times they became homeless. They also talk with great power about the help they’ve received, especially from our host venues the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

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All of the workshops start with a table loaded with prints of illuminated manuscripts from different world cultures. We also bring in information and workshop exercises that are full of references to mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. Whether it is writing or creating art, all of the making is in dialogue with this rich heritage, which reaches back hundreds of years. It also connects to more contemporary culture, with the influence of graffiti shining strongly on the work and the echo of poets like Charles Reznikoff.

A significant partner in the project is the John Rylands Library in Manchester, which  hosted a highly successful research trip, designed for participants to encounter original manuscripts that are hundreds of years old. The group were not only intellectually engaged, but also moved, in some cases to tears.

“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… with lots of different things happening at once – poems, drawing, writing, calligraphy, a wide variety. Like us.”

(Johnathan)

Calender Year, Johnathan

 

This passion shows itself again and again — for making, for sharing, for diving deep into the art and the poems. Each page contains delight in colour, in wordplay, in storytelling and in turning the vast (and sometimes traumatic) life experience of everyone sitting around the table into a document that is as varied as the makers.

“I’ve got my wild days. But here I’m chilled out and I let the quiet in.”

(Roy)

Rich in colour and detail, full of compassion, but also shot through with despair, with anger, sometimes incoherent, sometimes speaking in tongues of fire. It’s an extraordinary experience to witness this book come together. Moments of gentleness and reflection sometimes erupt into fury, or weeping, or laughter. And the pages bear so many tales, bare so many souls, it’s a book that needs repeated readings, to fully take it in. And to get an inkling of the many layers of significance. We’ll end with this observation from Karen our regular project worker at The Booth Centre:

“One of the men sat next to me, he’s got a lot of things going on, sleeping on the streets at the moment. He’s had an amazing day. You could see how relaxed he was, how focussed… What you’re getting in this session is people who never join anything, ever. It is brilliant to see them getting involved, and it has a knock-on effect on how they engage with other services here and start rebuilding their lives, letting in the positive.”

(Karen, Project Worker, The Booth Centre)

 

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A BOOK OF OURS is supported by the HLF. Our hope is that this project helps to show the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. 

 

 

Part of something beautiful

A Book of Ours, Projects

“I’ve turned something nightmare-ish into something else. That experience of being homeless, which I’ve never talked about. A lot of my friends didn’t know it was happening. But now those memories have become part of something beautiful. At first after the workshop I felt emotional, then over the week the feeling changed and I thought, “Wow!”

The workshops, making the illuminated manuscript, have been the favourite thing I’ve done here at Back on Track. For me they’ve meant more than anything else, they’ve put me in touch with my own history. These memories stirred up and made new.”

 (Anonymous)

 

The manuscript making workshops at Back on Track have been a delight and a quiet haven for making. Every week our little gang of participants has gathered to painstakingly add the next words, the next artwork. Each page carries the imprint of hours of concentration. These tiny six-word inscriptions are often thought over long and hard. And then the writing is itself an exploration. For some, writing is done without hesitation, a skill completely taken for granted. But for others in the group, the act of writing is a challenge that needs to be met and overcome. The minute incidents on the page, the slips, the smudges, the shaky lines, show the struggles.

 

“I’ve never written like this before. Never had the time, or had these great pens. I like choosing the colours and then I get started. I take it slowly, slowly and the words come. Look at me now, I’ve learned from it. Better now than I’ve ever been.”

Patrick

 

Many of the pages contain the work of several people, layered together. Their words sometimes connect up, to make unexpected and moving narratives. A celebration of autumn leaves falling leads into the death of a beloved father. An account of being homeless, living in a car, leads into a line about the seasons being on the move. 

The artworks are especially enriched by collaboration, weaving of colour and image and symbol. Today in our last session, a small insect was drawn onto a panel of gold and fruit made awhile ago. It was the tiny missing element that made the whole page come alive. A careful use of muted red brought the black and grey of a winter’s page into sharp relief.

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As we’ve worked on the Book of Ours, people have found their preferred method and style. And they’ve brought their own ideas. A knowledge of Viking history, a church oriented childhood, a feel for colour, an eye for design. And as we’ve seen above, the experience of being homeless. All these things have been brought to the Book of Ours and it is richer for it. And we’re grateful.

Today was the last workshop at Back on Track for this term. It’s been a pleasure and we are already looking forward to the next.

 

Would I change anything? No, it’s been alright, in fact it’s been really good. When you’re here for the next workshops, I’ll be here too.”

 Chris

Chris

 

Workshops took place at the Booth Centre day centre supporting people who are, or have been homeless, and Back on Track; a charity that supports people who are going through recovery or rehabilitation, having been through problems including homelessness and mental health. Partners: The Booth Centre, Back on Track, John Rylands Library, the British Library, Glasgow University and Abbey St Hildegard, Germany. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

July- Lawrence

Amicus

A Book of Ours, Projects

The last Booth Centre workshop of the summer for A Book of Ours. It’s been quite a journey, with many coming onboard. Some people have stopped by briefly and for others, they’ve travelled far and deep as they made the work. It’s an adventure into beautiful illuminated manuscripts and a journey into the self, determined by each person.

Some of these journeys have been stormy, punctuated by rage and tears. Today however, was a calm one, with a group of the regular makers finishing off pieces before the summer break.

 

A July page in the calendar was suddenly glowing with flowers.

 

November contained a memory passed on from Andy’s grandfather, returning from the First World War, one of the Pals Regiments that were so decimated.  He finished the description with the single Latin word Amicus. It means friendship.

 

Anne Marie made a series of portraits of former Prime Ministers, and a ladybird. All of them joining their rightful place in the Book of Ours, which encompasses more and more of the history of the entire world as it grows. But most importantly it contains tiny fragments of the previously unwritten history of homelessness.

 

This is the story that isn’t shared, isn’t told, is kept secret and policed with shame. Or else it’s presented as the experience of individuals, rather than the truth — its an experience that’s shared by many, many people.

 

And on another page from one of the most prolific poets I’ve ever met, wrote about forgiveness. Much of his work is about anger and regret, but this one had a gentler tone and it fitted the mood of the day. He names the poems written for this project after blues singers, who themselves were often people with the experience of homelessness. Here is a section of it, to play us out.

 

Sonny Boy Williamson the Second

 

Ain’t no time, it’s irrelevant

“Love is in my heart, know we have to part”

Been up since 2 this morning

You got no possession, ain’t got no watch

However many t-shirts, you’re always cold

I’ve got blues in my head.

 

Sleeping under the Mancunian Way, like a cave troll.

But I’m sorry. Mercy.

What’s in your eyes today

Are you in love?

Grace of God?

When you’re on the streets, wear a hoodie

However many t-shirts

It’s cold. I’m always cold.

 

All you hear is cars. A drain.

Running water.

Not religious but they tell me

I’m getting that way, growing a beard.

Not religious but I pray every morning:

“Want democracy, not hypocrisy.”

 

Anon

 

We learn from each other

Projects, War Widows Stories

Yesterday I had the privilege to join the Devon War Widows’ Association for a very special afternoon tea. Privilege may sound a strong way of describing it, but it feels very real. The meeting echoed others with the War Widows; a group of women who I’ve never met before, a short time describing the project, a while of quiet conversation and contemplation, then people start to open up. People share memories of their late husbands, of the drive for survival for themselves, their children. Of the mess of emotions, the hierarchy surrounding widowhood- husbands who died in conflict and those who died after as a result of conflict, campaigns for pension rights, for better recognition … and much else. And laughter to, and debates over which is the right way to make a cream tea- cream on first or jam?

Irene Wills beautiful contribution to the War Widows’ Quilt

Materials, instructions, treads and SAE for the making of the War Widows’ Quilt where handed out to everyone. And as I was starting to pack up, Irene C. who had been sitting next to me during much of the tea, leaned over and explained:

“This is the most interesting meeting I’ve ever been to. There have been things to think about, it’s made things seem real- Audrey whose 90, will have very different memories than someone younger, or those who husbands have died as a result of a conflict. It’s made me think about it in a different way, to re-evaluate how to think about war widows.

Having something to make, to do, (the quilt) makes you feel part of it- I’m proud of being a Plymouth member, but now I feel part of the wider group of war widows. We learn from each other.”

A big thank you to all the women of the Devon War Widows’ Association that made me feel so welcome and shared so much of themselves.

Skeletons

A Book of Ours, Projects

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.

 

 

Listening for pleasure

A Book of Ours, Projects

The making of the Book of Ours is a favourite moment of the week. On Wednesday we were based at Back on Track It is impossible to predict what will happen next. Some days, like today, it brings together people in extraordinary closeness and kindness. Other days, the gates of mayhem open, letting anger and despair pour through — and we work to stay afloat.

We are helping to document the lives of people who are up against it, people who’ve experienced homelessness, supporting them as they filter their experiences through artwork and poems. The book starts with a calendar, a whole year with six words dedicated to describing each day. The days that people write and draw about often delight in life, particularly times of new growth. The days that children were born, the flowers and budding trees that mark the start of Springtime, times of recovery — and always the great joy of sunshine. But they also talk of deaths, of times spent living on the streets, of addiction, of violence, of incarceration.

Today’s was a day for Springtime. The gentle pleasures of a garden being jump started by daffodils, the trees returning to life like old friends. A grandfather busying among the flowers. It was a quiet session, punctuated by people making little affirmations of happiness. Two of the group members said they were surprised by how energising the work was, how it brought pleasure rather than tiredness. And listening to them was, in turn, a pleasure in itself.

Sue

Sue working on the September page of ‘A Book of Ours’.

 

This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre  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.

 

The Deluge

Projects, War Widows Stories

War Widows Quilt

 

Deanna Selby

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.

 

Norma

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.