The bluebird of joy

A Book of Ours, Projects

One of the most interesting conversations I have had about joy came from talking to somebody about anger. We have been making work about joy that morning and he entered into it with delight. Then he had the phone call. Everything changed after the phone call. He was seething, he was fuming, he wanted to go to war. And then we talked about the possibility of holding two emotions at the same time, about how happy he had been earlier in the morning. And what a contrast those two things were, both in the same person. And we started to think about whether joy was destroyed by anger, or could coexist with it.

 

This week at the Booth Centre the poetry is built up from that foundation. How do you protect your joy from the assaults of the world? Or, as Mathew put it, when describing how to survive insults: It’s water off a motherf***ing ducks back. Quack quack.

 

And then we came to the question of how long joy can last. Can it be prolonged? And Joan suddenly talked about trying to catch the snow when you are a child. That image filled my head, The dancing snowflakes and the swirling kid and the upheld hands and the breathless anticipation. Joan took the idea and gently placed that it into this:

 

Into my heart

 

Joy is like making a snowman.

Seeing the faces of our children

As we make a snowman together.

Choices like love, trying to hold on

To snow as long as we can.

When angry, Id rather hit a wall.

Kiss and make up, bring joy back.

 

Joan

 

In the afternoon we were joined by Andrei. He wrote three pages of questions to ask Joy. We selected some of them to make this poem but as he said he couldve kept going and going and going. Its a big subject, joy and the lack of it.

 

What is it. Euphoria, happiness  is it?

The Government doesnt know what happiness is.

Can there be a joyous skyscraper?

Joy is not my fault or yours.

Is recording joyfulness a thing of joy?

Is there violent joy? A stomping yes!

And have you ever seen a bluebird?

 

Andre

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 Joy Division

A Book of Ours, Projects

As I get near to the Booth Centre, the morning shift are walking there for breakfast. I see familiar faces as I’m cycling along. I join the hustle bustle in the canteen for a catch-up chat with Paul and a rapid cup of tea. Five minutes later upstairs, Lois and I are pushing tables around the art room, taking out the work from previous sessions, getting ready for the first workshop of the autumn season.

Kate comes busying past, smiles. “Hooray! It’s the arthur+martha time of year. We’ve missed you.”

The beautiful pages are spread out on the table again, it’s weeks since I’ve seen them. And I’m suddenly amazed. These fragile marks on fragile paper — the colours shiver with intensity, the words weave their charms and tell of their sadnesses.

 

Sarah Joan

 

And then Sarah is in the room again, and Lawrence, and here’s Keith and here’s Chris, then more familiar and new people. Smiles are exchanged, there are hugs, some handshakes. Here we are, the team is here. People’s faces expectant, a bit giggly, slightly nervous. Once more we will lose ourselves in inks and pencils, stories and poems, we will dive deep into our lives, into our memories — these are the materials that make A BOOK OF OURS.

Today we’re starting a new section, titled simply The Joys. It’s a catalogue of the things that bring us pleasure, the great big life-changing moments, and the little cherries on top. As people begin working, they apply colours or write with relish.

 

Lawrence

 

There is also continuation of what’s already been started. Some of the pages take many hours of delicate work. Gary’s piece shimmers with hundred of tiny coloured dots, like a pointillist painting. It’s the August page from the calendar and the the dots evoke bright swirls of summer flowers, light on water, the dazzle that comes from looking into the sun. Gary smiles to himself as he works, a private joy.

 

Gary

And the final days of December are slowly being shaded in twilight colours on the last page of the calendar. Night clouds drift through the words, a little winter spirit grins, a line of pine trees melt into purple dusk. Mathew has put hours into this page, a labour of love. As he paints new layers, I notice people drift over quietly to peep at what he’s making.

And the writers get busy, listing their joys. This project is inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts; in those times, the number seven was considered to be a bringer of good things. Therefore this section is based around a group poem totalling seven verses, seven lines per verse, seven words per line. Here’s a verse with several authors:

Joy? Oh, you wouldn’t want to know

June joy, you’re the furthest from winter

Jeux (it’s French!) sit down with me

Mon deliciuex ami, do what you enjoy

Sun brings a good outlook on your mood

Togetherness, warm and loving. Jubilant feeling

You want to give love, bring singing.

As we work, I notice many little signs of acknowledgement and affection between people. The human need to belong holds us together — for awhile, we’re the department of joy. But as C observes, “This Joy stuff, it’s hard for people here to describe, yeah?” He looks at me hard. “Homeless people, they’ve not tasted much joy. You’re asking a lot, you know that?”

And within the poems there is often a mirror side, into troubled hearts. As we finish up, I read Chris’s poem, a witty little recollection of one of his favourite bands. But his final line jolts me, “Joy Division — last exit for the lost…”

 

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. 

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

 

And the smell of grass. Blissful.

A Book of Ours, Projects

A Book of Ours speaks of many experiences, the many facets of being a person, whatever your background, whatever your financial situation, however frequently you’ve found yourself without a home to call your own.

Strawberries still grow in the summer. The taste of a cup of tea still reminds you of comfort. Your football team still scored. The sunshine still warms your face. And the days become seasons and the seasons flow into each other, suddenly adding up to years.

 

All of these things are commemorated in the Book of Ours. In images that dance about the page and in little lines of six words. They are the gentle maths of the ordinary. Amid the accounts of homelessness, prison, violence, catastrophe, these things are a welcome anchor, holding the pieces together. Like gravity, like love.

 

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 gathers 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.

 

All always learning

A Book of Ours, Projects

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…”

 

The kindness of gangsters

A Book of Ours, Projects

Our project a Book of Ours at the Booth Centre is a kind of seismograph, measuring tremors. Some workshops are stable and we make work in tranquillity, others bring earthquakes. Today we started with the earthquakes. We had someone screaming out their anguish at the top of their voice. We had verbal aggression. We had tears, of course. We heard a heartbreak from everyone there, or so it felt.

But we also witnessed many small victories and it’s those I want to honour. The slow determination of people beaten down by violence, addiction, depression, fear — and yet still they bring themselves here to focus on these fragile pages. And, more and more, they listen to each other, help each other through the bad moments.

As I write this now, after the latest session, I can still see one particular person, who until last week was living on the streets, beset with drugs and mental health difficulties, with their face full of peace as they paints. Their page is a rich weave of colour, image, writing. Each element is part of a little world, into which they dive, and into which they invites us. This page is one of the most fought-over spaces I’ve ever seen. Some weeks they manage to join us, to work on it more. Other weeks they’re missing in action. To have them with us today was not just a personal win for them, but the winning out of hope over despair, art over violence, living over ending. We keep score of such things.

Today we also had a return visit from one of our occasional group members. Many of his stories of street living are too harsh for him write, just the telling leaves him shaking. But he did make the poem below, that gives the title to this blog post. It’s about the arrival of hope, just when you think all is lost. And how the cavalry sometimes arrives from unexpected places.

When he’d finished working on the poem, he was insistent it acknowledged not just himself, but also the other seven people sleeping out on that street that night. He checked it over, nodded his approval. “It’s my tale,” he said. “It’s good.”

 

 

The Kindness of Gangsters

 

Faces.

Simple fact: you’re lying there, pavement

Looking up, watching faces.

Tales of good to evil to evil to good.

The Gangsters of London

Heard our tales.

The Door Boss of London and his boys

They were giving out fish and chips

Pulling up in the flash car, giving positivity

From a 4 by 4.

Giving money, maybe felt guilty, listening to the

Tales of people sleeping on Russel Street

Tales of good to evil to evil to good

Babies born in doorways.

 

Me, I’m

Not just telling the tale, I’m living it

Whilst looking up at the stars — and tell me

What are they looking at?

These walls are recorders for history

The girl selling oranges got stabbed

And the baby’s brought to rest.

Faces,

I’m looking up

Every person is a face, has a heart.

The Gangster of London

Maybe was homeless himself

Tales of good to evil to evil to good

The Door Boss of London

Came in his car. Put his boys out

To look after us, to give. Love.

 

Anonymous

(This tale could be told by any of the seven men sleeping on Russel Street that night)

Karen

Karen

arthur+martha are making an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It gathers together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, (‘A book of ours’) 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.

Surrounded in nothing but love

A Book of Ours, Projects

“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)

April

Keith’s work in progress, ‘April calendar page’

The homeless resource centre “The Booth”, is a little outside the middle of the city, tucked down a backstreet amongst car parks, small businesses, a Thai takeaway, a couple of brothels. I’m on a bike and look carefully to dodge the broken glass on the ground, I’ve had too many punctures here already. I arrive in a rainy downpour, soaked to my shoes. 

But if the approach is grungy, the centre itself is an oasis. In the middle of concrete and coldness, you come into human warmth. A large cafe takes up the ground floor, it’s noisy, welcoming, edgy all at once. There is a scatter of people eating breakfast at the tables, many have rucksacks stacked up beside them and waterproofs drying, draped over the chairs. Many have faces that are marked by life outside, life lived hard. It’s quieter than usual, though still a bustle. I ask around to see if who’s interested in taking part in the art and poetry workshop and then go upstairs to prepare the art space.

At first the room is quiet, we’ve only got one participant. He sits down dejectedly and complains, “So where is everybody?” Lois and I look at each other, baffled. Usually the group is much bigger — it could be a difficult morning. We start to talk about his poems, he them writes continually, obsessively, trying to pin his demons to the page. His latest notebook is bulging with new work, he’s been up writing since 2am this morning. Still nobody else has arrived. Then magically more people have appeared. And more. We make a start, continuing the ever-growing art and writing.

Phil, Lawrence, Johnathan and Cloe

Philip, Lawrence, Johnathan and Cloe

We are working on a new section of the book called the Hours of the Virgin, which is a detailed look at the emotional and spiritual highs and lows each part of the day, from before dawn through to the last moments of wakefulness. In the medieval illuminated manuscripts that have inspired this project, each part of the day has its own significance and symbolism. The beginning full of possibilities, the confrontation with mortality at noon, which corresponds to the time of the crucifixion, the Vespers call for blessing of loved ones at nightfall, and then Compline, going into sleep.

Two people wrote about their days, the wrestling match with their past, the desire for sleep that never comes. As their words are read out, the room stills. There’s a quiet ripple of appreciation, and perhaps of understanding.

Still more people come, the busyness and quietness sometimes becoming an excited roar, and then dying away to the shared silence of making. The colours on the pages of this book glow, the patterns and images are complex, jagged, gentle. It’s difficult to describe the complexity and speed of a day in the Booth Centre — suddenly we’re at an end, when we feel it’s still the middle. Slowly everyone emerges from the shared dream.

We have a recap with Karen, the Booth Centre project worker who helps our afternoon sessions:

“What I liked was that people I wouldn’t have expected to come arrived and stayed — and enjoyed it. 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.”

We don’t always see these “knock-on effects” of what we do, so it’s good to hear this from Karen. But the abiding image I have in my head is of that room slowly filling with people, arriving in ones and twos, despite the weather, despite the everything else they deal with — brought together by the deep human need to make a trace of themselves, through art.

Keith

Keith working on Calendar page

 

 

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.