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.

 

The weight of an angel’s wing

A Book of Ours, Projects

We’re making pages for an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre, a centre for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. The original medieval illuminated manuscripts from 500-plus years ago were full of prayers and holy days and feasts, as well as smatterings of current events. Our new book reflects the diverse lives of people who’ve experienced homelessness, drawing on their lives and insights, replacing religious rituals with their day-to-day. And decorated by them with images and colours, to become rich with the details of their world. 

Calender Year, Johnathan

Calendar year, ‘A Book of Ours’ Johnathan Phythian

This week we’ve again been working on the calendar, always the first section of the medieval books that give us inspiration. Each day in the year has a special significance for particular people, be it a birthday, a personal tragedy, a breakthrough, or just a quiet moment of pleasure.

Our calendar is incomplete, however it’s starting to gather a remarkable patchwork of experiences together. Each description has to be a maximum of six words. It’s an art to describe a significant life moment in only six words, but many of the group have already risen to the challenge. Dotted among the personal writings are fragments of our wider history, especially the medieval history which would’ve impacted in the original manuscript makers.

August

August calendar page, ‘A Book of Ours’ Gary Cundle

Here is our work-in-progress August, each day it’s own little story of commemoration:

AUG

Aug 1

Leave windows open for my Angel.

Aug 2

Scared shitless, heartbroken then released.

August 3rd

Started coming Booth Centre.

August 5th

Two cakes to blow out. Me/sister.  

August 6th

Booth Centre helped me get a place

Aug 11 1999 (eclipse)

Let daylight come down on Earth.

August 13th

Day of marriage. Celebration. Soul partner.

Aug 22 1485

Dick Tudor 3, found under carpark.

June, (John)

What can’t easily be described is the intensity of each of our workshops. The absolute laser-like engagement of our writers and artists as they write their lives. For some people this is the only moment in the week away from intimidation, violence, drugs, despair. For others it’s become a social space where friendships are growing and trust is slowly forming. The saddest image I’ll take from today is of one of our most involved participants. Though he’s sleeping rough, he is always immaculately groomed, bright with enthusiasm for making art. Today, however, his eyes were shuttered by drugs, his voice blurred and his head nodded. But still he fought his way through the chemicals towards us, slowly, so very slowly, making his mark on the page.

July (Johnathan)

July, from ‘A Book of Ours’, Johnathan Phythian

Our 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

From my heart and soul

A Book of Ours, Projects

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.

Johnathan

A couple of observations about yesterdays session at the Booth Centre from Johnathan and project worker Karen.

Lawrence’s calendar page for ‘The Book of Ours’

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.

Trickling from the stream’s my dreams

A Book of Ours, Projects

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 whove 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 its 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.

 

A Book of Hours, from the John Rylands Library collection

 

 

The cliche of homelessness is that its a drab, black and white world, a gritty documentary with a downbeat ending. But in the artwork and writing for this project weve 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.

 

Chris at The John Rylands Library

 

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.

 

A Book of Hours, in The John Rylands collection

 

I suddenly needed to sit down, found I was breathing too fast, Id become dizzy. L wiped his streaming face and beamed the broadest smile I think Ive ever seen on him. Chris, whod 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.

 

Let daylight come down on earth again

A Book of Ours, Projects

“One of the men sat next to me- hes got a lot of things going on, sleeping on the streets at the moment. Hes had an amazing day. You could see how relaxed he was, how focussed…

(Karen, support worker Booth Centre)

 

Today was our second day into our new project ‘A Book of Ours’, making an illuminated manuscript with people whove 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. Its impossible to let your imagination play if you dont feel safe, or sense youre unwelcome, or being judged. People living on the streets or in hostels often tell us that a quiet space thats 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 dont value them. Heres a Brilliant Job day, in precisely 12 words: Started work, didnt 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. Heres 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. Its a nice space to build up rapport. People get to know parts of themselves and share in a way that they wouldnt 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. Well 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 homelesswhen they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

A book of ours

A Book of Ours, Projects

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 peoples 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, Id the feeling that there was nowhere else to be sitting in the world that bettered this.

 

 

In todays 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…

With thanks to everyone at The Booth Centre for their warm welcome, the support of Lottery players and the Heritage Lottery Fund.