Andy says hello

poetry, Whisper to me alone
Andy’s WHISPER journal, opening pages.

It’s one of those days that is so hot it hushes the city. Even the cars don’t seem to have the energy to honk their horns. The Booth Centre in the centre of Manchester is busy, but everyone is heat stunned.

I’ve here to jot down conversations and then rearrange the pieces with the speakers to make something new. I’m working alongside Briony from the Stitched Up Co-op, it’s her session and I am a kind of sideshow. People settle into the trance-like ritual of stitching, making cushion covers, embroideries, repairs…

I see a familiar face, one I’ve not seen in months. It’s Andy and we sit together to catch up and to make a piece. He’s been filling out his journal for our WHISPER TO ME ALONE project, he talks me through the journal pages, explaining his thinking. We are both wearing masks and so of course the chat turns to how strange it is, to be half ourselves and half medicalised.

The poem gradually finds its shape, other people chip in the occasional line or observation but the thread of it is held by Andy. When I read it back to him eventually, he nods brisk approval.
“It’ll do, Phil. Keep up the scribbling. I need a smoke.”

Reading it back, it contains all sorts of echoes for me. He mourns friends who are lost to the lockdown, scattered across the city in anonymous hotels, or simply gone into thin air. It throws a bit of dirt at politicians in general and our lot in particular. And underneath it all, under the mask, is an individual, who recognises danger but refuses to not be himself.

Red Dragon Zippo

A legal necessity, masks
I fully agree.
We just started too late and now the Dragon is here.
Listen to the ministers every day
A political mask. “Have a cigar old boy.”
Puff! The House of Commons is virtual
Defeated by the Dragon.

A mask changes you and now
I too am dragon-like
A dark persuader.
My neighbour says, “Andy you look better
Masked up.”
Cheeky sod. But I can’t smoke, can’t breathe
And the air has been sold off.

Cigarette butt in the night, a red jewel to see by.
All my pals, all my villains, where are you now?
Rich man, poor man, beggar man and thief
(especially the last two)
I salute you my lovelies
The subways are still open, though.

Pain in the butt, a mask
But it prevents people
Sharing spray with me.
Lean in
I’ll whisper fire in your ear…
Strike a spark, breathe it in – who am I?
Zippo with a red dragon
Tells me I’m more handsome in a mask.

Andy

As I cycle home from the Booth, I look out for faces I know. It’s difficult to tell these days because there are so many masks. I wonder if Andy would recognise any of the folks I pass by? Shoppers, office workers, rich man, poor man… Andy says hello.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE journal by Andy

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

While typing, pause to sterilise

Whisper to me alone
The new normal. Lunch, visor and poetry notes at The Booth Centre.

You’ll find the remarkable Booth Centre tucked down the back of Victoria station in Manchester, surrounded by garages, carparks, little eateries and mysterious businesses. Amongst drab surroundings it is a bustle of energy and purpose, a little sunburst. It provides extraordinarily imaginative support for the homeless community in this city. It’s welcomed arthur+martha here for over 10 years. Our Booth sessions have taken place in a hubbub of job clubs, quizzes, drama, singing, with everyone meeting together for exuberant mealtimes. It’s been a kind of home from home.

During the time of the pandemic, the Booth has quietened, but stayed busy. They’ve been supplying food parcels from their garden and providing activity packs and phones support for isolated people in lockdown. Many of the regular visitors to the centre have been scattered across the city in hostels and hotels, out on a limb. 

Now at last people are starting to come back, and creative sessions cautiously beginning again. However, the big boisterous groups have gone, instead people work at individual tables, in large, well-ventilated rooms, wearing masks and visors.

(While typing this blog at the centre, I pause to sterilise my hands from one of the many bottles available.)

Today’s is the first poetry session I’ve run here in months. I work alongside the sewing group that Bryony leads on Wednesdays. The stitchers are deep in the making process, focussed on the intricate rhythms of stitching and colour. It’s a perfect atmosphere for quiet conversation — and I work with three people, jotting down their words, to make poems. I simply ask them to describe their morning and their impression of the world right now.

The person I’m talking to becomes emotional, suddenly blurting out words, letting go some old history. He apologies to me. Normally this would be because showing your emotions is “unmanly”, but these days the apology is because he’s scared of spreading the virus. He pulls his mask tighter, continues in an even tone, hidden under the disguise.

And so here’s a tale of coming out of prison straight into the wider trap of the pandemic — a whole world under lock and key. But it’s also a world in which we can finally hear birdsong in the city…

Been let out

The virus. Me,

I was in prison and then when

I got out, it had started and

The whole structure of life

Was DIFFERENT —

Getting a prescription, getting 

HERE, haircuts

Seeing the doctor

Feeling of uncomfortableness

Of threat. And yet.

Have you

Seen the FOXES?

One was here yesterday. And the birds of the morning

When you get to hear BLACKBIRDS

Beautiful

Now the traffic is quiet.

People overcompensating

Gathering everything together:

“Get food, get supplies

That’s how we won the war!”

Inside

THE PRISON. Closed down, you were

Locked 23 hours a day

20 minutes in the yard

Volatile atmosphere, very.

Stopped all visits, all everything.

Coming out

Was the best day of my life

And then — REALITY ATTACK

Went into a shop and they stopped me

Didn’t know what they were talking about:

“Stay 2 metres back!”

Anonymous

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran our Facebook activity session, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE poetry videos. To see samples of the Booth’s online programme go to these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t60atajOgCw&t=5s

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5JJmqziR9EG1fM-hSv1-ag

Phil would like to thank Bryony from Stitched Up Co-op for welcoming him into her workshop.

Social dancing

Whisper to me alone
Social Dancing. Photograph by Sue Dean

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations.

Phil writes:

The isolation that has come with lockdown has forced many of us to look at ourselves and try to understand some of our dilemmas. It’s brought the good and it’s brought the bad. For some it has felt like a prison sentence. For other people it’s been a kind of opportunity. Anastasia points this out:

“I’ve had the chance to slow down, to quieten all the noise around me. To still the voices of busyness and make myself be calm. I’ve been thinking a little bit zen these days. Taking time to exist. It’s a choice isn’t it, what you do with this moment. Maybe I’ll learn from it.”

The writing and art is part of this process, it can be a tool for holding those reflections, so they don’t just melt away but are kept and thought about. Making a poem now is like no other time in people’s lives. We’re also experimenting with making poems over the phone, the author speaking lines down to the scribe (myself) and an edit agreed by reading it back.

It’s a whole different time
It’ll be unique in the telling
A different way of looking
We’re thinking the new thinking.

Anonymous

July 13. Photograph by Sue Dean

In reflecting the world through writing and art, we look at it more closely. This can be a celebration as well as a reckoning:

The birds tweeting
The squirrels hanging out — see!
Small bird, one of the tiny ones
The owl’s fascination
The great grey bird on the canal
Encounter in the kitchen, a Queen Bee
(Got to be careful with that one)
The squirrels drop round our way
For nuts and
Since we’ve kept our distance
We’re not so close to each other
But then. I look again and
There’s a hedgehog.

Alan

And in making things, we also make ourselves.

“I’ve loved having this writing and art, it’s keeping me going. It gets stuff out of my head onto paper. The art process helps. And when I lose making art, it feels like I lose myself some days. I hang onto me through the images and the writings. It’s all you’ve got sometimes…”

Anonymous

Selfie with mask. Adapted photograph by Sue Dean

The lockdown photographs of Manchester that illuminate this blog were by Sue Dean, using her favourite camera, her phone. WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

More than a watchman for the daybreak

Projects, Whisper to me alone

When I was a little girl I used to say, “I want to love the world better.” But it’s a job I cannot do. Sometimes I can’t even love myself.

16 years ago I got clean. I was using heroin and crack, introduced to them by an ex-partner. Even then I wrote every day, journals and diaries and books of all descriptions. Sometimes it was almost illegible. I did the cold turkey myself, writing every terrible day. My dad would say, “This is the book that will help the world, this will be how you love the world better. The story of how you healed.”

When you come off heroin, your body is all pain. You stretch and you bend and you twist, you twitch your legs, they call it Riding the Bike. Couldn’t sleep, I’d be pacing, I’d be looking at the sky. In the middle of the night I’d be looking out for that chink of light at the darkest time, just before the daybreak. When it finally came I’d think I’ve done another day, I’ve been clean.

I wrote about it every day, every detail. A whole book. Then one day I burned it all. Maybe the weight of those pages was too heavy.

Maybe you know that book too.

“A”

Drawing by Jasmine, from journal pages

 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery.

Photo above: Featured embroidery, by Marylyn MacLennan for the quilt, Here Comes the Sun. 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

In the sunshine you’re invisible

Here Comes the Sun, Whisper to me alone

The sun has been a symbol of hope and life to humans since the year dot. But it can also bring the harsh light of exposure. In this poem, written for our project WHISPER TO ME ALONE, Danny Collins describes the fear of being seen, when you’re homeless.

Everyone under the same sun

In the sun you are recognised
In the bright bright sun.
In the night, people don’t see
Homeless feel secure of a night.

When you’re living rough and get wet
In the rain, in the beer, in whatever
It takes days to dry out
And the sun sun don’t stay.

Used to sleep under a bridge
Ancoats to Rochdale Canal
Whitworth Park was my office
When it was warm, jumped in

And swam.
This woman asked
“Why you swimming there?”
“I haven’t got a bathroom love.”

Don’t like it when people pity me.
I said, “Listen love I feel sorry for you
You’ve got rent to pay, tax, electricity
I’ve none of that. Trees don’t have keys.”

Pulled the cover over and went to sleep
Left her scratching her head.
In the sunshine you’re invisible
But they still see you.

Danny Collins 

This poem was spoken by Danny over over the phone to Phil, who wrote it down – an example of our current safe distance working. Danny calls this method ‘I spoke it, you wrote it.’

Beryl Lott's sun1

 

If you’ve enjoyed Danny’s poem, you might like to go on one of his Invisible Manchester tours, in which he describes living on the streets and reads his poems in the places where it all happened.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery. Today’s embroideries are: Top, embroidered sun by Hazel Cawthan, and bottom embroidered sun, by Beryl Lott, for the quilt Here Comes the Sun. (Part of the Whisper to me alone project)

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

 

I class myself as invincible

Here Comes the Sun, poetry, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery. Here one of our Whisperers talks about being transgender and how attitudes have changed during Covid.

Jessica: 

“I class myself as invincible. It’s because I get so much crap every day, being trans. I am just being me, being myself, but they can’t stand it. I’ve been attacked so many times I can’t count. I don’t know why they can’t leave me to live my life, be the person I’ve always wanted to be ever since I was little.

“One thing I’ve noticed during the virus is people are more kind. They’re trying to stay calm, they’re trying to deal with this situation. It’s made them come out of themselves. They are listening to each other much more, trying to figure out what to do, how to survive. I notice these things.

Whisper to me alone – journal page by Jasmine

“It’s sad it’s taken the virus to make people more open-minded. I wonder if they’ll stay like that, or they’ll go back to what they were before? The traffic is coming back now, there’s thousands of cars on the roads, maybe everyone will go back to their old ways. Right now I’m not getting so much hassle and violence as I used to. I still can’t go out wearing a dress, I’ll get beaten up. But if I wear women’s jogging stuff, I can go outside and I don’t get too much abuse. Maybe they’re being kinder. Maybe they’re scared of catching the virus. But what comes next?

 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include Back on Track, Bury Art MuseumWith One Voice arts and homeless sector global network and The Booth Centre.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

Doorways

Whisper to me alone

Our Covid Journal project WHISPER TO ME ALONE has been up and running a few weeks now. It’s a project that is growing quietly, as people gather ideas for their diaries of words and pictures. Below is the first of the artworks, from Jasmine. A haunting little pencil sketch, it’s an archway that seems to invite us to step in and yet at the same time is a barrier, a secret place.

This project of telephone calls and “one-to-one workshops” is full of fascinating conversations, of insights, openess, and the occasional blind alley. During the calls, I have got a notebook to hand and when it seems important, I scribe down what people say and then read the notes back to them. It’s a way we’ve worked for years, catching words from the air before they disappear. Here, discussing the effects of lockdown, is Anastasia:

We’ve lost so many lives to Covid. It is a catastrophe. But it has also led us to compassion, gratefulness and more humanity. The appreciation of little things that we can’t have right now. Things like hugs. We are missing contact with other people and finding new ways to connect. With each other and with nature. I’ve been looking at flowers, watching the birds.

We’ve actually got time during the lockdown. We have been given time to stop and stare. There are less cars on the road, less pollution. You can see the stars.

Anastasia

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. 

This project is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

The state of things

Here Comes the Sun, Necklace of Stars, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

“..I’m glad you like it as it was a joy to stitch. Your idea just sparked something inside me, making me want to do some stitching which was very welcome as I’m finding it difficult to settle to anything at the moment.”

Participant, Here Comes the Sun

 

Sara Scott Sun2

Sara Scott, Here Comes the Sun

 

I’m beginning to hear recurrent themes in the feedback to our two current projects Here Comes the Sun and A Necklace of Stars.  Many of our participants are finding it difficult to settle to anything. People describe having fuzzy heads, being overly tired, difficulties in even making even small decisions.

 

“What’s stopping me? It’s the state of things, I’m normally busy, involved with other things.  Normally I paint and paint and sew and sew, but I haven’t in ages. It’s been very, very strange. I can go outside, and talk to my neighbours, and clap for the NHS, but it’s the first time in my life I’ve been like this. I need something to give me a kick up the backside.”

Participant A Necklace of Stars

vintage dyed pillowcase

Here Comes the Sun. Vintage pillowcase, dyed, ready for embroidered poetry.

 

But counter to that, I have had heard from many other people saying that doing something creative is helping them re-focus and spark something in the brain. How interesting our brains are!

For many it has given a prompt to create something with embroidery for the first time in many years and connect with different generations of the same family:

“Thank you so much from my daughter and I for encouraging us to dig out my late grandmothers stash of embroidery threads to choose some sunny colours for our sun quilt squares. My grandmother was a very enthusiastic and skilled needlewomen and she would have loved the idea of this quilt…. (about her daughters embroidery) It is a while since I picked up an embroidery needle and as my stitches show I am more than a little rusty (for which I appologise) I have, however really enjoyed focusing on something creative during these strangest of times. We look forward to seeing the finished quilt.”

Participant, Here Comes the Sun.

One of the delights of the projects is the way news spreads by word of mouth. Having a project to work on gives us all opportunities to think, talk and focus on something different with friends and family, an escape from the news, and Covid. 

Have shared widely, and this has kick-started a WhatsApp group, as I was asked to set up a crafty one a couple of weeks ago. We can encourage each other daily in there and do other bits and bobs too.

Participant, Here Comes the Sun

What a beautiful idea. I’m definitely going to do this, and share with friends

Participant, Here Comes the Sun

 

Catherine's sun

Catherine Tombs embroidery for Here Comes the Sun. 

But there is always more sharing to do, the more people engaged in our projects with different perspectives on life, the more exciting and greater the depth the project our project gains.

Everyone signed up to our project A Necklace of Stars is currently housebound. Many where before the lock down. So far we have worked with people aged from 65 to 90. Many haven’t done any embroidery since school, but some are very experienced and confident in the creative arts. Everyone has a unique way of looking at the theme of the stars, everyone a story to tell.

Phil and I continually look at ways we can make the projects accessible to everyone, whatever their circumstances. Thanks to support from Arts Council England, we’re thrilled to be working with Booth Centre to invite people who are, or have been homeless to join in. They are being invited to draw suns that our volunteers will stitch on their behalf, a kind of art commissioning without any money changing hands. In addition I will be sending out packs of needles, threads and materials to people at the Booth who want to have a go at sewing themselves. I’m so thrilled to be working in this way and can’t wait to see how it progresses. 

Sarah B's sun

Sarah Burgess, embroidery for Here Comes the Sun.

Todays blog was written by Lois Blackburn, lead artist arthur+martha

A Necklace of Stars is a collaboration between housebound, isolated older people in Derbyshire,  arthur+martha,  Arts Derbyshire   DCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. 

Here Comes the Sun, A quilt in the time of Covid 19. Part of the Whisper to me Alone project.