Wednesday, 23 August 2017

In our defence

It's a bland upstairs room, in an ordinary house. A circle of chairs, nothing on the plain walls. Outside the window is a grey Liverpool afternoon, leaking typical slightly despairing British light onto us.

But the men in this room are full of purpose, and hope. I'm at the Tom Harrison House, a recovery centre for service veterans who have substance abuse issues. The small group of men share camaraderie for the length of their 11-week stay here. They are here to admit that they've got issues with substance abuse and need to find a way out. 

Like many people who've been in wars, they carry away a residue. The dust of experience, memory, PDST, call it what you will.

I'm introduced to the group by PJ, who is their mentor through the period of weeks that they attend the course. They look at me warily, they’re in the midst of some serious life-changes and they don't really want to mess about with poetry. (“I mean, I thought poetry - what the fuck?” as one of the group members later said, with a disarming grin.)

PJ is in equal measures charming and challenging. He jokes with the group, encourages them endlessly and also confronts them with their particular truth. “Every person here has an addiction that they need to own and get past.”

During the course of the next two hours everyone in that room will look me in the eye and say, “I've got a problem…” They are all tough-looking guys, solidly built and possessed of that strange calm shared by people who have seen a lot and gave up being shocked a long time ago.

I tell them about the arthur+martha project Armour. We talk about the weight, the terrible weight of armour, whether it be physical armour, or mental armour. As we chat they tell me about different armour types. We talk about the old Kevlar bullet proof vests, the helmets that are designed to spin away bullets. They describe the vileness of wearing nuclear fallout protection, sealed into a charcoal lined suit, with an oxygen mask, sealed in with your own smells, your own self, unable even to communicate unless you've got radio comms in your mask.

I'm here for two hours only, to run a poetry workshop. Normally, in the arthur+martha workshops, people take awhile to open up and describe the deeper layers of their lives. Here, because the men were already in the midst of open discussions and therapy, they plunge right in. 

We've used the Japanese tanka form for this project, a type of love poem. Using a love poem to describe the opposite of love introduces tension - and tension is surprisingly productive. This was where the surprise lay,  people retold their stories as poems and in doing so they re-heard themselves. I won't share the poems this week, but will say that they were searingly honest and glimmered with humour. As we came to the end of the session, the group were grinning at each other. 

“Never written a poem before,” several people said. But these pieces weren't just a technical exercise, they were a gesture of courage and connection. They overthrew defensiveness and they let in life.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Your name in the sky

I wrote your name in the sky, in tears 
(this is something I don't normally do).
But the wind blew it away. 
A soldier, me, taught to be emotion-free 
I wrote your name in the sand 
of experience 
the crap life brings. 
Don't never want to experience what I have
but the waves wash it away.
With my background I attack
with my family I block, it’s defence.
Gentle will always overpower strength:
I wrote your name in my heart 
and here it forever will stay.


We are saying goodbye to the Booth Centre, and goodbyes can be hard. In the afternoon of our last Armour workshop at the Booth Centre, Phil led a poetry writing exercise. Two of the group hadn't created a poem before, and there was apprehension, but taking the process stage by stage, bit by bit, people wrote, shared, confidence grew. There were tears in the eyes of one man as he wrote. 

While poems progressed, the embroidered and rusted fabrics were laid out on the floor. Members of the group took time out from writing arranged together into ideas for compositions. My original idea was to make a 'finished' Gamberson quilted jacket with the group. However, as ever, the project has progressed and something much looser is emerging, I described it as paper cut-out dress up dolls, (without the dolls or the tags) a front of a garment, indicating loosely a jacket. We tried placing the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, to fit a giant. 

The composition everyone got most excited by was from Gavin, when he moved the pieces to form a group of  five soldiers, each one taking on a different aspect of emotion. When we looked at them as a group, people saw different things... that one looks like a Roman Solider, that an American Football player, this one's about pain, another hope.. 

After the session a group from the afternoon helped take over my boxes to the car, Melanie and I stood outside the centre, chatting with them over the session. It had been a great day and nobody wanted it to end. 

Sadly this was the last session for a while at the Booth, our thanks as ever go out to all the staff and volunteers there, and yesterday Jessie and Melanie who volunteered. And most of all thanks for all the participants. 

Lois Blackburn

Things we do in life for the better can leave us the worse for wear

The rain thumps my umbrella 
I'm dropping my guard, I can't believe it went so well.
There's no place like home
And knock on the door to tell 
The one who I love:
“Make sure you close the blinds
And continue my journey in the rain.”


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Talking to John

We've had two weeks away from the Booth Centre, for the project Armour. So much happens so fast in the lives of people who use the centre, two weeks here takes some catching up. At the reception desk, we were greeted by Peggy. She explained that the cards and flowers we saw as we came in were for Michael, who had sadly passed away a few days ago. He joins many other people we have met who experienced homelessness, and died too soon. 

We spent much of the morning with John Felix, a documentary film maker (who made two beautiful, sensitive films about arthur+martha projects before The Homeless Library and Stitching the Wars). John was with us to start the Armour film, interviewing participants, filming some of the afternoon session. 

embroidered rusted fabrics, trial compostition

As with our previous experiences working alongside John, people seemed very at ease with him, sharing their stories with candour. Over the course of the day, we started to see the project afresh, through the comments gathered by John. 

Key themes that came up included: People felt safe to reveal their inner selves to the group, a deeper often more vulnerable side of their lives and personality than otherwise would be shared. Many of the group described themselves as having literacy problems, and having problems at school, but that these were helped by the sessions. They felt they had the support to do something new, something that was difficult at times but incredibly rewarding. 

One member spoke about the abuse suffered as a child, but how doing the workshops allowed them to speak about this, and share their story with family and friends. Others spoke about how having the time and space to be creative, to think, was enabling them to see the world differently outside the sessions...

The film will eventually be shown publicly in exhibitions and online, but right now as it develops we are able to see ourselves a little differently and perhaps understand more of the complex lives that this project reflects.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Angels with delight take flight

Armour project 20th July 2017, Booth Centre, Manchester.

Angels with delight... by Peter Twigg

You never know when an idea will take flight and ascend beyond the original thought, carried by other people. Our workshop on 20th July was just such a moment. The Armour project is about self-protection and the many ways we find safety, physical or mental. The project has been running with this idea for awhile at The Booth Centre, working with homeless people, several of whom are army veterans. Today, instead of putting on layers of self-protection, we asked people to imagine what might happen if they were removed. 

I was concerned we'd be asking people too much to take away their protective layers, which are so necessary for survival on the street. But calculated risk-taking is part of what we do, as any artist. I read a little of Sir Galahad by Tennyson, the moment the warrior realises if he is to let in love, he must remove his armour. It was all that was necessary. Soon the tight little band around our table were writing about vulnerability as if it was a taste of freedom. I guess they're tough enough to put their armour back on whenever they wish; but they recognise the relief of being able to let it go.

Lee's text/textile work

The resulting pieces, written as tanka (an old Japanese form of love poetry) were scribed or sewn onto pieces of cloth, to be included as parts in the cloth suits of armour we are constructing. You might say these pieces are idea-armour.

Although the tone of this session was serious, and there were many moments when the group skidded close to tears, it was shot through with humour and a sense of togetherness which softened the hard edges. I particularly enjoyed Phil B's 'grumpy old guy' piece, which starts off with the excellent line "Bog off and get knotted", a sentiment I share, especially first thing in the morning.

"Bog off and get knotted" from Phil B

The day was given great intensity by Lee who worked with us for the first time, leaping into it all with the urgency of someone facing their devils. It was also hugely supported by Melanie Miller, a stalwart helper of our projects who quietly and gently aided people along the way.

Philip Davenport

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Behind brittle barriers

Armour project, Booth Centre Manchester, 13th July 2017

Behind brittle barriers
Guest blog by singer-songwriter Matt Hill 

Here's a question. Is it possible to get a group of non-musicians together in a room for a couple of hours and get them to write a song? I was asked by Arthur & Martha to come to the Booth Centre in Manchester to help them find out. I'm pleased to report that it certainly is possible!

Although none of our group had direct experience of writing songs they were certainly no strangers to creativity and ideas came thick and fast.  We started by thinking about the theme of our song – that of armour and protection. We did some exercises to help us find words associated with armour and words related to how armour makes us feel – safe, secure, protected.

Matt Hill and Christine

To give us some inspiration we spent some time listening to and discussing a song called 'I am a rock' which was a hit song for Simon & Garfunkel back in 1965. The character in the song is someone who has been hurt deeply and is now a loner, without friends, hiding behind a self constructed wall. 

'I've built walls, a fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.

I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, save within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.

I am a Rock, I am an island.'

© Paul Simon 1965

We wondered what might have happened to this person to make him that way? We thought the most likely cause would be a family or relationship breakdown. Those kinds of problems are a known factor in causing homelessness and we found other parallels to the issues homeless people face.

The discussion touched on the extreme vulnerability of sleeping rough, when a sleeping bag is your only armour. We talked about how drugs and alcohol can create an emotional fortress giving a (false) sense of protection. Above all we felt a sense of strong sadness that the person in 'I am a rock' was cutting themselves off from possible support and help. We decided our song would have some elements of positivity about love, faith and support.

‘The whole thing  (‘I am a rock’) is about me. But I am coming out of it. I want to face the music, not run away- to give up on love is to give up on life.’ Karlton

When we came to write our song we zoomed in on the word 'barrier'. A barrier can be something that is put in place to keep people out. But it can also be put in place to offer us protection and keep us safe. We liked that it had two different sides to it. We discussed the implications of this – positive and negative – on people who put up barriers to others.

An effective technique in songwriting is alliteration where several words beginning with the same letter are strung together. We decided to adopt this and went for 'Behind brittle barriers' as our title. We included the word 'brittle' to reflect that emotional barriers can be broken down, given the right amount of love and support.

'I didn't know I had this in me.'  Christine.

After some thrashing out of melody and chords (we definitely wanted the song's music to sound upbeat) we arrived at a finished version just as our 2 hour deadline approached. We then ran downstairs to do a very quick and impromptu performance! (video link) 

As a songwriter I've never worked on a song that was finished so quickly or one that was so truly collaborative. Each person in the group contributed something useful and different and the song reflects that with a broad range of ideas. Above all what I get from the song is a sense of hope – that everyone – brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers – are hiding behind barriers of some kind, but that they are brittle and with hope and faith in each other we can find the support we need.


Gavin stitching for the Armour project


Behind brittle barriers

Behind brittle barriers you can't feel safe
Behind brittle barriers you can't feel the bass
Barriers block the way, push obstacles away
Behind brittle barriers

Cradle me in your arms and keep me safe
Don't let me loose or lose my faith

Behind brittle barriers, behind brittle barriers
People behind brittle barriers

Clashing through conflict (Behind brittle barriers)
Sisters and mothers (Behind brittle barriers)
Encased in emotions (Behind brittle barriers)
Fathers and brothers (Behind brittle barriers)

Behind brittle barriers, behind brittle barriers
People behind brittle barriers

Soul, child, adult  (Behind brittle barriers)
Don't lose your faith  (Behind brittle barriers)
Barriers block the way
Push obstacles away
People behind brittle barriers

Behind brittle barriers, behind brittle barriers
People behind brittle barriers

Monday, 10 July 2017

A sense of place

Booth Centre and arthur+martha group, photo courtesy of Jack Silverstone

'The role of the Outsider is to speak out.' Jack Silverstone

We started our Armour field trip with a visit to The Lowry for the exhibition Home 1947,  a new work by Sharlene Obaid-Chinoy, reflections on the Partition of British India. Through short documentary and drama films Home 1947, shows us this world not through the words of historians and politicians, but through the eyes of those who lived through it. Such parallels to our project 'The Homeless Library.' 'Home, a sense of being, a sense of place...'

Throughout the day the group wrote poems, as a way of focussing their minds on the experiences and distilling deep-felt reactions into words. But the process of writing itself brought up issues for many. One person described themselves as illiterate; dictating lines of poems to be written down by a 'scribe' was a powerful experience, a disturbing luxury. To be allowed onto paper, to be acknowledged after so long! It's a delight that can bring pain. Another group member told us that they'd never been praised, so to suddenly be told that a piece of writing was good was far more challenging than the usual round of expected abuse.  

Visiting the exhibition with the group from The Booth Centre, gave us insights into both this exhibition and the afternoon visit to the Imperial War Museum North. Together we form a group from disparate backgrounds, cultures, ages, genders, many of whom have experienced or who are still experiencing rough sleeping, life on the margins. But this time the conversation and tears shed, were directed at the trauma of the other people, the refugees fleeing across the Indian sub-continent in the largest ever human mass migration. Or meeting and conversing with David, a World War 2 veteran who'd fought at Juno Beach during D-Day, and then in the vicious Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, at the IWMN.

Phil, Georgina and Peggy, watching film projection at IWMN

David described fighting for his life against hostile forces, and the elements. Our group listening to him nodded their heads; many of them have faced those things over and over again.

'I don't know why people ignore us. The homeless see everything. Even the police come to us for information. They understand they need our help. We've seen it all.' Ian

The poems that we worked on were love poems to weapons. They're strong pieces of writing, but what also exists in these pieces, and at times overwhelms the words on the page, is the story between the lines.

A big thank you to... Danielle Garcia at IWMN for arranging our afternoon, to Mathew for sharing his wonderful knowledges and patiently answering all our questions and most of all to David, the World War 2 veteran, who brought the conflict and aftermath alive.

Lois Blackburn and Philip Davenport


Friday, 7 July 2017

The art of ethics


Like a softly spoken, middle-aged version of the famous scene from Fight Club, I explain, ‘What is said in the room, shared in this group, stays in here.’ That message is repeated weekly during our sessions with people who have experienced homelessness, when things get open and honest - and often they do. It marks the success of the sessions that people can talk about their lifestyles, health conditions, history, but these are big, difficult, often raw, deep-seated things, that nobody wants to have to deal with, let alone live with. Then there are the issues of drink and drugs, mental health and learning difficulties that compound it all, or are the results of unresolved problems. But are the things we share when we are under the influence of drink or drugs are they the same as when we are straight? Or if we are in the turbulence of a health condition at what point do we lose capacity to make decisions, do 'they' have the mental capacity to sign 'their' name on the artwork/poem? And have it published? These are the uncomfortable discussions we have with carers of people of dementia for example.

As the artist/facilitators, with journalistic instincts, there is a big push and pull to our sessions. It's what's happening right now with our current project 'Armour'. When individuals start to reveal a little about themselves for instance talking about surviving abuse (tragically a common thread amongst homeless people) or their mental health, it often appears they are experiencing release, but it can be a painful one. Like throwing-up the contents of your stomach, it's uncomfortable, but there is relief.

During a recent session one of our group shared, there was a sense of urgency in the talk, we all supported in our ways, much of what was shared obviously hit a chord with others. I'm talking about Peer Mentoring at its best, that support and learning you get from people who have found ways to survive, found their ways through difficult circumstances. I can help, but only help in certain ways, (it takes a village…) so we all listened, we tried to empathise - although some things are just so out of your experience you just can only imagine - and then I brought us back to art, to making. And the atmosphere changed again. And our minds and bodies were distracted, refocused.

artwork from Michael from the project Armour

Phil and I have often come back to the subject of ethics over the years. We have worked with academics who can hardly get things off the ground, being strangled in the red tape of ethical approval. As artists not tied to an education establishment, we can be much lighter on our feet, work and take advice from the organisations that are hosting our sessions, and most importantly, take advice and the lead from the people we are working with. I think we get it right most of the time. If we have any doubts we keep art, poetry and interviews anonymous, enabling a voice to be heard, but not identified.

But back to that push and pull of being an artist/writer/storyteller. There are times when we listen to someone telling their stor,y when it's getting uncomfortable, the story is getting dark, difficult, in truth. As the audience, these are the stories we are waiting for, the ones to be re-told, the ones with the power. And generally, the person who is telling the story, is keen to tell. And we try never to push, pick or prod. But it does make me feel uncomfortable, why do we want to hear about the extremes in life? Is it the same drives as wanting to watch a scary film? Taking us to the edge? Phil and I have been working with marginalised, often vulnerable people for many years now, we certainly certainly don't have all the answers, only continual questions. Including questions for ourselves.

Lois Blackburn

Monday, 26 June 2017


Detail of Peter Twigg's embroidery work in progress

Armour Project


Rage that's used in order to control
relations, intimate partners
to achieve a golden dream a chiselled cold
fear that stings fear
where one isn't aware
it looks like metal but it's not.


Phil writes:

The Booth Centre: there was also anxiety in the air this morning, it hit like a shock wave as I came through the door. Someone was trying high level intimidation, with raised fists, loud shouted outbursts, staring competitions. He was dressed in black, he paced the room, moving erratically and occasionally launching into another confrontation, while the staff tried to defuse his anger. Because people in the Centre are very attuned to threat, their radar was on  alert. They looked over each other's shoulders while talking, there was an unsettled feel, objects kept being knocked off tables, people bumped into one another. It was as if an earthquake had dropped in for a cuppa.

Paula's 'Safe'embroidery, in progress

As is the often the way there, I spoke to some people I have known for years and some I'd only met this morning. Every conversation was fragile, lightly touched by the presence of fear, yelling its head off in the corner. The first person I talked with was fighting back panic, he said. The next was joking with me, but kept checking the threat potential. The last had been awake four days straight, out on the streets. He'd not been eating, because of grief. He looked shrunken, like a an inhabitant of an institution, with over-large, over-bright eyes.

But walking alongside fear, and just as powerful, was the feeling of being thoroughly, immediately alive, and the intensity of each shared moment. A day at The Booth Centre is like this, you can squeeze several hours-worth of living into an instant. There’s a surreal-ness to the fast-forward rush of it all. It came as absolutely no surprise that the footballer Ryan Giggs suddenly turned up with a camera crew to meet folk, sign autographs, and add a further manic element. Suddenly beaming smiles and a celebrity frisson punctuated the atmosphere.

 Footballer, Ryan Giggs visiting the Booth Centre

In the afternoon, making an oasis of stitching and poems, we read The idea of order at Key West by Wallace Stevens, a poem about reducing chaos. Its subtitle might be how to insure yourself against the effect of the world by finding safety in art. Or in other words, how to write your way out of fear. The writing was made sharper by the recollection of our morning demon, a malevolent drug dealer stalking his own mad shadows.

When I was fighting didn't think that was dangerous
When a knuckle duster knocked out my tooth
Didn't think that was dangerous 
And when I was driving 130mph, 
Didn't think that was dangerous.
When I hold a knife, that's the closest I come.
That's closest:
“If I'm not careful with this
In my hand
It is dangerous.”


fish and chips I like to order
I don't like the word chaos
it brings disorder
danger comes in all sorts
car, bus, tram
suicidal thoughts.

Peter Twigg

Paula embroidering for 'Armour' project