Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A big waiting

I'm in the office at an asylum seekers' shelter with Gordon the manager, getting acclimatised to the place and letting people see my face, know my name. It's the very early steps of my poetry project here in Berlin, collaborating with asylum seekers. 
The shelter is in Spandau, a district in the west of the city, right at the end of the tube ("u-bahn") line. It's a simple, stark building, semi-industrial. All afternoon there's a steady trickle of folk coming through, mostly residents of the hostel. Many of them have fled war zones in the Middle East. 

During the afternoon, I have mini-conversations with his many visitors. Every single person I speak with is at pains to put me at my ease and be helpful, if they can. This is a place, it seems, where there is great appreciation for social niceties, those little tokens of gentleness. Gordon is the go-to person for phone calls to the doctor, permission to use the communal washing machine, photocopying extraordinaire, discussions about the curiosity of surnames in different culture, and much more. He juggles many people's needs with good humour and quiet calm. I ask him about people’s lives here:


"Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. For the people living in here it's a big waiting. First you wait for your money. It's not enough so then you wait for next months money because money for this month has gone. You wait for your asylum case to be finished so then you can work. You wait for school, to get language lessons. You wait for your family to come, and after your family is here, you all wait for a flat. It's how it is before asylum is granted. You are damned to do nothing. Waiting to take steps. You just wait, wait, wait for your case to be finished.

"Barbara who ran the Kunstasyl art project here - and perhaps you too - show that things can still be done. Even if they are little things, on little pieces of paper. Even if you are waiting, you are still a person, you have your own thoughts. There is hope here... For these people I have lots of hope.

"In Berlin there is a culture to help refugees. I thought that it would be a fast-burning fire of enthusiasm but it still goes on. This is good! Many people work to help refugees for free. For instance, they help to find flats... Yes there are people in Berlin who don't care. And yes there are the ones who are against refugees. But I don't know anyone personally who speaks against them. There's still a culture here of welcome. That is the view from my little window."

Heaven-Proof House is a poetry project based in Berlin, devised by Philip Davenport from arthur+martha CIC and supported by the British Council and Arts Council England. The project continues the arthur+martha strand of international work with marginalised communities, connecting people across borders and boundaries. 

Monday, 28 November 2016

Sing me to Sleep, Bury


We are delighted to invite you to the opening to a two-part exhibition made in collaboration with homeless people. The Homeless Library and the British-Lithuanian art project Sing Me to Sleep (Padainuok man labanakt)

The exhibition opens at 2pm on December 13th, 2016 at Bury Art Museum and will run until the 21st January 2017.

Phil B and Sing me to Sleep, photo courtesy of Janine Onermaier

The Homeless Library, is a fraction of a heritage: the unwritten, unheard stories of homeless people. Until now these stories have been held in living memory and lost when those who remember are gone. This library is a set of 50-plus handmade books, full of artworks, poems and interviews. How does homelessness fit into our history, what can be learnt from these stories?

‘Sing me to Sleep’ (Padainuok man labanakt’) is a British-Lithuanian art project. People who have experienced homelessness, worked with professional artists to explore the tangled forests of fairytale, childhood and their current life.  This is a journey through a fairytale forest- facing shadows that carry bits of some long forgotten riddles, with the sounds of words, cries and laughter, filled with an uncertain perception of what is small and what is big, light or dark, good or bad, real or imaginary.

Bury Art Museum is open Tuesday to Friday 10.00 -17.00, Saturday 10.00 to 16.30 How to find them

Main project partners: arthur+martha CIC, The Booth Centre, The Wellspring, Socialiniai meno projektai.  In the UK projects supported by Arts Council England and The Heritage Lottery Fund.

Genuine Workers, from The Homeless Library collection. Photo Lois Blackburn

Thursday, 24 November 2016


I'm in the queue for permission. Julia is beside me, on a long old-fashioned wooden bench in the town hall (Rathaus) in Schöneberg, Berlin. We are queueing for a form that means we are officially "here". Without the correct documentation we aren’t legal citizens. We've been told to come at least an hour before the doors open because the line can get very long. 

Schöneberg Town Hall is most known for a visit by JFK in 1963, when he made his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. The crowd of Berliners hanging desperately onto his words filled the plaza around the town hall. The reason for long queues today is that Berlin is a more-than-popular destination, it's famously become a place of safety, a haven, for refugees, fleeing the vicious wars in the Middle East.

It's not a happy queue. To be without rights is a limbo: even with my cosy (pre-Brexit) EU citizenship, a safe home, secure life, I feel uneasy. People sit quietly, with carefully blank faces. I wonder why they are here, what their stories might be? A man in a bright sports coat mumbles to himself and gesticulates angrily, worrying away at some troublesome idea.

We’d been told to come an hour early, to improve our chances. As I look back more people are collecting at the end of the line. Instead of 25 people we are suddenly 50. The door of Room 116 opens and a young clerk ushers us to the reception desks. We apologise for our bad German and ask if the conversation can be in English. He nods, apologises in turn: "Unfortunately we have many people who want this piece of paper. We cannot offer you an interview until January."

That's in two months time. Julia and I look at him aghast. And then we are handed a very big slice of bureaucratic sunshine. One of his co-workers mutters something and he says: "Because we are just starting this morning, my colleague says we can give you an unplanned appointment in 10 minutes time."

We leave 20 minutes later clutching our fresh-stamped permits. Now there are 100 in the queue, spilling back out through the door and into the echoing corridor of the Rathaus. 100 quiet, careful faces, all hoping.

Heaven-Proof House is a poetry project based in Berlin, devised by Philip Davenport from arthur+martha CIC and supported by the British Council and Arts Council England. The project continues the arthur+martha strand of international work with marginalised people, connecting across borders and boundaries. 

Monday, 21 November 2016

Heaven-Proof House

Autumn in the Botanischer Garten, Berlin 2016, photographed by Julia Grime

Berlin is in its late autumn. I'm writing this in Cafe Bilder Buch, while outside the skies are getting greyer day by day and the air turns sharper. It's a city of many trees and right now their colours are burning with the intensity of ending.

I'm here for complicated reasons, that I'm still figuring out myself. Mostly, I'm here to make poems with refugees and asylum seekers. Berlin has become known as a place of safety for displaced people, especially from the Middle East. My work with so-called "marginalised" people in the U.K. has now led me further afield, to Berlin and to new people and new questions. Some of these are questions for myself.

While I tap on my keyboard, a pianist is playing quietly. He's called Martin Ben David and he's been round the room with a hat for donations. Soon he'll be off to Dortmund, he told us before, so his performance is partly his goodbye to Berlin. I jot down a little of our conversation, because I'm making word-sketches of people I encounter. He says: “I want to be a bridge between people. A connector. It is a passion for me, We are meant to be this. To feel a small fire in our heart. Not to accept these sad souls surrounding us, to help heal them.”

This is a big room, a sea of comfort, big sofas and grand old bookcases and cupboards around the edges. They've been lighting candles for all the tables. As the day darkens, the room feels more and more unhooked from time. It's as if we are floating off in a little bubble of gentleness and German voices and candlelit faces. Beside me is Julia my partner, who has come to be with me - and for her own reasons. We've also got our two cats with us, back at the flat. The immediate family is here, and soon I will start work.

There's a hint of a storm in the music now. The notes are cascading around us and I start to think about rain. As soon as I write, I see rains sweeping across Belfast Lough when I was a kid. The memory jolts me because it's no longer possible to think of that time without remembering the death of my father last year. But it's the season to write about him and about my childhood too, some skin needs to be shed. This is the more complicated storyline, the one I don't understand. I've said for years that I will write it but often doubt I have the words. Perhaps something of it will find its way into this blog. It's a story about my own family, fleeing the threat of violence. 

The music has stopped, I've written some words, it's time to go.

Heaven-Proof House is a poetry project based in Berlin, devised by Philip Davenport from arthur+martha CIC and supported by the British Council and Arts Council England.  

Friday, 4 November 2016

Tucked up in the Library

Libraries have been important workshop venues for the project 'Stitching the Wars'. They have given Phil and I opportunities to meet and work people who might not normally get involved in art/poetry workshops, a warm, welcoming public space for us develop and produce the two quilts and collection of poems. Now Dronfield Library, is hosting the start of the Derbyshire exhibition tour, other venues will include 4+ other libraries and Buxton Museum. (details to follow)

Detail of 'A Bomber's Moon'

Detail of A Bomber's Moon

Bomber’s moon

Midnight, a bombers moon is
a full moon for seeing.
You’re tucked away, no messing about
feather bed in those days
goose feather, duck down
blanket an army coat
long bloody nights
when it was cold

(extract from Bomber's Moon, the poem stitched around the edge of the quilt)

Regular participants with Stitching the Wars

Dronfield Library, Manor House, High Street, Dronfield S18 1PY  Open Monday to Friday. The exhibition continues to January 2017