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

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Part of Johnny Woodhams collection

Armour, at The Booth Centre Manchester.

After the incredibly beautiful free written outcomes of my first session I wanted to try a more structured way of writing for the second session so I developed a simple imagining format that focused thoughts in a more meditative and positive way. Those taking part were then guided from a fixed ideal point through a series if questions that resulted in a narrative text as if spoken.

We then did two edits getting rid of unnecessary language turning the thoughts into poems and then did a final rewrite on brown paper. Focusing on the theme of armour we'd looked at a variety of animal shells and military helmets and decided to take a direct papier mâché cast from a large turtle shell. The final layer consisted of the poems torn up to become a pattern forming the protective shell made up of a mixture of the positive language. 
Once again some utterly moving stories emerged and it was a privilege to work with the group. 

Johnny Woodhams
June 2017

Jack and Gavin, with cast paper mâché poem

Friday, 9 June 2017

Stitch in time

It was a big pleasure to launch the Stitching the Wars quilts and book at the newly-opened Buxton Art Gallery and Museum. The first new artworks to be seen in the new-look gallery. The two quilts have been handmade in collaboration with hundreds of older people, with Lois directing the work. (Tom Jones a longstanding project participant, looked at the quilts, nodded and said, "Looking nice.")

Catherine Serjeant (Blythe House Hospice) Dr Nadine Muller and Brian Oven, participant

Phil worked on collaborative poems during the project that distill many people's experience of the two world wars, and the brief peace between the conflicts. But the poems also explore an understanding that gradually came to light during the project: there were two kinds of wars being fought in these lives, one a military war, the other a war against poverty. 

Brian, longstanding project participant and the 'Bomber's Moon' quilt at Buxton Museum

A group of participants came to the gallery, some of whom were kind enough to read the poems aloud. The power of these reading resonated through the whole event. 

Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood introduced the project, Lois talked us through the two quilts in detail and Phil gave a little overview of the project:

"Stitching the Wars is history, made of stitches, and words, and memories. 

The two quilts here have been team-stitched with over 400 older people involved, telling fragments of their stories about the effects of two world wars on life in Derbyshire. They talk about gentleness of rural life, but also hardship and the need to change. 

"Sharing of life experience and the task of recording it as writing and art brings deep satisfaction - and the stories are extraordinary. A man who had witnessed Hiroshima just after the bomb. The Sheffield bombings through the eyes of a young boy. Bridling a horse for ploughing, a tradition of many generations...

"These two quilts contain many voices, they are work shared by many hands. Some people bravely faced up to fears and disabilities in the process of making them. Annie, a visually-impaired women, knitted for the first time in years, without sight she used only muscle memory. Dorothy, who has lost the use of one hand, carefully embroidered with the assistance of Olga holding an embroidery frame. And with encouragement Geoff took up needle and thread for the first time in his life.

"One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was the fear of memory itself, because many people who contributed to the quilt have dementia. The pleasure that people got from sharing their memories in a safe environment, was a delight.

"Stitching the Wars speaks about a particular time, but also speaks beyond it's own time, because it is at heart the story of how life feels. We are all stitches in this story of Britain - sometimes it's a joyful, colourful tapestry. Sometimes the colours are darker and stitches are needed to heal a wound. We talk together, we work together and sometimes we help each other to heal."

Artist Lois Blackburn & Poet Philip Davenport with the quilt Fresh Air & Poverty

A Stitching the Wars quilt will be on view at Buxton Art Gallery and Museum until September 2017, the other quilt will be on tour around Derbyshire. The Book Stitching the Wars will be available to purchase through the museum shop. 

We are thrilled to share we have just had confirmation that the two Stitching the Wars quilts will be going on to form part of the National collection at The Quilters' Guild in October.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Quilts with a story to tell



A pair of quilts embroidered with the wartime history of Derbyshire is set to go on display. History arts project, Stitching the Wars, opens at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery on 7June, 1-3pm

Cover of the book complementing the project 'Stitching the Wars'

This award-winning project combines history, poetry and embroidery by older people living in rural Derbyshire, including many with dementia. The two quilts are embroidered with testimony from older people who survived two world wars.

Councillor Barry Lewis, Leader of Derbyshire County Council and Designate Cabinet Member for Strategic Leadership, Culture and Tourism said: “These beautiful quilts, and the memories behind them, make for a fascinating and moving exhibition. They are a lovely demonstration of the value of projects that combine community and local history to create art.”

Artist Lois Blackburn from the arts organisation arthur+martha is behind the collaborative community quilts. Ms Blackburn said: "This is touchable history, quilts hand-stitched by over 400 older people with fragments of their stories. One of the great joys of the project has been to witness the pleasure of people with dementia who have taken part, turning memory from a thing to be feared to a thing to be relished."

The opening event, on 7 June from 1pm to 3pm, will also see the launch of an accompanying book, containing photos, stories and poems. One of the quilts 'Fresh Air and Poverty', will remain on display until 30th September.

The project received grants totalling £38,880 from Arts Council England, Foundation Derbyshire, Derbyshire County Council, Derbyshire Dales Council, Age UK, The Alzheimer's Society and The Farming Life Centre. 

For media enquiries please contact the DCC communications office on 01629 538205.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Solace from memory dark

‘When I was homeless, I used to put my head in a box- I was sleeping on a park bench, with cardboard to keep the draft from below and a box to keep the wind of my head. A box, a lovely form of protection - it works very well.”  Georgina.

Our third session at the Booth Centre, for the project Armour, and this time we were joined by artist/poet/performer Johnny Woodhams.

It’s a hard to explain in words sometimes, better to experience. As I have talked about in previous blogs, The Booth Centre does something remarkable, gives a safe space to some of the most vulnerable in society. And more than that, creates a tolerant, optimistic, creative working space that I feel privileged to work in.

‘Making art, takes your mind away from things.’ Garry

Shrine, part of the Armour project

With Johnny leading the session, the room took on a jovial atmosphere and somehow, at odds to the stereotypes of the pained artist, in stickered misery, the laughter and support allowed people to talk about some darkness, darkness that nobody would want to face. One man, living with his fiancée and son, recently dying in a house fire, created a shrine. A deeply personal brave piece, that effected all of the viewers.

‘Making art, helps an erratic mind, it stimulates, you’ve found the secrete to help homeless people.’ Dave.

Johnny had filled a two tables with an eclectic mix of objects, bones, wooden boxes, an old violin, books, tiny figures of people. Without pausing anon, (a veteran of the armed forces) choose a large piece of tree bark and started writing his train of thought onto it.

“The sway from your branches, to and fro, my home, not to share, my solace from memory dark, noice, panic, fear, tearing at my brain… you comfort me still, my house, my treehouse.'  

Quietly spoken, he explained to me later, that he had spent two years living in a tree house, only coming down to the ground in the dead of night.

Gary's artwork coincidentally picks up on another aspects of trees, their life cycle and the importance of trees/cardboard and wood in a homeless person's life. Taking us back in a circle to Georgina….

Lois Blackburn

Johnny Woodhams at the Booth Centre

I had no real idea what I was expecting to find and feel at the Booth Centre having never been there before. I was afraid that my concept for the session might be met with boredom or resentment...after all what do I know about what it's like to live on the street? What I found was the best 'family' of folk I've met in a long time....staff, volunteers and visitors alike...genuine, welcoming, comforting and inclusive....what an absolutely great place.

The outcomes of the session were raw and hugely emotive but the power of humour and strength were ever present throughout the day....I cannot wait to go back....I can see a hundred more things we could do! Writing is at it's best when it is honest  and rooted in truth...there are some bloody great writers here but often my favourite pieces are the most basic and simplistic because no language is is as the person speaks....

This session was utterly touching, emotive and beautiful even in its sadest lifted my spirits enormously and reminded me how important the power of art is even more so in these current climes....

Any one of us could easily fall into this position...the mixture of amazing characters was complete testament to this.....

Johnny Woodhams