Friday, 22 July 2011

all in a bottle of gin

Thursday's library session in the morning was the best yet - we're gathering a really enthusiastic bunch of artists, embroiderers, writers. Two new people joined the group, giving us a total of ten folk participating from the community. The quality of engagement and making was excellent. Beautiful, thoughtful work was produced in the session and brought in as 'homework' - and again, many of the group took embroidery work away to finish this week, in time for the garden party. George has caught the embroidery bug, having started for the first time ever last week... Phil and I are very pleased as to how this is developing.

The pieces layer together the everyday poetry of conversation and the act of memory: childhood nostalgia, saucy postcards, teatime gentility, skipping songs ('all in, a bottle of gin...') oral history, humour, anger, celebration, commemoration. The teacloths, tea-cosies, tablecloths, napkins and ceramics are a coming together of many individuals. They mark a shared past, not only that of people in Four Acre, but of working people across a whole century in all their tragedies and triumphs.

Monday, 18 July 2011

@tweetfromengels Manchester, UK

arthur+martha have launched our first twitter poem - in collaboration with homeless people in Manchester and Bury. During the course of our map of you project we spoke with many homeless people. These interviews were edited by participants and various writers to produce a long collaborative poem, which appears in tweet form four times a day at  You can also read twitter updates on this blog, situated below the blog archive. tweetfromengels has been picked up on Clare Horton's radar in The Guardian
The 'verses' are snapshots in text of homeless lives, in all their moods - joy, terror, humour, resilience, anger. Famously, Engels wrote about the harshness of 19th Century Manchester; people today who live a comparable existence are the homeless. We imagined a dialogue between Engels and the homeless people of Manchester. Interspersed through the poem is found material from Engel's correspondence with Marx, and his classic The Condition of the English Working Class.

The idea of the poem was developed with Candian Steve Giasson - who suggested a kind of anti-epic, inspired by Louis Zukovsky. Geof Huth (from USA) met several Big Issue vendors, prompting several of the lines. The Mancunian poet copland smith helped us to give the poem formal design, based on the traditional Welsh poetic form the englyn - ours is a very free variation of this tight discipline. Longtime arthur+martha colleague Rebecca Guest helped Philip edit the final piece. Most importantly, the many homeless and vulnerably-housed people we met gave us their time - and trusted us to open up details of their lives, for which we are very grateful.
This project is in partnership with the Text Festival, The Big Issue in the North, The Red Door (Bury Housing Concern), Brighter Futures, The Booth Centre, The Lowry, LOVE Creative, the BBC. Poets and writers who've been involved include Steve Giasson, Geof Huthcopland smith, Anna MacGowan, Scott Thurston. Editors Philip Davenport and Rebecca Guest. 
The resulting long poem will be tweeted over the coming weeks and streamed as occasional online video through an LED by LOVE Creative

A Map of You was funded by Arts Council England.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Yesterday afternoon we visited 'Mature Matters' in Four Acre, St Helens. Participants joined in conversations with topics including cleanliness, societal problems, the birth of the estate of Four Acre, gardening etc. As we talked members of the group drew onto napkins and tablecloths and embellished them with stitch. Phil gathered a couple of comments about the project...

Mary K

I love history, the older you get the more you look back. It happens to everyone, even the younger ones will remember in the future. It's important to us all to know: where you come from, gives you roots, stability. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. You pass things on - baking with gran, walks in the country, planting seeds. We recently went to where my granddaughter planted some saplings, now it's a wood. She remembers. It's important, all these things you do. Your dialect: 'O'er yonder', 'Tha knows' it's the way you are.

Let's face it, things have improved physically, but we've lost community. Labour-saving devices took alot of physical activity away - and left us with obesity. Communities have never been the same since we got TV. Years ago, mums sat outside talking, following the sun. Now they're separated, stuck inside four walls.

If you behave in this way, showing them everything you do, it passes on community. You are making memories for the younger ones. It does work, it has been planted. It does matter. I see such waifs and strays round here and just a word with them helps. Deprived kids - but they come over and talk to me. They just want someone to talk to, to show them another way. Otherwise how do they escape? If their mum's dealing drugs out the back window, what are they learning?

Ann and her embroidery

Mary G and Mary K

Mary G

It's a circle of life. If you don't keep the circle going that's when the trouble starts. If you can't pass on to your children and grandchildren what's right then you're in trouble. Aspects of life, your life. This art is useful, but it needs to be given a modern context - put it on the internet, texts. The old ideas are fine, the grassroots as I call them. But it needs to be in the new idiom.

Dot, Ann, Mary G and Mary K

think on; don't get dirty

As our group of regulars sat and reminisced, I kept an eye out for other potential participants, inviting unsuspecting visitors to the library to join our group. There is a pattern emerging with this, I often find when first approached people their wary of joining the full group- but happy to sit and chat one-to-one. Its a reminder that so many of us are shy, and a group of new people can be intimidating- even if you are usually starved of company.

Marion Davis with napkin ready to embroider 'Father couldn't give a tuppenny toss'
Yesterday I went prepared with a pile of napkins and embroidery threads. Some of these were vintage ready made napkins, beautifully embroidered with pretty little flowers, others where napkins I made from cut up embroidered tablecloths and chair backs. Its a joy to see these textiles have a new lease of life, some have been kindly donated by my good friend Melanie, others from participants themselves, others brought from ebay, some from my collection. There is a delight just handling these textiles from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the quality and weight of the linen fabric, so much more substantial than the majority of textiles produced today. The original embroidery was done with great care, as Marion said 'you had to decorate things yourself, as everything you brought was plain'. 

After an initial lively group discussion about washing bodies of dirt, grime and all things mucky, the  group of participants enthusiastically got on with selecting lines of their memories to write onto napkins of their choice.

George White with napkin ready to embroider 'Jack, Jack, shine your light'

For me a sign of a really well received workshop was that everyone wanted to take their work home to finish. Their showing great pride in their embroideries, and a desire to share them with a wider audience, for which we are very grateful!

Jeanette Flanigan with napkin embroidery in progress

One of the delights of running art workshops in the community is seeing subtle changes in peoples behaviour as they relax into a session. One participant in particular caught my attention as she started to overcome her shyness, contribute to the group and participate in the practical work. At the start of the session she had stated that she didn't want to/couldn't embroider- by the end of the session she was requesting a collection of napkins to take home to embellish.

Brenda Gilmore with her embroidered cake stand 
One problem we have with this group is they don't want to finish. Each week we have lost track of time, and overshot the end. This week, there were participants noisily chatting half an hour after the end of the session. It was only the rumbling of my stomach that finally got people moving in a homeward direction.

Marion White with embroidery in progress

"If people weren't interested they wouldn't come to the sessions. Nobody usually bothers talking with us about the 60s when I was growing up and the things we did- not in the way we do here. This is our era, not our parents or grandparents..." Marion White.

More photos of Four Acre work at

Thursday, 14 July 2011

11th July Library

7 participants joined us at the library on Monday, we are beginning to see regulars to these sessions, sitting alongside people 'dropping in' for a first visit, and those we first met at sessions in the Bingo, Tesco or in the doctors surgery.

"It's nice sewing on your own, but much nicer sewing in a group like this." Brenda

"It's been years since I picked the embroidery stuff up. I've really enjoyed it, I'm made up." 
Joan Abel-Beswick

More photos at

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

story of a rope

poem making

(Poem written at Chester Lane Library, Four Acre, 11th July)

sat on the kerb
waiting my turn
didn't think of myself as
I thought poor people
didn't wash their faces

making a big dish of crisps
then the penny would go in the meter
wireless cut out
you had to go out in the dark
'This is the Man in Black
saying goodnight.'

Dick Barton: we listened
a quarter to 7
a gramophone to wind up
and the bedding damp

played on the road
sat on the kerb, waiting my turn
for skipping
told off by dad
cos men spat in the street

lived with my grandparents
8 in the house
be quiet or go outside
a tow-rope thick with grease and oil
a skipping rope
a walk to Sefton Park
one day a year Sunday School to
Thurstaton Hall

going to the parish
aunty was means tested:
they wouldn't give her money
for a new pair of shoes
refused permission

cocoa and sugar
coloured sherberts, a ha'penny poke
ate it til your tongue was raw
sticky lice
(didn't have the price)
strings of sugar
a tow-rope thick with grease and oil
a skipping rope
put it round the old
and swing.

Joan Ashcroft and Anonymous
11th July 2011

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Bingo! Art and social change! Limericks!

Mary writing her Limerick, a young lady from Haydock..

'Eyes down!'

I'm sitting next to Mary (she says she has her wicked head on) and Les is calling out the bingo numbers at the Monday night session. It's been a flurry of people today in Four Acre: our biggest group in the library ('All the 2s, quack quack') a gaggle of talking and ideas and friendships. Poems are emerging and the group embroidery on the tablecloth is slowly but sure gathering colours, images, stories – becoming a tapestry of memory and community. There is great affection for the shared past in the arthur+martha sessions here - we meet humorous acceptance of memory and age, mixed with nostalgic pleasure and some rage – and joy.

We checked in with Owen today on progress, who told us we've worked with over 80 people in St Helens. Gradually, a regular band of people are coming to the library sessions and the work that's emerge has become deeper and more heartfelt, yet paradoxically more celebratory and lighter as we've explored.

'Legs 11!'

Mary nudges me because I'm not concentrating hard enough on the numbers in front of me. Scattered around the bingo tables this time are some of the 'saucy' seaside postcards that are also becoming layered with strands of story, reminiscence, jokes, limericks.

Teresa writing about melon eating...

Pat and one of her Limericks...

There is shared struggle in many people's lifestories here – through wars, poverty, relationship breakdowns and disappointments – but there is also a huge sense of fun and of shared history. We're trying to combine the playfulness and the seriousness we encounter in the work that's produced.

The bingo session tonight is a great moment for daftness, but we've also met other sides of these folk. To see these lives being relived through conversation, to witness drawing, poetry, stitching, joking, has been a passport to another world, one that's now in the past but is in some ways an explanation of now.

The greatest resource of any society is the people in it. Sometimes in 'problem communities' there's a tendency to think that people = problems. That what is DONE TO people is the important thing, the magic cure be it social work or art or medicine. This is a profound misunderstanding. The value is in the people themselves and the richness of their experience. Communicating the texture of that experience is a complex, often contradictory, project, but that is the job of artwork. If it manages to pass on a fraction of that complexity, it will be valued and it will do good. Because in passing on experience in all its forms, you pass on the big lessons in being human.

'5 Oh, 5 Oh, it's off to work we go...'

Sunday, 10 July 2011

A slap of sea and a tickle of sand

Threads of the previous day's 'charabanc' outing were picked up and re-wound through the next day's session at Chester Lane Library. Lois, Joan and I were joined by George, Monica and Sid and one 'anon' lady. During the Wednesday coach journey we'd passed around 'saucy' postcards for people to customise with their own brand of sauce. These had led to a great deal of Sid James style guffawing to punctuate the drive. (Val, Paul and Nicky, I'm looking at you.)

one weeks holiday in the year

This time we reused the postcards, adding a layer of more ambiguous material - little patchworks of memory. Some of the most moving were the crystal-sharp descriptions of people's dads, baking hot on the beach, but unwilling to remove their suits and hats. George recalled his besuited father struggling for what felt like hours to open a deckchair on Blackpool beach, with a crowd of onlookers yelling gleeful encouragement, his face awash with sweat.

meat paste and spam

Sid pointed out that as many of the dads were miners, they were often ashamed to show their bodies, because they couldn't wash away the engrained coaldust, or the scars. Some of these memories too found their way onto the cards. Joan's father, in her mind's eye, would come home from the pit with a back covered in welts, "It was as if he'd been whipped."

mostly Blackpool

This layering of experiences made the cards a multilayered evocation of the seaside holidays that disappear under nostalgia cliches. The saucy postcards were given an extra humour dollop from George with his engagingly daft double entendres. Then playing against this came the sketchier little moments, kids sitting on a beach eating meat paste sandwiches amongst "More flat caps than you'd ever seen."

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The boys of summer

tickle away while I retrieve your gold card

A big grey-sky rolling out on the fields of St Helens, so heavy it seemed the pylons were the only thing keeping it off the ground. Weather for a British seaside outing. It was our charabanc trip, the first time arthur+martha had been on an outing like this, so Lois and I were duly nervous – neither had slept much. I'd convinced myself that that I needed to provide a continual onboard entertainment service and had harrowing dreams of glitter suits.

The truth was simply that people got onto two minibuses, set off, started cracking jokes, ate sandwiches, larked in the backseats and jogged one another's memories for the seaside of childhood. The people who came – Les and Pat and Jan and George and Monica and Raymond and Nicky to name but a few - hailed from St Helens, particularly the Bingo group and Mature Matters at Four Acre, our centre of gravity. I took notes of whatever caught my ear and suddenly we were at Lytham Hall stately home.

The guided tour we found ourselves on took us through large ornate rooms and followed the slow decline of the local aristocratic clan whose faces hung on canvases around the walls. The final child of the line was named Easter Daffodil, by which time you guessed they were into eccentric waters and sinking fast.

On the minibus travelling over I talked to Chris, who described her work of many years as a probation officer in St Helens, the crippling effect she'd observed of drugs, alcohol and sometimes incest – and how the community is rebuilding itself. The two strands of story seemed to cross over at the Hall, in those privileged rooms.


Later, Lois and I sat in the sunshine by the seafront with the Bingo group, who we'd only met superficially before. They rollicked through lunch, swapping shared times. Lois had a video camera and so we caught a little of Les on camera. He talked very movingly about the process of caring for other people, how it can give you strength in subtle ways, even buys an extra lease on life. It struck me that this was the common ground between both groups, their determined commitment to their neighbourhood, no matter how spiky it could be. As Les talked, three of our party passed by on a miniature train, waving an laughing. They were my age, the children of these 'older people' reliving their own pasts. I had a momentary pang for a 3 year old me riding a similar train in Dymchurch of the 1960s.

We also videoed George White, who told his stories of working on the beaches along this coast and had Monica his wife of 50 years in continual laughter. 'The sun always comes out for us,' she said when Lois asked how they managed to stay so happy. They brought the sun for all of us; the sky was blue for our whole time by the sea, like those recollections of childhood that always seem to be gold lit.

The journey home was a tired gallop, blurring by in motorways and traffic rush. We passed the Halfway House pub and suddenly I remembered Sid Saunders' story of trying to persuade his dad and the other men from their charabanc party to come out of this same pub 70 years ago, so that they could get on with their journey to the beach: “C'mon dad!”

from the pit

more saucy postcards at

Friday, 8 July 2011

Stephenson Card Group

Yesterday as part of our project in Four Acre, St Helens, we ran a workshop with the Stephenson Card Group of 8 participants with learning difficulties and their carers. We were made very welcome by the wonderfully friendly and productive group, led by Julie White.  

Chris drawing

Working on the paper plates, we discussed with the group the nature of joy and happiness, and what it meant to each of them. Each participant drew with enthusiasm and energy, expressing themselves as individuals through their artwork.

 Chris's Baddies!
Julie commented, "It has been a good opportunity for the service users to express themselves. Its opened up conversations, like what makes people happy. Its a great opportunity to chat others and interaction with new people, other societies and groups. I think it went really well."

Chris's artwork, Gerald drawing
Anita added "People enjoyed the group, some service users joined in that wouldn't normally focus so long. Its been really stimulating for them." 

flower plate, with everyone's drawings

Chris's plate

Jillian looking at her photos

Laurence's plate

Lynne's plates

new videos

During our trip to Lytham St Anns, I made a series of short films of some of the participants from Four Acre, St Helens reminiscing about holidays past. I'm in the process of doing some very simple editing and posting these as I go on our flickr site. You can see an example here, with Monica White recalling memories of her mam in the Charabanc, pictured below.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

tales of the charabanc

(Group poem devised during 'charabanc' coach trip to the English seaside)

along the proms down to the sea
we’re the sitting-on-benches age
on the bench with a bottle of whisky
the big dipper’s
a bit rickety

tuppence to go to New Brighton
if you were posh
if you were skint
Formby cost nothing
nothing there
except squirrels
and beach
go to the island
time the tides or you’re stuck
see the seals
bouncing on the sands
30 years ago through the summer
camping Ullswater fishing
6 o’clock in the morning rat-arsed
the little gets
threw maggots in the sleeping bag
Fleetwood fishing
Pontins has been knocked down
Lime Street to Wiltshire a 6 hour run
come on gotta get back
you never told me you joined that OAP club
proper shiny bald grandad
'Could you wear a wig when you come to see me in school?'
the things children say
I don’t want to be in heaven
I don’t want to be a star
I don’t want

a wishing well throw some pennies
take them to the lakes
are we nearly there yet?
on the ferry cross the Mersey
Colwyn, a convalescent house
my dad had been on the Burma Railway in the war
prisoner, trauma
no one ever talked about it but he had his problems
went to Colwyn every so often
I remember picking up fir cones for him from the road
on the way there
are we nearly there yet?
another time in Liverpool
he’s wearing a trilby
the pigeons on his hat and shoulders
‘D’you want to feed the birds?’

don’t forget the driver
if a hearse passed, people would stop
raise a hat and wouldn’t move til it passed on
get dropped off
and have butties on the beach
meat paste and spam
spam fritters, bucket and spade
collect shells and come home filthy
it wasn’t a good day if you came home clean
grouchy hot and sweaty
bugger this go to the beach at Bourton
a beach and big marquees
wooden duckboards, bath in an enamel bowl
what would I want with a place like Lytham Hall?
cockling on the beach
soak em in saltwater and nan would cook em
in a great big pan
about ten of us
playing a cardgame called Shithead
she asked us very posh what’re you playing
don't forget the driver, sir
rough hands
you can have the gardener I’ll have the butler
hunting ground for an ancient British tribe
death or triumph
the penultimate squire

the drinks are getting more expensive
are we there yet?
Venus after her bath
Lady Violet was rather a large lady
to be seen by candlelight
a pint of Guinness
put on top of the coffin
at every pub
milking lambing and felling
live hard and play hard
(one thing you can say about em
they can drink themselves sober)
the naughty postcards
two men sitting on deckchairs:
‘Nice to be out in the air isn’t it?’
‘Yes I think I’ll get mine out as well.’
girls in one room
boys in another, top and tail
heads and feet
heads and feet.

Group poem
Chris, Joan, Donna, Les, Pat, Pauline, Nicky, Val