Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This is the star of me

A Winter Garden is a text/art project with people in Blackpool dealing with depression and isolation. The project is lead by writer Philip Davenport (from arthur+martha) and book artist Emily Speed. Philip writes:

The extraordinary often comes unbidden. We were sitting in the cafe after the latest session in Blackpool Library when this extraordinary moment arrived.

A particpant started talking about the problem with writing – the great dilemma of when to plunge in, when to hold back. “Its hard to write like this because its opening something up. And I don't know whether to go down there. Maybe it'll hurt. Maybe it'll make me feel better. I don't s'pose anyone else feels like this...?”

And of course other people did feel exactly like that. There were nods around the table.

Another particpant began to talk: “When I was a kid, my parents didn't talk about feelings. It wasn't spoken. The one time I saw them even hold hands was when there was a family death. It's not what I'm used to doing.”

Today was a breakthrough. We've been tweaking the way we organise the workshop, the group has been getting used to one another and me too; the combination clicked this week and we came together not only as a collection of writers, but as a group of people, aiding and abetting each other, coming out of shells. It is these little acts of bravery and compassion that bridge the seemingly infinite gaps between people.

the stars in the late afternoon
in winter’s
particles of silver
velvet fire-cat sat on my lap
at home with my family
I would be a
sun glowing in the black
warmth lying on the bed

(Participant’s poem)

The stars are infinitely far, but they are present in all human thinking. The writing this week centred around the idea of the stars as mirrors of our own inner-state.

The constellations are a powerful symbol to conjure with, which is why we're using them in the sessions – they evoke such deep feelings. Their burning light that's come millions of miles to visit our eyes has lost its warmth when it gets here. Stars are metaphors for coldness and isolation. But they are also magical – we make wishes on them. Today’s were most definitely of the wishing sort. I hope that some good comes of them, they were written with great courage and it was a privilege to see them emerge from the dark.


Phil's new poetry book has just been published. It brings together some strands of arthur+martha work, including the strange, zigzag aerial paths between mental health and creativity.

APPEAL IN AIR: anatomy of sadness

Press Release

Philip Davenport’s new book-length poem APPEAL IN AIR is in the form of a spreadsheet that adds together a suicide, a list of bird-names and a valedictory roll-call of poets.
By using an accounting tool for an anatomy of sadness, the poem questions the way that we place value in our own lives. Who gets overlooked, what is unheard, what’s too loud?

The poem begins with a pile-up of noise, urban overload, into which is inserted the story of “A”, a true story of a suicide, verbatim from an overheard conversation. “… a thought lost in noise sold as music…” The poem drowns in random information, out of which come soaring flights of birds – first in tiny letters, then in flurries of word/birds that fill the page. The final section leaves us in the big wilderness spaces of the air.

“ringin beyond yr ears/blackbirds in London/starlings of Manchester/stitch th blue postcodes of th sky…”

Davenport’s debut was published by seminal avant-garde press Writers Forum in 1999; his poems handwritten on apples were shown at the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. His work has been variously billposted and exhibited throughout Europe and in China. Davenport curated the largest survey exhibition of Bob Cobbing’s work for Bury Text Festival in 2005 and the first posthumous gallery exhibition of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work in 2006. His current sequence of spreadsheet poems have been exhibited in the Henry Moore Institute and will be shown at Turnpike gallery this April. He co-directs experimental arts organisation arthur+martha.

APPEAL IN AIR is published by Knives Forks and Spoons press, UK whose list includes many leading British avant-garde poets, particularly visual poets.

isbn 978-1-907812-77-4

Further information contact:


The book can be ordered online at this website:

Playing on bombsites

Last Thursday was our second visit to the 'buddy cafe', for people diagnosed with dementia and their carers. We are  beginning to familiarise ourselves with new surroundings and get to know this large group of welcoming people. 

We have been given a 'brief' to find out about the service given to people with dementia (and their carers) where the service is working- where there are gaps, from point of diagnose to end of life. Its a big task, but an exciting one. Our instinct as ever is to tread lightly, let the participants lead the conversations direction. Some working with people diagnosed with dementia hold the view that its to difficult to talk about the subject directly. However we're finding that people will talk about dementia - and in fact these conversations can be a relief, a letting go. Because dementia can become such a taboo, shrouded in fears and shame, there's a sometimes block around the whole area. Different people have massively different feelings about all this, be they carers, people with a diagnosis of dementia, or simply people with no direct connection, other than being fellow humans. 

A gentleman Phil spoke to in the morning, with the intention of starting reminiscence, cut across his preamble to discuss what he really wanted - his 'condition'. He'd had to make adjustments to his language because of the changes wrought in him by the dementia - and this gave his words their own specificity and power. The disease was his "fall". It didn't progress in a straight line: "There's no such thing as beginnings and endings." His descriptions too were tangential, but had their own lucidity - an extraordinary poetry, to Phils ears. We will feature his full interview in another blog.

In the afternoon, 'M' a carer made a link between her wartime childhood and her current situation. She was talking about the paradox of needing to toughen up in order to care for someone with dementia, otherwise the experience will run you ragged. "I think my childhood made me stronger. We used to play on bombsites - they wouldn't let you do that now. If you're too protected you don't strive. One of my friends, a carer, is two years older than me and we have the same mentality. Another friend who's younger says, 'I need a counsellor.' In fact the doctors wanted me to see a counsellor. I saw this girl and she sat open mouthed at what I told her. She couldn't believe it. I don't need to speak to someone younger than my daughters to get advice. She didn't have the life experience to help me. So I didn't go again. I think people generally today are too soft. They EXPECT - rather than fighting." 

Monday, 30 January 2012

Dave: a weird and wonderful sense of humour

Last Thursday we paid our second visit to Age Concern Salfords 'Buddy Cafe'. More on that later. I spent much of my day photographing the people attending the group, you can see examples at http://www.flickr.com I also had the opportunity to spend some time talking with Dave, pictured below. He spoke with great frankness about his memory loss. 


"You deal with the hand you've been dealt with. I was born normal, now I've got Post Cognitive Impairment, it may or may not turn into Alzheimer's. I was diagnosed 2 years ago, just before my wife died. She always thought I would die first.

Part of the brain died, that part won't regenerate. There's no treatment for it, if I open my eyes in the morning I've got another day to look forward to- to get on with.

It effects my memory, my long term memory is going now. I can't remember some family birthdays.

If I wake up in the morning I look forward. All the shit you've got- (can I say that?) its the way of the world. A sense of humour, thats whats got me through it all. Thats basically it. A weird and wonderful sense of humour. 

Monday, 23 January 2012

A house built on water

A Winter Garden is a text/art project with people in Blackpool dealing with depression and isolation. The project is lead by writer Philip Davenport (from arthur+martha) and book artist Emily Speed. Philip writes:

“I found it difficult just coming into the room the first day I arrived. Coming from being quiet and hating the limelight. The first time you are edgy, then you see others writing and drawing and it's not so bad jumping in.” (Participant)

Our art/writing project is starting to find compass bearings, the beginning of a shape. We're using The morning sessions are picking up their pace, a great level of concentration was given in the group and the room bustled.

There's a fascinating dynamic going on here. To make a sweeping generalisation, people who're suffering depression tend to become inward-looking, yet are highly sensitive to their surroundings – so what way will they react to being in a group? There seems to be a tremendous push/pull going on in some participants. I understand some of this, because I also have a tendency to be inward-turned.

Writing and art can exacerbate this because it can allow the maker to float away in a bubble. But these activities are acts of communication too; they require others to make them complete. At present, there is a great deal of un-listening going on. People recognise that in order to have their words heard or art seen, they must also acknowledge others. But the acknowledgement in many cases is done by rote. I saw someone in the morning group pick up another's poem, glance at it momently and put it back down with a flat-voiced, unenthused: “Very good.”

However, it's only by acknowledging the words and actions of others fully that we can unwind from our own self-snaring selves. The pieces being made in Blackpool are SHARED self-reflections. And in order to share, you have to step to one side and let someone else stand in the mirror with you Narcissus.

“Take in the world through your eyes, through your windows. People read you through your eyes. Buildings have a facade, a facing. You also put on a public face, the way you dress, the way you present. But what goes on behind the facade? Are you a wreck on the inside? Does the building have rot, woodworm? A fireplace is a warm heart for a house, but it requires fuel. If you can't feed it, it turns cold.” (Participant)

Emily led the sessions this week and some beautiful things emerged. People drew themselves as buildings, imagined their own interior architecture – their world edge. One person imagined a house with (thru a trick of perspective) an ocean as the roof.

“Importance for me is the sea, not a house. My kitchen is in the sea, bedroom is in the sea. Through water I can feel the universe.” (Participant)

It seemed to me a fabulous metaphor - describing both the state of being sucked into the depths – beyond rescue by other humans, with their far-off muzzy cries - and yet also an image of a wondrous connection.

Friday, 20 January 2012

living history

I'm in the midst of doing an early spring clean of my paperwork, and came across some photos that Sid Saunders, one of our group from Four Acre's St Helens gave me, photos and quotes that I never posted.... This day he was discussing his memories of holidays in Blackpool...

me, me 2 cousins, sat down on the sands at New Brighton, a bottle of water and a sandwich (Sid)

The coach would stop at the pub, the men would have a pint. Then the biggest job was getting the men out of the pub and back on the coach...

I can see them now, come on dad we want to get on the beach

Blackpool, I don't go now, I've got other fish to fry. (Sid)

I also came across this quote from Joan that sums up the isolation some older people feel: 'Feel like part of you is missing when your husband dies, you can be 18 hours and not talk to people- and I love to talk to people. I started to go to the garden centre on a Saturday to have lunch, just to be around people- nice if somebody talks to you.'

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Always told him I loved him til the day he died

Last Thursday we started working on an exciting new project in Salford, partnered by Age Concern Salford and Salford PCT. 

Our focus will be to engage both carers and individuals with a dementia diagnosis to explore their own dementia journey and related areas. We're working with Dr Caroline Swarbrick from The University of Manchester who will be doing more formal research, we hope that this unique combination of research methods, will create a rich source of material  from which to draw up recommendations for the future commissioning of service.

With the help of the brilliant team from Age Concern Salford, our first day produced some wonderful work, although the afternoon session also brought up some issues that need to be addressed.  We're finding our feet here, like some of the other newcomers to the group. 

The morning session was excellent and we will build on this further to get some detailed insight from the older people - about their lives generally and also about dementia issues. We were particularly delighted that the gentlemen's group in the Cricket Club were so welcoming. 

As a first workshop exercise, we span a piece of string around the room and attached questions and conversation triggers to it. Starting with an 'earliest memory''a favourite toy' and more many more pointers such as 'first kiss' and 'first job'  finishing with a vision of 2050.
"First memory? Going to school from the air-raid shelter. I'd have a wash and a brush up at school and breakfast. My mum would go to work from the shelter, never saw my dad for years, he was out in the desert fighting. First air-raid when he was at home he spent the whole raid looking for us. We'd got so used to fending for ourselves we went straight to the shelter without him. He found us when the all-clear went. It always sticks in my mind. When the bombs cam on we went under the viaduct arches at Brindle Heath. There was an ack-ack gun on the railway above, firing at the sky..."  

"My first kiss was in Swinton Pally, with my brother's friend. I was 15 and a half years old. He said 'I have to kiss you goodnight!' It was 1956. He's now my husband. Last summer we retraced where we used to court. It was lovely." 

"If it weren't for my mother we would've all died. Worked at a fish and chip shop, Ross's chip shop - still there on Top Road. My mother saved us all - my dad was slow. She was doing dinners, suppers, teas. She was a wonderful woman, had three jobs.

"My father used to come home from the pub and sit down in front of the piano. We loved it, we all loved it. He could play anything. We'd singalong. And he never had a music lesson in his life." 

"I first told my Ted I loved him after our fourth date. He was a real gentleman and everybody said so. Always told him I loved him til the day he died. And I still do.
Unfortunately the afternoon session was a little too much for some participants, after a morning's work reminiscing, some of which was emotional for them. In future sessions we plan to work alongside Age UK who'll run other activities for half the day, otherwise some participants will struggle with the day and it'll become counterproductive.  - activities that are relaxing (ie cards, dominos, dancing, games etc). We can then work with individuals or small breakaway groups quietly, doing drawing games, working one to one, etc.  

We will follow themes around the life story, letting this work about remembering also touch on the participants' experiences of dementia,  their journey down the 'pathway' and their take on support services that they've received.

We're also looking forward to our own journey of learning. What will we hear of the human story of dementia?  How do older people (not usually a generation that traditionally complains about authority) really feel about their relationship with the NHS, and related services? What can people share about their coping strategies? What's their experience of being diagnosed with dementia? What help have they had since diagnosis? Have their relationships with friends and family changed since? We have many questions, and probably many assumptions too, but the answers might come in forms that surprise us. It is a big part of the 'art' of this art project to stay open to these possibilities. Then what people say will teach us not only about dementia, but about the bigger us - our human selves.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012


Blackpool is famous for its electric illuminations, but illuminations can also be moments of insight, or great clarity. They often come from crisis, but can also arrive more gently, simply through meeting people.

A poem touched that on the nature of this kind of illumination was written during our first workshops for A Winter Garden, poetry/art sessions at Blackpool Central Library. These first writing sessions have produced several poems, including this one below, co-written by eleven people as a group piece in the afternoon workshop.



love is light

too long away

loneliness is eternity;

or perhaps

the colour of love is black?

- passionate, intense, a faraway sun

orange and yellow circle


is a sweet with a chewy centre

a locked box

it stops you in


sky blue comfort

at the bottom of the ocean

relaxed and


I’m having a lovely day

feel far

as the



angel’s wings are the weight of love

look at a person’s face to

read emotional


a closed book

in a different


algo maravilloso

red: love is life


I love being on my own

claret is the colour of happiness

a vibrant yellow

makes me

a bird in the wind that flies


el amor

feels a million miles away

the hand of time

moves slow when you leave


love can be fear

yet people are infinitely far

til they find time

fast and sparking.

Group poem

11 January 2011

A Winter Garden is a writing and art project, led by poet Philip Davenport (from arthur+martha) and book artist Emily Speed. Over the 10 weeks of the project, participants will crossover writing about their hometown Blackpool with writing about the self. Participants have been referred to the group because of problems with isolation and depression.

Philip writes:

The morning session was a delicate, tiptoe start with a small group. I was nervous, starting in on uneasy ground, but needn’t have worried. The three participants put themselves wholeheartedly into the writing exercises, making pieces that were brave and self-revealing. The session was quiet, studious; each writer in their own bubble. They worked beautifully as individuals, but I wished that they would also come together as a group to spark new energy. We might try bringing the group down to the cafĂ© at the end of the sessions so that there’s an opportunity for people to gather less formally and start to bond.

The afternoon arrived by way of complete contrast with a large band of participants – people shared ideas, sympathies, jokes. The room was a-buzz and it was hard to quieten them enough to get focus.

After an exercise based on John Cage’s 4’33, writing into silence, we wet into the toughest piece of the day, writing directly about the mist powerful emotional states – love, loneliness, happiness. It was made as a group piece; once each line was written, the page was passed onto the next person, making for changes in tone and stance of the poem, which became a prismatic folding in of viewpoints. The piece was full of bright images, sharply-felt, like strung jewels. It’s called illuminations – named for Blackpool and for the poet Arthur Rimbaud.

For all of the participants, writing came at the cost of a great deal of emotional energy. Sometimes writing like this will slide into difficult terrain; it’s a risk, but there’s much to be gained – insight, release, connection with others - in fact, moments of illumination.