Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Be well

We would like to wish winter warmth to the many people we have met this year, and also to those scattered far and wide across the world who read this blog. We are very aware that warmth and comfort are far distant luxuries to some and so this wish is particularly for those struggling in the storms of life.

A lot of people have said thank you to us after the art sessions we run, sometimes simply to be polite, sometimes in a very emotional way. Lois and myself would like to offer our thank you back, because your company and the insights you bring are very precious to us, perhaps more than you realise.

This year has had many high points (exhibitions, new projects, funding) but also some tough times, including bereavement. One of the things that keeps Lois and I going strong is the pleasure of being "arthur+martha", our other and possibly better selves.  The arts bring meaning to our lives; making work in collaboration with many communities has brought a sense of deeper value and human community that we would sorely miss.

All who have met with us, worked with us and shared a cup of tea and a joke, or simply some time: thanks. Be well.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Walking Backwards

The ends of my fingers hurt, it's too much stitching with thick rough wool, through thick heavy fabrics, so I’m pausing the embroidery to write. I’m in the Whaley Bridge Library today for the project Stitching the Wars. I’ve just had a long conversation with a library regular Graham, he’s an ex- postie, whose stories included the tale of his sponsored walking backwards from Lands End to John O Groats. 30 miles a day backwards, I would find 15 forwards difficult! It seemed much of the pleasure for Graham was in the people he encountered along the way. A delight I share in- this project like so many of arthur+martha’s give opportunities to meet such a range of people- hear their stories- and reflect them back to a wider audience.

 In the last year I’ve had the privilege to meet a Bevin Boy, a Lumber Jill, a number of Land Girls, countless farmers, an Air Gunner, railway men, lecturers, nurses, WAAFs and regular Joes whose ordinary life’s during and post World War 2 seem extraordinary now.

Stitching the Wars quilt, work in progress at Whaley Bridge Library.

The Stitching the Wars quilt exhibits many voices, shares many hands. Some people just want to talk, others will hand write snippets of reminiscence and poetry, others carefully stitch these memories onto fabric, others stitch memory to memory. Its slowly, slowly coming together. A little bit of discomfort in my fingers is a small price to pay… at least it wasn’t 30 miles backwards.

Thanks to everyone who gave their time today and to Jake and Jude for the very welcome cups of tea.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The object of remembering

I’ve been feeling grief as a physical force, its pushed and pulled at my body like a lead weight, as I write my head is pounding, my shoulders aching, one minute I feel sick, the next an appetite for the comfort of sugar, my teeth and gums are receding, my hair and skin lack lustre and most of all I feel overwhelmingly exhausted, I’m trying to flow with it, ride the waves, accept.

My dad's funeral was last week. Since then I have been clearing out his flat, right now allocating new spaces to his belongings. It’s a tough, important, painful job, but satisfying when it works, finding new life for cherished objects. That’s what this bit of writing is all about. Phil and I in our work with arthur+martha often explore the power of objects, but never have I experienced first hand the heart wrenching effect so clearly on myself and my sisters.

My dad's death was pretty sudden, my eldest sister and I entered his flat the next day and found it as if he had just bobbed out. His quilt pushed half way back, his slippers in place, a unsmoked cigarette in the ash tray, milk in the fridge. I didn’t want to move those slippers until the last day of the clear up, not out of anything morbid, but rather they were dad somehow.

Dad was a retired architect, his sense of design, music, art, have enormously informed, inspired and educated my sisters and I. His small one bedroom flat was full of objects collected over the years, 80% of which had memories attached for one or all of us. There were voyages of mystery, discovery and delight to; a box with five beautiful Christening gowns, who did they belong to? And in the same box a child’s tartan kilt and shorts worn by my dad, I have a photo of him wearing them on my wall, but why didn’t he show me the real item when he was alive?  And perhaps most poignant a single child’s leather glove. My sister has it - so she can hold dad's hand.

Many of the objects hold a complex collection of meaning, of reading and emotion, they hold the story of my father. The objects also have their own history, some inherited from family, some carefully selected and treasured items from the 50s, 60s and 70s from around the world. In addition, the objects hold powerful memories for my sisters and me from childhood and growing up. It appeared that the greatest clout on my sisters and me, was to discover objects that had been hidden in our memories, that wonderful, aching, spark of recollection. I now understand on a much deeper level how some of the older people we work with on arthur+martha projects are reduced to tears, or joy when they encounter an unexpected object.

The history and life of these objects carry on. Each one now has to have a life time of chain-smoking removed from it, brought into the light a space found for it. Musical instruments will be played again,  (dad getting his own back, my noisy kids playing them) cooking pots will no longer be simply on show, but used, records played and song along to. I will share my memories of the objects with my children and they in turn will add another layer of history to them. They will take on new meaning and new importance and stay treasured items for future generations, although over time I’m sure a few will end broken, un-sentimentally sold or given away to the charity shop.

Writing this down helps to make sense of the process, just as writing and speaking the eulogy for my dads funeral helped. I’m told the first year is the hardest.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A route map to Atlantis

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

October 2014

Phil writes:

Should storms drive you to anchor
seek a place of quiet calm, like the ruins of Atlantis.
Gather up what still remains
the friends who stand beside you
are the means to sail again.
Find in the companionship of the sea
a shining reflection of a brilliant promise.
Calendo, O sea of screaming rage
hush and listen to the breathing world
see the glassy horizon glow.


The myth of Atlantis, the lost city, is the stuff of legend and poetry and occasional B-movies. Archaeologists - I am told - have found the site of the old city in a volcano crater under the sea. But the myth remains intact because it calls to a deep part of us all, with the allure of something that can never really be reached.

We are working on a sequence of images and poems that also hunt for an elusive thing, a definition of happiness. The pieces are for the corridor of The Harbour mental health facility in Blackpool and our idea is that they help make the journey along the corridor a happy one - but also gently question what happiness might be.

Today, the group worked on a collective poem about the hunt for Atlantis, as a metaphor for the journey through life. It is a story about the struggle through the human storms and shipwrecks that we all encounter as we travel through time - and what we hope to find at the end. The morning and afternoon groups both contributed to Atlantis, so it is a many voiced tale. In writing their individual verses the group worked tremendously hard. I've dotted this blog with verses (each written by a different person) from our group's Atlantis:

I leave behind me

all that has destroyed me
farewell dear friend, farewell; may
Hermes master of the roads
comfort me as I journey to
the island forests I dream.
(What will I see as I go by
birds flying high in a horse-tailed sky?) 
Sweetly caressing tones stroke 
softly on my face.


The greatest block to all was self-criticism which in some cases was so harsh that the writers came to a dead stop. We talked about the reasons for stopping and very often behind the self-judgement was a history of harshness, particularly the viciousness of teachers or parents encountered in childhood. Some of these stories were heartbreakingly sad. As people worked, they talked, reporting how they felt and the poem gradually grew, incorporating some of the conversation. Writing it became a journey in itself. The greatest pleasure for me was to see that the group coming out of their shells - like cautious sea creatures - and supporting one another, listening to each other's needs.

Interleaved with our poem are fragments of WH Auden's wonderful poem Atlantis, and Sea Fever by John Masefield, which was a staple of British classrooms for decades. Auden was struggling with his life journey and the poem has the emotional openness of someone in crisis: it is a sad, sarcastic, yet hopeful piece that looks for deliverance with tired eyes. When it finally arrives at its ending, it carries the relief of a long, hard voyage finally done. My hope is that we will carry some of the same spirit in our work and gift it to the people who will live with it.

All the little household gods

request that we listen today
to the call "ATLANTIS"
the light of their countenance.
The thrashing waves and foamy rush
where waves meet in high
briney smell and spray so fine
is sight for tired eyes. And all I
hear is the wind flowing out and roaring in
a quiet sleep and a sweet dream.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Early Evening Stars

Eric n Ern, in Blackpool Local History archive, still glimmering

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Phil writes:

Blackpool has a local history archive that is more than local, in fact it touches on the childhoods of many, many people in the UK. The town was the entertainment centre for  Northern England up until the early 1980s. In the archive are photographs, postcards, programmes, letters and a myriad other souvenirs of Light Entertainment, everyone from The Beatles to Shirley Bassey, from Gracie Fields to Marlene Deitrich.

The photos (mostly the jewels here are photographs) bear the marks of age. They are yellowing, pitted and printed with handling, stamped with the business addresses of agents and photographers - and finally, they are often signed by the stars. I found myself very moved by our workshop today, in which participants searched through file after file for iconic photos to work from. Their short-list is a roll call of the early evening stars who glimmered on stages from the beginning of the 20th Century, and then on British TV in the 1960s and 70s.

Sooty and Sweep, Cilla Black, Eric and Ernie, Roger Moore, Ken Dodd, Shirley Bassey, Tommy Cooper, Ian Botham, Beatles and Stones. In the wings are Gracie Fields, Judy Garland, Lilly Langtree, all from other eras. As the group worked, they expressed their glee at the treasures they unearthed from the quiet green files of the archive.

These works are destined for a dementia ward at The Harbour mental health facility. 
They will become portraits in textiles. It's hoped that these familiar faces from the past will not only look friendly, but they might usher in some good memories. 

People who have dementia remember early memories best, as most people do. With the pleasure of reminiscing can come pleasure in remembering more generally, taking a little of the fear out of the dementia. It's good to think that these faces from the past are coming out once more and delivering a performance that might just be one of their most appreciated.

Ladies and Gentlemen - it is our great pleasure to introduce...

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Henri Matisse and the hieroglyphic of happiness

All images by the Back on Track group, photos Gemma Lacey.

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Phil writes:

September 2014

The hieroglyphic of happiness

"There are always flowers from those who want to see them." (Henri Matisse)
Happiness is often elusive, but can seem very distant indeed at times of personal crisis. Our new project with the Back on Track group will record moments of happiness as poems and as visual marks. The work will be particularly inspired by the artist Matisse and the British visual poet Bob Cobbing. The workshops are with members of the Back on Track , Arts for Health programme and will be run by visual poet Philip Davenport and artist Gemma Lacey.

Today the first workshops took place, the first marks were made, first poems written. Already some rich results have come from these early explorations, as the group get to know each other and friendships are formed with one another and with the materials we are using.

We are making murals for the new mental health centre in Blackpool, The Harbour. The pieces will incorporate words, images, hieroglyphics and marks. They are poems for the eye, made of shape and colour as well as language. The emphasis as always will be on enjoyable, stimulating workshops that are also gently challenging.

A site visit to the nearly-completed building by Gemma, Sarah and Phil gave us our first viewing of the large corridor that will contain the work. It is a wonderful space, large and airy and full of light. Now the delightful task of filling it.

September 2014

Colour her name with pride

"Creativity takes courage." (Henri Matisse)

Many of the makers involved in this project have gone through a period of struggle with their mental health. To make anything at all, they have to quieten the critical voices in their own heads and push past fear, doubt, under-confidence, together with some physical limitations. This makes the pieces very precious, because they've been won from (sometimes massive) adversity.

We're following the trail of Matisse, whose later work is full of colour, light and memories of the sea. In this session we set out to build an imaginary undersea garden, first in words, then a series of marks, then a cluster of cutout shapes.

One of our group has an aquarium in the house and she explained: "When life becomes overwhelming I find my peacefulness watching the fish. I love their colours and their movement. Even the sound of the oxygen bubbles passing through the tank is beautiful." As she described this sanctuary, her voice shook with emotion - and suddenly this undersea garden of ours became more than an exercise, more than a distraction. The intensity of her reaction pulled the other members of our group into it and they set to with energy and sparking imagination.

We aim to make a series of pieces that embrace living, but also acknowledge the fragility of the makers and the viewers. Art that's uplifting - combinations of bold, simple colours and occasional lines of text - with some space for peace to enter and maybe a little shadow.
Many of the people involved have no art training and so the work has a naivety that some find it hard to accept. "It's like Playschool for adults," commented one of the group, sadly looking at the page she'd been working on. It can be humiliating to try a creative activity when our expectations of ourselves are high and our judgements are harsh. One way around this is to embrace naïveté and allow limitations to become strength. This is one reason that Matisse is our guiding spirit.

When the French painter Henri Matisse hit 70 he was no longer able to paint. A series of cancer operations  left him in a wheelchair, unable to stand, unable to wield a brush for any length of time. It was, to put it tres mildly, frustrating for one of the best painters of his generation. Famously, Matisse invited a new technique to sidestep this mishap - cutting out pieces of coloured card and pinning them to his compositions. Picasso went to visit Matisse after the illness and was both delighted and annoyed (Picasso was a competitive creature) to see the old man busy making again despite the best efforts of cancer and old age.

The shock of bright colour in the cutouts, sometimes intertwined with text and cartoonish drawings, massively influenced 20th Century graphic design. Many of the cut outs became murals and we've used these as a start point for this new mural project, which is a search for  The Hieroglyphic of Happiness. Matisse's resourcefulness and determination in the face of adversity is as important to this project as his technique.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Someone to watch over me

Above: the ancient arts, at Hargreaves Foundry. Photo Claire Griffiths.

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Phil writes:

Seeing molten metal being cast is both wondrous and terrifying, like visiting a caged volcano. It's become a rare vision in this country, so a chance to observe traditional casting is a gift, even if it's a slightly scary one.

Today we visited the Hargreaves Foundry in Halifax where cast iron artefacts have been made since the 19th Century - and where Anthony Gormley's sculptures are constructed in this 21st Century. Walking around the foundry on a research trip with the Smart Arts group and our guides Andy Knight and Richard Hall was an amazement. M commented, in his languid way, "This may be the coolest thing I have ever seen." Except of course it's hot: molten metal like poured light, showering sparks (A saw them as dying fairies) heat shattered moulds, sand burnt at temperatures so high that it becomes crude glass. 

Aside from the eye-catching fireworks there's something deeper at work. G put his finger on it best I think: "It's almost religious, the feeling in here, going back to the ancient rituals. The mould is made and then broken. The sand is burnt away like old habits, the old life, old patterns. Then we cast the new."

The word 'cast' can mean many things. Many of our Smartarts group are recovering from difficult times and their art-making is about casting off the old skin and allowing renewal. We cast a spell, cast dice, cast runes, cast plaster, cast aside, fore-cast the future. There is a well-known kinship between making things in metal and casting ancient magic, which is among other things a sort of wish fulfilment. Art is also a form of making wishes come true. O picked up this thread: "What would I create? Happiness? What would that be? A smile, a touch, a feeling, who knows? A longing for the past, my past? A chance to start again. How far back would I have to go to start again? Perhaps as far as birth, a newborn."

Art is often dismissed as an add-on to life, as opposed to the important things like money, career and efficiency. Actually, art-making predates all of those activities and I often wonder if that makes it higher up the scale of priorities than we realise. The necessities of life were invented first.

For all its ancient associations, Hargreaves foundry isn't a museum, it is a thriving contemporary producer with a world-class reputation. Because the standard of making is so high, it attracts artists with very specialist requirements as well as corporate clients. The most notable artist customer is Gormley, who has worked with Hargreaves for a couple of decades. The site is dotted with Gormley pieces in various stages of completion. Over it all, hanging from the ceiling of the storage warehouse is a Gormley-size version (i.e. 6 foot 2 inches) of his iconic Angel of the North. A big chunk of rust-colour iron, it looks tough, yet gentle. A totem and a guardian.

Above: Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North, man-sized, at Hargreaves Foundry

O again: "Scrap is melted into liquid, it has power, energy you can feel. It's poured into a cauldron where it bubbles, the smell of sulphur in the air, Hubble bubble. It's held in a ladle, like golden sun... It does become, of course, hard as iron and cold, yet the coldness doesn't detract from its beauty and tenderness... the feeling an angel watches on. I have a thought - it'd be nice if  somewhere, somehow an angel watches over all of us."

Photographs of the Smartarts visit to Hargreaves Foundry in Halifax can be seen at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite (the photos were taken by Claire Griffiths). We would particularly like to thank Richard and Andy at the foundry for their kindness, hospitality and hard hats. For more information about Hargreaves, go to

Friday, 31 October 2014

Breaking the circle

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Phil writes:

A stranger to description

4 August

This third session with the Smartarts group in Blackpool: people worked hard at creative writing exercises, which we took at high speed and high intensity. The level of concentration in the room was almost touchable. I invited folks to write first (in memory of John Cage) for 4 minutes 33 seconds, observing the nature of the noisy town centre 'silence' around them and then their own scurrying thoughts. Pens sped over the paper, people gazing down in concentration, occasionally coming up for air and for more observations.

After that, a short written meditation on moments of peace in their lives. Peace is a shy creature, often a stranger to description: when it has come, what it's made of, how it might be found again. There are many cliches about the desirability of Peace, but stillness can be terrifying as well as restful. What is it that we're asking for, when it is invoked? Then, finally, I asked the writers to illustrate the four seasons with incidents from their own lives, taking us through their personal cycles of growth, fruition, renewal.

Breaking the circle

18 August 2014

The last session of this project, a big final push to make the best of the little time we've had. And yet stay relaxed.

Then a drawing game, making improvisations on the theme of circles that's been the core of this project. Pete wanted some wobbly circles for the designs, something (he explained) to dodge perfectionism and leave some oxygen for the imagination.

Pete put the artworks/poems made thus far onto individual tables for the group to arrange in patterns, as they liked. It was astonishing to see how much they'd created in four short weeks. From little doodles and sketches to poems and collages. As they worked on the arrangements, our official photographer Claire snapped the bustle.

Circles can be relentless things. As well as symbols for renewal, eternity, life cycles, seasons and all that  profound stuff, they can also be a trap. A couple of people have commented that, for them, circles bring to mind cycles of destructive behaviour that go round and round, without end, imprisoning and oppressive. So our final exercise was about breaking circles. A simple little writing  exercise to pop the bubble and bring release for those who felt the need for it. I won't share the exercise right now, but if you happen to be around in thirty years time when the time capsule is opened, you'll know.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The humble doodle

Phil has been working with Smartarts Blackpool and painter Pete Flowers on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts of Phil's Blackpool blogs from the summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

11 August 2014

Phil writes: 

Today, Pete brought in his jotters, which officially were records of meetings and unofficially were chock full of doodles, fields of intricate marks and cartoonish skeletons. Pete handed round some circular paper sheets (leftovers from the art game Spirograph, remember that?) and our group got busy doodling. Every so often I'd give them a word from a prepared list, to react to as they pleased. The resulting pieces were a delicious mixup of pattern, mind-map, drawing and word game. 

After the essential comfort/tea break, we tried an exercise which plays with the same sort of writing aesthetic pioneered by the American poet Robert Grenier. Bob Grenier's work is at first sight a series of multi-colour scribbles, but on closer looking, words can be discerned in the seemingly random marks. Here we rewrote one word "Beauty" many times, using elbows, teeth, mirror writing, anything but the usual method. I then invited people to fill in the negative space between the overlapping letters until, beginning from one clear word, the pieces moved into abstraction into doodles, in fact. 

The humble doodle is an underrated artistic form it seems to me. Some of the most intense, yet most free, art-making takes place in the margins of notebooks, telephone scribble pads, appointment diaries.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


Phil has been working with Smartarts Blackpool and painter Pete Flowers on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts of Phil's Blackpool blogs from the summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

24 July 2014

First Steps

Pete's many circular objects, to inspire our circular design

The first session of any project is always a step into the unknown, no matter how much prep you've done. Today was even more unknown for me because not only was I working with a new group of participants, the Smartarts group in Blackpool, I was teamed up with a new art partner too, the artist Pete Flowers. Together, Pete and I will facilitate this group in an ambitious new piece.

We're all working together on a circular plaque that will sit outside new mental health facility The Harbour, at Blackpool. It's ambitious because we are making something that'll be cast in iron, so it'll last a long time. A VERY long time. Casts last hundreds of years (unless of course they get swiped and melted). As we sat and chatted through it all, the enormity hit me. This is a piece of work that will possibly not only to outlive me, but all of my books. In a sense it is a time capsule, sent by us into a future that we will never witness. In such circumstances there is a temptation to force profundity. But trying to make something BE IMPORTANT is always the kiss of death in art-making, so instead we began quickly and modestly.

Pete started the ball rolling by inviting folks to each sketch a symbol of themselves, quickly and spontaneously, an image held within a hand. As the group worked I went from person to person, asking them to explain the thinking behind their pieces. I jotted down the explanations, which became a poignant little textwork in itself. I read it back and we all looked at each other, looked at the artworks. Not a bad start. In fact, say it quietly, very promising...

31 July 2014

Zen Tightrope  

This is the second week we've worked together and our group is slowly starting to become familiar to Pete and myself (the facilitators) and one another. People shared paper, responding to the circular objects Pete had selected for them to draw - and responding to each other as well. Making creative pieces can be a wonderfully calming process, several people in the group commented on the therapeutic feeling that has been conjured up in the space as people busy on drawings or poems. It was a delight to walk among the makers and share some of that fabulous busy calm. 

But there is a flipside, as one person pointed out. With creativity comes exposure, the possibility of getting it wrong, of harsh judgement. Today, as the group started to relax with each other, some deep-seated habits began to emerge, among them cruel self-criticism. We're trying to develop an atmosphere in these sessions that is both non-judgemental AND gently challenging. It's a sort of zen tightrope between control and looseness. Great musicians "play" music with absolute control and yet lightly. Perhaps we too can enter that state, as a group, to bring back something that is playful and meaningful too - eternity, connection, peace, continuity, fullness - playful, but serious play.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A restless soul

Phil writes:

My first day on our new Homeless Library project - chock full of nervousness and anticipation.

I was booked in to see Andrew at the North West Sound Archive, to get some advice on our planned recordings for the Library. The Archive is an amazing resource, with over 150000 oral history recordings in its vaults and years of experience between the staff members. As we talked, I could hear another conversation in the next room. While Andrew had a nicotine break I put my head round the door to see who was there - the room was full of old reel-to-reel machines. The voice was a recording of a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a member of the famed International Brigade. It was the voice of history itself, with a capital H. I felt daunted again by the responsibility of the job we are trying to do - to make the first ever history of homelessness in the UK.

Andrew kindly talked me through some do and don't basics for oral history recording, which I will share below. He also reflected on our own project.

Here are my notes from that morning:

Basic point one. Ask essential questions. This isn't just a chat, it's an interview. If it is allowed to become too random it'll lose its way and you'll forget what you need to ask. Decide what questions you want to cover before the interview and make sure you ask them. The NW Sound Archive suggest 5 basic questions to start off with: what's your name, where were you born, when were you born, what did your parents do for a living and where did you go to school? These questions tend to relax an interviewee because they're easy to answer. They also give a clear time and place to the material and gently bring in issues like social class. A sixth question for our project might be 'How did you become homeless?'

This is a sound recording of the interviewee, not the interviewer or anything else. So give them as much space as possible. Try not to interrupt, not even with encouraging noises, umms and errrs, and keep an ear out for background noise that could disrupt the recording. Strip lighting buzz has destroyed many recordings. In our project traffic noise might be a problem, although it is also descriptive of the environment in which some homeless people live. Don't put words into people's mouths, let them describe events and give their opinion on them as freely as possible. Keep quiet, nod and smile. The most powerful oral histories are the ones that are allowed to flow uninterrupted. Don't strain to be significant, 'historically valid', or generally smart arsed, the main thing is to catch people's stories as clearly and spontaneously as possible. Future historians will sift through this material for what they need, making their own selections. Although edited versions of the material (like our one minute day-in-the-life recordings made with homeless people) are valid, always keep the original interviews too.

After we had talked for a couple of hours, Andrew looked quizzical. "I've never come across a project quite like this one y'know."

I asked him why. After another ciggy break he came back with a reply. Our project is unusual for a number of reasons. It is difficult to get recordings of homeless people because there has to be a relationship of trust built up and few people have done that. It is also unusual because some of the recordings will take place in very uncontrolled environments, for example on the street, with interruptions of many sorts and the world intervening generally. Most profoundly, it is unusual because our project is more concerned with people's emotional history and motivations than it is in recording witnesses of known historical  events. The questions we ask will tend to be about internal, emotional events, not verifiable facts. Andrew suggested that we look the Getting Our Heads Together project, which documented the experiences of a mental health group in Blackpool and included very subjective material about people's emotional lives to become part of the texture of their oral history accounts.

After I left the Archive, the voice of the International Brigade veteran was still with me. It was a haunting little phrase that I'd overheard from the recording. Somehow seemed to speak to our own project and the people it will include: "He was a restless soul."

The Homeless Library is a project devised by arthur+martha to document the heritage of homelessness using interviews, artworks, poetry. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Libraries are our friends

'Without libraries what are we? We have no past and no future.' Ray Bradbury.  

I'm passionate about libraries, what they have given (and continue to give) to generations of readers, writers, kids, students, researchers, local history searchers... the list goes on and on.

My local library Hayfield, in the High Peak, has just given me a little more,  I've had 5 sessions there as artist in residence for the project Stitching the Wars. 

Stitching the Wars always had an exhibition tour of Libraries in Derbyshire planned, but not workshops whilst the project was in full flow. However plans have to change sometimes, I've never had any problem gathering wonderful, electric, eclectic, reminiscence- the groups are always happy to talk and talk- but the stitching of the quilt was getting behind schedule, there is no way round it, hand stitching is time consuming! I needed some more concentrated 'making' time for the quilt, time to take stock of the work so far and gather together some volunteers to help stitch. This came with abundance at the library. In addition it gave me an opportunity to exhibit the artwork (in progress) to an audience who might not normally venture into an art gallery, or come along to one of arthur+martha sessions.

Hayfield Library is a warm and welcoming place, thanks largely to friendly, relaxed and helpful staff and a light an airy space. Most days there was a fairly constant stream of people visiting my sewing/art table, some after seeing the posters, some making a repeat visit, some happening on the event by chance. It was a much needed productive and relaxed time.

Whilst I was undertaking my artist residency, there was also an informative exhibition to mark the Centenary of the First World War, wonderful to see all of the historic documents, a useful and moving addition to 'Stitching the Wars'.

I'm off to take back that overdue book first thing tomorrow....

Thanks again to Christine and all the wonderful staff at Hayfield Library. 

Friday, 26 September 2014

Needed at home

What follows is the 2nd poem made by one of the members of the Rural Craft Group at the Farming Life Centre, for the project Stitching the Wars, a wonderful example of the humour we see in every session:

Grandad was undertaker, beautiful cape and bonnet made out of a shroud
"Don't put the lid on, don't put the lid on!"
He put me in the coffin once, he was a joker
Loved to see him in his splendid top hat
Mum went with him to lay out the bodies
Put me in the coffin once, he was a joker
They wouldn't let him fight, he was needed at home
"Don't put the lid on, don't put the lid on!"

Farming Life Centre (Rural Craft Group)
24 Sept 2014

fabric waiting to be sewn into the quilt

Thursday, 25 September 2014

From Sewing to Sowing

The Farming Life Centre run various groups, yesterday we had the joy of working with the Rural Craft group in the morning and The Social Group in the afternoon (more on that later)

Phil worked with members of the group to create poems based on their reminiscence for the project Stitching the Wars:

From Sewing to Sowing

Trousers, the seams full of lice
My father in the 14-18 war, in the trenches, like many
Seams binding sad memories, seams binding good
Trousers, the seams full of lice
Trench dirt, everything impure
Camouflage nets, weaving strips in a set pattern and then
My wedding dress made from parachute silk
From sewing to sowing
A town girl marrying a farmer
Trousers the seams full of lice
Seams binding sad memories, seams binding good
Life carrying on, to be sewing
Sowing the seed, new crops, new life.

Barbara and Chris
Farming Life Centre
Sept 24 2014

Chris with her mother Barbara's wedding dress, made from parachute silk. 

The day started with a moving reading of Barbara's fathers poems written whilst in the trenches during the 1st World War. There was a constant hum of conversation inspired by the themes of Stitching the Wars as the group sewed their individual embroidered artworks into the quilt. With consideration, thought, skill and at times alarming speed the quilt grew and took form.

Mary and her orchard embroidery

The group adding their embroderies

A big thank you goes to all the members of the group who have donated their time, skill and ideas to help with the Stitching the Wars quilt whilst additionally providing Phil, Melanie and myself with tea and biscuits.  We look forward to working with you again next year.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Land Girl and the Fuehrer

In July, I was lucky enough to meet with a group of men and women at Nicolson Court in Tideswell, in a group run by The Farming Life Centre.   Whilst we embroidered the Stitching the Wars quilt, I gathered more wonderful reminiscence, the following are my notes from Marjorie. 

I’ll be 94 in September. In the Land Army, I based at Lakenheath in Suffolk with 120 other girls, all volunteers. From Sheffield, I was married- my husband a German Prisoner of War. I thought there was no chance of seeing him till the end of the war, so I rented my house up and joined up. It was a spur of the moment thing. I worked in the Steel Office, a girl I was working with said “I’m off to join the Land Army”. I said, ‘ So will I!’ a spur of the moment thing.
            At Lankenheath we were billeted at the YMCA hostel, 120 of us. Taken by lorry every morning for sugar beet pulling. We didn’t have any training, just give us a round knife and set off to pull it up. It just happened. It hurt to start with, then you got used to it.
            Ditching, digging ditches- loading sugar beet for the factory- enjoyed it all. When it was haymaking, we’d climb onto the haystack, one day I got to close to the edge and hit the deck- saw stars for 5 minutes.

Could have a cooked breakfast at 7.00am, eggs no problem, then on the truck ready for 8.00 and taken to which ever farm you were working at. We had lunch at 12.00, bread and dripping, a tin box with a number on, picked it up on the table in the morning.
            The hostel was run by the Women’s Christian Organisation. 1.00pm to 5.00pm working again, or if you were a long way from the hostel you might be able to knock off at 4.00. 6.00pm the evening meal, you could take as long as you’d like- but you didn’t take long, as you wanted to get changed, washed and out to the local village. There were temptations for the married lady- but I never took my wedding ring off.
We were all in the same boat. We didn’t have much money, all got on together. We had a shared bathroom, you’d be having a bath, someone having a cup of tea sat at the table. There was no privacy at all.

I went on a back packing holiday aged 17 in 1937. Just took a haversack, didn’t wear shorts, just a skirt in there. Two of our neighbours belonged to the YMCA, I said ‘I’d love to go’ so saved up my spending money, passport, and plenty of underwear and went by train from Sheffield to London, then away by train to Bavaria. We were in a café having a drink, when Hitler’s voice came over the speaker- everyone stood up, so we did too. The manager came over and thanked us for acknowledging the Fuhrer.  The frivolities continued all night.