Tuesday, 24 November 2015

His heart is ripped in two places

Like many we people we have met on the project The Homeless Library Simon shared his painfully honest description of drug miss-use with the hope that it might help someone else going through the situation themselves, or perhaps help to prevent it happening in the first place. arthur+martha's desire is also to share with the wider world voices that might otherwise be un-heard and perhaps challenge our preconceptions and stereo types.
artist book experimentation for the project 'The Homeless Library'

"There's always someone worse of.  Got a brother Tom, he’s lost his wife, daughter, if you gave him a million pounds he’d spend it on heroin. His heart is ripped in two places.

Grief, the stress of my mum being ill and dad dying of cancer, when I was doing the detox all the memories came back. You have to want to come off it, no one will ever make you. I didn’t care about anyone but myself. You have to have something you care about to get off the heroin. It will just swallow you up. Three of my friends died last year.

The devil drug they call it that for a reason. 39 years old and I missed out on having kids. The natural family unit you miss out on. You crave the normal life, its not to much to ask for to sit on a Sunday watching tv with your misses and the kids. You miss it all. It’s a horrible drug, run a mile and keep running, the most destructive drug. 11 years I’ll never get back, it’s a daze, a dream, you don’t know if you’re coming or going.

Carol (my partner) was an ex-user, that’s how we met. One daft day I went to my brothers and met me partner. She was completely clean, I thought if she could do it anyone could. She’d been on it for 12 years, the drugs get into your bones. She said ‘if I want off I’ll help’, we sat up and talked all night. I wanted to get off- 6 weeks she locked me up, had the runs, aches, pains, sweats, she nursed me through. It was the emotional side that was the worse, the drug blocks emotion out. You start getting your nerves back to life- in your fingers, in your private parts.  You get symptoms after trying it a few times, aches, pains, like having the flu.

26 when I first tried it. A group of people trying it and everyone was talking about how good it was. You got to be part of the group, like a gang at school ‘try it’.

I’d only had cannabis before, heroin was the poison for me. Crack cocaine  didn’t click with me, 95% of people take heroin to bring them down, crack for a high. I know people who pick scabs and holes into their faces with crack, they will pick pieces out of the wall thinking its crack, its mental, in your head- heroin is more physical, more to get off.

If I see someone homeless now asking me for money- if they refused food I know they weren’t properly homeless, I wouldn’t had money over- I’d offer paracetomol if they needed a painkiller. Would never hand money over. Two times a week there will be people handing round methadone strips, trying to help.

Nothings bigger than family, keep going back even if they scream, never give up. Before I knew it four members of my family had died, when I was on the streets. You miss out on life, so high on your life, you don’t get a chance to say goodbye. Keep fighting, there is nothing more important than family. I didn’t even know my dad had died. My sister told me two weeks after. The last words you speak are the last ones, you cant change that.

Listening and talking helps- talking to you helps. Loves to you all.

Its going to be my first proper Christmas, I’m even cooking Christmas dinner for my partner.  The first I can remember, Christmas under a roof with someone I love."

Simon Potts
24th November 2015

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Wasted Youth

'Wasted Youth' artist book made in collaboration Warren and Lois 2015
'Wasted Youth' artist book made in collaboration Warren and Lois 2015, cover features an illustration of a soup kitchen during the Crimea War.

The majority of arthur+martha CIC projects artworks and poems are made in collaboration with others. In the case of The Homeless Library, those others are homeless men and women and other vulnerable people in our society, those with mental health problems, substance and alcohol abuse, the lonely- using contemporary 'soup kitchen's'.

Sadly we have met many ex-military personnel during our project. Warren we met at The Wellspring, Stockport. During our encounters he gave articulate, passionate, at times angry accounts of the many ex-military he has met on the street. The stories he channeled into poems and wrote into handmade books. Next year these will be shown alongside many of the other artist books, recordings, poems, interviews in a touring exhibition.

Wasted Youth

as they don't fit

Warren wrote 'Wasted Youth into a folded book, inside the cover is a photo of Warren graduating.  The cover is an illustration of a soup kitchen during the Crimea War with the words written 'I've been lost all over the country, everywhere.'

'Wasted Youth' artist book made in collaboration Warren and Lois 2015
You can read more interviews with Warren here. Thanks again to Warren and all of the men and women we have met during the project who share their stories.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Getting back to normal

I have been interviewing people at the wellspring over the last three weeks.  All their stories have been told with candour and a generosity of spirit.

So many of the men I have spoken to haven't spoken to anyone about their circumstances before, told their story.   The self reliance and lack of expectation of anyone to do anything to help is a common thread.

These men aren't waiting for help, they want to ‘get back to normal’ and get on with their lives.  I don't know if that is a result of being let down in the past or if it's more to do with not wanting to admit you might need help, you might need to talk to someone. Pride? They are all just waiting for a better day ‘I just want to be like I was two years ago’ (Phil)

The other reoccurring theme in these interviews has been long term loneliness.  Disconnected because of the transience, bereavement, broken relationships, substance misuse many have said they have few friends and some have nobody to confide in.

Some are to embarrassed to let family and friends  know that they are struggling so they avoid contact, hide if them seem them on the street.

What they have at the Wellspring  is community, somebody to talk to, to have a chat, and a feeling ‘that someone gives a damn’ (anon).

Helen volunteer for  arthur+martha CIC

artist books for the project 'The Homeless Library.'

Friday, 13 November 2015

Fresh Air and Poverty

Lois Blackburn working on Fresh Air and Poverty, at Buxton Library

We're in Buxton library for our quilting project Stitching the Wars. This has been a two year journey through hundreds of Derbyshire people's memories. Reminiscence about the world wars and the effect that war had on farming communities has been written down - sometimes as oral history, sometimes as poetry - and then stitched into quilts.

The pieces have great power and richness, to our eyes - but what do other people think? These last two days have been an open editing session in which Lois stitched together the patchworked reminiscence while I edited poems. Three enthusiastic volunteers helped with the huge stitching job. Meanwhile, library users and staff came over and commented on the work in progress. We were nervous about this public debut for the quilt-in-progress, but needn't have worried. The response was warm hearted, curious and delighted.

Janice and her embroidery at Buxton Library

Fresh Air and Poverty, work in progress

The quilt deals with difficult subject material, poverty and strife. But the colours and the sumptuous fabrics contrast with the theme, playing against type so that this piece is one of the most charming things arthur+martha has ever made for the eye. The dazzle of it certainly seduced many of our early-doors audience. However, the text interwoven through it is a more uncomfortable proposition and has yet to be completed. Perhaps there is still a little room for some nervousness...

Monday, 9 November 2015

A Celebration of Landscape

Lyme Park, Disley, Cheshire

We are delighted to share the news that our quilt 'A Bomber's Moon', is currently on exhibition at Lyme Park, Cheshire as part of their Winter Exhibition, Lymescapes. 

The exhibition runs at the weekends, Sat 7th Nov - Sun 14th Feb 2016 also Monday 28th Dec and Fri 1st Jan. 11am- last entry 3pm. Free to National Trust members or £4 per adult.

arthur+martha artist Lois Blackburn, will be an artist in residence at Lyme Park Sunday 6th December.

'A Bomber's Moon at Lyme Park'

Stitching the Wars, is a collaboration between older people in Derbyshire and the arts organisation arthur+martha CIC, creating two quilts and poetry from their reminiscences rich with experience and feeling.  Our first quilt , ‘A Bombers Moon’, investigates the effect the 1st and 2nd World Wars had on the Derbyshire countryside and the people living on land.  

‘A Bombers Moon’ replicates an aerial view of fields and hillsides. Into this "landscape" are sewn key words and phrases that link to reminiscence and poems. Much of this quilt was made by groups including  people who have dementia and we couldn't fail to notice the beneficial effect that group stitching had, joining people together in a shared act of making that had short-term rewards (touch, colour, companionship, creativity) and an ambitious goal. This quilt project was recently given a Foundation Derbyshire Award for its mixture of inclusivity and creative ambition.

Stitching the Wars is resulting in a lasting legacy for everyone involved, a unique way of sharing and passing on older peoples histories. The quilts and poems act as celebration of lives lived, an act of community remembrance.

The Poem ‘A Bomber’s Moon’ runs around the edge

Bomber’s moon

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

The moon’s up, owls about
rats rattling in the long roof
under the slates, you can see stars in the gaps
brown paper under the sheets to soak up damp
sheep lice keep you warm, with  your itching

Midwife arrives
my brother Harry, my sister Aletia
a horrible winter
looking after sick children we light a fire
boiling water when my son had the croup.
Stoke the fire
water and salt, do your best

In memory
a gap in the clouds
all the bombers in formation
the Thousand Bomber Raid.
I well remember, small cloud banks,
a gap
all those bombers going,
quite slowly
to Germany.

Group poem, Social Group
The Farming Life Centre

Funding, support and partners: The Arts Council England, Derbyshire Community Foundation, Derbyshire Dales Council, Derbyshire County Council, Farming Life Centre, Age UK, The Alzheimer’s Society, New Mills Volunteer Centre and The Quilters Guild of Great Britain.


Wednesday, 4 November 2015


'The Ark' homeless camp (now demolished) Manchester 2015

Our work is always an experiment, like any creative making. That means we never quite know where an idea will lead. For instance, a recent discussion about soup kitchens turned into a description of homelessness as a food-chain, with predators, hunting packs and people as prey.

I'd had a vague idea about a human food-chain previously; the interviewee below picked up on this and made it into a frame for his own experience. Let's be clear, this is only one way of seeing the homeless community, and there are probably as many visions of the life as there are people experiencing it. But - as this interviewee asks - how can we see through many eyes at once - and how do we inhabit our own truth? 

Street protestor in Manchester 2015


You've spoke to all these homeless people and you've got all this information but it doesn't make any sense to you, you don't know what it means. That's because you can't know. You haven't lived it...

This life, it's a food chain. I've been on all stages of it. You can be in any of these stages at any time. You gotta know who you are and what you want, or someone will try to take you over. I've been a young shark, I've been a drinker, I've been vulnerable.

First you've got sharks. You've got the loan sharks and the drug sharks. You'll never meet the main shark, he has his thousands around him. You're only meeting the young sharks, the baby sharks. 

The sharks try to drag you back in to the life. They'll give you a taster and then you'll learn how to sell. Selling to others so that you can afford to buy your own. Sharks get into the pride of women to get them onto drugs, then the girl's on the street. The sharks get into people to get them feeling the lowest of the lowest. Then they're vulnerable, then get them earning for their drugs or drink. Even when you're prostituting everything that you are they'll take their 50% and they'll never let you go. If they ever give you a little, you owe them forever.

I was a little shark, but the Christian side of me was stronger. A footman. The footman, I call them "footstool", only has so many drug bags on them at a time. The footstool goes out with a few bags only. If he knows he'll get done by the drug squad he'll try to pass the bags to another footstool. If they get frisked for 20 bags that's a lot of money, they'll probably only have three or four.

Sharks. They're the powerful, the manipulators. You could say that the Council are also sharks. You could say that some who offer help are pulling us back in. They'll pull you back in because they want to be in control of your life. Help you and get you depending on them. I take a little bit of help but put my own into it too. People get dependent on help just like drugs cos they don't have their own mind.

Next down you've got the strong ones and the clever. They're the ones who want to get through, want to get out, get into different stuff. Sometimes they're clever enough. Sometimes they're too strong, too violent. Dog eat dog. They're powerful but not as powerful as a shark. The groups of users and drinkers are in there - "it's my turn to buy now, yours later." Social pressure. Drinkers often drink because they're in a pack and can't get out of it. They're usually after money, they're feeding for it. Others buy for you and then you for them. It'll always come round to your turn to pay and if you haven't got money you're gonna get hit, beat up.

The police are on this level but leave it alone mostly. If you're not drinking or digging (using drugs) on the street they won't get involved. Sometimes coppers have kicked me around and stuff but they won't really get involved with the homeless. Move you on and that's it. Sometimes they even help you.

You also get the political groups. They manipulate too. What do I think of the homeless protests? We were doing it ten years ago. The Council claimed there were only 23 homeless people in Manchester. So five of us got 4500 homeless people marching. The Council don't want to know the numbers, they don't want the numbers known. The number of people on that march went into a lost file...

Last, at the bottom, are the vulnerable. They are the food. They've got mental health issues. And they are the girls on the street, they've gotta do it for the habit. Prostitute themselves to pay for the drugs, do whatever they have to, you know what I'm saying. Maybe they suffer most.

Bad things happen on the street, some people go crazy. I've had 15 years on the street and that 15 years is in my head. I'm in a flat but I have bad dreams. I don't sleep in the bed even now. Still get flashbacks, still processing it all. I've talked to so many people I've not just got my own problems, I've also got other people's problems in my head. Seen people dying, friends, it does get into your head. I used to think other people were more important than me, it made me feel good to help them, to put them first. Now I've learned to put myself first...

Now, I'm stepping back from it all. I'm putting your mind in the frame of it.

(Interview with Phil at The Wellspring 27 October)

Chalked pavement text, Manchester 2015

The Homeless Library is the first ever attempt to write a history of homelessness in Britain. It includes not only individual testimonies, but also poetry and art, giving it a shape like no other.

The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Red Door

For the project The Homeless Library we are very lucky to be working with artist Jeni McConnell. The following is her account of a session together.

Early in September I spent a day working with Lois, one half of arthur+martha on the Homeless Library project.  We were in Bury at the Red Door Drop In centre, part of St Joseph's Catholic Church.

The day began with unpacking my book making goodies from my trolley and boxes. Lois had a similar stash - we must have looked quite curious to the people in the centre when we first arrived - they'd seen Lois before of course, and Philip, but not me - or the huge rolls of book binding cloth I was carting around with me.


Artist book collaboration Justin and Jeni for The Homeless Library. 

The centre was bright and full of chatter and busy activity, we sat in the main space, quite a small room in which it seemed most things happened.  Quite a few people busied themselves in and out, it was a beautiful dry day, with the sun peeping through the white (and some darkening) clouds.

Lois and I sat inside at the central multi-purpose table so we could have a look and chat through some of the work made, and to do our own quick skills sharing session with some quick book making techniques.

There are many stories that have been shared so far in the project, some as poetry, some hand written, some typed.  These have been intertwined within the folded pages of books, print work and other papery structures produced in earlier workshops.  There is an excitement building about this project, I'm keen to see how it unfolds along the rest of the way, and to read more of the stories too.

For this session I took some of the already printed stories to explore book ideas with. Reading through any of the texts I find there are certain words that stand out - almost as if I was going through with a highlight pen - they needed to be said a little clearer and I played with ways of doing this.

Justin came to join me, he'd been working with Lois in an earlier session and had some of his own words already written, but first he helped me work through the idea with the bits I had. We shared thoughts and ideas as we went along.  I do love the process of sharing something I can do with others, it's such a pleasure to see anyone's confidence grow as they pick up a new technique and working with Justin was just that.

We cut a story into thin same sized sections, there was an odd pleasure in it dividing the story so evenly and we cut the same sized pieces of tracing paper to use together. Justin read through the story and underlined words he felt were important, that needed highlighting, that needed to be shared in a more visible way.  There were cut out and stuck onto the tracing paper as a separate layer.

Conversations drifted on the air, "I found someone in me lounge this morning, I had to get out before I punched him. Why would someone be in my lounge? I came here".


Justin and I talked about reading other people's stories, about whether it was easy to find the right words to cut out, to in some way raise the status of.  We agreed it was - things just pop up and feel important.

As he reads he intermittently tells me stories of his Mum and his twin sister, who has recently died.  His Mum was a child-minder, but she also showed other people how to child-mind too; she shared her skills with others. He smiled as he explained they always had old cardboard, empty loo rolls and used tubs ready to make things, she was always making stuff with him. He seems to be really connected back to that time, he talks quite fast, an excitement about the memory perhaps.
Then, the now of the task in hand stops him short, "I need to concentrate, I'll shut up". We glue and cut in silence.

My ears again become aware of the others in the room, a tiny front room type space, a sort of flat with a living and dining area, as well as a kitchen. All one space, with a busy washing machine in too.  Here folks sit and natter, watch TV, get help and advice from the staff.

I know I smell, I can't have a bath
I'm not right, I'm not with it
It's these tablets ...

We've cut out all the words and they are glued on to the tracing paper. I'm pleased with the result and Justin thinks it's a good idea too; we carry on.  He makes the decisions on cover and inner paper we can use and we being to make the book covers.  Making holes is hard, we could do with a hammer but it's not safe to have one so we sort of struggle along, but enjoy the challenge of a little bit of making do too.


After lunch Justin starts to work on his own text, cutting it into sections to go with his story.  We talk about plans for his book and we work together on the table for quite a while, until it's time for me to go.  His book isn't quite finished, but he is clear with what he needs to do and I leave him all the materials he needs and tools he can keep too.

He promises to finish his book; I hope he manages it!